Australian women today are blessed with many more career opportunities than those of previous generations and it is not unusual to find them in senior managerial positions or on the boards of all types of companies.
Feminists may argue that it was largely their hard work that guaranteed these opportunities for their daughters, although historians may point out that it was a natural progression from the major political and social upheavals of two world wars as well as changing economic times.
However, if you were to ask any of them if they had heard of Oliver Gilpin and what his effect had been on the confidence and advancement of women, it is most likely you would be met with a blank expression, unaware of the debt we owe to his foresight and enterprise in employing women in positions of authority when such a thing was almost unheard of.
There is little legacy of Gilpin remaining today, apart from a few buildings in Melbourne, a couple of public drinking fountains and his name on a school dormitory and library. Perhaps only in some forgotten corner of a rural town in Victoria, Tasmania or the Riverina of New South Wales will one manage to spot a faded logo painted on a brick wall, or the cracked lettering “O Gilpin” still embedded in a pavement where it once graced the entrance of the town’s main store.
Oliver Gilpin believed that women were more reliable than men, that they had exceptional organising ability, and so all of his stores were run by women. He had no qualms about training them in salesmanship or promoting them to positions of power either and in 1930, at the beginning of the Depression, when many other stores were struggling or going broke, his were thriving with the five directors of his company listed as himself and four women.
|A full page advert from The Argus 1931|
A more cynical approach would be to say that Gilpin employed women because they were cheaper than men, and that would certainly have been true of the era. However, once trained, they were often paid more than men. In the late 1920’s, Gilpin’s were advertising for “female assistants to fill managerial positions” at the starting wage of £4.10s (plus commissions) - considerably more than many men could have hoped to have earned at the time.
Apart from his all-female board of directors, his company secretary was a woman, all his buyers were women, as well as his store managers. He also had other ideas that were radical for the time such as employee share and gratuity schemes, staff training workshops, company owned transports, a mail order service combined with a retail business, and even an ordered recycling of boxes and packaging.
Oliver Gilpin was born into a dairy farming family near Euroa, Victoria in 1874. At the age of 17, he joined a local drapery firm and then moved to Melbourne to further his career. Four years later, with some financial help from his father, he opened his first store in Korumburra, South Gippsland. Within a year, he had married his first wife, Anne, and set about buying other properties in the region.
Right from the start, Oliver’s intention had been to run a chain of drapery stores in country towns and he was to call himself “The Great Drapery Bargain Distributor”. In an advertisement announcing the opening of his new store he stated his motto (the first of many) as “Small profits and quick returns”. It was a policy that he maintained throughout his career.
Oliver soon expanded beyond drapery into general stores selling everything imaginable from broom-handles to blankets, petticoats to letter boxes. When the company celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary in 1931, there were 91 chain stores in existence across the country from Dubbo to Mt Gambier - and all managed by women.
The assistants had a strict dress code of wearing black and at a time when respectable ladies’ underwear was usually white, oyster or pink, they had to wear black - mainly so that when climbing ladders the glimpse of something white was avoided!
Like most people who ‘think outside the square’, Gilpin also had his eccentricities. While he was before his time when it came to trusting in the abilities of women and new marketing methods, he was also strangely old-fashioned in not rushing to embrace the latest technology such as cash registers or telephones. The shop assistants had to carry the cash in their special apron pockets - a risky occupation at any time - but he was also against credit. This latter fact may have helped to keep the O. Gilpin chain of stores afloat during the Depression years.
On the negative side, Gilpin had little time for government regulations or other authorities and there is no doubt if he had survived into the modern retailing era, he would have had violent clashes with trade unions over wages and conditions even though he had always paid his employees more than other store owners did.
He was also exceedingly fond of motivational quotes and had them placed in strategic positions around his factory and stores: “I lead, follow who can”; “Keep your mind on your job, otherwise you will find you have no job to keep” and “Initiative is doing the right thing without being told”.
