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With little more than a suitcase and a one-way ticket in steerage-class, Daniel Brennan set off for Australia looking for a better future. Like for many young Irishmen before him, emigration was an appealing alternative to the limited opportunities in his home country. In 1889, Brennan landed a £4-a-week job as an assistant draper in Mark Foy’s on Oxford Street but he was ambitious and had a good instinct for opportunity. By 1894 he had scraped together enough money to take over the lease of a small drapery store directly opposite C.G. Hatte’s British and Oriental Clothing Company on King Street in Newtown. Initially, Brennan tried his hand selling a cheap line of ladies’ boots, then moved on to selling men’s shirts, but his reputation was truly established after he observed that the heavily advertised towels offered by nearby Sweet Bros. were selling at less than cost price. Brennan immediately placarded his windows with signs offering would-be customers the chance to make a small profit of 6 pence per item if they sold the towels back to his store. A few years later, Brennan’s growing reputation and sales success enabled him to expand into the property next door.
Across the road, C.G. Hatte’s was growing at an even more ambitious rate. By 1908 however, Hatte had overextended his finances, forcing the store into liquidation. Only two days after the announcement, Brennan made an offer to take over Hatte’s leases from 294 to 302 King Street, including the purchase of his entire stock and trade at a bargain price. Brennan immediately advertised a massive sale of Hatte’s remaining stock. The new store was an overnight success, giving Brennan a substantial increase in capital, which he put to good use by purchasing the properties outright and reinvesting into new projects.
The take-over deal had also included the lease of stables off Wilson Street on the block behind the store, but Brennan saw potential for that entire area. By 1915, he had purchased all the land between Erskineville Road, King Street and the railroad tracks, with a vision to transform the block into an additional source of revenue. A section of the land was being leased by Wilce’s Cordial Factory which Brennan eventually sold back to the lessees, but the rest of the new property was levelled and prepared for two major projects.
Brennan planned to build a series of ten lettable shops facing onto Wilson Street, to be called Brennan’s Chambers. The new building was also to include apartments and offices upstairs and a new stable at the rear for Brennan’s livery wagons.
For the second new project, Brennan envisioned building a theatre on the corner of Erskineville Road & Wilson Street. Vaudeville was a popular form of entertainment at the time and Clay’s Bridge Theatre on nearby Bedford Avenue was already doing a roaring trade. Brennan believed there was enough business to go around so he enlisted the services of established theatre architect Henry Eli White to design the new theatre and enticed theatre entrepreneur Sir Benjamin Fuller to lease and manage the theatre upon completion. The narrow thoroughfare on Wilson Street was not conducive to such an enterprise, so prior to construction, Brennan offered the council a section of his land to widen the road in front of his proposed shops and to round off the intersection at the corner on his new theatre.
At the time of construction, the Majestic Theatre was the second largest theatre in New South Wales and it was completed at the height of World-War I in record time. After the
death of Sir Benjamin Fuller, Brennan’s leased the theatre to the newly established Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the name was changed to the Elizabethan Theatre to reflect this.
After Daniel Brennan’s death in 1928, Brennans Department Store continued on for six more decades, first under the guidance of Daniel’s son, James and eventually under his grandson, by continuing to cater to working class customers’ needs. At its peak, Brennans’ personnel grew to around one hundred employees and new stores were eventually opened up in Rockdale and Strathfield. By the sixties however, the demographics and tastes of Newtown residents had changed significantly, so in 1966 Brennans sold the theatre. The suburb continued to go into decline through the seventies and eighties, eventually forcing the department store to close its doors for the last time in 1988.
The Elizabethan Theatre burnt to the ground in 1980 and the site is now occupied by an office block. Brennan’s Chambers still exist on Wilson Street under separate owners and the department store’s three-story section is now occupied by a bank on the ground floor and a gym upstairs, which extends across the entire first and second floor. The remainder of the ground floor and basement is now occupied by the popular Thai Pot Hong restaurant.
By Peter BrennanCollectionSydney BusinessesNewtown
File - 294-302 King Street Newtown, grocery shop in basement, with plans, Brennans Pty Ltd, 1979-1982