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Was It All Cricket?

Chapter 8 — Life and Work in Melbourne

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Chapter 8
Life and Work in Melbourne

It is necessary to go back to my arrival in Melbourne to begin this description of the most important phase of my career in the Queen city of Australia. The busy whirl into which I landed, with the opening of the cricket season, and the overwhelming kindness of Major Wardill, who immediately put me down for mid-week matches, as well as for Saturday games, made the first few weeks fly past. It soon, however, dawned on me that to get work was my first consideration.

I was far from home, dependent upon my own resources, and had but a slender purse, despite the fact that those long months of overtime at Andersons, with the accompanying “fat envelope” on pay day, had enabled me to save more than I had anticipated. Major Wardill thought he could get me into the Drawing Office of the Victorian Railways, and introduced me to the Chief Mechanical Engineer. Unfortunately, these were years following a drought in Australia. Mr. Norman told the Major that while he would have liked to have given me a position, in the existing circumstances he would not be justified. The Major had many friends in Melbourne, and was using his influence in several directions, while I was making personal application to a number of big engineering firms. For a few days I was to learn in no uncertain way how the value of the wool clip and the grain crop affected the prosperity of the country and the labour market in the city. It was not long before I became concerned, for I had not before this had any experience of seeking work. This feeling lasted long enough to leave its impression upon me, and in later years I was always able to understand and appreciate the feelings of an applicant for work.

Among the men I met at this time was Mr. Sam. Johnson, a Government Engineer-Surveyor, and he said to me, “I believe I can get you the very job you want. Howard Smiths want an engineer in their works, but he must also be a draughtsman.” My years at the University engineering classes gave me a certain limited qualification for a draughtsman's position. page 111 I was an all-rounder, to use a cricketing term, and there was certainly more chance of their getting an engineer who could draw than a draughtsman who could be called a practical engineer. Mr. Johnson took me down to the works on the banks of the Yarra, and introduced me to Mr. A. B. MacDonald, the shipping company's Superintendent-Engineer. After a few questions he said, “Right, you can start to-morrow morning.” The sky cleared in a moment, and I was later able to express my appreciation to Mr. Johnson for his kindness and help.

I was soon to learn the greatness of the firm of W. H. Howard Smith & Company, changed to Howard Smith Proprietary Limited during the term of my employment with them. Captain Howard Smith was the founder of the firm which, like the Union Steamship Company of New Zealand, started in a small way. First one ship, then two, and so on, until the fleet of steamers with the white funnel and black top was one of the largest and best known on the Australian coast, with Melbourne its home port. The firm's workshop, while capable of carrying out ordinary repairs, did not attempt to handle big work, and only a small staff was employed, for there were big engineering works over the river, which catered for the repair work of all the shipping companies, and were capable of coping with any rush of work, such as frequently occurs with steamers' annual overhauls.

Captain William Howard Smith had four sons: William the eldest, who succeeded his father, had just retired before I arrived in Melbourne—I was to meet him later at a garden party at his home; Bruce was a well-known barrister in Sydney; Walter, who succeeded his elder brother, now retired in favour of his young brother Harry, or “H.B.,” as he was usually called.

Barely forty years of age, he was probably the best-dressed man in Melbourne, and, I should say, the most eligible bachelor in the City. Although he seemed aloof from the staff, he was always kind and considerate, had the manners of the Victorian era, and was very wealthy. Added to this, he had outstanding ability, and it is to him, and his First Lieutenant, Mr. C. M. Newman, to whom must be given the credit for the success and development that took place in the affairs of the company during the early years of this century.

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I soon learned why the Engineer-Superintendent, when engaging me, had asked of my drawing ability. At first, most of my time was spent in the workshops, with occasional periods in the Superintendent's office, making drawings of small parts of machinery, and sometimes being sent down on to the ships to take measurements, etc. One day the new Managing Director came down to the works, and I met him for the first time. He explained to the Superintendent that he wished to start on the design of a new passenger liner, and would come down from time to time and confer with him. It was not long before this arrangement proved inconvenient to a man as busy as a Managing Director, and he suggested that I should be transferred to Head Office.

