Babcocks: Regents Park, Brook House and Rex House
Except for a brief few weeks during the 1935 Christmas School holidays when I worked at Central Mangrove Packing Shed, I have spent all my working life with Babcocks. When I joined them in 1936 the Company was a Branch of the British Babcock & Wilcox Limited. Later, in 1948, it became an Australian Proprietary Company, Babcock & Wilcox of Australia Pty Limited and later still, in the 1960s, the name was changed to Babcock & Wilcox Australia Limited. Finally, in the early 1980s, the Wilcox was dropped and it is now known as Babcock Australia Limited. It is, and always has been, a subsidiary of the British Parent Company.
As I have earlier mentioned, I started as an Office Boy in June 1936 and soon became a tracer, spending my time (between errands, tea-making, filing and listing) on a drawing board tracing the drawings of others. The time came when I was entrusted with the preparation of drawings of my own and eventually with the preparation of cost estimates, specifications and the documentation associated with the marketing of the Company products, mainly boilers. Until then I had never thought of being an engineer, but I think I was suited to that discipline. It is a demanding profession requiring meticulous care and the greatest degree of perfection that can be achieved by its practitioners. My personal interests, however, were not confined to pure engineering and because of my other interests and aptitudes I was soon encouraged by my superiors to attend to the handling of catalogues and other literature, photography, assisting with the coding/decoding of cables and the preparation of advertising copy. Originally I had gained some aptitude in these matters by being willing to assist the man whose responsibility they were but who was a master at getting others to do his work for him. When he later joined the army I took charge of these affairs (except for cables for which an elderly man, Tom Featherston, was employed), fitting them in with my draughting and engineering responsibilities.
I had joined the 2nd Armoured Regiment of the army myself in July 1940, although I had not volunteered for overseas service. After some training we did a three month camp from February to May in 1941 at Glenfield where, as I have previously mentioned I also signed on my motorbike and became a Despatch Rider. The Unit was very inadequately equipped, as everything useful was allocated to the combat units overseas, and as I felt that there was no future for me in an Armoured Regiment, particularly as I had sold my motor-cycle, I applied for a transfer to a unit where my engineering background would be more likely to be useful. Instead of being transferred to the Royal Australian Engineers or something of the sort I was discharged from the Army and registered as being in a reserved occupation while employed at Babcocks who were engaged in the supply of essential plant, munitions and equipment for ordnance factories, food canneries, etc. I was happy to do this as I was not at all keen to undertake active service and believed I would be of greater use doing what I could for the war effort as an engineer. I was therefore rather surprised when, after having once been discharged from the Army, I was called up again in early 1943 and instructed to attend at the Merrylands Drill Hall. Jean and I had just been married and the last thing I wanted to do was return to an Army unit. So we were quite pleased at the result of my interview with the recruitment officer, which was to be again registered as a reserved occupation by the Ministry of Labour and National Service, Directorate of Manpower and instructed to remain in Babcock's employ while they continued to be engaged in defence and wartime contracts. In the meantime I had joined the National Emergency Service (N.E.S) and had, as the certificate I still have says, "attended a course of instruction in the duties of a warden and is considered competent to undertake such duties." Other than become acquainted with people in the area for which the warden was responsible and look out for breaches of the black-out regulations, we Wardens were not called on to exercise our duties in the western suburbs of Sydney.
One of the problems of working for private enterprise in a reserved occupation during the war was that, being unable to change one's job, there was little incentive for them to be generous with wages. In fact, the opposite was the case. After a while it got so bad that the draughtsmen working for several firms such as Babcocks, Clyde Engineering and Cockatoo Docks got together and formed The Australian Association of Draughtsmen. I think it was formed in mid-1942 and I took an active part in it. I was chairman of the Office Committee for a year in 1945-6 and active in committee work of the Association. The formation of this organisation, which was in effect a trade union rather than a professional association was to give us a little strength when negotiating with our Employers and in due course we applied for an Industrial Award covering wages and conditions. This was eventually granted, although I can't remember just when. I do remember, however, that I was classified as a Design Draughtsman and I received not only a useful increase in weekly salary, but was also paid for overtime worked. Previously we had only received a meal allowance when we "worked back" which was pretty frequently during the war and the early post-war years.
After the war was over Babcocks became just as busy in the post-war reconstruction of power stations and industrial concerns that had perforce been neglected during the war. The great problems were not so much in designing the plants required but in obtaining the essential materials, particularly steel and cement. Steel remained in short supply for many years and there was the ironic situation where we had to import not only steel but complete power stations from the United States to meet the electricity demands. Blackouts were frequent and Bunnerong Power Station was quite inadequate for the rapidly growing demand for electricity. Actually, there was the even more ironic situation before local steel supplies could meet the demands when we were importing huge quantities of steel from Japan (who had just lost the war) at about three or four times the cost of Australian steel.
