As the Footscray Historical Society prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary, president Ian Johnson reflects on the area’s rich history. He speaks with Benjamin Millar…


What’s your connection with the inner-west?


My family has been in the Footscray area since about the 1860s. I was brought up in Seddon until I got married, then we moved to Altona. We had the grocery shop in Charles Street, which became self-service and an early supermarket.


What do you remember about growing up in Seddon?


I remember the trams going down Gamon Street and Charles Street. When I was a kid I used to help my father in the shop, I wanted to be a history teacher but in those days you did what your family wanted you to do. We had loose biscuits in tins and we would serve customers at the counter. I was the sixth generation in the grocery business, the one who first came to Australia in 1849, his father was a grocer back in England.


What has changed since that time?


In those days you couldn’t even get a cup of tea in Seddon, there were no cafes or anything like that. When my father bought the business when he was 21, in 1927, there were about eight grocery shops in the same area.

We were a member of the Footscray District Grocers Association, which had about 80-odd members, from those now it’s down to our old shop and Sims in West Footscray. Working in a grocery in those days you knew everybody, you would walk along the street and know everyone you passed.


What drew you to the Altona and Footscray historical societies?


I have always had a great love of history. When I was in grade 3 I read a book on the history of Europe, I remember I gave a talk to the class and my teacher sent me around to all the other classes to give the talk as well.

I’m probably most attracted to things prior to the First World War. I’ve got a library of about 5000 books, most of them are history books. I’m a past president of the Altona Historical Society, which I joined in the late 1970s, I also joined the Royal Historical Society at the same time.

In the late ’90s I was in the same Rotary club as former Footscray Historical Society president Ron Palmer, Mr Footscray as he was known, and he said ‘how about you come on down?’ I was treasurer for nine years and now I’m president.


What can you tell us about the society?


We are a friendly lot, we all mix in very well – there is no snobbery. We are just a very normal group of people and all very dedicated to preserving the area’s history.

We are finding that people are moving into the area from places like the eastern suburbs and they want to know about the history of their house and the area.

We have a function from 2pm on October 21 at MetroWest in Nicholson Street for our 50th Jubilee. It’s going to be a very nice afternoon tea and a chance to catch up with old friends and new friends.


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