It will be easily realized what a change this meant to me. For some months my hours of work had been from 7.45 a.m. until 5 p.m. I rode a bicycle to work, and had to go to my lodgings and have a bath before going over to evening practice. Fortunately, I lived alongside the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but on arrival I often found Trumble and others getting dressed after practice. My new position now meant that I could go straight from the office to the ground, and join in the full practice with all the members of the First XI. This made all the difference to my form, but it came too late for my first season's cricket.

My work at once became most absorbing, and being the medium through whom my chief and his managers of departments put on to paper their combined ideas of a modern passenger liner, I was in a position of close association with the “Heads.” Each day after lunch the Managing Director would come up to my room for half an hour—after lunch was always said to be a good hour to meet a business man! Having got the opinions of his superintendents on the general design of the ship, he did not often call them up for further conference. He bought books on ship-building and construction for my use, as well as his own, and studied all the latest developments and improvements as embodied in the design of the most recent passenger ships to trade on the coast.

The Union Company's new Moeraki had just begun running on the Melbourne-New Zealand route, and she was the size and type of vessel they proposed to build, although trading to the tropical regions of Queensland meant a change from page 113 some of the arrangements on the Moeraki which was suitable enough for trade to the colder climate of New Zealand. The fruit cargoes from Queensland also meant more 'tween-deck space, for bananas are not like ordinary cargo.

Each time the Moeraki came into port, I used to go down and have a look at her, as well as other modern ships, such as the Yawata Maru trading to Japan. I became “a” friend of the Chief Engineer of this vessel, and several times had dinner on board with him. At this time the Captain, the First Mate, and the Chief and Second Engineers of all Japanese liners were either Englishmen or Scotsmen, usually the latter. All the rest of the crew were Japanese. Five years later, when I visited Australia again, only the Captains and Chief Engineers remained, while in another few years Japanese only were employed. It will thus be seen how the shipowners of Japan used the British to teach and train their juniors in navigation and engineering for their mercantile marine.

They had acted in a similar way with regard to their shipbuilding industry. Like Germany before her, she had imported the best brains of Scotland and the North of England at handsome salaries for the designing and planning of ships, as well as the training of her youth for the day when Japan could stand on her own feet.

The plans on which I was engaged were not working drawings, but showed in every detail the design of the ship, including the passenger accommodation and crew's quarters, sufficient to enable the ship-building firms in the Old Country to make their own drawings and specifications, and tender for the building of the steamer. This planning and designing was intensely interesting, and the weeks and months raced by.

In the midst of all this work I was called upon to make other plans. Mr. H. B. Howard Smith was, at this time, a member of the Board of the Melbourne Harbour Trust. He took a keen interest in the work of the shipping facilities, and in the development of the Port. Like all the other big men of commerce and industry in Melbourne at that time, he had overwhelming confidence in the future of his beloved city. It was to this future that he was always looking. He believed that as the place grew, and the size of ships trading to the port became bigger and bigger—as each new steamer launched showed this trend—some day Melbourne would need to adopt the use page 114 of wet docks similar to Tilbury, and the East and West India Docks of London. It looked a splendid scheme on paper, and much time was spent on the laying out of wharf facilities and cargo-working arrangements that would cope with the developments of the port for many years ahead. The docks were to be located on the site of the old Victoria Golf Links, on the banks of the Yarra. His scheme meant bringing several miles nearer the City the long-established Port Melbourne berthage for the big Home liners.

Apparently his colleagues on the Harbour Trust did not support his grandiose scheme. It is doubtful whether this plan of extension will ever be revived, but at that time I was a convert to my chief's conception of the needs of the future.

