Wednesday, June 8, 2011

H. F. Smith (1862 - 1948)

      How transitory is earthly renown! My paternal grandfather was a wealthy and prominent citizen of Brisbane, and his shop a major city landmark for more than half a century, but now both have been completely forgotten. Perhaps this blog will rectify the situation to some extent.

      Harry Frederick Smith was born in Middlesex, England on 3 December 1862 to Richard Smith, the foreman of a glass warehouse, and his wife, Emma née Goodwin. It is possible that his first name was actually Harold. His father died in England, and his widowed mother brought her children out to Australia on the Woodlark in 1875. Of course, it is impossible at this distance to guess her motives, or why she chose Brisbane - which was not exactly the centre of civilisation in 1875. The semi-tropical climate must have come as a bit of a surprise. Harry was totally unimpressed with the first banana he ate. It was only later that he was told the skin needed to be removed first.
    Probably Emma hoped that there were better prospects in Australia for a family without a male bread-winner, but the situation must have been pretty grim. It is said that she kept the wolf from the door by sewing. Also, it is likely that his late father's title of glass warehouse foreman suggests a higher status than it actually entailed. Family tradition has it that the children, and possibly the mother, were illiterate. Some women in Brisbane taught him to read and write, and sent him to school. On Sunday he used to read the Bible to his mother's friends.
    At some point, he gained a position with C.A. Brown, jeweller, whose shop stood on the north side of Albert St, between Elizabeth and Edward Sts, approximately where Albert Lane now debouches onto the footpath, and from him he learned the skills of jeweller and watchmaker. Later, he was also able to add optometry to his repertoire.
    Then, on 16 July 1890, he married 22-year-old Amelia Skelson, a Grafton-born beauty employed decorating cakes for the Hirons, then well-known biscuit-makers in Toowong. Grandma's own family background was rather interesting. She was said to have been a kind lady, who gave money to the needy, and would lend a coat to a maid going out for the evening. From this union came eight children: Millicent (1891), Harold Flood (1893), Harry (1894), Ruby (1896), Victor (1899), Beryl (1902), and lastly, my father, Syd in 1906.
    Millicent contracted polio at the age of two, and was left partially lame. Much to the envy of some of her schoolmates, she used to be driven to school by the family's groom. Harold Flood acquired his unusual middle name by virtue of being born at the height of the Great Brisbane Flood, which required his father to row the doctor and midwife to the home. The day before he was born, the river reached its peak of 23 ft 9 in [7.24m] above the mean spring tide level - far worse than the floods of 1974 and 2011. Unfortunately, he lived only 50 days. We tend to forget how high the infant mortality rate was in those days. His brother, Victor survived only 15 days. And Beryl was only 23½ when she passed away. We Smiths either died young or married late, and those eight children produced only seven grandchildren.

