I’ve long admired the cold, hard attractiveness of the nineteenth century red brick Smellie & Co building as it stands resolute, flanked by modern towers in Brisbane’s central business district. Today it lives as suave boutique office space, but that belies the tragedies that beset its original owner in Queensland’s colonial past.
Scottish businessman Robert Russell Smellie was a pioneer of Brisbane’s engineering and iron foundry trade. In the 1860s shortly after the Queensland colony was granted separation from New South Wales, Smellie established his Smellie & Co business.
Success seemed assured when in 1864 he married Jessie, the eldest daughter of the celebrated botanist Professor Roger Hennedy, renowned in Glasgow for his very large collection of algae. But the union was beset with tragedy, their only son dying aged just two. Jessie herself died a couple of years later.
Smellie’s second marriage at the start of 1875 was to Amy, the widow of an insane Brisbane solicitor who had hung himself. By the end of the year, that too descended into heartbreak for Smellie with a still-born daughter, and later another who died as a baby.
After nine years of marriage, Amy also died, while visiting her family on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. Now able to devote all his time to his burgeoning business, which had evolved into mining machinery and general hardware, Smellie built further premises. This included in 1895 the impressive red brick warehouse in Edward Street.
Smellie passed away three years later, aged 65, survived by just one daughter who moved to New Zealand. Today the big Smellie building is all that remains in the city to remind us of this unfortunate but important early contributor to a budding Queensland economy.