Melbourne Shipping Agency
(March 25, 2010)
Contributed by James Guthrie
I have transcribed these memories of my father, Bob Guthrie, which he began to write in the late 1950's and his last entry was in 1973.  He wrote three exercise books about his ancestry, his interests, and his work but nothing of his own (my) family.  With regard to his time with Gibbs Bright & Co., as a child I often accompanied him on ships' visits on the weekend, mainly to Port Line and East Asiatic vessels.  I can recall my fascination with the two ship models in the office at 34 Queen Street.  There are some inconsistencies in his record of events and sadly no mention of what he did during the 2nd World War.  I have always been under the impression that he had something to do with shipping convoys; also by the time he retired in 1965 was he the Manager of the Shipping Department, true or false?

Finally, a disclaimer.  These are the views and recollections of my father, not mine or anyone else that I know of.  I have no intention of offending anyone by providing the following transcription of his memories of his working life.

A Lifetime in Shipping

In the middle of 1915 a customer at the Home Bush Hotel was a storeman at the Victorian Woolpressing Company - a subsidiary of Gibbs Bright & Co.  His name was Tom Crump.  The secretary of the Victorian Woolpressing Company happened to ask Crump in casual conversation whether he knew a youth who was looking for a job as Gibbs Bright & Co. were anxious to get an office boy for their shipping department.  Seeing me coming and going about North Melbourne and no doubt knowing that I would soon be looking for clerical work, Tom passed this news on to Aunt Peg who in turn told Mother.  This caused some consternation because it was felt that I should finish my year and sit for the Junior Public examinations.  Tom was given the reason why I would not apply and the matter ended.

 However, after my entrance papers had been put into the university at the beginning of October, the enquiry was repeated through the same channels.  An interview was arranged with he secretary at the Store, Flinders Lane Extension and arrayed in my Sunday best I presented myself one morning at the office of Mr. Dave Norris.  He was a very kindly, handsome man with a soft voice and a very distinguished air.  He was universally liked and he proved a very good and loyal friend to me in the long years of association that followed.  Right up to his retirement about 1955 he always showed great interest in me and never failed to settle down for a little chat about my family and my affairs.  He is now a very old invalid - too old and too deaf to receive visitors - but the memory of his gentle nature will be with me forever.

All Mr. Norris did was to look me over and arrange an interview with the manager of Gibbs Bright & Co.'s shipping department, Mr. J. A. Graham.  This was a more difficult encounter for a fifteen year old school boy.  I was shown into Mr. Graham's small and congested office to discover a tall well built man with a close clipped moustache, beetle brows and piercing eyes.  His pipe was in his mouth throughout the interview.  What really disconcerted me was that he was sitting with his chair tilted back and his feet on his desk and there they remained during my brief conversation.  He asked me nothing of my qualifications.  He merely enquired if I could start work the following day and told me he agreed to my taking time off for the examinations.  I said I could start immediately.  He dismissed me with a curt nod and I walked into Queen Street bewildered by his brusque manner.  I didn't have much to tell Father and Mother because there was little to tell beyond the news that I had landed a job.  Brother Tevlin  was told that I was no longer a student at CBC St Kilda and when he heard the reasons he very kindly offered to give me some night tuition before the exams.  Thus ended my school days.  It was done with dramatic suddeness, so that there were no farewells from my classmates and that spared me much embarrassment.

Now for the second, the longest and the most exciting section of my life.  When I presented myself for duty at Gibbs Bright & Co., 34 Queen Street, Melbourne in October 1915 I little thought they would be my only employers, that I would be in the Melbourne office all my working days and that I would begin and end as a clerk.  The shipping department was on the ground floor wedged into the corner of Queen Street and Flinders Lane.  Mr. Graham had a pokey little room immediately inside the door from the corridor.  D. R. Anderson was Senior Clerk and sat at an island desk which nearly filled the limited space of the shipping section.  Sam Duncan was stenographer and typist and was hidden behind a tiny partition.  J. B. Good, John Dent and I sat on high stools at a desk facing the windows on Flinders Lane.  On the opposite corner of the lane was the Westernport Hotel and we had an uninterrupted view of the patrons entering and leaving the tavern doors.  A. E. Callard joined the staff the same day as I joined.  He hailed from St Albans in England and had come to Australia for health reasons and had worked for a few years with Macdonald Hamilton & Co.  Becoming dissatisfied with his prospects there, he had transferred to Gibbs Bright & Co.  Alec Kennedy was abroad with the A I F.  That constituted the shipping department staff at the time I joined.

