Vale Mr David Bird
It is with great sadness we farewell Mr David Bird, father of Peter Bird. David passed away peacefully on Friday 7th May at the age of 96. He will be dearly missed.
Thank you to all our customers for their patience and understanding at this time.
Below is a historical recollection from David himself written before his passing – a wonderful look into the history of the jewellery industry and everyday life during the war.
DOWN MEMORY LANE
My first recollection of the business of J. Bird & Son would have been in the very early 1930’s. The time of the Great Depression.. I would have been only about 7 years old at the time but because of my parents dinner time conversation my brother and I realized that things were not normal. At its peak the unemployment rate rose to 32%. What an environment to be manufacturing and selling diamond jewellery. Years later my father would tell me how he arrived home from one trip to the country where he would have visited around 15 towns and called on as many jewellery shops, and that he had made sales of only €20 ($40) for the whole trip.
But there were sales made, albeit that some of them were negated by bad debts. Looking through an old 1931 journal some of these defaults were remarkably small but there were others that would have caused severe pain. So there were many economies practiced in the running of the workshop and the office. I would see my father sitting at home at night doing the books with a list of expected expenses for the next few months and working out how some could be eliminated and others reduced. They were desperate times. He told me often about how, when the New Year started, all the desk calendars would be used again after the days had been altered to match the dates of the New Year. And of course many of these cost saving exercises were also enforced at home, particularly at meal times. If my brother and I didn’t like what was cooked for us we went without. At times my father would say “You can have bread and butter, or you can have bread and jam. But you can’t have bread, butter and jam”. But of course, there were many people worse off than us.
David and Peter were featured in an article in The Age in 1999
However as the country emerged into the middle and late 30’s business recovered. I used to come into the office in the school holidays and stand behind the jewellers to be fascinated by the way they produced the styles of the day. We had a team of highly competent craftsmen led by the kind, patient and gentlemanly foreman, Stan Owen. I would say that it was this period which grew our reputation as a high quality manufacturer and as a reputable wholesaler. It wasn’t just the integrity of the proprietors Leigh and Eric Bird, but also the integrity of the workshop staff who stayed true to the standard of work that they had been taught by Mr. Owen. I can picture all the workshop jewellers now, all of whom have passed away. To a small number of you, the names might be familiar. Jack Binks, Fred Heywood, Alf North, Frank McDonagh and two others whose names I can’t recall and two apprentices, Ron Fleming and Howard Blanchard. When Ron first came to be interviewed for his apprenticeship he gave his name as “Ronald Keith Alexander Grant Fleming”. And he had 5 brothers! But another terrible time for the business was looming. World War 2. Very early on, all non essential industries were closed down. Our older men were diverted to jobs where their skills were suitable. Many jewellers were employed by J & W Handley who changed from watch case making to work like instrument making, and other areas where precision was required. Eric Bird had been in the army in the First world war and joined the RAAF this time with a commission. My brother Jack trained as a navigator in Australia and Canada and became a member of the famous 460 Squadron flying Lancasters. He lost his life in one of the many night raids on Berlin. Jack Binks joined the army and became a coast watcher in New Guinea, living the dangerous life of a man operating behind the enemy lines. Ron Fleming also joined the army, and Howard Blanchard the RAAF. We vacated our 5th floor premises in McEwan House and took a small room on a higher floor, and I worked with my father during 1942 and in the November joined the RAAF and became a wireless operator ground-staff spending almost two years in New Guinea and islands further north.
Jewellers who were over 65 were allowed to continue their business throughout the war and each had a permit number which had to be stamped into their jewellery. Several of these older men had been outside workers for us for some years, so for them, nothing changed. Leigh Bird used their production to set up rings with whatever stones he could access. Throughout the war he made his business trips by registered mail, sending out rings to our customers without being asked, but whenever he could, and according to their buying volume that they had established before the war. This method of trading lasted until around 1947, when stock became more plentiful. When I think back now, what a sad and worrying time it would have been for my father, in the small office on his own, with restricted business, and his two sons away at the war. I returned to the business in 1946 and took over the book-keeping where my brother had left off, and began to learn the other aspects of the business. I studied at night and eventually qualified as an accountant, which no doubt pleased my father because he had left school at 12 years of age and learned his bookkeeping from a book called “Pitmans Bookeeping” By 1949 I began travelling and almost every customer I called on would express their gratitude for the way my father looked after them during the war.
Mr Bird marching on Anzac Day circa 2018
At that time, just three or four years after the war there was a real shortage of accommodation. What once were good or reasonable hotels in the country were now looking tired and run down. When you went to book a room you would find that they were fully booked or the only accommodation was a room to share. To share a room with an unknown person was not ideal and much less so when you were carrying a case of jewellery. But what to do? It was better than trying to sleep in your car.
So after accepting the offer I would usually go to the dining room, where in those days smoking was allowed, and I would look through the blue haze to see if I could guess who would be the co-occupant of my room to share. Would it be that person with the shocking smoker’s cough sitting at the next table? Or would it be the rowdy young man already showing he had too much alcohol? And sadly I was often correct, and I had to endure the delights of bedroom smoking or being woken by the late return of my room sharer.
Fortunately this state of affairs did not last forever. Soon there were motels offering accommodation which provided us with the privacy, security, off street parking and showers that flowed with steaming hot water. Not surprisingly these same motels which gave us these changes are now out of date and which are being demolished and enlarged or re-located.
Now I would like to tell you how we did a couple of everyday tasks, 70 years ago. The first is the way we bought our fine gold. Firstly I phoned up the mint and asked the gold price of the day and how much it would be for 10 ounces. Second, Leigh Bird would write a cash cheque for correct amount and I would go to the Head Office of the National Bank in Collins St. and collect the money. I would then walk up Collins St to the Reserve Bank and fill in a pay-in slip and pay the cash into the account of the Royal Mint. The teller would return the butt of the pay-in slip plus a receipt to show it had actually gone to the Mint’s account. Then I would walk up William St. to the Mint, and enter the building, where, because of the 16 foot ceilings my footsteps would echo as I walked over to the grill covered window. Without a word I would hand the receipt to the attendant and I would wait.. The doors of the strong-room would open and close and then I would hear the tinkle tinkle of the gold being poured into the pan of their enormous scales.
The attendant would then appear with an enormous copper trowel containing the gold and his job was done. No packaging or wrapping. I would then use a couple of those stout paper bags one got from the bank, carefully tipping the granules into the bags without spilling any. Then off l would go, hoping not to be robbed before I got to the office. Today we phone the metal company of our choice, and purchase gold in the carat we want and in the form we want—plate, tube or wire. Transaction complete!
Peter & David Bird operating J Bird & Sons at 343 Little Collins Street
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