 Smith's Corner
    In 1893 Grandpa lost, not only his son and heir, but also his job. After the devastation of the flood, Charles Allen Brown could no longer keep him on. In fact, he had gone bankrupt, owing what was then the exorbitant sum of £5,000. In response, Harry Smith took the bold step of striking out on his own and setting up business on the corner of Queen and George Streets, opposite the Treasury Building, which now contains the Treasury Casino. Smith's Corner, as it eventually came to be known, soon expanded to cover the whole corner of that block, and became a landmark which the Brisbane City Council still quotes as an example of verandah signage. Bearing in mind that he was dealing in what are essentially luxury items, that the population of the whole of Queensland was only 500,000 at the time of Federation, and that a recession hung over the last years of the 19th century, he must have been a superb businessman. By 1900 he had already opened further branches in both Ipswich and Toowoomba.
    Harry Smith had "arrived", and in 1901 he celebrated by commissioning portraits of his three daughters by the state's leading painter, Oscar Friström. As explained in an earlier post, the 50 guinea fee for each of them would have represented six to twelve months' wages for his staff. One of these paintings is now in the Queensland Art Gallery, one is in Newstead House, and the other was destroyed.
    In 1906, he opened another branch at 480 George St, Sydney. This was some months before my father was born, which was why he was named Sydney George Smith. Over the following years, the outlying branches were gradually closed as being too much trouble, leaving Smith's Corner in Brisbane as the jewel in the crown.    
    Here is a postcard of it, from 1916. And thereby hangs a tale. For as long as I could remember, a set of small family photographs stood on the mantelpiece, or in the display cabinet, at home, and one of these was a photograph of Aunt Beryl, my father's sister, who died in 1925. For some reason, my mother never removed it after she became a widow, even though she had never met Beryl. When I finally took possession of it, 35 years after my father's death, I removed it from its frame and - lo and behold! - there was the postcard underneath. My father had never mentioned it; he probably never knew it existed. Not only that, but the writing on the back revealed that it had been sent to 14-year-old Beryl from Egypt, by a friend in the A.I.F.
     I also possess two other documents from my father's estate, one of which is enigmatic. They are certificates from the Queensland branch of the Church of England in the same standard format. One is straight forward, and states that my father was baptized on "1A:VI:07", which I suspect means 14 June 1907. However, the second declares that Harol [sic] Frederick Smith had been baptized in infancy, was confirmed in the High School Chapel Southport, Queensland, and had his first communion on Advent Sunday 1908. This would have been the appropriate age for my Uncle Harry to have been confirmed, and he did attend The Southport School. However, his middle name was Goodwin, not Frederick. Also, it seems strange that this document would have ended up in my father's possession. I think it really refers to my grandfather, who apparently decided to get confirmed late in life, at the same time as his son.
     If Harry was actually short for "Harold", this would make sense of two other facts. His first son was named Harold F. Smith, and when he died, the next was called Harry. This sounds like a determined attempt to perpetuate the patriarchal name.


   The broken half-photo at right is the only picture I have of my grandmother. Unfortunately, in 1909 Harry and Amelia were estranged. Why, no-one can say. "Who knows," said the Roman sage, "where the shoes pinches but the wearer?'
    The story I heard from my mother - and therefore third-hand - was that Grandpa informed his lawyer that she "wasn't a wife to me" (whatever that means). In those days, you needed a good reason to get a divorce, and public opinion held he institution of marriage in high regard. The lawyer flatly refused to get involved. Eventually, he found another lawyer to serve divorce papers on her. However, when he knocked on the door, it was answered by one of the older girls, and a small tribe of children were playing all around. His immediate reaction was: "What's this nonsense about not being a wife to him?" and he promptly made his departure.
    The rumour also had it that he was interested in another woman at the time, but I don't know what to make of it. If it were true, it is surprising she never made an appearance anywhere else in the story. Also, if he wanted to marry his mistress, settling for a legal separation rather than a divorce would be pointless, so I can only assume that their differences were more fundamental. In any case, it was arranged that Amelia would go to live in Sydney on an allowance. The fact that she was prepared to leave her six children behind should tell us something, but at this distance I can't say what. The tragedy, of course, was that my father hardly knew his mother, whose role had to be filled by a nursemaid and his sisters, especially Ruby. I find it terribly sad that, when he filled out his own marriage license application in 1947, his mother was recorded as Millicent Kelso. He didn't know his own mother's name!
    Nine or ten years later, the couple were reconciled, but by then she was sick. She passed away on 1st August 1919 at St Helen's Hospital. Aunt Ruby specifically remembered that a mysterious knocking occurred in the room that day, and the nurse commented, "It won't be long now, Ruby. Someone's come to take her." (The same "someone" also knocked six years later, just before Beryl died.)
    In later life, Harry married his housekeeper, Emma. It is recorded in his prayerbook, used at the service, that it took place on 12 February 1927 at St Michael and All Angels Church at New Farm. However,of this second marriage I know nothing, except that she was very unpopular with all the rest of the family. Apparently, he too found her a source of irritation, for he called her, "my blister". She appears to have predeceased him.

