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Adelaide’s shopping giants of retail from a bygone age

THERE was a time when downtown Adelaide was home to a large number of substantial department stores. Many had commenced trading in the mid to late 1800s and most had disappeared into history by the end of the 20th century.

As a child growing up in the middle of last century, chances are you will remember going shopping with mum or grandma to at least some of the stores mentioned below.


Birks started out as a small drapery shop in Hindley Street in 1864 and after just a few years moved into newer and bigger premises on the corner of Rundle Street and James Place.

By 1913 the business found itself expanding again, this time purchasing several adjoining properties and creating a grand new emporium which housed a drapery, tailors, clothiers and boot importers. Over the next 40 years Birks became a highly respected retail institution in Adelaide and traded successfully in Rundle Street until it was bought by David Jones from Sydney in 1954.

It continued to operate under the Birks name for another decade but in 1968 the original building was demolished and completely redeveloped to become David Jones.

Birks Department Store. Photo courtesy of Frank Hall

Birks Department Store. Photo courtesy of Frank Hall


Cravens Department Store. Photo courtesy of State Library of SA

Cravens Department Store. Photo courtesy of State Library of SA

John Craven and his partner William Armstrong commenced operation in 1886 as Craven and Armstrong but in 1912, with Armstrong’s retirement, the shop became known as J Craven and Co.

The new department store, on the corner of Rundle and Pulteney Streets, developed a reputation for value and John proved a canny businessman, travelling to London and Europe where he purchased direct from factory outlets in substantial quantities, offering goods in his Rundle Street establishment at low cost, which in turn ensured fast turnover and quick profits. When John died in 1932 the business was taken over by his son Thomas. By then it had become a very large retail organisation boasting four floors .

Cravens ceased trading in the early 1970s and the building was demolished to make way for the Centrepoint Shopping Centre.


Foy and Gibsons had started out in 1883 in Collingwood, Victoria, before expanding to Sydney and then Perth.

Foy and Gibsons. Photo courtesy of The National Trust of Australia

Foy and Gibsons. Photo courtesy of The National Trust of Australia

By 1907, Foy and Gibsons established a South Australian branch in Rundle Street but in a bold move in 1924, took over the former Grand Central Hotel building on the south eastern corner of Rundle and Pulteney Streets, directly across the road from Cravens. The Grand Hotel, as its name implied, was indeed a grand and imposing building. It dominated the skyline in Rundle Street, rising five storeys and making Foy and Gibsons the most prestigious department store in Adelaide. The company was eventually sold to Cox Brothers which became known as Cox Foys and moved to new premises further west along Rundle Street. The former Grand Central Hotel building was demolished in the 1970s to make way for a carpark.


The first Harris Scarfe hardware and general merchant business opened in Hindley Street in 1860 but in just a few years had moved to new and larger premises in Gawler Place.

Harris Scarfe 1982For decades the company dealt mainly with hardware, machinery and metal and built a reputation of being able to supply “anything from a needle to an anchor”. In 1922 the company moved again, this time to Rundle Street and at the same time expanded to become a major department store. The firm then traded in the same location for almost 90 years, carving out a particular retailing niche in the city. In 2011 Harris Scarfe’s Rundle Street store closed, the old building was demolished and the site completely redeveloped.

Harris Scarfe’s is now a new, modern structure and the company has grown to own more than 40 stores around Australia employing over 2,000 permanent staff.


On 24th of October 1866 a tiny drapery business, Peters and Martin opened its doors for the first time in Rundle Street on the site that would eventually become known as John Martin’s, The Big Store. Messrs Hayward and Chambers joined the small company in 1878 and the next 50 years saw considerable growth. In 1923 an advertisement described John Martin’s as “drapers, tailors, clothiers and general merchants”.John Martins North Terrace side

After a major fire in the mid-1930s John Martin’s underwent an extensive redevelopment program, which then saw the retailer remain mainly unchanged for the next 60 years.

Johnnies became Adelaide’s most famous store through the annual staging of the John Martin’s Christmas Pageant and for its equally famous Magic Cave. Generations of Adelaideans still have wonderful memories of their childhood years growing up with these two iconic institutions.

By the mid-90s, with the retailing landscape undergoing significant changes in Australia, John Martin’s began experiencing financial difficulties and was sold to David Jones. In 1998, much to the horror of the many thousands of loyal customers, the big store was demolished and redeveloped as a new modern shopping complex for DJs.

