I had no idea where these two printed- to- private- order advertising covers would lead me, and I was frankly surprised that the two brothers were to be found in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Both covers were used in 1930 and the KGV oval 1d green stamps were postmarked with a slogan cancel, COMMONWEALTH LOAN/ NOW OPEN/ APPLY AT ONCE, at Sydney (Figure 1).
Frank Arthur (1881-1957) and Frederick Richard Burley (1885-1954), corset manufacturers, were born at Richmond, Melbourne, and at Hamilton, Victoria, third and fifth children of London-born parents Joseph Walter Burley (d.1891), fishmonger and commission agent, and his wife Isabel. Both grew up at Ballarat where their two aunts made and sold corsets; as boys, they often helped to scrape the whalebone used for stays.
With capital lent by relations, in 1910 Fred bought a controlling interest in E. Gover & Co., a small, corset firm in Market Street. When Arthur joined him in 1912 they formed Unique Corsets Ltd. Next year Fred embarked on the first of many visits to study the corsetry business in Europe and the United States of America. The company’s staff increased from 12 to 60 by 1917. That year Arthur coined the Frenchified tradename, ‘Berlei’, for a popular new product; in 1919 the firm formally became Berlei Ltd. With the purchase of W. Zander & Co. that year, Berlei’s staff grew to 280 and new machinery was installed for large-scale manufacturing. The firm had three times moved to larger premises before the Burleys bought land in Regent Street and in January 1922 opened Berlei House in Sydney, seven storeys of offices and workrooms, with display theatre, elegant sales rooms, a library and a roof-top ‘playground’ for employees.
All stays and lacings at first, Berlei’s products grew more varied as their female designers sought new ideas and fabrics overseas. In the Berlei Review, founded in 1922 as a trade journal, the brothers warned the willowy ‘flapper’ against lasting damage to ‘muscles and vital organs’, or ‘excessive figure development in the middle years’, and urged her to ‘corset for the future’. Branch offices were opened in Melbourne (1921), Brisbane (1923), Adelaide (1929) and Perth (1929), and a factory in Melbourne (1927). In 1923 Berlei took over a major competitor, Australian Corsets Ltd, and used its stocks to equip Berlei (New Zealand) Ltd at Auckland. Much of the Burleys’ success stemmed from their commitment to produce garments of quality and perfect fit, and to render excellent service to customers. They held annual conventions for sales representatives, advised retailers on window display, and ran regular training.
What followed I found intriguing: “In 1926 Fred (Burley) enlisted physiologists at the University of Sydney to assist in an anthropometrical survey of women with the aim of identifying basic figure types, so that ready-made corsets might fit as if made-to-order, and Professor Henry Chapman led the project. Some seven thousand women were measured in fine detail and the data revealed five fundamental types – big abdomen, heavy bust, big hips, sway back and average proportions. Using an ingenious device, the Berlei Type Indicator, any corsetiere could compute in a trice the size to suit a client’s measurements. Berlei garments could now be designed and coded accordingly. Thirty years later the indicator was still a reliable guide to correct fittings.”
The Burley brothers prospered, but I lost my interest in them, for Professor Henry George Chapman (1879-1934) became my focus. English born, he migrated to Melbourne in 1886, graduated from the University of Melbourne (M.B. 1899, B.S. 1900, M.D. 1902). He won 2 scholarships, and was awarded the David Syme research prize at University of Melbourne. In 1903-13 Chapman was lecturer and demonstrator in physiology at the University of Sydney. In 1913-18 he was assistant professor of physiology under Sir Thomas Anderson Stuart becoming professor of pharmacology in 1918 and succeeding to Stuart’s chair in 1921. In 1907 he had been appointed honorary pathological chemist at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Always interested in public and industrial health issues, he gave evidence before a Western Australian royal commission into meat supply.
Active in local scientific societies, Chapman was honorary treasurer of the Royal Society in 1912-34 and president of the Linnean Society in 1918; he was honorary treasurer of the national council and New South Wales branch of the Australian Chemical Institute from 1919 and State president in 1931-33. He published on his research into biochemistry and plant products in learned journals and the Medical Journal of Australia. In 1928 he presided over the physiology section of the Hobart meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science.
In 1928 Chapman was made director of cancer research despite opposition from members of the science faculty, who doubted both his integrity and his scientific status and distrusted his public image. He made little contribution to research, and in 1930 a series of newspaper articles exposed bitter dissension within the cancer committee and some dubious aspects of Chapman’s career. On 24 May 1934 in his university rooms he took poisons, and died next day. Ten days later his estate was sequestrated on the petition of the Royal Society, which claimed he owed its funds £3360. The other principal claimant, for £15,280, was the Australian National Research Council, of which Chapman had been honorary treasurer. Officers of both bodies had been pressing for an audit and Chapman had just been asked to resign his university post. The circumstances of his troubled last years and death prevented any balanced assessment of his achievements in the field of social and preventive medicine.
I acknowledge that the information on the Burley Brothers and Professor Chapman was extracted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.