H.B. SELBY & CO., SCIENTIFIC APPARATUS & LABORATORY EQUIPMENT
This advertising cover for H.B. Selby & Co. at 393 Swanston St., Melbourne has the blue 3d Submarine Telephone Communication to Tasmania stamp postmarked with a roller cancel dated 25 May 38 and is addressed to Difco Laboratory, a Michigan-based manufacturer of microbiology media and supplies in Detroit, USA. The reverse shows a figure of an aneroid barometer (Figure 1).
This cover intrigued me, as the Selby company was well known to me in my early medical laboratory career, and the company’s longevity and growth has been well documented in the book, Selbys the Science People, A History of H.B. Selby Australia Limited (2005) by Samuel Furphy:
As an University student, Carl de Beer thought he could provide the necessary chemical glassware and equipment to his fellow students more cheaply than the locally available stock, and also supplement his income. So in 1897 he placed his first order with the German firm of Bornkessel and the venture paid off, with another order placed the following year. By the end of 1898, the backyard business was prospering to the extent that two of Carl’s brothers were now involved and they sought the assistance of an uncle in London to extend the range of suppliers. Among the contacts was the German chemical manufacturer, E. Merck of Darmstadt.
Carl’s tragic death in 1899 at the age of 22 disrupted the family, but did not end the business. Carl’s younger brother Ernest had already developed a prominent role in marketing the brothers’ scientific imports. Operating from his uncle’s office in Melbourne, Ernest worked to extend the range of customers in order to secure the confidence of suppliers in granting agencies. In 1900 Ernest secured from the Merck company, the sole agency for Victoria.
With expanding stock and business, Ernest not only required larger premises, he soon needed more capital. In 1903 he formed a partnership with H.B. Silberberg. Born in 1873 in Branxholme, Victoria, Silberberg had saved up several hundred pounds working as a miner and storekeeper in Kalgoorlie, W.A. The partnership proved unsatisfactory and after four months it was dissolved with H.B. buying out Ernest’s share
Under the management of H.B. and later his sons, Esmond and Benn, the business continued to expand for nearly 80 years. Building on the foundation that the de Beer brothers had established, H.B. expanded the scope of the business and the range of agencies. In 1912, with H.B. Silberberg & Co. operating soundly in Melbourne, H.B. and his family moved to Sydney and established a new scientific retailing business of the same name. These remained separate companies until brought under the ownership of a holding company in 1949. The Sydney Store at 254a George Street Sydney, is seen in Figure 2.
The First World War had an important effect on the businesses. Many of the important companies for which Silberbergs had agencies were German, so supply was completely cut off. H.B. compensated for this by placing trial orders with several Japanese companies including Shimadzu & Co., which led to a purchasing trip to Japan in 1917. Anti-German sentiment made Silberberg’s German-sounding name a liability for business, so H.B. changed the family name to Selby, with both businesses becoming H.B. Selby & Co. by 1917.
H.B.’s sons Esmond and Benn joined the Sydney and Melbourne businesses in 1929 and 1936 respectively, so they were well placed to continue the development of Selbys when their father died in 1937. Following the Second World War, the expansion of manufacturing created new opportunities for Selbys, which developed a market for industrial process-control equipment. The company had a large range of varied scientific equipment, such as the Silva Orienteering Compass sold by the Swedish firm of A-B, Broderna Kjellstrom (Figure 3).
The expansion of Selbys required new capital, and this led to the establishment of a public company, H.B. Selby Australia Ltd, in 1949. This holding company acquired all the shares in the Sydney and Melbourne businesses. By the late 1970s, Selbys had branches in every state capital, manufacturing plants in Sydney and Melbourne, a New Zealand subsidiary and even a branch in Papua New Guinea. As an asset-rich company with growing sales – over $20 million in 1977 – it was a target for a takeover. Having fended off a first attempt in 1977, Selbys succumbed to a triple takeover five years later, being swallowed up by Warburton O’Donnell, Comeng, and Australian National Industries in rapid succession in 1982-83. These takeovers meant an end to the involvement of Esmond and Benn Selby in the management of the company.
Two notable features about the company was its adaptability and the longevity of its staff. Through war and depression, industrial expansion and technological change, Selbys was able to survive the tough times and exploit new opportunities. It was H.B. Selby’s genius to exploit the ‘tyranny of distance’ for commercial success. By maintaining regular personal contact with his suppliers abroad, a practice continued by his successors, H.B. secured and maintained an extensive range of suppliers. The triple takeover ended the company’s expansion.
Selbys the Science People is very much a story about people. While the company was expanding and adapting, it also provided a working environment that encouraged longevity of employment. Bob Murray who joined Ernest de Beer in 1901 retired in 1952. J.T. Pollard, whose able management of the Melbourne business enabled H.B. Silberberg to move to Sydney in 1912, retired in 1969. The Selby name continued through further changes of ownership until 2002, when as part of the Biolab Group, it was finally dropped. Yet the 2005-6 White Pages lists "Selby Biolab" with a referral to Biolab (Aust) Pty Ltd.
The Selby name continues to be associated with science in Australia through the Selby Fellowships, which have been awarded since 1961 and are now funded by the Selby Scientific Foundation.
I am indebted to Samuel Furphy’s book, a review of which appears in a book review by Julian Holland.
Addendum (November 2007): A cover that emphasises the international scope of this firm was sent to Stockholm, Sweden in 1938 and it has the typical H.B. SELBY & CO. advert in the top left hand corner (Figure 4).