26 Responses to Adelaide’s shopping giants of retail from a bygone age

  1. Kevin Bockmann OAM December 3, 2015 at 4:12 pm #

    Re Foy & Gibsons Building. Was occupied by the following State Government Depts. in the 1950’s – 1960,s Children’s Welfare and Public Relief, Woods and Forest’s, Hospitals,Nurses Registration Board, Prices, Mines, and Highways. I was a State Government Auditor of several of those Departments from 1961 – 1966.

    • Heath Loxton November 7, 2017 at 8:52 pm #

      Hello Kevin;

      Just out of curiosity, what goods and services prices were controlled by the old SA price department ??

  2. river January 11, 2016 at 4:20 pm #

    Was it John Martins that had the fabulous Christmas display windows?
    I remember seeing them once as a teenager on a visit from Port Pirie, then later when I eventually moved back to Adelaide in 1986, I brought my children in to see the windows, but I can’t remember if it was John Martins or Myer. pretty sure it was Johnnies though, because they had the magic cave; the best magic cave ever seen. The ones today are nothing compared to it.

    • Christine Wilson November 12, 2020 at 4:55 pm #

      It was John Martin’s that had the Christmas displays in their windows. Each window had a Nativity scene set up in it.

    • Marilyn September 28, 2021 at 11:49 am #

      The City shopping prescinct of today has none of the colour or atmosphere it had even 30 years ago. The BIG shops like Johnnies and Myers, Birks and Cravens don’t exist anymore. It was a pleasure to spend a day ‘in town’.
      My first job was in The Bank of Adelaide in Gawler Place. I walked around the city with pride and awe.
      I grew up in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. and more. We really had a good life then. At Christmas time my husband and I took our children to window shop in Rundle Street. There was so much to see – so exciting.
      Where has our sense of fun gone? A trip to the Magic Cave was a highlight each year, but not now. I have taken my gradnchildren there but it doesn’t have the sparkle and joy it had previously. DJ’s tried, but failed, in my opinion. Too commercial.

  3. Anita February 17, 2016 at 11:19 pm #

    Beneficial info and excellent dgisen you got here! I want to thank you for sharing your ideas and putting the time into the stuff you publish! Great work!

  4. Karl July 13, 2017 at 6:11 pm #

    The bus from Paradise stopped right out the front of John Martins, so naturally it was always the first store we would visit. My brother and I always made a bee-line for the toy department on the fifth floor.

  5. Philippa October 21, 2017 at 11:26 am #

    J. Craven, on the corner of Pulteney and Rundle Streets, was the first department store to have branch stores in this state. The first being at the Parkholme shopping centre.
    A fire broke out in the store in 1964, and that was the reason for the store being demolished.
    Any dressmaker would head to Cravens, because they always had the best dress materials for sale.

    • Andy January 21, 2018 at 8:05 pm #

      Mum took me with her to the big sale after that fire at Cravens. I was about 12. The police came on horses to control the huge crowds who were trying to get bargains. There were so many people they were blocking the roads. We were stuck in the middle of the mayhem and the mounted police tried to push the crowd off the road. The crowd was so dense that some people got pushed against the big glass windows, and one (maybe more) broke under the pressure. Some people were badly injured if I remember right. I remember the awful crash of breaking glass and the screams. Anyway, it was too much for Mum and me and we fought our way out of the melee and went for a cup of tea in Cox-Foys cafeteria!
      Do you remember when the News Ltd building on North Terrace went up in flames? That was spectacular, and scary.

  6. Lorraine drew November 16, 2017 at 2:54 pm #

    Wondering if you can help. I’m trying to get info. on a store Ramace and Drury an old shop in Gawler Place,Adelaide. I have an old tails suit that was purchased at that store.

  7. Jo Bertram ( née Flint) March 30, 2019 at 2:55 pm #

    Hi every body. I am looking for information or photos of my grandfathers department store in Victoria square in adalaide which closed about 1950 ishbbit was called flints department store. It was bulldozed and a bank was built on the site. That bank has since been replaced. It is not flints hardware store which was also in Victoria square. That was a cousin.

    • Peter Vasic January 16, 2020 at 10:00 am #

      Hi Jo,
      There are a number of Photo’s of Flints in State library archive or Trove online, The Adelaide City Council also have some: The best way to bring up Flints photos is simply to type in Bank Street, That should bring up a few.

      Kindest Regards
      Peter Vasic

  8. graeme mcvitty June 29, 2019 at 7:42 pm #

    On the Subject of those large Department Stores… this Post is something I have been searching for the answer since mid 1960s and still today… 29 June 2019… which is.

