1884 King & Godfree store in Carlton, Victoria

King & Godfree from Faraday Street c.1949 - State Library of Victoria

The story of King & Godfree, Melbourne’s most famous delicatessen, is a tale of three owners: the Richards Brothers, Messrs. King and Godfree themselves, and the Valmorbida family. It began with the Richards, of whom I can discover little except that they were likely born in Somerset, England. The Richards Brothers seem to have set up their first Australian grocery business at 54 Lygon Street, Carlton, by 1861, when they advertised for a baker and a grocers’ assistant. By 1865, they had moved their Carlton business to another store on the corner of Grattan Street and Lygon Street and also had shops in St Kilda and Prahran.

It seems the Carlton premises still weren’t ideal and in 1870 the Richards commissioned an architect, Leonard Terry, to design three shops and dwellings on the corner of Faraday and Lygon Streets. The following year, the shop on the corner of Grattan Street was put up for lease and the business moved into the building where King & Godfree stands today. Richards Brothers continued to trade there for more than a decade.

Then, in 1884, a notice appeared in The Argus confirming the sale of the business to new owners.

We have this day DISPOSED of our Carlton BUSINESS to Messrs. King and Godfree, who will receive all debts due to us, but all debts due by us we will pay. Richards Brothers, Lygon-street, Carlton. September 30, 1884 

Richards Brothers later operated grocery stores in Coburg and Windsor and continued their business in St Kilda.

The new owners of the Carlton premises all had grocery experience. George Godfree’s father, also named George, had a store on the goldfields at Yapeen, near Castlemaine in Victoria. Edwin King had arrived in 1884 from England, where he had “wide experience in the tea, coffee and provision trade”. From its small beginnings, the firm thrived and by 1896, as reported in the Weekly Times, the firm had branches in North Carlton, East Brunswick and Preston.  The article makes much of the wide range of teas, coffees and liquor available from King & Godfree. It also cites other products:

Their dairy produce and hams and bacons are of the primest qualities, and are obtained direct from factories and farm houses in Gippsland, the Western and North Eastern districts.

In 1921, King & Godfree was established as a proprietary limited company, the shareholders being the original partners, Edwin’s son Henry and George’s brother William. I have discovered an unlikely link between my past and the grocery store, in that Henry King lived in the house I once owned at 675 Rathdowne Street.

In the early part of the 20th century, Carlton was a centre for Melbourne’s Jewish community. In his book Lygon Street, Michael Harden writes that in the 1920s nearly two-thirds of the city’s Jewish population lived in the suburb. King & Godfree responded to the needs of their local population, frequently advertising their range of Kosher products in the Jewish Weekly News.

After World War II, the ethnic mix in Carlton began to change. Lygon Street became a focus for a new wave of Italian immigrants and, sensing an opportunity, Carlo Valmorbida bought the building and the King & Godfree business in 1955. Carlo was born in  Valli del Pasubio, near Vicenza in northern Italy. His father, Fulvio, migrated to Australia in 1925, with his wife and son following later. However, the family returned to Italy in 1931, where Fulvio opened two grocery stores and had a small farm.

Carlo Valmorbida

In 1949, Carlo returned to Australia, the rest of the family following shortly afterwards. Despite the prevailing prejudice against migrants by Anglo Australians, the Valmorbidas soon became successful business people. Carlo began to work for Italian food and wine store, Frank Agostino, and in 1951 his family bought the business. Four years later, Carlo bought King & Godfree and his brother, Severio became the proprietor of Agastino’s. The family went on to become successful importers and manufacturers of Italian and Italian-style food products as well as acquiring extensive interests in the wine industry. They also founded two Italian-language newspapers: Il Globo and La Fiamma.

King & Godfree, despite its un-Italian name, became Carlton’s go-to grocery store for all things Italian and as wine and spirits merchants. By the late 1960s the store had become self-service but by the end of the ’70s was defining itself as a delicatessen. Through the 1980s and ’90s, the store was notable for its supply of Italian wines, liqueurs and grappa, and for the wine events hosted in the 100-year old cellar. Rita Erlich wrote in The Age in 1993:

Some years ago, they decided to expand the wine store and to open a supermarket around the corner in Faraday Street. Then Safeway opened and it became “uneconomical” to maintain the separate supermarket….What’s left now is one of the great wine stores with a very fine delicatessen and grocery corner.

From 1981 to 2004, the Valmorbidas’ partners in the business were Aldo Tasca and his son Paul. The Tascas departed to open their own wine and spirits business. In 2018, a transformed King & Godfree opened after a three-year renovation project driven by Carlo’s grandsons Luca Sbardella and Jamie Valmorbida. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to profits from the bars and restaurants and forced them to return to the grocery trade. By the beginning of 2020, everything was back in business, with the addition of an online shop. With more than 150 years of trading on the corner of Lygon and Faraday streets, King & Godfree (along with its predecessor Richards Brothers) has earned a special place in Melbourne’s culinary history.

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