1914 –1939 – World War 1 and forging ahead

June 8, 2023 BY

The Organising Committee for the 1928 exhibition of Geelong manufacturers. Photo: Geelong Chamber of Commerce

In 1914, as war raged in Europe and many of the area’s young men volunteered to join the fray, the businesses of Geelong and the Chamber did their duty to preserve and protect the city’s commercial vitality and the prosperity of its citizens.

The disruption brought by a faraway war was not, however, the only obstacle to the Chamber’s progress. Severe drought, for example, resulted in the failure of the wheat harvest, and, as a result, shipping declined in port – as did employment and revenue.

Still, Geelong remained resilient.

By 1917, the Chamber reported that trade was satisfactory and the agricultural sector had regained its buoyancy.

The largest quantity of wheat ever shipped from Geelong was recorded that year.

The Chamber approved plans for bulk­handling silos to be constructed at Williamstown, Geelong and Portland, thus providing for future growth and employment.

The wool trade was also doing well. On a visit to the area, prime minister Billy Hughes proclaimed Geelong as “the most progressive city in Australia”.

1918 saw the end of war – and campaigns by the Chamber to attract new capital and encourage local enterprise.

By 1921 these efforts were bearing fruit.

The Shell depot under construction. Photo: Geelong Heritage Centre


New businesses sprang up, including the Valley Woollen & Textile Mills, the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Woollen Mill, and the Cresco Manure Works at Corio Quay. Other companies first opening for business in Geelong included the Vacuum Oil Company, and Pilkingtons’ Glassworks.

Perhaps most significantly, The Ford Motor Company arrived at North Geelong in 1925 and, by August 1926, production from the new assembly line at North Shore was in full swing.

But by late 1929, Australia and Geelong had entered a severe depression.

In 1930 the president of the Geelong Chamber, H. H. Washington, compared Geelong’s situation with the depression of the 1890s.

“We have gone too fast,” he said, “and been too extravagant.”

He believed, though, that the turning point in the depression was about to be reached.

The following year, the Chamber’s Annual Report asserted that conditions in Geelong were more hopeful than anywhere else in the Commonwealth and, by 1932, a slow but distinct improvement in business was under way.

By 1936, mills and factories were fully employed.

Meanwhile, the laying of an underground telephone line to Melbourne, initiated by the Chamber, had finally been approved and work was under way.