At Home with the Smiths
    The family seems to have moved around a bit. When first married, he was living at a place called the Ironside Estate, Toowong, and their first child was born there. (An old house with a veranda at 62 Ryans Rd, St Lucia, was once pointed out to me as the original home. It was part of Toowong at the time.) Harry Jr, Ruby, and possibly Dorothy were born at St Lucia. Then, towards the end of the century, they moved to Kangaroo Point. To quote a local historian:
In Shafston Avenue a two-storied wooden dwelling built by Mr. Pearse, afterwards owned by H. F. Smith, jeweller, and later by Major Carter, son of Hon. A. J. Carter, became the Women's College of the University, with Miss Freda Bage as Principal.  [p 609]
    I therefore conclude that it stood close to the present site of the University of New England Shafston, and that it no longer exists today. It was not a mansion; they were rich, but not millionaires. But the big house on Kangaroo Point is remembered as a buzzing beehive of children, servants, and pets. To tend the household they had a housemaid, a nursemaid (for my father), a cook, a groom, and a gardener. Even so, Harry insisted that his unmarried daughters take off one day a week from the shop to practise housework "in case you marry a poor man" - which, in fact, is what they all did.
    Then there was Willy, an affable houseboy in his late teens who was mentally retarded - the sort one would send out to buy some striped paint. Probably he suffered from Down's syndrome, for he had a speech defect, as in his oft-quoted description of his inability to catch a tram to Fortitude Valley: "The quam was full up to the quop, and I had to walk all the way to the Balley."
    Amelia possessed two black horses, Harry a piebald horse. A sequence of possums were converted into household pets, for in those days there was no law against keeping native animals. Nor exotic pets, for that matter. Readers of the old Ginger Meggs comics will remember that the eponymous hero had a pet monkey. The Smiths owned three - probably not all at the same time. No doubt they were Latin American capuchins, the standard organ grinder accessories at the time. They must have made life rather interesting, not only by their normal inquisitive and mischievous nature, but also because nobody has ever succeeded in toilet training a monkey. When my father was a baby, the resident monkey purloined his bracelet, then scampered up to the chandelier where, with the household clamorously trying to coax him down, he swallowed it. The little rascal also got his bottom smacked for stealing my father's milk, left out in a bottle to cool.
    The final anecdote I was told concerning the monkey was its run-in with poor Willy. In those days, the city was not sewered. Even the rich were required to repair to a wooden hut in the back yard. Once a week, an honest workman, considered to be of even lower status than the garbage collector, would open a flap in the rear, remove the full pan, and replace it with an empty one. On this particular occasion, Willy entered the outhouse without realising that the lavatory man had not yet inserted the empty pan, and the flap was still open. This was too much of a temptation for the monkey, and its encounter with the trousers-down Willy is best left to the imagination.
    As can be seen from the cartoon below, by 1915 the family had moved to West End. Later, he purchased one of two identical houses standing side by side in Clayfield, owned by two sisters. Now, Harry Smith had no sense of direction; it was said he could get lost walking around the block. Also, in those days (long past!) householders did not feel the need to lock their doors. One day, he walked inside, put down his stick, sat down at the table, and enquired about dinner. Much to his surprise, it was not Mrs Smith who answered, but Mrs Peters. He had gone into the wrong house!
What Was Harry Smith Like?
From Queenslanders  As We See 'em (1915)
by the Newspaper Cartoonists' Association of Queensland
    Well, on the one hand, he was the archetypal English gentleman: dressing for dinner, using a walking stick when going for a stroll, belonging to all the right clubs and societies (as shown in the cartoon). In his professional capacity, he successfully agitated for a bill to require the registration of optometrists.
   At the Tattersalls Club he consorted with Sir James Blair, MP and High Court judge, who "helped him spend his money". (Out of respect for his descendants, I shall forbear to tell what I heard about Sir James.) He also used to gamble at cards with Archbishop Sir James Duhig, who would lose with the words, "Don't worry, I'll get it off my parishioners."
    It is interesting to note that, although my mother, who was a country girl, always called her father "Dad", I never heard my father refer to his dad as anything but "Father".
    Nevertheless, it was generally agreed that he was selfish. "I think," said my father, "that he became selfish as he grew older, and he realised how his money could influence people." Certainly, it seems incredible that  his younger son would have entered the trade of pastry cook. I can't complain, because it was a path which eventually led to his meeting my mother, but just the same . . . "I should have done more for you, Sydney," he admitted to him shortly before he died.
    At the same time, probably because he had risen from the ranks, he was a supporter of unions (but not necessarily the Labor Party) because "they were all the working man has to protect him." Also, he was completely free of snobbery. As I said, he had no sense of direction. Once, after going astray, he hitched a ride home on the garbage truck, or lavatory truck, I forget which.
    My father also related how, as a teenager or young man, he and his father were going for a stroll, dressed as toffs (how else?), when they encountered the garbage man. Grandpa struck up a conversation with him, and turned into the pub with him for a drink. After they had gone their separate ways, Dad, who had been brought up with money, made some negative comment about the sort of friends his father mixed with. "Listen here, Sydney," his father rebuked him, "if it weren't for people like Mr. X buying my watches and jewellery, you wouldn't be wearing those fine clothes you've got on."