I was to be given the opportunity of a pleasant interlude when I was asked to go to Adelaide with the Melbourne Shipping Offices' cricket team. I had arrived in Melbourne at a time when great events were taking place in the affairs of the shipping companies, and, for that matter, in all industrial undertakings. From the earliest years in the life of Australia, private and company businesses had developed along individual lines. They possibly had some understanding regarding the selling price of standard lines, but in the main, self-interest alone directed their energies, and each business, in its own way, sought turnover, profit, and power. So long as industry expanded there was room for development that satisfied the ambitions of the different interests. This did not prevent intense rivalry, but rivalry, unless judiciously controlled, may often lead to a trial of strength. The outstanding example of this is the fight of fifty years ago, for dominance in the New Zealand-Australia trade, between the Union and Huddart Parker Companies. Readers will find it hard to believe that in this stern contest the passenger fare from Auckland to Sydney was gradually reduced, until it reached the ridiculously low figure of twenty shillings return. It was a fight to the finish, and in the end the Union Company won, but as in war, both combatants were exhausted. The men of Dunedin had proved too determined and too strong, for the Directors of the Union Company were all sturdy Scots. It was common knowledge in shipping circles at this time that the rapid recovery, then advancement, of the Union Company, and their ability to buy new ship after new ship, as they did in the page 115 'nineties, was due to that great ship-building firm of Denny Bros., of Dumbarton, Glasgow. The principals of this firm were shrewd as well as generous when they built ships for the Union Company on what were thought at the time to be extended terms. They certainly backed a winner, and for many years built most of the new steamers for this Company.

The Australian Shipping Companies, while glad to come to working arrangements with regard to trade, were also forced to combine on account of the growth of Unionism. The Trade Union movement, a natural and legitimate development, had, from the early 'nineties, gained much strength, and proved formidable and threatening to the freedom of control by the owners. Had the movement developed along the lines of unionism in Great Britain, no great harm would have come, and peace would still have reigned on the ships and on the waterfront. Unfortunately, these Australian Unions, conscious of their t growing strength, often misused the power they possessed. Harsh and vindictive action, usually directed against an individual ship or owner, found the latter left to fight his own battle, and often he had to compromise or give way on matters that vitally affected the whole industry. There is nothing like danger or adversity to bring people together, and a few victories to the men soon convinced the owners that combined action alone could give them protection. And so, when it came to a case of one ship being singled out by the strikers, in order to enforce their demands, the owners held up work on all other ships in port until the first ship was manned. This put an end to the sectional strike.

Trade Union Secretaries and Executives, now faced with the combined strength of the shipowners, were not so ready to sanction a strike. The new arrangement of settling disputes by negotiation was to prove as beneficial to the men as to the owners, and resulted in both sides giving more sober consideration to points in dispute. It certainly steadied the hot-heads who had, in the past, created so many irritating and vexatious hold-ups on the waterfront.

Equally beneficial arrangements were made with regard to the companies' various and often conflicting interests. The Australian Maritime Act prevented overseas ships on foreign articles from carrying Australian cargoes between the ports of the Commonwealth. This protected Australian coastal page 116 shipping interests to the fullest extent, and when the different companies became friendly rivals instead of hostile opponents, the way was clear for all to get a fair share of the cargoes offering, and the passenger traffic that was rapidly developing.

The above sketch illustrates the picture of events as they were unwinding themselves during my years of association with Howard Smiths in Melbourne.

Mr. Howard Smith and Mr. Newman represented our firm in all these negotiations, and I remember how we all had the feeling that Howard Smiths, at any rate, would hold their own in these important councils. From this it will be seen that office staffs, as well as cricket teams, can have their captains.

The part that employees can play, even in the affairs of big businesses, had not been overlooked by these industrial leaders. They chose inter-State cricket matches between the combined office staffs of the Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney offices as a means of creating between their employees the same goodwill and friendship as was now being shown by the directors and managers of the companies. The first match I took part in was at Adelaide, on the famous Oval ground. I had not previously visited this beautiful capital of South Australia and, of course, the Adelaide Oval was to me a delight. We arrived a day early, and had practice the afternoon before the match. Who should turn out in his flannels, and practice with us, but George Giffen! He was then over forty, and had finished Test cricket, but still played for South Australia. They told me he always turned out and practised with visiting teams. He revelled in the game, and we all know that he liked to keep on bowling! We practised on a previously used wicket that took a lot of spin. After I had bowled alongside Giffen for some time, with my left-hand deliveries often breaking back six inches, and usually pitched on, or just outside the off stump, Giffen turned to me and said, “Look, sonny, when you get on a wicket that enables you to spin like that, bowl at the leg stump and make the batsman hold his chin up.” He then explained that anyone could get wickets on a bad wicket; it was the man who could get them the cheapest that counted. “It will mean putting in an extra man on the on side, but you must hit his wicket if he misses the ball.” He then added, “Mind you, that is only for a bad wicket; you must bowl for the field when you can't bowl them out.” And again, “It is page 117 all a case of the cheapest way of getting a side out.” I was to store away for future use this golden rule for a bad wicket, and I never forgot his words.