The partners of the firm were J. E. Hayne and A. E. Bright - that is those who were resident in Melbourne.  C. D. Finch, J. D. Medley and Maurice Gibbs shared a room together, handled semi-confidential business, and signed bills of lading, cheques etc.  Old Charlie Brown was accountant, Ashley Cummins was cashier, Tom Allan managed the pastoral department, Curtain the insurance, John Way the mining, Bagnall the merchandise, Vesey the Lysaght agency.  Tommy Thompson was in charge of the postal desk and had two juniors with him to run messages.  The maximum number of letters had to be delivered by hand - to save postage!  John Hamilton was the Customs clerk.  Bill Lyon was cable clerk.  Mrs. Murray and Miss Ball were typists.  Ingah Lord was the telephonist.  Before I embark on summaries of these characters, I must record that the telephone was attached to the wall of a box and a handle was turned to ring it.  It could be switched through to Mr. Graham's room.  All outward letters were press copied into books.  They were switched behind a tissue page, a damp cloth was placed on top of the page and the book closed and put in the press.  The handle of the press was turned until the book was squeezed between the iron top and bottom sections and thus the imprint of the letter was made on the tissue page.

The whole office could have been a model for the office of Cheeryble Brothers in Dickens' “Nicholas Nickleby” expect that it lacked the benevolent and kindly atmosphere.

Of the foregoing only Anderson, Dent, Kennedy and Lyon survive.  Norris is also alive but strictly speaking he was of the office but not in it.

James Albert Graham became the outstanding personality of Gibbs Bright & Co.  In 1915 he would have been about thirty-eight years old and had but recently returned to Melbourne after a spell of some six years as Adelaide shipping manager.  He was a member of a Victorian pioneer family and was the eldest son of the eldest son of the man who established the branch of the Graham clan in Victoria.  His grandfather landed in Sydney from Scotland and traveled overland by horseback to Melbourne when the Port Phillip District was part of New South Wales.  He bought a block of land on the corner of Russell and Bourke Streets and opened a general store.  The old man prospered and had several “firsts” to his credit, among them membership of the first Legislative Council of Victoria, a foundation member of the Melbourne Club, a member of the first council of the Melbourne Grammar School.  J. A.'s father was in the first group of boys to enroll when the school opened.  Graham the Patriarch had a large family and J. A.'s father had about four or five sons and two daughters.  By the time I came into the firm the Graham estate was considerable and J. A.'s father managed it from an office in Collins House.  He was a delightful little old man who called into the office very frequently and I should think the visits were necessary because the real estate interests included the King's Theatre and buildings in Russell and Bourke Streets.

J. A. had married a Miss Catherine Ogilvie whose father had founded the Victorian Stevedoring Company.  They lived in a house in Irving Road Toorak and had four sons - Francis, Peter and twins Dick and Bob.  He was a tall, well built man who wore a bow tie long after they went out of fashion and also had a moustache so close-clipped that no one noticed its absence when he shaved it off.  He had been a very creditable cricketer and tennis player and he was just taking up golf.  Taking up anything meant mastering it and wrestling with it to the end, be it a business problem, rose growing, cultivation of his garden, auction bridge or golf.  Horse racing held his interest up till the outbreak of the Second World War but golf was his ruling passion.  His style was anything but spectacular - his was a cricketer's stance more than a golfer's - but he played a steady straight game and on and near the green he was deadly.  He was still playing at eighty and to the end he was a brazen “pot hunter”.  He was quite blatant in choosing the best partner, did not hesitate to abuse that partner if they lost, was thoroughly snarly if he lost a ball (but this was a rarity) and would drive through anyone on the course.  Is it any wonder that only people who were compelled to do so would play with him?  All this reads as a description of a thoroughly objectionable individual.  It must be admitted that he didn't show a very attractive front in his younger day.  In fact he bulldozed his way through life but behind a snobbish and overbearing façade I discovered through the years that he had a sympathetic heart.

