Nicholls Drapery Storefront in Brighton in 1930

Celebrating 100 years of service Melbourne

This year celebrates a significant milestone for family owned and run Nicholls Interiors of Brighton. 2020 marks a century of the Nicholls styling and fitting out Melbourne homes with soft home furnishings. We asked Kathryn, great granddaughter of the founders of the store, to share a little about the store’s history and its impressive example as one of Melbourne’s longest continuously operated family businesses.

In 1920, Melbourne couple Bert and Hilda Nicholls opened their first business on Martin Street, Gardenvale. Nicholls Drapery and Mercery was the destination for textiles and trimmings and quickly became a destination store for Melburnians in the post WW1 era.

With the return of war servicemen and women, unemployment was rising and money was scarce. Families were making their own clothes and in some cases, receiving coupons from the government for the simple basics. Bert, having started his career at Forges of Footscray, had learnt the most important aspect of a retailer – the personal touch. He would greet customers at the door, personally addressing hundreds of regular clients.

Nicholls Drapery Storefront in Brighton in 1930
Front of store located at 159 Martin Street, Brighton (was Gardenvale back then) in 1930. Picture includes its first generation owners, Kathryn’s great grandfather and grandmother

As the business grew, so did the items on offer. The Nicholls family had a knack for understanding the changing market and with the increase in resources from abroad, the range of fabrics expanded. The couple lived above their store, overlooking the Gardenvale train station and Martin Street.

Bert and Hilda welcomed two daughters to the family, Doris and Beryl. For the following several years, the family all worked in the Gardenvale store, refining the products on offer and establishing Nicholls as a firm fixture on Martin Street.

Beryl took a particular interest in the family business and worked with her parents and husband Goff, who joined the business after returning from the Kokoda Trail in WW2.

The family survived several hardships, one being the great flood of 1934. Martin Street was engulfed under 2m of water as the Elwood Canal burst from an unprecedented winter of heavy rain. This occurred on 4 other occasions. A common practice of the times, was to address the public via the local Church newsletter.

Schools, Congregations and Sports Clubs produced publications weekly, and through this, the Nicholls family extended their thanks to the bayside community for their continued support through these hard times. As Australia continued to feel the effects of the Great Depression, Nicholls was once again forced to ration stock. Goff, having returned from voluntary service in WW2, would act as security at the front of the store, limiting customer numbers and controlling the mob, desperate for scarce goods. Once more, supplies were limited and people were panicked.

It wasn’t until the 1940’s that Beryl and Goff identified that local customers were looking for a broader selection of products, so undertook the project of redeveloping the current store. In the 1950’s, once retail had somewhat stabilised, a major renovation took place. Walls were removed from the rear of the store to add more space, and the range offering expanded to Mens and Womens Fashion, alongside soft home furnishings.

Interior Nicholls Store in Brighton 1930
Inside the store in the merchant section where customers came to select their curtain fabric.

In 1947 Beryl and Goff Dowsett welcomed their first child, a daughter named Wendy followed by a son, Doug, in 1951. The 1960s brought change once more to the retail economy and saw the progression from the Pound to the Australian Dollar.

As Gardenvale prospered, Nicholls continued to enjoy a steady stream of growth and development. In 1974, a young and enthusiastic Doug Dowsett pledged his commitment to the business and embraced the role of Proprietor, heralding a new era for the Nicholls family. Advertising and signage was modernised to reflect the times, and Doug formed strong relationships with neighbouring businesses. In 1976 he married Heather Ritchie and was blessed with three healthy daughters, Kathryn, Melissa and Alison.

The early 1980s in Australia were interesting times. Merchants were celebrating the rise in economic growth before the devastating recession of 1988. Doug and his family had worked tirelessly on the Martin Street store, and in 1986 completed a significant expansion over 5 months. To celebrate the renovated new look for Nicholls, Doug hosted a glitzy fashion parade with free flowing champagne and over 300 VIP guests.

As children, Kathryn and her sisters spent weekends in the store learning the ways of the family business. In 2008, after working interstate and travelling overseas, Kathryn became a full time employee and started to learn the trade.

The 1990’s for Nicholls saw Doug lead the Gardenvale Traders Association, and challenge local council on a proposed amalgamation. This would mean an influx of large scale shopping centres within a small radius of the thriving strip shops. Fortunately, the proposal was overturned and the Martin Street traders happily celebrated their win for small business.

With the rise of technology, Nicholls began converting clients paper accounts to digital, and developed a database and website, furthering global outreach and allowing easy communication between clients and contractors.

Today, the Nicholls business still honours the original tradition of personalised service. The Martin Street store is now home to Blinds and Awnings, Ladies fashion, Homewares, Gifts, Accessories, Sleepwear and a select range of School Uniforms for local schools. Doug and Kathryn still personally measure the vast majority of clients homes, ensuring an exceptionally high standard of service. The staff are welcoming and knowledgeable, all professional experts within their fields.

Internal view of Nicholls Interiors Brighton Showroom
Nicholls Furnishings as it stands today on 159 Martin Street, Brighton.

The Martin street store has a soothing ambience, providing an oasis of calm from todays modern life. As you stroll through the carefully curated wares on offer, it is inspiring to reflect on the stories and people that have passed through the doors for 100 years. Oh how times have changed. From Edwardian dressed ladies perusing the finest calico and lace, to these days, the modern renovators with grand plans and sandy footed children.

Nicholls has retained their ethos of personalised service, no matter what clients may be shopping for. Congratulations to Doug, Kathryn and the wider Nicholls family on a monumental birthday celebration and here’s to 100 more.