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Adamson Watts McKechnie & Co., Melbourne, Victoria

By Museums Victoria    |   Monday, 6 January 2020

The date 1 May 1855 is stamped on the penny and halfpenny tokens of Adamson, Watts, McKechnie & Co.. The week before this date a series of advertisements ran in the 'Trade Addresses' column of The Argus informing the public that 'The Bazzar' would be opening for business on 30 April 1855 (The Argus, Saturday April 28, 1855, p.6) at 11 Collins Street East, bringing together Mr. Adamson and the existing business of Watts and McKechnie & Co. So it would seem that the partners were ready to open a day earlier than they thought they would be when they ordered the tokens from token-maker Reginald Scaife of the Kangaroo Office.

Adamson, Watts, McKechnie - Wholesale

Although the inscription on their penny token read 'Wholesale and Retail Warehousemen' Gardner asserts that they dealt in softgoods; apparently these two descriptions were interchangeable at the time. Their advertisement offered the public a range of silks, shawls, furs, mantles, lace, gloves as well as a wide range of fabrics. The principals of the business were Walter Adamson, William Watts and Alexander McKechnie. The Argus advertisement states that Watts and McKechnie had previously been partners; Adamson had been a member of the partnership Adamson Findlay and Co., the business that had previously occupied the premises at 11 Collins Street East. Numismatist R.L. Hubbard has suggested that this Findlay may well have been the same man who was in the company Crombie, Clapperton & Findlay, issuers of a token in 1854. See the record for Crombie, Clapperton & Findlay for more details.

Adamson was also previously the proprietor of the Prince of Wales Hotel in Flinders Lane, 'opposite the side of the old St. Paul's cathedral'. Following his involvement in this token-issuing business he ran Adamson's Australasian Hotel, Queenscliff, for many years with great success. This hotel was later rebuilt and known as the Grand Hotel . One of his daughters married Sir James Lorimer (Gardner, 1910). It appears that he was the same man who went into partnership with Robert Smith in 1853. Smith had previously been a partner in Annand, Smith & Co., the first firm in Australia to issue copper trade tokens in 1849. See the record for Annand, Smith & Co. for more information.

Gardner states that Watts was the leading partner. The nephew of a major softgoods dealer in Manchester, Watts arrived in Victoria in the Eagle in May 1853, and brought a large amount of drapery with him. Upon his arrival he operated a stall in the Western Market and his success led him to seek partners in a larger business. After the partnership ended he ran a business in country Victoria. The Argus advertisement presents a different angle on which partner provided the stock, stating that 'In consequence of Mr. McKechnie having just arrived from England we are now in a position to offer the best and most extensive stock hitherto offered to the public in Victoria.' McKechnie appears to have come out from England on the Croesus in April 1854, worked as a storekeeper and merchant for some time and then returned to England.

Despite their connections and the (alleged) quality of their merchandise, the firm became insolvent in September 1855 and the whole stock was sold in an attempt to recover monies owed to creditors. According to Gardner's research, McKechnie offered creditors 10s in the pound before the sale and was refused. They were not the only firm in trouble at this time. During the winter of 1855, Melbourne's economy slowed considerably as the massive boom of the early gold rush overwhelmed the Victorian economy. Stories appeared in The Argus about protests by the unemployed and statistics about the number of insolvencies were published in the paper during August. A weekly column, 'Melbourne wholesale prices current', published on Monday 13 August 1855 dealt with the problems facing traders in the city, opening with the assertion that 'The week just elapsed has been like its predecessors for the past two months - an extremely dull one in mercantile affairs.' The column dealt with five reasons for the slow trade: Seasonal downturn because of winter; Gold fields traders having oversupplied themselves and not requiring further stock; Banks purchasing gold on the diggings for the first time, so not so many diggers coming to Melbourne; high prices of provision leading to a down turn in overall spending; Reduction of public works and government expenditure and slowing of consumption of imports (The Argus, Monday 13 August 1855, p.4). The downturn in Melbourne's trade, combined with the substantial debts carried by Watts and McKechnie, seem to have brought down the business. Their creditors, worried about the slowness of trade, called in their debts, rather than waiting to see if things picked up.

The insolvency case dragged on for over a year, beginning in August 1855 and going until at least November 1856. When Adamson joined the Watts and McKechnie's existing partnership they all had debts. The problem was determining whose debts should be paid from what funds, and which creditors should have priority. One of the first points to come out was that Adamson had left the partnership before the business had become insolvent, but none of the partners had made this fact public. Reports of the case indicate that the business was brought down by debts incurred by Watts and McKechnie outside their partnership with Adamson. The case attracted substantial coverage in The Argus. The partners had many creditors who wanted to be kept informed. Their level of debt was not uncommon during the recession of the time, and the complexity of their debts and dealings was good material for the newspaper. Adamson, Watts, McKechnie & Co. were issued with a Certificate of Discharge (for the company's insolvency) dated 1855. This date seems to reflect the year in which the company became insolvent, rather than the date at which the certificate was issued.

The rapid demise of this company gives an opportunity to understand the dynamics of the gold rush more clearly. Not only were there people coming to Victoria with no intention of going to the gold fields, but there were times when the economy crumbled. The rush attracted interest from across the world, and there were simply too many people trying to profit from it, like Adamson Watts McKechnie & Co. As the article in the Argus explained, there were too many debts, and not enough people spending money in Melbourne. It may seem crazy that during one of the most extraordinary wealth-creating booms of all history Victoria went into a recession, but for a few months in 1855 it did. And Adamson Watts McKechnie & Co.'s tokens are a connection back to that time.

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