Thomas Dixon Centre
Our Company’s home is the historic Thomas Dixon Centre in Brisbane’s West End. The building was first built as a shoe factory in 1908. It was purchased by the QueenslandGovernment and refurbished as a centre for dance and arts in 1991. It now hosts four large dance studios, one of which, the Charles Lisner Studio, can be adapted as a comfortable and intimate performance venue.
These excellent facilities enable us to offer a full range of training and community access programs, including evening dance classes for anyone aged over 16 years.
A History Of the Thomas Dixon Centre
In the early 1870s, West End began to change from a farming community to a residential area. In 1869, twenty-four year old Thomas Coar Dixon, born in Yorkshire, England, relocated to Brisbane from Sydney, where he had already established a small tannery.
After setting up his new tannery at Hill End he wrote that it was a beautiful place with hills covered in bush and only seven houses nearby. In 1875 he purchased five acres of land for £300 to extend his tannery, an enterprise which operated for approximately 90 years before closing in 1966. While nothing remains of the building today, it was situated between Ferry Road and Forbes Street, with its entrance in Montague Road.
Thomas expanded his business to incorporate a boot and shoe manufacturing business in Russell Street, bringing equipment, machinery and lasts for the new factory from Sydney. In 1882 a retail store was opened in George Street and by 1888, T.C. Dixon was turning out 200 sides of leather and 800 pairs of boots per week. Sixty hands were employed in the factory.
Fire destroyed some buildings, and disaster struck again in 1893, when floods damaged £1,500 worth of boots and swept the tannery shed away. With the loss of the buildings came delays in supplying customers. Consequently, by the early 1900s, Thomas Dixon’s sons were encouraging him to construct larger premises.
In 1906 he acquired land bounded by Montague Road, Raven and Drake Streets for a new factory, engaging architect Richard Gailey to design the magnificent building which faces Montague Road today.
Richard Gailey was one of Queensland’s most prolific architects, responsible for designing a number of grand buildings in Brisbane, including the Baptist City Tabernacle, the Regatta Hotel at Toowong, Moorlands, the Mayne family home which still stands in the grounds of Wesley Hospital at Auchenfower; and Verney (now Beth Eden) at Graceville. He also designed a number of commercial buildings and warehouses, including Smellie & Co. and the Metro Building in Edward Street.
Costing £3,700, the two-storey brick warehouse was described by Thomas Dixon as “second to none in appearance in the Commonwealth”. It extended the full length of the frontage along Montague Road and used materials uncommon for factory buildings of the period. Georgian revival in style, its sills, banding and dressings were picked out in dark blue salt-glazed bricks. The roof originally had diagonally-laid asbestos-cement slate tiles made in France.
The ground floor consisted of an office and storerooms which were screened from the large workroom by a brick fire-wall. The first floor was similarly divided with its southern end housing a warehouse for finished shoes and a small showroom, with the remainder of the floor containing presses to cut uppers and a sewing area. When the factory opened in 1908, T.C. Dixon wrote that they were putting thirteen new machines into the new factory, making it superior to any boot factory ‘in the south’.
Thomas Coar Dixon lived to see the realisation of his dream when the building was completed in 1908. He died the following year at the age of 62. After his death, the business continued under the management of his sons: Ernest Joseph managed the factory while William Victor was in charge of the tannery supplying leather for the shoes.
Additional buildings were constructed on the site of the factory, including a store for wooden lasts constructed prior to 1920; an air raid shelter constructed during World War II; and an addition to the south-western corner of the factory comprising an office and showroom constructed in 1965. All these buildings survive on the site.
Ernest Joseph’s son, Ernest Thomas Alexander Dixon, joined the family company after finishing his education in 1931 and worked his way up in the business. When his father died at the beginning of World War II, he became the new manager of Thomas C. Dixon & Sons Ltd.
The company continued to operate from West End until 1973, when a partnership was formed with QueenslandRetailers and Mathers to facilitate an increase in the production of women’s shoes. To feed the expansion, new and larger premises were built at Wacol. When tariffs were lifted in the early 1970s, T.C. Dixon & Sons was unable to compete with the cheap vinyl imports from overseas manufacturers flooding the market. By 1980 the company was forced to close.
In 1975, the building at West End was purchased by the QueenslandGovernment and used as a store until 1991, when it became the home of QueenslandBallet(QB), the QueenslandPhilharmonic Orchestra, and the QueenslandDance School of Excellence (QDSE), after undergoing a $1.8 million refurbishment.
On August 28, 1998, the Heritage Council decided to enter the Thomas Dixon Centre on the Heritage Register. This led to a period of major refurbishment of the building to ensure its preservation as a rare surviving example of an early 20th century industrial factory.
Refurbishment in the years to follow was undertaken both by the Department of Public Works (DPW) as the landlords of the building, and by QueenslandBalletthrough various grants and fundraising activities.
A major improvement to facilities in 1998 was the installation of sprung flooring in the Charles Lisner Studio (Studio 1), together with lighting, curtains, and other stage equipment which enabled the studio to be used as a performance space.
The departure of the QueenslandPhilharmonic Orchestra from the Centre in 2000 provided an opportunity to create a dedicated centre for dance with four large studios and more office and storage space. The Charles Lisner Studio was further enhanced by the installation of removable rostra seating for the audience.
In 2003, sprung floors were put into Studios 2 and 3. DPW also made significant repairs to the heritage-protected storage shed in the grounds. In 2005, major works were undertaken to extend change rooms and to install air-conditioning in Studio 1 and a sprung floor in Studio 4. A lift tower, designed with consideration of the heritage status of the building, was installed to give access to the first floor for patrons and visitors with a disability or limited mobility.
As part of the QueenslandGovernment’s ongoing commitment to asbestos removal from public buildings, the existing asbestos roof of the Thomas Dixon Centre was removed in 2006 and in the following year, a roof was installed over the bridge linking the passenger lift and the studio theatre. The site’s perimeter wall was fully restored in 2007, which involved significant earthworks to bring the 100 year-old wall back to a vertical position, and reinstatement of the original decorative pickets on the top of the wall.
For one hundred years now, the ‘grand old lady of West End’, the Thomas Dixon Centre, has continued to be a focus of the local community. Balletshoes have replaced boots, and music has replaced the sounds of machinery. Once housing a prosperous family business, the building now proudly continues its life as a creative hub within Brisbane’s arts community.
As Thomas Coar Dixon wrote in 1908:
“This building will be here when I and my sons have long passed away as a monument of pluck and indomitable perseverance.”
Research by Marilyn England, Toowong History Group.
Information and some photographs supplied by Kerry Viksne and Jocelyn Dixon, great granddaughters of Thomas Coar Dixon.
Download the full history of the Thomas Dixon Centre, in the brochure From Boots to Ballet Shoes.