Exploring the value of Launceston's CH Smith site

HISTORIC: Buildings within the CH Smith complex date back to the early 1800s. Picture: Paul Scambler.

HISTORIC: Buildings within the CH Smith complex date back to the early 1800s. Picture: Paul Scambler.

Beneath the derelict facade of the CH Smith complex lies almost two centuries of Launceston’s history.

Dating back to the early 1800s, the buildings represent the town’s industrial past and the beginnings of some of its most iconic businesses.

While its heritage status has allowed the site to remain a part of the city’s landscape, a lack of development has seen the landmark become more of an eyesore than a historical monument.

A recent fire deliberately lit within one of the buildings prompted calls from the public to demolish the structures and put the future of the historic complex into question.

These calls were met with strong opposition from the site’s supporters, including chair of the Tasmanian Heritage Council Brett Torossi.

Ms Torossi said maintaining the site’s buildings played an important role in keeping Launceston’s history alive.

“The story behind the fabric is a significant part of the story of Launceston and Tasmania,” she said.  

The site’s Canal Street warehouse is said to represent Launceston’s development from an early maritime port.

The warehouse marks the location of the original waterline for the canal, which Ms Torossi said was a rare reminder of the many warehouses that would have existed at that time.

“It helps to tell the story of Launceston’s growth from a fledgling administrative town for the north of the State, to a major trading port supplying goods to the newly established city of Melbourne, and the burgeoning needs of the growing populations in the Victorian goldfields,” Ms Torossi said. 

“The remainder of the site is equally important in helping to tell the story of how commerce and light industry developed, changing Launceston from a small waterfront settlement to a major city.

“By conserving the structures that remain we provide an opportunity for locals and visitors to embrace and appreciate the past and work out how it can contribute to the future.”

The heritage-listed site is believed to have been in use for at least 170 years before it became the vacant premises it is today.

Walking past the partly demolished structures it would be hard to imagine the complex as a bustling commercial property, however back in the 19th century it was in fact home to many thriving businesses.

The man behind the name of the site was Charles Henry Smith, who emigrated from England to Australia before being sent to Launceston as a managing clerk in 1854. 

Mr Smith established a successful trading company and was known as one of the key mercantile traders in Launceston from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century.

The company was taken over by his sons after his death in 1904, but to this day continues to be referred to as the home of CH Smith.

Mr Smith was not the only businessman to utilise the site though, with one of Launceston's early breweries believed to have used the Canal Street warehouse.

The 1830s warehouse was said to have been part of the Tamar Brewery, started by John Griffiths and his son-in-law John Scott in 1855, and is now one of Launceston’s oldest surviving buildings.

Although the structures have become rundown and dilapidated over the years, there has not been a lack of vested interests who have attempted to restore the monumental site.

While multiple development applications have been submitted for the historic site, it continues to deteriorate.

While multiple development applications have been submitted for the historic site, it continues to deteriorate.

The Launceston City Council has seen and approved multiple applications for the site, including its current owners Brile.

The Geelong based property group had originally approached the Launceston City Council and heritage council in 2014 to discuss the demolition of the 1830s warehouse as part of a $30 million project, but the building's historic past led to the heritage council rejecting the proposal.

Updating their plans, Brile submitted a second application which would see the land subdivided and the warehouse removed from the development plans.

The groups’ new $16 million project, which would include a two-storey development with restaurants, a cafe, retail and bulky goods store space, a childcare centre and parking, was approved by both council’s in June 2015.

The site, however, remains at a standstill more than 12 months after the approval and the question of whether or not the structures should remain continues to be a topic of heated debate within the community.

Ms Torossi said the heritage council acknowledged the concerns raised by the Tasmanian community and wanted to help the current owners facilitate the site’s redevelopment while maintaining the structures and their historical values.

“The heritage council is pleased that the most historic portions of the CH Smith site remain, but is concerned about their state and this concern has been raised with [Brile],” Ms Torossi said.

“The vast majority of heritage places in Tasmania are well maintained and cared for. Where concerns arise about a place on the heritage register the council’s preference is to understand the issue and work with the owner to find a mutually agreeable outcome. This is the stance we are taking with CH Smith.

“The best way to protect a place’s heritage is to enable them to continue to be used.”

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