The “Sands & Macs” – a goldmine

Melbourne historians owe a huge debt of gratitude to a Melbourne publishing company – Sands & McDougall. 

Its foremost publication, the Melbourne Directory, is a prime information source for anyone tracing the history of buildings and people in the city and suburbs.

The company had its beginnings in 1853. In that year John Sands, an English-born engraver, printer and stationer with an established business in Sydney, formed a partnership with his brother-in-law Thomas Kenny. 

Sands and Kenny took over the business of James Williams, a printer in Collins St. The company was joined by Dugald McDougall, a former employee of James Williams, and he became manager in 1857. He was admitted as a partner in 1860 and the company became Sands, Kenny & Co.

In 1861 James Kenny retired and the company became Sands & McDougall. In 1872 Dugald’s cousin James Macdougall became a partner. (Three McDougall brothers of a previous generation had each adopted a different form of surname spelling to stop confusion over wrongly-delivered mail.) 

1872 also saw the death of John Sands. The McDougalls bought his share in the company and in the same year a new factory was opened at 151 Collins St.

Probably the company’s most well-known product first appeared in 1857 as Sands and Kenny’s Melbourne Directory. It was an instant success and became an annual publication. From 1862 the directory was published as Sands & McDougall’s Melbourne Directory. In 1871 The Age commented: 

“The 15th issue of Sands & MacDougall’s Directory is to hand. Greater praise cannot be accorded this publication than by saying that no counting-house nor place of business is properly furnished unless the directory finds a place with their books of reference.”

As Melbourne expanded, so did the directory. In 1860 it contained about 10,000 names. By 1896 this number had risen to 100,000.

Although the directory may have been the company’s most well-known product, it also engaged in a wide range of other activities. Additional space was required and, on February 12, 1889, the company, by then one of Melbourne’s largest commercial printers, began operations in a huge new six-storey building at 357 Spencer St in West Melbourne. 

Called by some “James Macdougall’s White Elephant of the West”, the building nevertheless was soon completely occupied. By 1897 a company publication records the activities of no less than 16 separate departments in the building, including Box Making, Writing Ink Making, Cheque Department, Lithographic Printing, Rubber Stamps, Bank Note Room and the Publishing Department.

In the Bank Note Room bank notes were printed under extremely tight security until 1910 when the Federal Treasury took over this role. The company also produced a vast range of other products ranging from account books, exercise books, illuminated addresses, formal invitations, and award and prize certificates to tickets for Melbourne’s tramway system and wall maps of “Melbourne and Suburbs”.

And while all this other activity was in progress, the Publishing Department pressed on with the annual production of the Melbourne Directory. The workforce was divided into the outdoor staff and the indoor staff. The outdoor staff members were responsible for gathering the required information. The so-called “walkers” tramped the streets of Melbourne, knocking on doors to ask the names and occupations of each building’s occupiers. 

The information gathered by the walkers was collated by the indoor staff and prepared for publication. As well as a street-by-street record of building residents and their occupations, the directory provided alphabetical listings of residents and of practitioners of trades and professions.

The final edition of the directory was published in 1974. Demand for the publication had fallen, and the cancellation by Victoria Police of an order for more than 600 copies of the planned 1975 edition was a major blow. Also the growth of Melbourne, coupled with an increasing concern over privacy issues, had made the task of collecting information increasingly difficult. 

However, the nearly 120 years’ worth of information collected in the directories is a goldmine for historians. Many of the directories are available in digitised form but the original bound volumes are still available in several locations. 

The Royal Historical Society of Victoria has an almost complete set and they are extensively used by historians and genealogists. A dedicated group of RHSV volunteers also use the directories to research the histories of specific sites in response to requests from builders and developers who have to demonstrate that there is no historical, heritage or environmental objections to their proposed projects.

So, more than 160 years after the first Melbourne Directory was published, the “Sands & Macs” still serve a valuable purpose.

The Sands & Mac building still stands at 357 Spencer St as the Menzies Institute of Technology. Fittingly, it backs on to McDougall Lane. 

David Thompson

David is researcher
at the Royal
Historical Society of Victoria


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