Our shipping office match at Adelaide ended in a thrilling manner. As two days only were allotted for the game it became a one innings contest. We were left a substantial number of runs to make, and steady scoring by our batsmen put us in a strong position. I was top scorer with 60 run out. Throughout my career it was not often I was out in this way. When our seventh wicket fell, we had but 15 runs to make. Harry Hill, a younger brother of Clem's, was then again put on to bowl, and he promptly did the hat trick in disposing of the last three batsmen. It was a thoroughly enjoyable match, and the trip had certainly illustrated the merit of building a spirit of comradeship between the staffs of the different companies. It was a pleasure to meet again Clem Hill, Jones, and Lyons, who, with Giffen, watched our match. I was also interested in meeting A. H. Jarvis, the famous wicket-keeper.

The following season we went to Sydney to play the officers of the shipping companies there. This time I was made captain. Being a member of the Melbourne Cricket Club First XI no doubt gave me a standing with my colleagues, and my special work on Howard Smiths' staff seemed to win me a status greater than I really deserved. At this time I grew a small moustache to make myself look older, and I can still get a laugh out of some old photographs, and especially from the reason for my adopting the appearance of a young officer from Sandhurst.

This match in Sydney was played on the Manly Oval, and it was quite a social affair, the local directors and managers, with their wives and daughters, attended in the afternoon. Charles Hughes was captain of the Sydney side. He was later to become Secretary of the Union Company at Head Office in Dunedin, and afterwards returned to manage the Sydney office for many years. He remained one of my lifelong friends. The match itself was evenly contested, with no outstanding performances, so need not be described. We were given a dinner at night, and among those present were Sir James Burns, head of the great Burns, Philp Company, and Sir John See, Premier of New South Wales at that time, and head of the North Coast Shipping Company. Unfortunately, none of page 118 our principals had come up from Melbourne, so I was left with greater responsibility in replying to the toast. I remember that Sir John See who presided, made what was practically a political speech—was there ever a politician who did not? He praised his own New South Wales, and quoted figures to illustrate the mineral wealth and industrial strength of the State. I was very nervous, and fumbled to get a start, but I remember paying a compliment to Sir John See for his Government's liberal and progressive administration; our fellows later chaffed me about this phrase. I gallantly tried to keep up Victoria's end of the argument, for Sydney-Melbourne rivalry always raised its head, even at functions like this one, but, of course, humour took the edge off the swords. The middle-aged and elderly gentlemen enjoyed my spirited championing of Victoria and its great capital city, for I had acquired from Mr. Howard Smith his conception of what Melbourne was, and would be. In proposing a later toast, Sir John See referred to me as “our eloquent young friend on my left,” so I could not have done so badly. “Liberal and progressive administration” must have taken a wicket. I can assure readers that although my voice held out, my knees knocked all the time I was speaking. I have often wondered how I managed to say anything at all in such company.

Howard Smiths always held an annual picnic. The Company had a very large staff, especially when the men of the various workshops were included. Hiring a suburban ground, they would play cricket matches in the morning, and have sports and games of all sorts in the afternoon.

It is the picnic at the old Scots College ground that I remember best. I entered for the bicycle race, and thought I was winning, when a practised young rider passed me nearing the tape. I had more knowledge of timing the hitting of a cricket ball than timing a sprint in a bike race; I remember lying on the ground after the event, suffering acute pain with the stitch.

The social side of this gathering was interesting and instructive. Our “big” men conversed freely with the rank and file. One word from the Managing Director was enough to stir the pulse of any young lad on the staff, while workmen whom our chief could make feel at home, responded in the same way.

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These picnics continued for a few more years, but, like the inter-State staff cricket matches, they had already served their purpose, in days when there were fewer outdoor sports than there are to-day. I cannot imagine modern cricketers, tennis players, golfers or surfers wishing to give up their day's sport to go to a picnic—much less a firm's picnic!