His strong Scottish ancestry made him extremely thrifty and careful in his own mode of living and it was always a struggle to squeeze an increase in salary out of him, but he was generous in assisting in medical expenses incurred by any member of the staff.  It may be thought that this didn't show much generosity as undoubtedly the firm had an insurance cover for these expenses but he was generous in his sympathetic interest in the welfare of his employees, and was genuinely concerned with their troubles.  He would get into bellowing passions about business matters which he considered had been mishandled and often these tantrums were unreasonable and sometimes childish.  He scared juniors out of their wits but in the course of years the seniors knew that there was no bite behind an outburst and it was soon forgotten.  He was the soul of loyalty to the Melbourne staff in general and the Melbourne shipping department in particular.  Woe betide a House in another state should they write a critical letter about Melbourne.  He would roast them all in blistering correspondence - from partners down.  His business and domestic ethics were straight but he was excessively cautious in his business dealings.  He had to succeed because he had money, family background and one unfailing attribute, that was to see that underlings attended to the details and incidentals and he concentrated on the major issues in which his superiors were interested.  In all the years I worked under him, he saw that his hours were regular and short, did little or no practical work as I knew it and was quite frank in admitting that he knew nothing of the routine matters of the department.  I can see now why I am finishing my days as a clerk.  I was not satisfied unless I handled every detail of a job.  I couldn't delegate the trimmings to others.  He wouldn't think of them.  Everyone was at his beck and call and he was only interested in the final outcome.  It was his boast that no letter remained unanswered on his desk overnight.  Well might he brag!  The entire staff rushed to collect and collate the material he required to answer a letter and all work stopped until he had completed a reply to his satisfaction.

 He didn't own a motor car and it was only when he was in his sixties that some member of staff was required to drive him to and from the office.  Prior to that he used the train to Toorak station.  His memory for train time-tables was phenomenal and punctuality was a mania.  That mania drove him beyond reason.  It was extraordinary that he - who had spent all his business life in shipping - could be enraged by ships being delayed.

J. A. had a few fictions which became fact with him.  One he delighted in quoting was that he entered the firm as Alfred Bright's office boy!  He was never an office boy in the true sense of the word because on other occasions he would tell how Alfred and he went swimming, playing tennis and spent holidays together.  He always had the silver spoon in his mouth and he was always careful to make contacts in the right quarter and cultivate friendships of assistance to himself.  In 1915 he was on intimate terms with Medley and Maurice Gibbs couples but he had no compunction in dropping them when they fell from favour and left the firm.  Years later when he and I were talking I told him that I disliked Maurice Gibbs from the first day I saw him and without any qualms J. A. said he had used Maurice when it suited him to do so.  In his early years he blatantly switched his loyalties and cunningly contrived his associations until he got a partnership.  In the course of time he became senior partner and for years before he retired he was looked on as the benevolent patriarch - but as a young man he was a snob - in fact he was a snob to the end.  As Shipping Manager he was thoroughly unpopular with the ships' masters.  Most of them were older than he was and to a man they openly quarelled with him or snubbed him.  The same applied to his business associates.  He knew his manner was constrained and distant and he left all direct contact to Anderson and spent his time in the partners' rooms.  I have said he knew his failings and I have proof of it.  One day in the early thirties the Commodore Master of Port Line, Captain Gilling met J. A. in the general office and commented on the G.B. staff changes which embraced Francis Graham moving from Brisbane to Sydney (because of his riotous behaviour in Brisbane) and Peter Graham moving from Melbourne to Brisbane to succeed Francis.  J. A. replied “I think the moves will be successful because they should be happier in their new posts.  You see, Francis has all the self-consciousness of the Grahams and Peter has all the cheek of the Ogilvies.”

