- Tuesday 15 November 2011
Commentary: Australian manufacturing history. . . . . . Philip Wollen
Many years ago, when I was an ambition young man, I took over a company called Hecla.
This business was formed in 1872, long before Federation was even contemplated. The company established a rich tradition in the Australian manufacturing industry. The prodigious product range included kettles, mixers, toasters, hairdryers, urns, pie warmers, bain maries, and electric blankets for the domestic and commercial market. During the war it even manufactured parts for aircraft. It was one of Melbourne’s largest employers.
Hecla was one of the pioneers in TV advertising, led by icons like Bert Newton, Bobby Limb, Evie Hayes and Graham Kennedy who ad libbed his way through irreverent and unscripted naughtiness about Hecla electric blankets and footwarmers. The slogan was “By Hecla, its good!”. One can imagine the fun Bert and Graham had with their double entendres.
In the 60’s Hecla entered into a partnership with General Electric and expanded rapidly. The massive factory, on the corner of Alexandra Parade and Chapel Streetoverlooking the Yarra River was a Melbourne landmark.
The business was formed by one of the scions of Melbourne industry. Mr Marriott was a metal worker of some repute, building the lights in front of Melbourne’s Parliament House, the first steam car, the sideboard at the RACV Club, and the first factory to run on electricity.
By the time I acquired the company it was a shadow of its former self, incapable of competing with cheap Chinese imports. Wandering around the warehouse late one night I discovered a large, boarded up storeroom which appeared not to have been opened in decades.
Over several months I combed through the room, unearthing a treasure trove of products from a bygone era. Dusty files, engineering drawings, wooden prototypes, patent records, and correspondence from distributors on every continent.
I decided to track down an old man, Ray, long retired after 50 years with Hecla. He was not well off financially and welcomed the paid work. It turned out that he had done his apprenticeship with the company and there wasn’t much he didn’t know about it. He had been personally involved in the manufacture of almost every type of product on the Hecla smörgåsbord's of products.
So for over 2 years he methodically assembled a mini museum of Hecla products, painstakingly polishing them and ensuring they were in working order. He attached the original brochure of each product and their respective warranty cards. For him it was a labour of love. For me it was a fascinating, if vicarious journey, into Australia’s manufacturing past.
My colleagues complained that I was wasting money on his salary, our time and factory space on stuff that should have been dumped years ago. I tried to explain that I was merely a steward of the Hecla tradition, not merely an owner. Besides, the look on Ray’s face convinced me that there was another dynamic at work. One I could see, but didn’t really understand.
After he passed away I faced a dilemma. What to do with this “museum” of Hecla history. Nobody was interested.
So I kept the “stuff” in private storage, hoping that some day someone would be interested in it. And the years passed.
Finally, I had a brainwave. Perhaps the Melbourne Museum would be interested. It was a long shot but I made the call. I had a nagging suspicion that they would think I was simply trying to get them to relieve me of paying for this huge collection to be taken to the tip.
To my surprise they said they would be willing to take a look. I secretly hoped that they would take the whole collection and not leave me with an incomplete jumble of appliances that I would indeed have to take to the tip.
On the appointed day, four serious looking young people showed up. Armed with digital cameras, note books and poker faces they spent four hours analysing the goods and the supporting materials. I asked them if they had any interest and their response was decidedly non-committal. It depends on the acquisitions committee, I was told. I was disheartened and packed up the exhibits to go back into storage.
Imagine my surprise when months later they telephoned to say that they had researched the history of the company, and yes, they would like to take the whole collection. And a truck with “handlers” would arrive the following day to pick it up. Two years ago all Hecla’s archives left me forever and went to the Museum’s warehouse.
Well, to my delight I received a call yesterday inviting me to a private viewing of the exhibition at the Melbourne Museum. These young historians had meticulously assembled an impressive display of Melbourne’s industry and technology going back to the 1800’s. They thanked me like a significant benefactor when it is I who should have thanked them.
I saw the excitement in the eyes of these young people who had somehow managed to dig out and assemble memories from Australia’s past. If this is the standard of care that the curators of the Melbourne Museum show all their exhibits, our history is in safe hands.
Their meticulous work took me back to those years long ago when I saw an old man lovingly assembling and cataloging a lifetime of his work.
It took me back to the day when Australians actually made things. Long before we became a nation of quarrymen. Before we became animal-factory “farmers”. Of a time when products didn’t break down, or dumped and replaced before the warranty expired. When men like Mr Marriott cared deeply about what their hands produced.
It reminded me of the call I received from an elderly lady in Tasmania asking for the electrical element for a Hecla K7 kettle. I searched the archives and called her back. The K7 was produced decades earlier and we no longer carried that spare part. She was quite disheartened and told me her kettle had finally “given up the ghost” and she couldn’t bear to part with it. It was a present from her husband on their wedding day 45 years ago. Her final words were “they don’t make them like that, do they? By Hecla they were good!”
I’m glad I followed my instinct and put Ray back on the payroll all those years ago.
I like to think Mr Marriott would have been proud.