Ponds

Women's clothing receiving the final touches at Ponds clothing factory, ca. 1945-1955 Women's clothing receiving the final touches at Ponds clothing factory, ca. 1945-1955

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.

Daughters of Augustine and John Sim, Edith Alice and Annie Sim, ca. 1907
Daughters of Augustine and John Sim, Edith, Alice and Annie Sim, ca. 1907. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 169672

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.

Ponds catalogue centrefold 1938.
Ponds catalogue centrefold 1938. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.

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.

Staff and managers attending a function at Ponds. Percy Bygrave is 3rd from right,  and on his left is Edith (Biddy) Bygrave
Staff and managers attending a function at Ponds. Percy Bygrave is 3rd from right, and on his left is Edith (Biddy) Bygrave. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190357

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.

Premises of Simco in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, undated
Premises of Simco in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, undated. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190361

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.

Ponds letterhead and logo. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.
Ponds letterhead and logo. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.

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.

Interior of Simco, South Brisbane, 1939
Interior of Simco, South Brisbane, 1939. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190359

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.

Ponds catalogue covers, 1937-1939. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.
Ponds catalogue covers, 1937-1939. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.

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.

Workroom of the clothing company Simco in South Brisbane, ca. 1925
Workroom of the clothing company Simco in South Brisbane, ca. 1925. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190368

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.

American Army correspondence with Ponds, 1945
American Army correspondence with Ponds, 1945. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.

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.

Ponds catalogue cover and wartime message, 1941. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.
Ponds catalogue cover and wartime message, 1941. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Photograph by The Fashion Archives.

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.

American Army clothing repair workshop no. 2 based at Ponds Fortitude Valley, 1942-45
American Army clothing repair workshop no. 2 based at Ponds Fortitude Valley, 1942-45. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190364

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

Workers mending American military uniforms at Clothing Repair Shop No. 2, Ponds, Brisbane, ca. 1944
Workers mending American military uniforms at Clothing Repair Shop No. 2, Ponds, Brisbane, ca. 1944. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190365

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.

Clothing repair workshop at Ponds, Fortitude Valley, 1942-1945
Clothing repair workshop at Ponds, Fortitude Valley, 1942-1945. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190366

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.

Interior of the Ponds Dress factory in Brisbane, ca. 1944
Interior of the Ponds Dress factory in Brisbane showing American military uniforms, ca. 1944. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190358

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.

Inside the workroom of the Ponds clothing company, ca. 1949
Inside the workroom of the Ponds clothing company, ca. 1949. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190367

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

Interior of Ponds frocks and coats shop on Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1949
Interior of Ponds frocks and coats shop on Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, ca. 1949. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190363

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.

Ponds dress factory, ca. 1948
Ponds dress factory, ca. 1948. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190360

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

Ponds staff seated at the tables during the Christmas party, undated
Ponds staff seated at the tables during the Christmas party, undated. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190369

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.

Staff of Ponds seated during a Christmas party, undated
Staff of Ponds seated during a Christmas party, undated. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland, Neg: 190370

References

This article was written as part of the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame Fellowship. A partnership between QUT Business School and State Library of Queensland.
11930 ‘”BIG HEART.”.’, The Brisbane Courier (Qld. : 1864 – 1933), 8 October, p. 15, viewed 9 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article21591783.
21942 ‘ARMY SALVAGE MAY.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 13 February, p. 5, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article50136906
31949 ‘Queensland will soon be clothing itself.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 25 April, p. 15 Supplement: QUEENSLAND INDUSTRIES, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article49684883
41943 ‘THESE GIRLS MAKE ARMY UNIFORMS.’, The Courier-Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1933 – 1954), 30 June, p. 5, viewed 13 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article42062691
51945 ‘Advertising.’, Dayboro Times and Moreton Mail (Qld. : 1937 – 1940; 1945 – 1954), 7 July, p. 1, viewed 12 January, 2015, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article163724563.