    Back in the 1950s me Mum used to take me for soup at Coles. There were just two choices… tomato and a fantastic-tasting Pea.

    Oh! If ONLY someone could remember sipping that PEA SOUP at Coles back door, Charles Street, Adelaide, during 1950s.

    Am I the only oldie in SA that can remember that Soup Bar??

    And WHO was the responsible for making that incredible soup for the day… someone had to prepare the ingredients and deliver the product.

    I desperately need to savour that soup again 🙂 Graeme McVitty. Facebook address is Graeme mcvit mcvitty

  9. Sharon June 29, 2019 at 9:45 pm #

    Hi ever one their was a men’s clothing shop in town sold trendy ban clothing I think it was called the dungeon just of Arundel street

  10. Bruce Larritt July 23, 2019 at 11:29 am #

    My dad presented the programme Fun with Hobbies on the Channel niners which was funded by John Martins.It is a pity that there are no copies of any of the programmes as dad passed away and it would have been good to see some of him in his prime.

  11. Janette Garratt June 14, 2020 at 5:07 pm #

    I worked in John Martins & Myers in the cafe. My grandmother also had a café in the Adelaide Arcade called ” Saunders Café “

    • Wendy May 10, 2021 at 4:53 pm #

      Hi Janette,

      I often got my lunch from Saunders Cafe in the Adelaide Arcade as I worked at the Yasmin Hairdressing Salon just a couple of doors away in the 1960s.

  12. Jan November 19, 2020 at 6:29 pm #

    I remember “Johnnies”, going to the Magic Cave, riding “Nipper” & “Nibble” my Mum did as a child as well, watching Johnnies Xmas Pageant, having lunch at the Basement Cafe, at least I have happy memories of the store. (just wish it was still there 🙁 ). Remember Cox Foys as well, and the trampoline area on the roof

  13. Brett Messner February 1, 2021 at 10:48 pm #

    Johnnie’s was an institution!
    My father worked there and I also worked there and my mother worked at the Marion store.
    I started in Menswear and used to be a spruiker venturing out into the Rundle Mall when they had street sales.
    It was a great time in my early years and the real treat as employees was to participate in the Christmas Pageant.
    I was everything from Mickey Mouse to a clown on roller scales!!

  14. Maureen Hurt October 16, 2021 at 4:18 pm #

    I worked at Birks (although by that time it was owned by David Jones), I worked in the confectionary department and was often sent down to the food hall to help with the milkshake bar down in the gourmet department, (they made fantastic milk shakes). My boss in the confectionery department wanted me back upstairs, the person in charge of the milk bar wanted me to work for her. In the end I felt like a Yo Yo so I just walked out on the both of them.

  15. k G ramsey April 2, 2022 at 3:56 am #

    My father worked at Harris Scarfe 1960 1961
    I had a great time visiting and exploring different depts.
    great store,
    sorry to hear about its closing

  16. Michael manos May 29, 2022 at 8:10 pm #

    Hi to everyone
    I used to know a woman called “babs”dean
    She worked at John martins i the 70s as the woman’s buyer
    If any could help me to connect with her it would be much appreciated

  17. Ros Thiele July 31, 2022 at 3:49 pm #

    So many otherdepartment stores I remember from childhood Moores on the square. PeopleStores near the market, Miller Anderson. There was one opposite Miller Anderson in Hindley Street. Can anyone remember it’s name? Can anyone else remember when the Central Market was open air? I remember it being such a big deal when the roof went on.

  18. John Kain March 10, 2024 at 8:49 pm #

    The fire that went through Cravens in the late 1960s or early 1970s did not spell the end of the store. The fire damage was repaired and it’s overall interior was refreshed.
    After a lengthy closure the refurbished store was reopened with much celebration and promotion.

    store was reopened with much celebration

  19. RoHa April 26, 2024 at 8:33 pm #

    I remember Peoples Stores, but I don’t remember where it was. My mother took me there in the early 1950s. I don’t recall what we were going to buy.

    • Maria Bafile July 8, 2024 at 1:04 am #

      Peoples Stores was located in the Central Market. I remember going there as a child when my parents and i visited the market. I don’t really recall clearly the type of goods they sold, but I certainly recall that it wasn’t as exciting as John Martin’s or Myer! I also remember frequently browsing and shopping in Moores in Victoria Square, in what is now the law courts. It was a beautiful shop and decidedly upmarket.

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