Who: Augustine Sim and her daughter Edith Bygrave (née Sim), together with Edith’s husband, Percy Bygrave, launched a clothing manufacturing company called ‘Simco’, presumably named after the Sims.
The firm later adopted a more evocative and streamlined name, Ponds, but for a time traded under both. They were also known as ‘Ponds Dress Factory’ and ‘Ponds Frocks and Coats’. Percy and Edith Bygrave continued to run the business after Augustine died in 1928, with Percy as managing director.
What: Ponds promoted themselves as a unique ‘manufacturer to wearer’ dress factory, meaning that customers could buy direct from the factory via mail order or by visiting their on-site showroom. In doing so, they effectively cornered all aspects of the ready-to-wear clothing business, with imports, manufacture, wholesale, and retail operating from the same site. Their dress factory was a big employer of local seamstresses, and one of only a handful of companies operating large-scale fashion manufacture out of Brisbane.
Where: The business started out in South Brisbane, opening at 250 Stanley Street and in 1927 moved down the road into the Watson, Ferguson & Co. (book publishing) factory at the corner of Stanley and Glenelg Streets.
In the midst of World War II, their production and showroom moved to Fortitude Valley, occupying the third, fourth, and fifth floors of the Overells department store on Brunswick Street—it was clearly a sizeable operation. They remained at this location until at least the early 1950s.
When: Simco registered as a limited company in 1922, though it’s likely they traded before this. We know that they re-registered both company names Ponds and Simco in 1948, and that they were trading at least until the early 1950s, but there is little record of their activities after this time.
Why: Ponds is one of the best documented examples of clothing manufacture in Queensland, but even so, there are many gaps in their story. What we do know about their operations during World War II, however, paints a fascinating and important picture of both business and fashion during wartime.
The activities of the Sim ladies were sadly overlooked by the press of their time, as they were surely interesting studies as manufacturing businesswomen of the early 20th century. On the other hand, Percy Bygrave’s work at Ponds gave him prominence in the community as an officer of the Queensland Chamber of Manufacture. His experience at the company no doubt helped his subsequent high-profile career as a prize-winning smallholder.
Ponds appeared to be a fair employer in what was often an unscrupulous and exploitative industry. Their classified ads for sewing machinists and hand embroiderers promised the ‘highest wages’, ‘steady employment’ or permanent positions, and ‘no Saturday work’. Bygrave was reputed to be a benevolent manager, giving wedding and parting gifts to female staff who left the company to be married.
Ponds managed to survive the Great Depression, which took a considerable toll on the manufacturing industry. Brisbane Lord Mayor William Jolly had claimed in a 1930 meeting of the Chamber of Manufacture (at which Bygrave was present) that while the depression looked grim, it may in fact present new opportunities to the Queensland manufacturing industry because “we are being forced, as far as possible, to produce and manufacture what formerly we imported”.1 Unfortunately, despite the combination of this upbeat sentiment and the Queensland Government’s protectionist policies towards local industry, the depression saw a critical state of decline in the manufacturing industry.
Having weathered this difficult period, Ponds would later be hit with a second blow, in the form of WWII. At this time, clothing manufacturing was severely challenged by fabric shortages and rationing. Ponds warned of uncertain supply and kept customers informed via advertising and catalogues what product lines they could continue to purchase with coupons. In 1941, they advised customers that they could no longer buy from the company. The entire output of their factory had been taken over by the U.S. Army as part of a war contract to repair uniforms.
Mending military uniforms was important and necessary work that often gets overlooked in heroic wartime narratives. But salvaging clothing became critical to the war effort as shortages and mounting expenses of uniforms became crippling. With raw materials in short supply, every scrap of fabric was repurposed. Old singlets became rags for cleaning machinery and guns; irreparable uniforms were used to clothe prisoners of war and refugee children. Newspapers claimed that salvaging clothing in this way saved a staggering £500,000 a year. Director of Army Salvage Major H. C. Snell declared: “It should be fashionable to have a patch on one’s trousers… If this were done, manpower and raw materials would be saved because a new garment would not be necessary. That is the story of salvage in a nutshell”.2
British, American, and Australian armies required more clothing than the armies’ own factories were able to supply, and decentralising the production of uniforms was necessary given the challenges of wartime transport. So civilian clothing factories scattered throughout Australia were contracted to manufacture and repair uniforms, often at the expense of their normal production.
The staff of Ponds had long demonstrated charitable interests and during the war they made numerous contributions to a variety of war funds and charities, in one instance sacrificing their Christmas party to make a donation. But it was likely good business sense and government policy (namely Australia’s agreement to supply U.S.A armed forces), rather than charity, that made the factory comply with the U.S. Army uniform repairs contract.
