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Janet Walker (1850–1940)

by Michael Marendy

This article was published:

Janet Walker (1850-1940), costumier and teacher, was born on 10 June 1850 at Neilston, Renfrewshire, Scotland, daughter of Andrew Robertson, librarian, and his wife Jane, née Gemmell. In 1863 Janet (known as 'Jessie') migrated with her family to Queensland. Tutored by Brunton Stephens, on 1 February 1872 she was appointed assistant teacher on probation at Brisbane Girls' Normal School.

In August 1875 Jessie was transferred to the new West End State School to head the girls' department. Gerard Anderson, district inspector for the Board of Education, described her as 'a lively, energetic, and intelligent person, with very good ideas of school-keeping . . . The pupil teachers are far behind her in animation'. She resigned on 31 December 1876 and on 16 January next year she married with Presbyterian forms James Laughland Walker (d.1924), a Scottish-born draper. Between 1878 and 1882 they had four children; two daughters died in infancy.

Mrs Walker began business as a dressmaker in Queen Street in 1882. She moved to larger premises in Adelaide Street in 1886 and back to Queen Street in 1918. In October 1884 a female journalist from the Queenslander visited her rooms, as well as those of her colleagues Miss Margaret Caldwell and Miss Margaret Scott. From 1887 to 1901 the local press acknowledged Walker's designs worn at eighty-four weddings, fourteen balls and six receptions, and described thirty sets of trousseau garments made in her atelier. 'Her clients included most of the well known society ladies of the time'.

Gowns made by Walker reflected her skill as a designer and her high standard of workmanship. These qualities enabled her to operate the largest private dressmaking establishment in colonial Brisbane. By the end of 1898 she employed 120 staff, the majority of whom worked in her atelier. She did not pay her apprentices during their first year, but never expected them to work overtime. Her remaining employees were paid the minimum wage, overtime and bonuses during busy periods. She trained her staff well, and several later set up their own businesses.

Walker and Margaret Caldwell, who had become her partner, matched the competitive services offered by larger drapery stores by opening a 'Ladies' Emporium' in September 1896. The business was so successful that the premises were remodelled three times before 1900. In 1897 a showroom was also established on the ground level of the Courier building, Queen and Edward streets. Walker offered customers both made-to-measure and ready-made garments. To ensure individuality, much of the fabric was imported in dress lengths, with just enough lace and trimming to embellish them. A large mail order clientele was established in rural Queensland and New South Wales. Several gowns worn at the opening of the Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne in 1901 and at the reception at Government House, Brisbane, for the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, were attributed to her new workrooms.

In July 1904 Walker was granted a patent for an improved dressmaker's stand, known as the 'plastic bust', which could be manipulated to produce a replica of a customer's body shape. The design was sold to the House of Worth and Madame Paquin in Paris, and to the House of Redfern, London. In 1905 she successfully floated the Plastic Bust Co. while in London. A talented and skilled costumier, Mrs Walker operated her business until she retired in 1938. She died on 27 November 1940 at Toowong and was buried with other family members in South Brisbane cemetery. One of her two sons survived her. Some of her gowns are held by the Queensland Museum, Brisbane.

Select Bibliography

  • Report With Minutes of Evidence Taken Before the Shops, Factories and Workshops Commission, Votes and Proceedings (Queensland), 1891, vol 2, p 1201
  • Flashes of Society & Sport (Queensland), 19 July 1900, p 12
  • Queenslander, 11 Oct 1884, p 587
  • Queensland Figaro, 2 Feb 1889, p 352
  • Board of Education (Queensland), Inspector’s Reports, 1875, EDB/N5 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Register of Teachers, 1860-76, entry 275 (Queensland State Archives)
  • EDU/V13, vol 1, p 97, reel Z7590 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Michael Marendy, 'Walker, Janet (1850–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 29 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Robertson, Janet
  • Walker, Jessie

10 June, 1850
Neilston, Renfrewshire, Scotland


27 November, 1940 (aged 90)
Toowong, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.