Chapter 15 - Business Ventures of Walter and Les Pegler
I have previously mentioned that Grandpa Walter Pegler's judgement was usually pretty sound in most things including financial investment. His judgement, however, was not so sound, (or perhaps it was overruled by filial loyalty) when he helped finance from his savings several business undertakings of his son Leslie, my Uncle Les. Les was a man of ideas (my Mother used to say too many for his own good) and started several commercial ventures which, one by one, (except, I think, for the last one) went to the wall. In the process, Grandpa Pegler lost quite a lot of money. The earliest I remember was an agency at Parramatta for Fiat Motor Cars. Grandpa never drove anything else and kept his last one, a 1924 model, I think, until about 1942 when conditions during the war persuaded him it was not worth keeping a car any longer. I think the Fiat agency went “phut” in the late 1920s probably because of the Depression.
All the things that Uncle Les then undertook I do not know, but one of them, which he lost or had to sell because of inadequate capital involved the publishing, during the depression years of a free newspaper called “The Advertiser”. I think he ran it from a small office behind the Granville Cinema. It is still being published by Cumberland Press! I was at Parramatta High School and living with Grandpa Pegler at that time and I recall how concerned he was about the difficulties Uncle Les had to make ends meet and how he was ruining his health with the hours he spent drumming up business for the little free paper.
Later Uncle Les formed a company to make and market safety and ornamental glass which he called “Laminex”, the company being called Laminex Pty. Ltd. (The name “Laminex” was later used, of course, to market the well-known sheets for finishing furniture and table tops, but that had nothing to do with Uncle Les, as far as I know.) Laminex Pty Ltd was a successful venture at first and when, in 1936, Dad and Mum came down from Kulnura to live at Parramatta, a significant reason for giving up the farm was that Uncle Les had offered Dad a job in his new firm. Grandpa (Walter Pegler) left among his papers a share certificate for 2498 fully paid up shares in Laminex Pty Ltd, and I have no doubt that this represented the greater part of Grandpa's assets.
Things apparently went well in the post-depression years of 1936 to 1938 but then problems set in. The basis of the safety glass was very similar to that used today in laminated windscreens, that is, two sheets of glass glued together. This was before the days of super-adhesives with which even aeroplanes are today glued together and Uncle Les used a compound of gelatine as the adhesive. The problem was that after a couple of years the gelatine oxidised and the glass went blotchy yellow, especially around the edges. They also made sheets of glass glued to wood veneers for covering walls. It looked like very highly polished wood with lovely rich colours. It was installed in the foyers of several theatres including a new one at Kings Cross. But these oxidised too, and were soon very scrappy looking and had to be replaced.
So the Company languished. In some of the papers left by Grandpa there are receipts for several amounts lent to Laminex Pty Ltd “on call, at 5%” in late 1938 to help pay the staff. My Dad was still working for the Company at this time and I recall that after most of the Staff had been dismissed he and Uncle Les slaved together to keep things going and improve the product which had shown so much promise until the oxidation problem appeared but for which a way of sealing it proved so very elusive. Eventually a Receiver, G.A. Blackett, Esq was appointed and the Company put into liquidation in early 1940.
In the meantime Uncle Les had been busy inventing more things and had a patent on a clothes washing machine (Commonwealth Patent No 2847 of 23/6/39) and formed another Company, Metered Washing Machines Pty Ltd to exploit what looked like a good idea. In an effort to rescue the fortunes of Laminex Pty Ltd he gave them a conditional manufacturing and marketing licence which they failed to exploit, probably because Uncle Les had lost control of the Company when the Receiver/Manager took over, coupled with the fact that there was a war on and most people were too poor to even think about buying a washing machine. It was also a decade or two before its time. Not many people had even a refrigerator in those days.
In 1940, in an effort to save something from the wreckage, a Company called Pegler Holdings Pty Ltd was formed with Grandpa as Trustee. By this time Uncle Les had a patent on a water-closet cistern flushing valve. It was extremely simple and worked very well (I remember seeing a prototype and it was rather like an old-fashioned “dipper” which was inverted over the top of the outlet pipe and formed an air seal until it was tipped over on its side by “pulling the chain” thus allowing the flushing water to empty into the toilet bowl.) He had ambitions of marketing this too, but there was difficulty in getting the Water Board to approve it and I think the idea was dropped as the war overtook such good ideas.
