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JOHN DANKS & SON PTY LTD, LARGE HARDWARE BUSINESS, SYDNEY & MELBOURNE

This unusual ‘SPECIMEN’ advertising cover has two red boxed John Danks & Son Pty Ltd/ SILENCE SPELLS SECURITY advertisements, one of which was inverted, POSTAGE PAID 1½ AUSTRALIA on the upright example, and POSTAGE PAID 2½d AUSTRALIA on the inverted example. It was not sent through the post but has a CASTLEREAGH ST/ 18 VI 42/ N.S.W. cancellation. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).

This major firm has existed for a century and one of the firms Engineers’ Tool Catalogue is shown, with their main branches in Sydney and Melbourne (Figure 2).

A picture of the large Sydney building created by Arthur G. Foster is seen in Figure 3.

John Danks (1828-1902), businessman, was born in January 1828 at Wednesbury, Staffordshire, England, the son of John Danks, a wrought iron and gas tube manufacturer, and his wife Hannah, née Hickman. At 8 he was apprenticed to his father but finished his training with another firm and then joined his brothers, Samuel and Thomas, in starting an iron and tube works in Wednesbury.

In 1857 the brothers and their families arrived in the Shaftesbury at Melbourne. After several unsuccessful ventures the brothers became hardware manufacturers, dealing 'in nearly everything suitable for plumbers, engineers, gasfitters and water supply'; one of their first jobs was the manufacture of pipe connexions for the Yan Yean, Vicroria water supply. In 1860 Thomas retired and the firm continued as J. & S. Danks until 1871 when Samuel retired. The next twenty years brought rapid expansion: branch shops were established in Sydney and in Christchurch, New Zealand; John's son, Aaron, became a partner and in 1885 started a brass foundry in England; Danks won prizes at the Philadelphia, Sydney and Melbourne International Exhibitions. The number of his employees grew from 35 to 150 and his contemporaries attributed his success to his being 'just the man for the time', one 'whose business was continually enlarged by the demands of a growing city'. Danks believed more in his own ability and in the beneficial effects of the tariff which he had forcefully advocated when the question was vital to manufacturers. In September 1874 he had helped to form the Manufacturers' Association and next year called the meeting from which the Protection League developed; Danks became president of the Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) branch.

The first serious check to Danks's success was the depression of the 1890s; by the end of 1892 the sheet lead mill was idle and 1894 brought a £1503 deficit. Danks was severely shocked but his son would soon write, 'my father has quite pulled himself together again and looks as well as ever'. Indeed, in that year manufacturing was started in Sydney, to the annoyance of their Melbourne rival, John McIlwraith with whom, however, they reached an agreement. In 1896 Danks won the contract for the City of Melbourne sewerage and two years later it was still making up for the decline in ordinary business. By 1900 he had 200 employees and a capital of £300,000.

Danks was a member of the Emerald Hill Council in 1871-80 and was mayor in 1874-76; he was painstaking in his efforts for the ratepayers. In 1877 he unsuccessfully contested the Emerald Hill seat in the Legislative Assembly. He was a founder and director of the Australian and European Bank and a commissioner at the 1888 Paris Exhibition. Deeply religious, he was active in the Methodist Church and a Sunday school-teacher for thirty years. He gave £3000 to the Cecil Street Wesleyan Church, supported many charities and hospitals, and towards the end of his life marked each birthday by giving away £100.

A charming man of slight build, Danks was little changed by success. In his few years of semi-retirement he was happiest at his turning lathe, explaining 'I was always a mechanic and all my people before me were mechanics . . . [there are] few better mechanics here than myself'’. He loved his garden and enjoyed music, being able to 'knock out a tune on almost any instrument'. He filled his house with paintings (he gave £100 to the Wednesbury Art Gallery) and his fine library included many books on art, science and metal-work. He continued to own land in Staffordshire, England but had no wish to return there because 'an Australian can never get used to the English climate'. He died after a short illness at his home, Vermont, Merton Crescent, South Melbourne, on 28 February 1902; he was survived by his wife Ann, née Turner, and by one daughter and one son of their eight children.

‘The Queanbeyan Age, N.S. W.’ on 29 September 1908 described the range of hardware available at the Sydney and Melbourne branches (Figure 4).

The same newspaper gave a description of the Company’s exhibit at the Agricultural Society’s Show stating that it was ‘a revelation to those that had the privilege of witnessing it’. The magnitude and variety of their equipment is shown in Figure 5.

This paper was derived from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

 
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