History

 

BIRKS CHEMISTS PTY LTD

The Crown Colony of South Australia was established by Act of the Parliament of Westminster in England during the year 1834 in the reign of King William IV. In comparison with the older colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, the tiny community under Governor Hindmarsh met with much greater difficulties because of the lower rainfall in South Australia. In the ensuring years now new methods of farming and husbandry gradually brought into production areas outside the narrow coastal belt normally enjoying a regular rainfall; nevertheless much of the present day potential of the large areas now under cultivation is dependent on man-made systems of irrigation. Just when the Colony seemed like foundering due to the exodus of workers to the newly discovered goldfield in Victoria the discovery of rich copper orebodies north of Adelaide brought people flooding back to the Colony much to the relief of coffers of the struggling Colony. Likewise, the deficiency of black coal held up the establishment of major secondary industries until the discovery of vast amounts of major secondary industries until the discovery of vast amounts of brown coal at Leigh Creek and the methods need to turn it into electrical power.

Dr George Vance Birks along with his wife Hannah, daughter and six sons left England in the Sailing Ship “LEONIDAS” ON THE 1st August 1953 arriving at Glenelg, South Australia on 21st December 1853. The family comprised Emily Hannah, George Napier (b.24.10.1838), William Hanson (b.28.12.1841) and four other sons. Shortly after debarkation the family went to live at Angaston where the doctor practised for about eighteen months dying by accident from a fall from a horse. William was helping his mother and was probably dispensing his deceased father’s prescription, as well as the new doctor’s as early as 1858. In 1856 George Birks started training with Mr Francis H. Faulding in his pharmacy at 5 Rundle Street, Adelaide (near King William Street). After four years service he went to Kooringa near Burra copper mines, dispensing for the two resident doctors (Drs Mayne and Mansan) at a salary of three pounds per week, accommodation provided.

At this stage he was 20 years old planning to become a doctor himself but failing eyesight caused a change of plans. In 1862 he went to the Wallaroo mines near Kadina where he writes in his diary dated 6th March 1861 “I received a letter from Mr Faulding last Saturday which decided me – unfortunately I cannot get my cases under cover as I have neither tent, tarpaulin nor boards. At last I can say I am among my traps now in (my friend) Jayres trent 9ft x 7ft – sleep here. Commenced operations Friday last and have nearly finished (the structure) with fine weather tomorrow we hope to get the roof frame up”. This extract enables us to pinpoint with accuracy the commencement of the Birks Brothers in business as chemists to 1861 and thus the founding of the well-known name Birks Chemists, or as it was known at the time “Birks the Chemists”.

The mining of copper ore in South Australia provided many young men with opportunities, and George and William were not slow to seize the chance presenting itself. Rich deposits of copper were mined and smelted in the Kadina, Moonta and Wallaroo areas and at Kooringa near Burra in the north of South Australia 100 miles from Adelaide. In 1862 George established a branch in Kadina and installed his brother William as manager. He established a business in a caravan so as to be mobile when the population shifted in their search for the rich surface deposits of copper ore. He later opened a third business at Moonta with brother John as manager.

In the next twelve years these three businesses prospered and the brothers accumulated enough capital to enable William to take over a pharmacy at 51 Rundle Street, Adelaide in 1875. In the following year he was joined by his brother George in Adelaide to take over the pharmacy at 51 Rundle Street. Together they established William in a book and fancy goods business at 69 Rundle Street (later 66) near the cake shop owned by Balfours. The transfer to Adelaide of the brothers and the sales of the original business’s in the country ends the first stage of the history of Birks Chemists. Very quickly the two city businesses were amalgamated by George transferring the pharmacy from 51 to 59 on the corner of Rundle Street and Gawler Place, (The number was later changed to the present on of 57).

Extracts from various letters from these times make interesting reading.

George writes of his experiences at Kooringa “I do not think I would have the patient to wait five or six years to qualify (as a doctor). My idea is when fitted and able pecuniarily and when opportunity presents itself, to go into business in the country as a druggist and general storekeeper, the former alone if it will pay, or both combined if need be. Dr Mayne says he means to make me a surgeon”.

In February 1861 William writes to his uncle “I thought George would have commenced his business at Wallaroo before this but I hear from his today that he cannot open till next week – he is there himself but his house and goods have not arrived – a wooden house built in Adelaide”.

In March 1861 William writes to a Mr Kyffin Thomas “Received parcel of observers (newspapers) and sold seven while engaged in conversation at the post office. The house was roofed and outside door hung on Saturday, now waiting bricks to lay the sleepers for the floor”. Extracts from a letter of George say “Brother John had a shop at Port Adelaide many years later, and afterwards went to Western Australia and opened a shop in Perth assisted by a son Arthur”.