Socially J. A. was very self conscious and shy and attempted to cover up with false heartiness.  At a cocktail party on the first “Port Montreal” he was in a group with Captain J. P. (John) Williams, the then Collector of Customs, J. Kennedy, myself and two others I have forgotten.  He was blustering at Williams in a bantering way about Phil Nurcombe's approaching wedding when Williams would act as best man.  Williams cut in and asked J. A. whether he was going to the wedding.  “I am going to the reception” he answered “I have never been inside a Catholic Church in my life and I don't propose to do so ever!”  Everyone started, particularly Kennedy  - and I could see Williams kick J. A.  Another foolish speech he delivered was across a luncheon table on board the “Mauretania” in 1940.  The host was Captain Cone, the Staff Captain.  There were about eight guests including Mr. Norris and myself seated at a large round table and J. A. was talking continuously.  This was usually his style to hold undivided control of the conversation and keep it at the level of “When I was in Adelaide in 1908” or thereabouts.  You can understand that his fellow guests generally experienced a fairly boring session.  This day he was taking us through the early identities of the Melbourne office and he told us that when old Mr. Good retired, Alfred Bright discussed with J. A. the pension Good should receive.  J. A. laughed his way through the climax of his story.  It went like this “As the old boy had never received more than £3 in one week, I said to Alfred `Let him get £3 a week.' Alfred looked shocked but finally he agreed.  Old Good only drew the pension for twelve months so my generosity was a paying proposition.”  He laughed heartily bur he was the only one.  The faces around the table were studies.

These comments on Mr. Graham must leave the impression that he was not a likeable personality.  To me that is not the case.  He was closefisted and I have always been poorly paid.  When I was married at the age of thirty-five I was receiving £5/12/6 per week.  He always had a deep-seated awareness of his social and business preeminence but I was never troubled by it.  One of the most flattering things ever said to me was volunteered by a fellow worker, “Bob, one thing I must say to you is that you have never crawled.”  But in spite of these failings I had admiration and affection for him and his retirement from the firm was a deep grief to me.  I understood his gruff moods and when he went I missed them as much as his mellow ones.  In spite of his occasional explosions I knew he was very attached to me.  In his mellow moments he would sit by my desk and yarn - invariably when I could ill afford the time.  He always gave me his full support and any suggestion of criticism of my actions by anyone (from a fellow partner down) brought forth his full wrath.  An example is supplied by Michael Irving.  When he was in this office only a short time and was very up-and-coming, lordly and over-conscious of being the grandson of the late Sir William H. Irving, Chief Justice and Lieutenant Governor of Victoria, he had the temerity to attempt to put me in a spot.  One Saturday morning he put a memo on E. L. Hayne's desk reporting that I had delayed him and a typist unnecessarily on the previous evening because I had not given them a cable in time.  E. L. Hayne did not come in to the office that morning but J. A. happened into his room and read it.  Without enquiring for any details, he forthwith summoned young Irving and delivered a rocket which will long be remembered by that young man.  The gist of it was that Irving had no business to go behind his back in the first case and he was not in a position to criticize me in the second case.  If Irving ever achieves the partnership to which he aspires, he will always remember the roasting he received that morning.  This was typical of J. A.'s loyalty and straight dealing.    He always showed an understanding and sympathy for anyone's private troubles and would be furious if he were not taken into one's confidence and allowed to help.  He would give any of his employees full consolation.  But in reverse he would not tolerate the slightest reference to his private sorrows and trials.  We all knew he was a most devoted and exceptional husband and father but we also knew that we would merit a snub if we mentioned any of his family troubles - and he had many and serious ones.  He shut up like a clam.  He steeled himself against any display of sentiment.  An account of his retirement should illustrate his nature.