Uncle Les, however, was most anxious to retain the potential of his patented washing machine. So he arranged for Pegler Holdings and another new company he had formed called Vitrik Wall Tile Co (as an alternative to his Laminex sheets for wall tiling) made an offer to the Receiver/Manager of Laminex Pty Ltd to purchase its assets for £1158, 300 of which were to be payable on settlement and the balance at £25 per month. Grandpa was the Trustee of these Companies, but all the arrangements were made by Uncle Les who was not only trying to save the results of all his ideas and hard work, but also the money he and Grandpa and others had put up from time to time. Grandpa seems to have invested all his savings in these ventures to help his ingenious but unlucky son, but to no good purpose, because he apparently lost heavily.
Early in 1940 Dad, who had been working with Uncle Les's Company for nearly four years on labourer's wages, and sometimes without pay, was put off. I remember how upset he was when he arrived home from work, as near to tears as I have ever seen him. He was then just over fifty years of age, had lost his beloved orchard three years before, and was now out of work. Certainly the war had started, but the effects had not yet created the full employment that later followed. The only other time I had seen Dad upset when arriving home from work was when someone had stolen his suit of clothes which were hanging in a change-room at work, and he had to come home on the train in his rather grubby work clothes!
Mum didn't despair, however, and she carried on with the management of her family with the small amount of board I was paying while living at home, some financial help from Grandpa Pegler and the little Dad was to earn doing odd jobs, including the painting of cottage roofs with a product called Sealcote made by F.W. Lester Pty Ltd that shared premises with Laminex Pty Ltd and for which Dad was appointed a resale agent. He sold most of the paint to himself for his own jobs and for doing the roof-voluntarily-of the Granville Methodist Church. Sealcote, incidentally, was a very effective roof, guttering and water-tank waterproofing compound made of bitumen impregnated with asbestos fibres. A sheet of canvas soaked in Sealcote and laid over large holes in corrugated galvanised iron roofing or in rusted guttering would last for years and years and was a lot cheaper than replacing the rusted material. It came in several colours including red and two shades of grey. Because of the asbestos fibres it would, however, be banned today. In any case, I think F.W. Lester went out of business during the 1939-45 war. After this period of unemployment Dad was successful in July 1940 in obtaining a position at the Rydalmere Mental Hospital, about which more shall be said later.
Getting back to Grandpa Pegler, it seems that in the process of trying to extricate himself from the difficulty, Uncle Les formed, with the help of some business associates as backers, another Company in late 1940 called Pegler Patents Pty Ltd. An offer was then made to this Company to sell it “the whole of the interests in the Commonwealth of Australia and elsewhere covering the apparatus known as the Norford Washing Machine for £2500”. This was the face value of the shares Grandpa had in the original Laminex Pty Ltd. This was apparently accepted but without any noticeable increase in Grandpa's bank balance. Prior to this a Company, Norford Company Pty Ltd had been formed to which the rights were assigned but never registered and therefore lapsed.
At this stage things seemed to be getting desperate and Uncle Les was getting Grandpa to sign all sorts of agreements aimed at marketing the washing machine. Papers in the bundle refer to the “new Company Taxation” and “the possibility of the profits in Norford Company Pty Ltd being very high in proportion to its paid up Capital resulting in heavy taxation.” (In the event, there were, as far as I can see, no profits!) A Syndicate was being formed to avoid this possibility and there was talk by their financial advisers of passing cross-cheques (which Uncle Les said he “couldn't see achieving the desired result”), of amending certain minutes and even of rewriting all of the minutes from the beginning! The last papers on this subject in the small bundle that Grandpa left in his writing case are a letter dated 3rd February 1941 from the Receiver for Laminex Pty Ltd asking what arrangements are being made to finalise the arrears of the consideration moneys for the assets sold to Vitrik Pty Ltd, and a receipt dated 4th July 1941 for £20 lent to Pegler Patents Pty Ltd on unspecified terms.
I am glad that Grandpa hadn't mortgaged his home to raise any of the cash invested by him in these ventures as we Hunts were living with him at the time and we may have ended up without a roof over our heads. However, it does appear that, years before, in 1925 in fact, Grandpa did sell for £281 and 5 shillings a block of land he owned in Brisbane Street, Granville when the Fiat Agency looked like a good investment proposition. And it might well have been, because I don't know where else Grandpa would have accumulated the funds that were later eaten up by Laminex. After all, £2500 would have represented something like five years salary in those days, or the value of a very nice house. There is also the possibility that at least some of the money wasn't Grandpa's at all and that he was being used as a “dummy” for an undischarged bankrupt or the like, but I don't think so.
It is pleasing to recall that after so much hard work and so many efforts to use his inventiveness, Uncle Les's last venture was apparently a greater success. He took a controlling interest in a very successful little company specialising in repetitive engineering, milling, turning etc. It was Malvern Engineering at Parramatta near Rosehill Racecourse.
So much for Grandpa's efforts to help Uncle Les develop his inventive talents.