During the war period, because of the need to increase the local content of Australian engineering projects and the diversification of the Company's activities, the management of Babcocks had significantly extended the Works at Regents Park as well as increasing the office space. Further expansion was planned immediately the war was over and at the same time the Management decided to look around for a suitable building in the City to purchase and use as a venue for the marketing and management areas of the Company which, ever since 1922 and all through the depression and then the war had been operating out of the office adjacent to the works at Regents Park. It was realised that Regents Park was a long way out of town for visitors and a lot of time was wasted by the Sales and Management staff getting in and out of town for meetings with City Customers. In any case, although extensions to the Office had taken place, accommodation was still very overcrowded. The problem was that after the war, office space in the City was in just as short supply as everything else. Also, because of the shortage of accommodation generally, there were regulations in force that prevented a landlord from terminating tenancies or putting up rents except on special grounds. This led to many abuses and a lot of difficulty in quite genuine cases. It also meant abuses such as the demanding of "key money" instead of increasing rents in spite of the premium people were becoming willing to pay to get hold of rented accommodation.
It was not until 1948 that the Company, after looking at many City buildings, settled on "Brook House" in O'Connell Street and bought out the Company that owned it. Then started the difficult job of getting some of the tenants out so that we could move staff in. One of the tenants that we were able to dislodge was called, if I remember aright, "The Australian Soviet Friendship League." This gave the Company enough space to move the Sales Manager, Spen Shirtley, and his Department from Regents Park to Brook House. We were all literally crammed into the very small space which was only half of the 4th Floor. We had hardly enough room to move. More space eventually became available and we were able to spread out a little, occupying part of the 3rd and 5th floors plus the basement. This extra space also allowed the Project and Service Departments to move from Regents Park to the City.
Early in 1949 I was given a promotion to the position of Sales Engineer and my salary increased to thirteen pounds ten shillings. This took me beyond the provisions of the Industrial Award, and although the Company still paid us for overtime it was at a reduced rate. This was a fairly good salary increase and helped Jean and me to cope with the pressures of bringing up our growing family. We already had two children, Judith and Philip and had just become aware that another was due the following August. Prior to this we had really been struggling financially and it was a nice feeling to be not only better paid but have a title to add to my name on a visiting card.
It was to be another nine years before I received another promotion, although the degree of responsibility I carried in my job increased very much during that time. When we first went to Brook House my immediate Senior was David McLaren. His position was Assistant Sales Manager and he continued to run the Sales Department for five or six years. But, rather tragically, he was becoming more and more under the spell of alcoholism and required a lot of time off work to dry out between bouts. His work suffered badly and eventually the Company retrenched him-a rather rare thing for the Company in those days. His position was temporarily filled by John Brennan who was a few years older than I but with less experience. He was never given a title but continued to supervise the Sales staff. However, he had little responsibility as far as my work was concerned because, by this time I was handling all the bigger projects and doing a good deal of the personal contact with the larger Clients such as B.H.P., A.I.S. and the Electricity Authorities. Because of my experience I was also responding to a good deal of the Information sought by our branch offices in Melbourne and Brisbane and our agents in Adelaide, Perth and Auckland.
One of the pleasant side-effects of the sacking of Dave McLaren was that his Secretary, Shirley Hollander, declined to work for his successor, John Brennan.
Rather than let her leave the Company, Spen Shirtley, the Sales Manager, asked her if she would be prepared to work for me as I had been pressing for my own Secretary, and she agreed. This was a very happy arrangement, not only because Shirley was a very capable stenographer and a very nice person, but because, having my own secretary I was able to improve my own work output which previously was often delayed because of having to wait for a stenographer or dictate into the primitive types of dictation machines then available or even have to write out things by hand and then wait their turn in the typing room. As previously mentioned, having Shirley as my secretary also resulted in widening my horizons in such things as serious music and the work relationship resulted in a firm friendship that remains to this day.
In mid 1958 John Brennan decided to resign from Babcocks and return to his home town of Brisbane. I was asked to assume the responsibilities he was relinquishing, which I was glad to do, as it meant virtually full control of the Sales Operation under the overall leadership of the Sales Manager, Spen Shirtley. John Brennan, as mentioned earlier, had never been given a title, which I had always thought strange as David McLaren had been Assistant Sales Manager. I have always been a bit title-conscious, I suppose, and so I asked for the same title as McLaren had, but Marshall Wilson who was then Managing Director said he wasn't having any more Assistant "this and thats" nor any more "Chiefs". So I ended up with the rather unsatisfactory title of "Senior Sales Engineer". Everything else, however was satisfactory. The staff seemed to welcome my appointment and there then ensued a very happy, although very busy time, for four and a half years until I was appointed to Queensland Manager. In that time we moved office from Brook House, which the Company sold, at a very nice profit, to Legal & General Assurance Co who, in turn soon sold it again at an even nicer profit to C.S.R. who needed temporary space while they rebuilt their headquarters on the corner of Spring and O'Connell Streets. Our new office was in Rex House in Kent Street and had the advantage, as far as I was concerned, of a car parking space in the basement. In those days it wasn't quite the hassle to drive from Parramatta to the City that it now is!
In late 1962 I was asked to take over as Queensland Manager In place of Eric Hardy. I was sorry in a way to leave the Sales Department but Spen Shirtley had another ten or so years ahead of him as Sales Manager and even then I wasn't sure if I would succeed to that position when he retired. So, in spite of having to leave family and friends, Jean and I set out on the adventure that was to be without doubt the happiest years of our lives. I will deal with those years in a later chapter, and simply record here that we arrived in Brisbane about the 20th January 1963 and I took up the position as from 1st February 1963. The office was at 108 Creek Street, Brisbane. I had a very different approach to the staff than my autocratic predecessor, but without exception the staff supported me and we were a very happy and effective team.