Having passed his fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries with the firm without any celebrations or mention, it was something of a shock to learn in the last week of June 1958 that he was retiring on the 30th of that month.  He made no mention of the fact but he instructed Laurie Ogilvie to tell the members of the Shipping Department.  After our long association with him, Vic Gordon and I had anxious discussions about the advisability of saying a few words of farewell.  Finally Vic plucked up courage and went into J. A.'s room to speak his piece.  Vic reported to me that his reception was favourable and that he encouraged me to follow him.  My interview was enigmatical.  He was sitting at his desk clearing a drawer and I said I wished to tell him I was sorry he was retiring.  He shattered me by grinning in a self conscious way and asking, “Sorry for me or sorry for yourself?”  I didn't know what was expected of me and after an awkward pause I mumbled something about good health in his retirement and withdrew.

On the evening of the 30th he went out of the office without a word to anyone and, with the exception of a few brief visits, no one except Laurie Ogilvie saw him again before his death.  For the last two or three years in the office he was quiet and reserved and I am certain he was ill but wouldn't admit it.

My account of J. A. Graham is long, garbled and seemingly inconsistent but having spent 35 years working with him continuously I cannot avoid writing at some length.   I can sum up by saying that he will always live in my memory and I will always feel that his virtues far outweigh his faults.

Old J. B. Good was then a man of over seventy whose limited career had led him from Twickenham, England via F. H. Stephens & Co. Launceston, Tasmania to G.B & Co's shipping department.  He joined the firm when it was Bright Brothers and held the agency for the Orient Line.  He remembered the partners Charles Bright (Alfred Bright's father), his brother Reginald, Keating and Bell.  His memory of the Loch Line and other sailing ships was very clear and, in his mind, coal burners were newcomers to the trade.  He was a tall, gaunt scraggy man with white close cropped hair, moustache and beard.  When he grinned he showed only two large front teeth resembling tombstones.  He always wore a high, square topped, black felt hat (I think it was known as a “billy cock hat”), a skimpy beau fort coat, stove pipe trousers hitched up above the top of his boots and he carried his lunch in a worn oblong leather bag.  He shuffled into the office every day until 1919 when he retired.   I went out to see him a couple of times at his home in Hawksburn but he only lived a couple of years after retirement.  He was the survivor of a race of serfs.  But he must have been a remarkably thrifty one.  He kept a wife and raised six daughters and one son on a wage which was a pittance but the extraordinary thing is that he managed to educate his children excellently.  One daughter was a doctor, two were nurses, two married clergymen and Norman Good was with Howard Smith Ltd. for years as sub-manager.  I enjoyed hearing him talk of his youth in England.  He had vivid memories of the Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie when they were living in exile at Twickenham.  He also remembered Queen Mary's father, the Duke of Teck, giving a public exhibition of bad temper in Twickenham Park.  The senior masters of the Commonwealth and Dominion Line would tease the old chap but in a kindly way.  I can remember Captains Farmer, Hayter and Hoad clustering around his desk and hiding his papers and pens.  Captains Gilling and Compton were always courteous to him but made a point of jollying him in a way he could never understand because he was devoid of humour.

D. Ramsay Anderson was then Chief clerk.  After a period as Shipping Manager in Adelaide from 1919 to the early 20's he returned to Melbourne where he remained as Shipping Manager until retirement in 1948.  I prefer to gloss over my unpleasant years of association with him.  He was selfish, ruthless, tenacious and had nothing to commend him.

Sam Duncan was the typist.  The firm wouldn't accept females in the shipping department in those days.  I think that they had a puritanical suspicion of those connected with the sea and feared they might indulge in lurid, nautical language or make indecent advances to female employees.  This prejudice persisted until about 1925 when Miss Macdonald was engaged as stenographer typist - and an excellent worker she was.  Because the old nervousness couldn't be conquered completely they stationed her in a room on the first floor which meant that the poor old thing ran up and down the stairs dozens of times in a day.  It was an inhumane trick to play on an elderly sick woman.

But Duncan is the character under review.  He hailed from Footscray and in his youth he was a very creditable foot-runner.  He studied typing and shorthand and his first job was in the office of Isaac A. Isaacs Solicitor, M.L.A. and Attorney General.  Sam did all the secretarial work until Isaacs was elevated to the High Court Bench.

