In 1874 the Postal directory for Queensland lists 42 tinsmiths across the state with 17 of these located in Brisbane. Some working merely for themselves, others employing one or two, but none employing more than three or four. We read of a fire in 1864 destroying amongst other buildings, the tinsmith shop of William Keith. However the Keith business continued, as the 1876 Postal directory puts W Keith in Queen Street – western side between Edward & Albert Streets – south from Finney Isles Department store (now David Jones). There was a hardware store in this section called “Ironmongeries Pty Ltd” up until the 1970s – perhaps William Keith did morph into this?
What we do know is that even in the mid 1800’s there was a nostalgia for lost skills no less poignant than today – as a reporter for The Queenslander in 1869 writes: ‘We have a distinct recollection of a tinsmith’s shop in a midland county town in England long, long years ago, and the absorbing interest with which we used to watch the workmen with their hammers and pliers fashioning various articles, slowly and with much labor but with marvellous deftness and skill, as we then and still think.’ Somehow or other we lost sight of our old friends the tinsmiths from that time until a few days ago, when we visited the Brisbane tinsmiths workshops and could not recognise a single tool again except the hammer and soldering iron.’
‘The Americans have completely revolutionised the tinsmiths’ trade, as they have so many others, by introducing machines to perform nearly every operation required. At Mr. W. Keith’s we saw some of these modern machines – First, there is an enormous pair of shears, standing up from the workbench at an angle of about 45 degrees – merely cutting tin seems child’s play to it. Next an ” edging” machine, by which the cut edges of tin are turned to the required angle. Then a grooving machine in which, by turning a handle, a little iron roller travels along a groove in an iron plate. The two pieces of tin are laid on the plate, the handle is turned and the two pieces are firmly and neatly joined together. Lastly, a wiring machine, in which a wire is rolled up in the edge of a tin vessel to strengthen it’.
‘Both at Mr. Smith’s and Mr. Keith’s all kinds of ordinary tin goods are made, such as dairy utensils, kitchen utensils of all kinds, street lanterns, grocers’ show boxes and canisters, japanned boxes and all kinds of japanned goods—in fact, everything required’.
William Keith. The very name ‘Tinsmith’ evokes nostalgic, romantic connotations; nomadic fixers of things, outsiders, tricky, silver-tongued salesmen who charmed the farmers wives with their glinting wares. Numerous stories exist of peddlers who started out hawking their tinware on foot, then buying a small cart, next a wagon and finally owning the hardware store. Its the story of the immigrant, of a fresh start in a new place, one un-encumbered by the constraints of the homeland.
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