Saturday, 1 October 2011

The George Thwaites Tool Chest

In 1842 a respected London cabinet maker arrived with his family on the ship 'Himalaya' in the then small settlement of Port Phillip, later to be the City of Melbourne. George Thwaites, his wife and three sons, George Junior, Thomas and John had packed up their entire belongings and life and made the long and dangerous journey to Australia, like other free settlers, to find new opportunities and a better life than what they could manage in the mother country.

Among the belongings transported with him on that ship, was an item as essential to any master tradesman of the era, his tool chest. Most carpenters/furniture makers made these invaluable tool chests either during the 'Journeyman' phase of their apprenticeships or around this time. They were important for a number of reasons, not the least to house the hand tools invaluable to these men but also as a reflection of the makers ability as a craftsman. There is probably no greater evidence of this than the hanging tool chest of piano maker H.O Studley.

Thwaites set up his business at first in Port Phillip's Collins Street and lived in the vicinity of the now famous Melbourne landmark, Young and Jacksons Hotel at the intersection of Flinders and Swanston Street. He later moved to a purpose built bluestone building at '64 Little Collins Street East.'

Thwaites and his sons produced and supplied furniture to government departments including the Immigration Department and the Supreme Court. In 1855 Thwaites supplied furniture for the new Vice Regal Residence, Toorak - Melbourne's original Government House, and a short time later, furniture and room decor for the new Government House. He later supplied several pieces of fine furniture for the first Judge of Victoria's Supreme Court, founder of Melbourne's Mechanics Institute and a founding father of Melbourne University, Sir Redmond Barry. Barry was later to become more infamous as the Judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to be hung, in Melbourne's Magistrates' Court.

In a recent lecture on hidden furniture treasures in Australia, respected authority on antique furniture, Michael Green, referred to the Huon Pine Bookcase made by Thwaites for Sir Redmond Barry as possibly the most important and valuable piece of Australian furniture in existence.

A few years ago, my good friend Simon, introduced me to a man who was himself an Australian treasure. Greg was a veteran of World War 2 where he served as a armourer in New Guinea fighting the Japanese, he is also a true gentleman. Greg had in his possession an old tool chest and for him the time had come to let it go. He had offered it to others, but most just wanted to 'pick' individual tools from the chest without any concern for preserving the chest and tools as a whole. I'd always wanted an original chest with tools and so we agreed on a price and I bought it. Greg briefly gave me the history of how he had come to aquire it from the Mildura region in far Northern Victoria. Sometime later I returned and Greg gave me a written account of the chests history as passed on to him. I had just purchased George Thwaites' tool chest.

When I bought the chest it was not due to any knowledge of Thwaites. In fact at first, all I new was he was an English cabinet maker and that the chest had come out from England in the 1800's, which was enough for me. It may not be the finest looking chest, but it has been handed down through generations of the Thwaites family then to a few others before Greg and sadly was not treated with much reverence, not unlike so many other antiques and fine furniture that were lost due to not being in vogue during the twentieth century. A few drawers are missing too, replaced with poor substitutes. I intend to re-make more suitable replacements in time, but being careful to ensure that they can be identified as such, retaining the story of the chest.

Anyway I could go on about the chest and there is so much more to the story, but that's for another time. All accounts about Thwaites and his furniture are glowing and when I removed the sliding tool till from the chest I could see why. The bottom of the till reveals the finest of half blind dovetails and stopped mitred corners. The same details are in the fine mahogany drawers. The drawer dividers are through mortice and tenoned so finely and accurately it's hard to fathom how such work was achieved by hand.

The icing on the cake? Searching through the chests numerous sets of moulding planes and finding Georges original 'hollows and rounds', his mark clearly stamped in the end grain. Another series stamped with clear 'JT's', belonging to John Thwaites, confirmed by another odd tool, made of nickel silver.

I haven't been able to confirm it's actual use but it's beautifully engraved with 'J.Thwaites' on one side and the makers name of 'Wimble & Co., Melbourne & Sydney' on the reverse. One thought was that it was a nicely made template for shaping of bracket feet, for the bottoms of chests etc.

I hope one day to be able to see the Thwaites furniture in Government House, Melbourne's National Gallery and Melbourne University and put together a comprehensive story on the chest. Until then It will take pride amongst the few other old chests I have and the one I'm building up for my chair tools. If your interested in creating a chest yourself to hand down as an heirloom, then I'm teaching a Master Class at the MGFW next year in making just that....


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