Duncan came to the shipping department when Collins was manager.  The tales of this bumptious, loudmouthed, overbearing bully were legion but he had been fired before I came on the scene.  By nature Sam was a nervous hypochondriac and he didn't ever shake off the effects of Collins' regime.  About 1920 J. A. endeavoured to have Sam take over the practical loading of ships but after only a couple of years he cracked under the responsibility.  The firm sent him for a round trip to Japan and on his return he took over the passenger work.  He created quite a reputation with passengers both Eastern and Australian and Commonwealth and Dominion Lines.  He had endless patience with them and an enormous facility for listening to their tales of woe.  The Chinese would deal with none but Sam.  To them he was known as “Gibb Hong” - a composite of the two ends of their journey, GB & Co Melbourne and Hong Kong.

Having been a creaking door for years, he retired and died in the middle 30's.  He was the only sane punter I have ever known.  Horseracing was his only passion but he would only use money from a separate Savings Bank account.  He admitted that gambling was an extravagance because it was necessary for him to feed the account over the years.

A. E. Callard joined the department the same day as I did but he was some eight or nine years older then I was.  He was an Englishman from St Albans and had come to Australia to join Macdonald Hamilton & Co.  After a few years he became dissatisfied and changed over to us.  He was a warm-hearted, generous fellow but was cursed with a brutally blunt manner.  Cal was an amazing worker with a professional knowledge of shipping but by some misfortune his manner antagonized J. A. G. who recognized his worth but was always curt to Cal.  On Anderson's return from Adelaide, Callard was appointed manager there and died there about 1955.  At the end of his career he drove himself into the ground through overwork.

I succeeded John Dent as office boy and he was promoted to Customs clerk, assisting old Good.  At the beginning of 1918 Dent enlisted in the A.I.F., embarked on a troopship for Europe but was landed in South Africa suffering from mumps or measles.  When he recovered he was attached to Headquarters Staff in South Africa and remained there for the duration. He returned to the office early in 1919.  About a year later he told me he was resigning.  The dialogue went something like this:

Me, “What do you intend to do?”
Dent, “Join the army.”
Me, “The permanent military army?”
Dent, “No! The Salvation Army.”
Me, “Oh!  Shut up you bloody fool.”

A little later I discovered he was not joking and I had perforce to apologise.

It transpired that when he was in South Africa he had fallen in love with a helper in the Salvation Army Canteen but she had insisted that he join the Army before she would consent to marry him.  He left us and entered the Training College in Victoria Parade.  When he was commissioned as an ensign in the Salvation Army he married the girl and his career was quite distinguished.  He was a very smart, alert fellow, a good sportsman and a Boy Scout leader.  He served at various times in London, Canada and South Africa, was in charge of Australian Salvationist Boy Scouts and at one time was Deputy Commissioner for the Salvation Army in Switzerland when he died in 1962.

 It is to be regretted that I did not keep a record of the Masters and officers of ships I have known, particularly when I was young.  One early recollection was of a group of Masters in the office.  They were Hoad, Farmar and Gilling and very awesome people to me.  Mr. Good was very methodical and had a passion for locking things in drawers.  He also had a passion for collecting stray pencils, rubbers, pens, rubber bands, scribbling tablets and locking them in certain drawers.  The Masters were always teasing him about the secret contents and one day the trio mentioned above found it was unlocked.  They proceeded to rat it and the old man's panic was terrific.  It's my first recollection of Bill Gilling and Stan Hayter.  The old faces coming back are Kearney (a broth of an Irishman), Fishwick, Mann-Hart, Lee, Jolly, Robinson, Compton, McCaw and a host of others but they were mostly very senior Masters and I was treated as a kid.  After 1925 when I was visiting ships I grew to know them better and I feel that as the years went on I became their friends.

The stayers remained unchanged until about 1937 with the exception of Laurie Ogilvie and Basil Plante who joined before that date.  Vic Gordon returned to the Merchandise Department when the war ended in 1918 but transferred to the Shipping Department about 1922.  He remained in charge of the outward freight until 1959 when he retired.

1115/8/1927 - personal views.