Whelan the Wrecker was Melbourne's most famous demolition company. Founded by James Whelan, known as Jim, in 1892, the company was founded as a carting business, carrying goods of all sorts around Melbourne, before demolition and re-sale of the materials from the demolished buildings, became their main trade. The business traded for 100 years as a family owned and run company, going into voluntary receivership in 1991.
For nearly half its life the company was listed in Melbourne directories as J.P. Whelan, Timber Merchant. The firm's famous name, Whelan the Wrecker, was only formally adopted in 1938. Jim Whelan died in 1938 and passed the management of the business on to his three sons, Jim, Tom and Joe. Just before his death the business became a proprietary company, with the younger Jim as Chairman. His brother Tom became managing director after Jim's death in 1965. Management passed on to the next generation in 1970 when Tom died and his son Owen took over, with his brothers Myles and Tony looking after divisions of the business. Owen retired in 1988 and Myles bought out his brother Tony, who took over the associated 'Whelan's Kartaway' rubbish disposal business they had established in the 1970s. After three generations of family ownership, the company went into receivership during the 1991 recession.
According to Robyn Annear's book about the company, Jim Whelan moved to Melbourne in 1884 from Stawell in Victoria's central west. He began by working as a driver for carting businesses before starting out on his own. Annear relates that his first big job as a wrecker came during the deep depression of the 1890s when he bought a set of houses in Brunswick and knocked them down, so that he could re-sell the materials. It wasn't really a coincidence that the houses were in Brunswick, as that was where the business was based for its entire existence. The company's yard moved only once in its hundred year history, from premises in Brunswick Road to 605 Sydney Road, some time before 1913. Today, 17 years after the Wrecker's yard closed the office that they built still stands. At top a sign says 'WHELAN THE WRECKER', reminding passers by that this was once the place where pieces of the city came to be sorted and sent out again, to find a new life in other buildings.
The land where the yard once was has remained idle since the it closed, but in 2008 a developer sold apartments off the plan (that is, before they have been built) for a nine storey building between Sydney Road and Breese Street, Brunswick. Although an adjoining building containing a number of shopfronts will be demolished to make way for the new development, the Stawell buildings, built by Whelan's to house their offices in the mid 1960s, will remain. It is ironic that Whelan's significance has protected it from demolition.
In addition to their role as demolishers of city blocks, Whelan's made much of their money from the resale of building materials. Perhaps the most famous re-use was of some windows from the Royal Insurance Building, which found a new life at Monsalvat, the artist community at Eltham outside of Melbourne.
Museum Victoria holds objects known to relate to a number of buildings and sites demolished by Whelan the Wrecker, including:
The Eastern Market, Exhibition Street, Melbourne
Cole's Book Arcade, Burke Street, Melbourne
Bull and Mouth Hotel, Burke Street, Melbourne
The Federal Coffee Palace, corner of Collins and King Streets, Melbourne
Queen Victoria Hospital, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
Little Lon area, Little Lonsdale Street, Melbourne
Yarra Bend Lunatic Asylum, Kew
Theatre Royal, Burke Street, Melbourne
Pentridge Prison, Coburg
Australian United Steam Navigation Company building, Melbourne
State Bank Building, Burke Street, Melbourne
Over their century of demolitions, Whelan's played an important role in reshaping Melbourne. Through this collection, Museum Victoria offers tangible connections to the buildings that were torn down to make way for the various versions of Melbourne, along with the tools that were wielded by the wreckers whose work made the space for each set of changes.
Annear, Robyn (2005). A City Lost and Found: Whelan the Wrecker's Melbourne, Black Inc., Melbourne.