Royal Reels: Gambling


This unexciting cover is an example of trade between two large companies, primarily involved in food distribution, but with extensive additional interests, in Australia and Canada in the early 1900’s. It was addressed to Messrs W.H. Gillard & Co., Wholesale Grocers etc., Hamilton, Canada. The blue 2½d QV stamp of N.S.W. was cancelled with a duplex THE EXCHANGE/ MR 5/ 11-15-AM/ 05/ N.S.W, with the barred numeral ‘1134′ of the Type D3 (ii) postmark obscured by the dark stamp (Figure 1).

The reverse has a printed blue double oval of BURNS PHILP & COMPANY/ SYDNEY/ LIMITED, as well as an originating roller cancel SYDNEY/ MAR 6/ 11-AM/ 1905/ 15, with an obscured overlying HAMILTON ONTARIO/ APR ( )/ 10-PM/ ( ) reception postmark, plus a partial transit probably in the USA (Figure 2).

The Canadian firm W.H. Gillard & Co. has been described as follows: “The prosperity attending the firm of W.H. Gillard & Co. affords striking proof that success is the child of energy wedded to intelligence. Perfect mastery of detail, intimate knowledge of the needs of the public, quick adaption to improved methods, close application to business, and adoption of a broad, liberal policy in the general conduct of their business are among the factors which have contributed in placing this firm in the front rank of the wholesale grocery trade of Canada. Founded in 1879 by Mr. W.H. Gillard (born in England 22 July 1837 – died in Hamilton 27 October 1901; married Mary Cordelia Gillard 1841-1915), was previously prominently connected for 21 years (in England) with the wholesale grocery trade with (his brother) Mr. John Gillard. The firm quickly established its trade in Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories……In 1885 the firm found it necessary… erect the handsome and capacious building which they now occupy on (25) Main Street West (in Hamilton, Ontario).”

The firm functioned as upscale grocers with a specialty in high grade coffee and teas, as well as large dealers in canned fruits and vegetables, and sole agents for Canada of the celebrated Paradise Currants. W. H. Gillard was very respected and successful in Hamilton’s public life and he was president of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce in 1886 &1887. ” The name of W.H. Gillard & Co. is accepted the Dominion over as synonymous with fair and honorable dealing. In 1892 Gillard had a new Hamilton home Undercliffe built in the Gothic style of architecture.

Whereas the Hamilton Ontario grocery firm had a reputation across Canada, the Australian firm Burns Philp had an international reputation particularly in the Pacific Islands, in a much greater variety of endeavours, over and above its involvement in food products. (Sir) James Burns (1846-1923), businessman, shipowner and philanthropist, was born on 10 February 1846 at Polmont, Stirlingshire, Scotland, son of David Burns, merchant, and his wife Margaret. Educated at Newington Academy and the Royal High School, Edinburgh, he migrated to Brisbane in 1862 with a brother, worked as a jackeroo on stations, and in 1865 combined with his brother in Burns & Scott, Brisbane storekeepers. He joined the Gympie gold rush in 1867, made large profits from three stores of his own and, after the death of his father in 1868, returned in 1870 to Scotland. Burns brought his mother, sister and two brothers to Queensland in 1872 and opened a store at Townsville, supplying all the North Queensland goldfields. On 8 February 1875 in Brisbane he married Mary Susan Ledingham, who died in May next year.

The schooner Isabelle, which he had chartered in 1873 to ensure supplies from Sydney, became the nucleus of an eventual fleet. He was prominent in promoting coastal shipping services and inland trade. On account of constant attacks of malaria he settled in Sydney. He financed his Townsville manager (Sir) Robert Philp as a partner in a new firm under Philp’s name. On 1 April 1877 Burns opened as a merchant under his own name in Sydney. Concentrating initially on a regular shipping service between Sydney and Townsville, Burns moved rapidly from sail to steam, and in 1881 joined the British India Steam Navigation Co. Ltd in promoting the Queensland Steam Shipping Co. A picture of the Burns Philp building in Sydney is seen in Figure 3.

His multiple firms in Sydney, Townsville, Charters Towers, Cairns, Thursday Island and Normanton were amalgamated in April 1883 into Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd. Burns initially held 43 per cent of the shares and remained chairman and managing director until 1923. Although senior staff became shareholders, he remained in strict and unsentimental control. When Robert Philp left the firm in 1893, he entered Queensland politics at the local level in Townsville rising to Premier of Queensland in1899-1903 and 1907-08. The company name remained as Burns, Philp (even though Philps had left the firm) and Burns alone guided its expansion. During the 1890s branches were established at Geraldton and Fremantle in Western Australia, and at Port Moresby and Samarai in Papua.

Burns died of cancer at Gowan Brae, near Parramatta N.S.W., on 22 August 1923 and was buried there in its private cemetery. His eldest son James became a director of Burns Philp in 1919 and took over as chairman and managing director on his father’s death in 1923. Sir James’ estate was valued for probate at £227,604 in New South Wales and £8853 in Queensland.

The son James was born on 31 December 1881 at Point Piper, Sydney and although less forceful than his father, Burns was a hard negotiator and kept a sharp eye on the operations of his companies which constituted an extensive Australian mercantile, shipping, insurance and copra-producing network. Burns Philp was a powerful force in the South Pacific. Proud of his father’s achievements, Burns believed that he should simply do the job, honorably and intelligently, that fortune had provided for him. In the 1930s he developed a chain of some forty retail stores known as ‘Penneys’, entered the trustee business (Burns, Philp Trustee Co. Ltd was registered in 1938) and later acquired holdings in ‘old established country retail businesses’, including Mates Ltd and Charles Rogers & Sons Pty Ltd.

Less involved in business affairs after World War II, he continued to attend the Sydney office several days a week, travelling by train from his property at Bowral, until age and illness eventually induced him to retire as chairman and managing director in 1967. Predeceased by his wife, Burns died on 5 August 1969 at Bowral and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at $1,045,194. He was survived by a daughter and by his son David who succeeded him as chairman of Burns Philp.

Surprisingly, the remarkable resource of the Australian Dictionary of Biography’s accounts of Sir James Burns, his eldest son James and Sir Robert Philp, does not cover the place of the Burns Philp Company Limited, Sydney’s expansion from Pacific Island trader to diversified multinational food company. Operations were diversified through acquisitions, joint ventures and divestments, to grow its international presence in the main product groups of yeast, herbs and spices and natural food ingredients. The cover may just be a coincidence in regards to the association of the Canadian and Australian company, for I have not found good evidence that Burns Philp was a food company as early as the early decades of the 1900s.

Categories: Business