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Canberra Today 7°/9° | Sunday, August 14, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

The rise and fall of Queanbeyan’s retail empire

The first department store of, ultimately, the chain founded in Queanbeyan by businessman James Buchanan Young in 1914.

A TRIP to the department store during the holidays has been a ritual for generations of shoppers.

Herbert George Colman… bought the Kingston land designated for the site of the Young’s first Canberra store.

For many years the go-to place to shop in Canberra and Queanbeyan was JB Young – a department store chain founded in Queanbeyan by businessman James Buchanan Young in 1914. 

While the department store carried the JB Young name, it was Mr Young’s manager Herbert George Colman who bought the land designated for the site of the Young’s first Canberra store.

“In 1924 the first commercial block of land was auctioned off in Kingston and grandfather kept bidding until he got it, because he realised that the company’s long-term future lay in the development of Canberra,” Herbert Colman’s grandson Bill Colman said. 

“The Kingston store was built the following year, and it all went from there.”

Bill, 73, is reflecting on his family’s commitment to retailing, which spanned more than 100 years and across three generations.

“When I look back I feel very proud of my family’s achievements,” said Bill  who followed the family’s tradition by pursuing a career in retail that took him to Selfridges in London.

Bill said his grandfather bought out JB Young in 1925 and that during his time in charge, the business took off.

“In 1927, JB Young opened its second Canberra store, in Civic, and a second Queanbeyan store known as ‘West End’ opened in 1936,” Bill said.

Post-war activity and major building work in Canberra, during the ’50s and ’60s, saw Canberra expand and JB Young stores with it. 

“In 1954, grandfather celebrated 40 years with the business and in the same year the rebuilding of the Queanbeyan store – now Riverside Plaza –  commenced and was completed in 1956 with a staff of 60,” Bill said.

Following Herbert’s death in 1959 – at the age of 80 – brothers George and Jim continued to run the business.

“After grandfather died, the business kept growing,” Bill said.

“When the Queanbeyan store was revamped in 1956, the window displays were brilliant,” says Bill Colman.

By the ’70s JB Young had stores in Queanbeyan, Kingston, Civic, Dickson, Manuka, Curtin, Jamison and Aranda, and other stores across NSW.

The family’s connection with JB Young continued through its acquisition of the Emmotts, Meagher and Fosseys chain until its takeover by Grace Bros in 1979.

“JB Young ended up with around 26 stores throughout NSW and the Fosseys group with 122 stores. It was a big structure,” Bill said.

Joining the firm in the ’70s – with his cousin Phillip – Bill went on to be manager of Grace Bros country division.

Having joined the company during the last of the department store’s heyday – where it probably enjoyed its greatest popularity and success – Bill was also there to witness its decline.

Bill Colman… “When I managed the JB Young’s Queanbeyan store, I introduced a cafe in the middle of the store.”

Now retired, Bill said the memory of JB Young harks back to a time when there was a “complete” shopping experience.

“When I managed the JB Young’s Queanbeyan store, I introduced a cafe in the middle of the store which was quite a big job at the time,” Bill said.

“I also introduced an upmarket giftware so we sold Royal Dalton, Zwiesel glassware and Strachan cutlery. It was very successful.”

Visits to the JB Young store usually coincided with the festive and holiday season, and were associated with celebrations and “happy” times.

“When the Queanbeyan store was revamped in 1956, the window displays were brilliant,” Bill said.

“We had a display department with a team of girls who would dress up the windows and hand paint the tickets. They were an amazing feature.”

The family oriented business engendered enormous loyalty and support in the community, and Bill never ceases to be amazed by the pleasant memories conjured up by the JB Young name. 

“We had staff that worked with us for years,” Bill said.

“I still bump into people who say they remember me from the Queanbeyan  store, and there are a few around that still remember my father George.”

As popular as the JB Young stores were, they were unable to withstand the change in the retailing landscape.

The Curtin store closed in 1981, and others followed. When the original Queanbeyan store closed just before 1988, it brought an end to the Coleman family’s association with retailing, which generations had grown to love.

“It was grandfather’s initial foresight, determination and struggle that allowed the single Queanbeyan store to become a leading retail force in the 1980s.” 


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Belinda Strahorn

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2 Responses to The rise and fall of Queanbeyan’s retail empire

George Burke says: January 13, 2022 at 6:56 am

I remember both George & Bill Colman very well.
I started working part time for J. B. Young in July 1965, just after my 13th birthday, as the grocery delivery offsider with Don Cameron in the blue VW Kombi. I worked Thursday & Friday after school & Saturday morning. We delivered C.O.D. orders & I learned the change over to decimal currency doing this. During the shearing season we delivered the shearer’s orders, usually on Saturday afternoons, to most of the larger properties around Queanbeyan & southern Canberra, including John Gorman’s Googong, Brett Falkener’s Foxlow, Carwoola & Woolcara, Lanyon, Cuppacumbalong, G. J. Hyles Booroomba & of course Morrison’s Tralee where I later raced at the speedway. During the school holiday & on Saturday mornings if the grocery deliveries weren’t busy I worked in the grocery department.
I remember when there were power failures we would crank the cash registers over with a crank handle by hand as the checkout women punched in the prices. While still under 17 I would sometimes go to the Bank of NSW (now Westpac), in the old brick building with the turrets, on my own with hundreds of dollars, possibly thousands, in a Gladstone bag on the tilt back trolley to collect change for the office to distribute to the various departments for their tills. There was no security & the closest thing to a weapon for defence was a retractable Stanley knife we used for cutting open cardboard cartons.

When Youngs opened the first Owl discount store (similar to today’s Aldi or Costco but just groceries) in the orange tin shed across the carpark out the back near Morisset Street the grocery deliveries dropped off so I worked in the Owl. They had the biggest trolleys for the bulk buying & cost J. B. Young $50 each, probably about a third of a week’s wage back then. On Thursday nights I was one of the carpark attendants directing customers to parking spots with torches.

I also remember Bill Colman from when he managed the Kingston store in 1974 & I was delivering their goods from the Canberra railway goods shed.

Some great memories & people, so many names I can recall & so many names I don’t remember.

Peter Wentworth says: April 21, 2022 at 3:48 pm

Of course this is only one part of the J B Young empire. Outside Canberra/Queanbeyan area was a major sector of the J B Young chain of stores in NSW. The town of Cooma had the largest independent department store in NSW known as Hain & Co which was eventually acquired by J B Young. From my recollection this acquisition was the start of the decline in acceptance of regional department stores. A few years later J B Young was acquired by Grace Bros and then the decline continued with many stores closing.


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