Gilpin was certainly a man of contradictions. He may have been committed to equal rights for women on a professional level, but he seemed to have been a less so on personal level, having been married three times and divorced twice, reputedly putting his second wife out on the street with little warning in order to take up with the third, as well as rumoured to have mistresses on the side.
He was also reputed to be bigoted towards Catholics - not an unusual attitude in his generation and possibly as a result of his Northern Irish heritage. In his early stores, it was even said that he had a sign in his window that read: “Redheads and Catholics need not apply!” (An ironic twist is that, after Gilpin’s death, his mansion was bought by the Missionary Sisters of the Most Sacred Heart and turned into a Catholic nunnery.)
In his later years, Gilpin seemed to have lost his way. He started to spend more money on overseas travel, cars, and idle entertainments, and on building a lavish mansion perhaps rather appropriately called “Idlewylde” in the Melbourne suburb of Balwyn that included a ballroom, indoor swimming pool, conservatory, aviaries full of exotic imported birds, a lake with fish, even a windmill intended for self-sufficient water and power generation. However, the house remained unfinished when Oliver died in 1942 and he never actually lived there.
The business began to suffer when World War 2 broke out and the company was stuck with large quantities of stock bought from Japan - Gilpin’s having been one of the first Australian firms to have traded with Japan in large quantities.
Oliver had not provided for a proper successor. Without his strong hand guiding them, bickering broke out between the children and the directors. The time was ripe for a takeover, and this occurred in 1944 when the Melbourne company Foy & Gibson bought them out. They, in turn, were bought out by G.J. Coles & Co. Ltd. seven years later at a price of over one million pounds and it was then that the O. Gilpin chain of 91 stores finally disappeared off the map
Oliver Gilpin had strict rules of behaviour for his staff and some of his moralistic ideas seem quaint and highly restrictive by modern standards, especially considering his less than blemish-free private shenanigans. He could appear gruff and inflexible, but he also understood the importance of fairness and consideration in reward for duty and loyalty, and remained greatly respected by his staff. He was generous in giving references and farewell gifts, and his word was his bond.
The goodwill and camaraderie continued for many years after the sale of the stores and large staff reunions took place in towns around Australia, and some “Gilpin girls” still survive today although even the youngest will be edging ninety.
According to his grand-daughter and biographer, Muriel Perry, in accounts of her discussions with them, they all agreed that they benefited enormously from their association with Oliver Gilpin and his stores. At a time when many women were often still seen as second-class citizens, they were appreciated for their intelligence, for using their initiative, and ultimately they gained enormous self-confidence and reliance in their own abilities and, not least, they were trained in business and management skills that could be transmitted later into other areas of their lives. As wives and mothers, many of them became community leaders or otherwise involved in enterprises in their own right.
It is certain that they will have passed these attributes on to their own daughters, grand-daughters and great-grand-daughters and that has to be the most positive legacy of Oliver Gilpin.
* Headline announcing opening of O. Gilpin store in Shepparton, 1908
Acknowledgements - most of this information taken from:
“Just a Pocket For the Money - The Story of Oliver Gilpin and His stores”, Muriel Perry, 1995, Mansfield Newspapers, Molesworth, Victoria.
Not currently in print, the book is still available through various libraries. It is a fascinating historical record that contains photos of the family, the stores, advertisements and transport, and also has numerous images of the many women who worked for Gilpin.
A replica of Gilpin’s first store was the occasion of a celebration at Korumburra in 1993 at Coal Creek Historical Village.
|Normanby House, formerly Nyora|
His first home in the Melbourne area was “Nyora” in the suburb of Thornbury, now a wedding reception centre, and the Thornbury Bowls Club next door was founded by Gilpin in 1908 and still operates today.
|Kia Ora (demolished)|
His next house was “Kia Ora” in the suburb of East Malvern.
|The Connault, formerly Idlewylde|
“Idlewylde” his last unfinished mansion is now a luxury retirement home. The Art Deco interiors have been beautifully restored and maintained as can be seen from the virtual tour and galleries of images on the website.