Secretary of the Contracts Board and Deputy-Director of Contracts Mr. F. A. O’Conner made an official inspection of clothing factories throughout Queensland, and highly approved of their operations and quality product. He noted how well-established the Queensland factories were compared to their counterparts in other states, and observed that some had already assisted in the previous World War.
Some newspapers made out that the Army contracts were a boon to Queensland’s clothing and textiles manufacture industry, claiming that the war meant that for the first time Queensland could ‘clothe itself’: “Just as the First World War gave a fillip to the State’s primary industries, so did the Second World War help to firmly establish the textile industry in Queensland. The textile industry in the last war was asked to help clothe the Australian and American armies. It responded magnificently”.3
There were many downsides to the Army contracts, however. The biggest was civilian clothing and footwear shortages, including undergarments, children’s clothing, and work wear. Some suggested that the contracts should be temporarily relieved so that civilian clothing shortages could be addressed. These shortages also lead to the appearance of sweat-shops around Brisbane. The Secretary of the Clothing and Allied Trade Union Mr W. Sparks observed that war contracts had caused factories to sub-contract to clandestine suburban operations, who exploited and underpaid junior workers.
Another drawback to the contracts was that factory workers weren’t recognised for their war efforts, in the same way that their more ‘glamorous’ and well-paid counterparts in munitions factories, for example, were. One clothing factory worker complained of the public shame associated with not having a badge, uniform, or other signifier of this wartime effort: “I haven’t anything to show I’m a war worker”.4
It wasn’t until the final year of the war—1945—that Ponds was partially released from their responsibilities to the American Army. While still continuing some war production, they told their customers that they were once again able to make “a few of those frocks you know so well”.5 After years of clothing shortages, we can only imagine that Ponds’ colourful frocks were enthusiastically welcomed.
- 1916 ‘Family Notices.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 4 February, p. 6, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20088332
- 1922 ‘Advertising.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 13 May, p. 11, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20545763
- 1922 ‘Advertising.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 9 November, p. 9, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20582691
- 1922 ‘TRADE AND FINANCE.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 18 October, p. 7, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article20578316
- 1927 ‘CITY COUNCIL.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 27 July, p. 19, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21865768
- 1927 ‘TRYING YEAR.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 19 October, p. 12, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21185299
- 1928 ‘Family Notices.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 31 March, p. 16, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21238559
- 1928 ‘SOCIAL.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 4 April, p. 23, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21239573
- 1937 – 1941. Ponds sales catalogues. South Brisbane, Qld. : Ponds. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.
- 1937 ‘MAN SENT TO PRISON FOR SIX MONTHS.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 29 October, p. 13, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37908573
- 1939 ‘CLOTHES FOR THE ARMY.’, The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1930 – 1956), 16 November, p. 45, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article70916967
- 1940 ‘ARMY CONTRACTS.’, Queensland Times (Ipswich) (Qld. : 1909 – 1954), 6 August, p. 4 Edition: DAILY., viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article114539155
- 1941 ‘CALL FOR WOMEN.’, Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 – 1954), 5 November, p. 4, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42317162
- 1941 ‘CHARGE OF SWEATING IN CLOTHING TRADE.’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), 1 August, p. 5, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56094314
- 1942 ‘AUSTRALIAN SUPPLIES TO U.S.A. FORCES.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 5 September, p. 3, viewed 12 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50141203
- 1943 ‘HOW CLOTHING SHORTAGE AFFECTS QUEENSLAND.’, Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton, Qld. : 1878 – 1954), 26 April, p. 3, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56145226
- 1943 ‘Out Of The Junk Heap Into The Firing line.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 12 April, p. 3, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42033492
- 1943 ‘U.S. Army Needs 1000 Workers.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 28 January, p. 3, viewed 12 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42033432
- 1952 ‘Advertising.’, Cairns Post (Qld. : 1909 – 1954), 10 May, p. 6, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42737839
- Queensland State Archives, 2015, Companies Index 1863-1959 O-Q, Series ID 18218, http://www.archives.qld.gov.au/Researchers/CollectionsDownloads/Documents/Companies-O_Q.pdf
- Queensland State Archives, 2015, Companies Index 1863-1959 R-T, Series ID 18218, http://www.archives.qld.gov.au/Researchers/CollectionsDownloads/Documents/Companies-R_T.pdf
- Undated. Pierce Collection (4934). John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland.