Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Inside Gow's Drapery - the Gow Girls

The first trainload of migrants passing through Hamilton waved wildly to the crowds of spectators gathered along Beaumont Street. Men and women alike, the ‘new Australians’ stretched precariously out of windows the length of the train, as if they wanted to physically touch the people welcoming them. They were on their way from Newcastle to a migrant camp inland, thence to a job, and hopefully, a new and better life.

The staff from Gow’s Drapery had left their counters for a few minutes to join the crowds, and be part of history.

I heard about this excitement in Hamilton from four women who began their working lives at Gow’s Drapery in the 1940s – early 1950s. Within this brief window in their lives, between leaving school and getting married, ten young women forged lifelong friendships. Over more than 60 years, they have kept in touch, sharing life’s milestones, joys and grief. Now, just four of them remain.

(L-R) Val Kavanagh (nee Stewart), Gwen Fuge (nee Bailey), Phyllis Watson (nee Marks) and Joan Little (nee Watson)
The women meet each month for lunch in one another’s homes
Photograph courtesy of Aurora, Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle

Gow’s, on the corner of Beaumont and Cleary Streets, where a Discount Chemist now stands, was also known as Montrose House. In its hey-day in the 1920s, it rivalled even the city stores like Winn’s and Scott’s in its advertising and range of merchandise. One of the earliest department stores, Gow’s Drapery closed in the early 1960s.

Gow & Co. Store, Hamilton, NSW 15 August, 1898
Photograph by Ralph Snowball, part of the Norm Barney Photographic Collection, 
in Cultural Collections, University of Newcastle, NSW

I’d already written a post about ‘Fettercairn’, (the story is here) the stately home in Lindsay Street, Hamilton that Ramsay Gow had built in 1903 for his wife and large family. Nine of their twelve children survived, and Ramsay himself died in 1907.

It is said that Ramsay’s wife Frances (Fanny), daughter of a Maitland publican, was the driving force behind the store. I wanted to know more about the store itself – what it was like working there, what was sold, how staff were treated. Meeting these four wonderful women was my opportunity.

By the time our four women were starting work at Gow’s, the store owner was Mr Walter Gow, Ramsay’s son. The Manager was Mr Ray Hitchcock, fondly known as ‘Hitch’.

For decades, Gow’s had been a reliable source of retail employment for young school leavers, especially girls. Val lived around the corner, in Cleary Street, and actually ‘applied’ for a job. Phyllis lived in the same street as Mr Hitchcock. He’d known her growing up, and when she lost her job in town because she’d contracted measles, Mr Hitchcock invited her to join Gow’s.

Gwen’s mother shopped at Gow’s, supporting 7 children alone on meagre government Child Endowment payments. As soon as Gwen reached the legal school leaving age of 14 years 9 months, she left school and started work at Gow’s to help her family. It was 1947.

‘There was no interview’, confirms Gwen.

 For Joan, migrating from Wales as a young woman in 1952, it was her aunt who rang Gow’s and asked for a position for her niece. That’s how things were done in those days.

Today, walking into department stores David Jones or Myers, we are confronted with a glittering sea of cosmetic counters. I wondered what one saw first, walking into the ground floor of Gow’s?

‘Skeins of wool’, Phyllis replies. ‘A whole wall of wool’.

How priorities have changed.

Once the skeins were purchased, they had to be wound into balls at home before knitting could begin – a tedious task for which children were often enlisted to help.

On the left, the women remember, was the manchester counter – sheets, towels, blankets, quilts; on the right, haberdashery – all the things needed for home sewers. There was a long counter for measuring out fabric, one just for buttons and buckles, another for ribbons.

At the back of the store was the fashion – frocks, coats, hats, gloves, hosiery, handkerchiefs, underwear – with a girl in charge of each counter.

Val, and later Joan, both worked as cashiers in a wooden cubicle in the centre of the store, the cash tray in open view. Unlike the rest of the store, which had bare boards (‘I was shocked when I first saw this’, says Joan, fresh from Wales), the cubicle had linoleum to prevent the pennies shipping through the spaces between the boards.

Sales assistants did not handle cash. Instead, they wrote out a docket in duplicate for each transaction, placing it with the customer’s cash in a tube that whizzed on a high wire across the store to the cashier. The cashier would then place the correct change and one copy of the docket in the tube, sending it on its way back to the counter it had come from. For me as a child this fascinating activity took the boredom out of shopping with my mother in a similar store in Narrabri!

Staff worked a 48 hour week, extending until 9 pm on Fridays, and Saturday mornings.

The women tell me that Gow’s was ‘just like a big family – we were family’. Mr Gow came in every day at 10 am, and did his rounds of the counters. While Phyllis remembers being reported once to Mr Hitchcock by Mr Gow for ‘not smiling’, all agreed they had good bosses. Mr Hitchcock even attended a staff member’s wedding.

Wedding of Elva Roberts (10 November, 1951)
(L-R) Joan Pascoe, Dot Moore, Ray Hitchcock, Elva Roberts,
Gwen Bailey (now Fuge), Phyllis Marks (now Watson)
Photograph from the personal collection of Phyllis Watson

When each Hamilton business was asked to nominate a staff member to be its charity queen for the Hamilton Festival, and lead the fund raising for their chosen charity, it was Joan who was the lucky one.

Charity queens on stage at Gregson Park for Hamilton Festival c1953
Joan Watson (now Little), dark hair in the centre,
represented Gow’s Drapery
Photograph from the personal collection of Joan Little

Another important event on the girls’ social calendar was making their debut. Usually at the age of 17, girls attended a ball with their partners, making their first public appearance ‘in society’ as a young woman. It was their ‘coming out’. When I saw Gwen’s photographs of her debut at the Newcastle Town Hall, I asked whether there were any social barriers for girls wanting to do this.

‘Not at all’, she says. ‘We were very poor. No washing machine, no refrigerator, no vacuum cleaner. My father died aged 44. A very dear lady bought the material for my dress; a dressmaker made it up. We had a lot of help from so many beautiful people’.

Gwen Bailey (now Fuge) dressed for her debut c1950
Photograph from the personal collection of Gwen Fuge

As a child, Gwen remembers being told by her mother at meal times:

‘If I sit down without a chop on my plate, I don’t want any comment’.

When Gwen and her siblings were earning and saving, they arranged to have a washing machine delivered to their mother at home as a surprise. She sent the delivery driver away, declaring there was no way she could possibly afford to buy a washing machine. Of course, it was successfully re-delivered next day.

Easy credit for such purchases was unheard of. The first floor of Gow’s was ‘the office’ where customers went make their fortnightly payments against purchases ‘on lay-by’, or against their cash orders. Cash orders seem to be a type of loan system popular in the days before the advent of credit cards.

In time, Gow’s expanded into a building next door, which became the domain of menswear. The window displays at Gow’s were the highlight of Beaumont Street – Jimmy Canning, son of the family of Cannings Newsagents, was held in high esteem for his skills as a window dresser.

The voices of friends no longer present can still be heard as we chat in this New Lambton living room. Some of these had experienced working in Gow’s during World War II, when reels of Silko cotton were rationed. Others remember curtain material being used to make dresses as it was cheaper; short skirts were worn for the same reason. When nylon stockings were scarce, young women would colour their legs with a cream something like tanning lotion, and then use an eyebrow pencil to expertly draw a seam down the backs of their legs. What contortion – and excellent eye hand coordination - must have required!

It was marriage that brought an end to this happy period of independence for these young women, and opened the door to new life experiences. Post war, women in public sector jobs (including teachers), and in many businesses, had to resign from their positions once they married to make way for the returning men. Val married in 1951.

‘There was no sympathy’, she says. ‘I had to go immediately. They didn’t want to pay my next week’s wage’.

It was a Lord Mayor of Newcastle – no one can remember which one – who put his foot down. His recently married secretary was, he said, his ‘right arm’. He could not possibly do without her. So things began to change, and women found their rightful place in the workforce.

Reunion of staff from Gow’s Drapery, Waratah, probably May 1991
Photograph from the personal collection of Joan Little

Two other stories relating to this post are about the  Gow family and their stately home in Hamilton, 'Fettercairn.'


Thank you to Gwen Fuge, Phyllis Watson, Joan Little and Val Kavanagh for sharing their stories. Also to Cinzia Saccoro for putting me in touch with these women in the first place, and to Tracey Edstein, Editor, Aurora and Shirley McHugh, writer for Aurora.

If you can add details or images to this story, please email me at hiddenhamilton.com.au.

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