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
     Of course, all good things come to an end. On Monday 30 August 1926, on page 6, The Brisbane Courier carried the following item:
Smiths Leave Their Corner.
     The Smiths have gone from Smith's corner, one of the best known meeting places in Brisbane, and at the departure of the genial H. F. Smith, the jeweller, from the famous corner shop at the intersection of George and Queen streets, there will be many regrets. Mr. Smith shut up shop on Saturday after having occupied the premises for 35 years [sic]. Coming as a boy for 13 from England he entered the jewellery trade in Brisbane, and later started out for himself at Smith's corner. He has seen Brisbane blossoming into a great city, and no citizen has been more keenly interested in its growth than he. In later years he was assisted in the business by his daughter, Miss Ruby Smith. In a chat recently Mr. Smith said that the break would be a big one for him, and that beyond knowing that he woud take an extended holiday he was as yet uncertain of his future intentions.
    He was a few months off 64, and no doubt felt it was time to retire. Apparently, one of things he did during his "extended holiday" was remarry 6½ months later.
    I once asked my Aunt Ruby ("Miss Ruby Smith") how Grandpa lost his money. She told me that he had made a fire sale of his assets, contrary to her advice, which was to continue the business. I always assumed that this was during the Great Depression, when the bottom would have fallen out of the market for luxury items like jewellery, or even watches. However, now it appears he closed down three years before the onset of the Depression.Why? Why did he not continue the business under a manager (? Miss Ruby Smith) and retire on the profits? My guess is that he simply decided that living off the proceeds of the sale, plus his saving, would make better financial sense to himself, irrespective of the interests of his family, or his now unemployed staff. (I told you he was selfish.)
    How the company would have borne up under the Depression is anyone's guess but, in any case, that was the end of the family fortune. There was certainly nothing left for the heirs, who would have to shift for themselves.
    But it was not the end of Smith's Corner. The name remained on the building for another thirty years - long enough for me to view it as a little boy. Only with the remodeling of the city in the 1960s did the last traces of the shop disappear.
    Nor, surprisingly, was it the end of his working life. He simply shifted to a more modest office on the first floor of the Hibernian Building in Adelaide Street, where "H. F. Smith, Optometrist" became a feature of the landscape until the first couple of years of the war. He must have been close to 80 when he quit. When my cousin, Joyce, was a little girl she used to stop at his shop on the way back from her domestic science class and present him with the scones she had just baked, and for which he gave her a threepence. She remembers him as "a lovely old man". "Very charming", said my mother. He eventually succumbed to stomach cancer on 5 October 1948, just two months off his 86th birthday. None of his offspring were to last so long.
    I was born with a tarnished silver spoon in my mouth: a lower working class boy whose family had once been wealthy. I also arrived eight months too late for our lives to overlap, so I never met "Grandpa Smith", as he was known. However, I grew up listening to stories about him, and the days of the family's past glory, and I wrote them down while those who knew him were still alive. But I never heard from either my father or his siblings any words of regret or resentment at the way fate had unceremoniously dropped them from their former station in life, nor I was brought up to think that it mattered. From shirt sleeves to silver tails, and back to shirt sleeves in one lifetime, my grandfather cut his own way through life. The same should be good enough for his grandsons.