It appears from extracts from their letters that “Established in 1858” must have referred to the dispensary at Angaston where W.H. Birks helped his mother by preparing the prescriptions of his late father, the resident doctor. After the establishment of the homeopathic pharmacy at 51 Rundle Street, and afterwards moving to 59 Rundle Street (later renumbered to 57) he writes “I note that you give the number of the Pharmacy as 57, has the street now been changed”?

As far as we known, the chemist shop was the second oldest in South Australia, as the pharmacy at 5 Rundle Street, Adelaide antedates Birks as the first pharmacy in South Australia, but as Mr Faulding closed his retail pharmacy to concentrate on his wholesale and importing business it leaves Birks Chemists as the longest trading pharmacy still in operation today.

Miss Helen M Chartier (a direct family descendent) writes “In case you might care to know, Father (G.N Birks) married Win. Kyffin Thomas second daughter Helen; and Charles (the founder of Charles Birks & Co and later purchased by David Jones) married the first and fourth. Napier (Birks) is the only son of Charles and Mary; Rose has no children. William started a book and fancy goods business at 66 Rundle Street, - G.N. Birks with Mr Symes as manager, and managed 59 till March 1894 when he went to Paraguay (where he and a number of others hoped to establish a religious utopian society). William selling 66 took possession (of 59 later 57 Rundle Mall) for some years. He sold (in 1907) to Mr P. Magary. G.N. Birks died in Paraguay in 1895 and W.H. Birks died in Sydney some years later. Alfred was in the National Bank ad a partner of J.H. Holden. Charles started in Hindley Street and then moved to 38 Rundle Street, Walter employed him. Holden and Birks (c 1872) and 57 for a while before G.N. Birks”.

Actual photographs from the Archives confirm this to be the original shop and commencement of the Holden Motor Body business in Adelaide (later to become General Motors Holden). A Photostat of an agreement to lease 90 feet of land at the corner of Rundle Street and Gawler Place, Adelaide dated 15/12/1853 shows a plan giving the right of having a hall (or market place) on the site to one George Rhodes from the owner William Blackwell for two years at a weekly rent of one pound seven shilling and six pence. Birks Chemists, Sixty nine years later in 1922 purchased twenty four feet six inches of the land from Mr J. Bakewell for 20, 000 pounds.

In 1906 Mr P.R. (Percy) Magary purchased the business at 57 Rundle Street, from Mr W.H. Birks at a cost of seven thousand pounds seven shillings and six pence and so commenced the Magary reign in 1907 when Percy wrote to his brother Will (W.T. Magary) asking him to reconsider his earlier refusal to join him at 57 Rundle Street. In a most interesting letter he assures him he need not give up his Sunday school class as his Sunday work did not interfere with Sunday school and offers him an apprenticeship and a salary of four pounds per week (his own being seven) and an arrangement to share the profits. Will accepted and became apprenticed to his brother Percy for the next four years. He qualified three years later although the certificate is dated March 1914.

Birks Chemists as a limited liability company was formed in 1922 when Mr A.K. Newberry came across from the old G.N. & W.H. Birks business at 66 Rundle Street, to join the company. Donald Dunbar Magary joined a little later. The original fifteen thousand pounds capital increased shortly after to thirty thousand pounds and comprised 9000 Ordinary Shares, 6000 8% A First Preference remained unaltered until some years later when bonus shares and new issues increased the ordinary share to 58, 000.

The early 1900’s saw an innovating style of marketing begin for the business which purchased Adelaide’s first soda fountain. The soda fountain was quite unique to Adelaide and Birks quickly became a mecca for many young Adelaide people. In 1906 the pharmacy purchased an American style soda foundation at a cost of five hundred pounds. By 1914 it was an elaborate set up indeed with mirrors and a marble counter for serving drinks and ice-cream. Special soda dispensers and containers for syrups and ice-cream toppings made it a truly Yankee affair. The fruit toppings were delicious and were imported from the U.S.A. in large all glass containers with snap on glass lids much sought after when empty. Flavours were many and various including strawberry, raspberry, pineapple with maraschino cherries and crushed nuts in maple syrup. Served by young men in spotless white coats, tickets for drinks, ice-creams and ‘spiders’ were obtained from a young lady from the desk opposite the foundation – who packed homoeopathic pills in her spare time. Preparation of the ice-cream and syrups was carried out in the basement where all the manufacturing equipment was housed. The custard which was frozen to make ice-cream was prepared in the following manner; fresh eggs, milk, cream, sugar and arrowroot for thickening was thoroughly mixed, beaten and blended (vanilla and colouring were added last). This mixture was very carefully cooked with constant stiffing in a water jacket to avoid overheating and curdling until the final mixture was a deliciously smooth custard which when frozen produced an ice-cream not unlike a sherbet of modern times. The machinery was a churn with rotating beaters fitted into a round metal container which was covered into a round wooden container packed with ice and salt and driven by an electric motor via a system of belts and pulleys. The process had to be watched very carefully, for when the belt running the pulley began to pull hard indicating the contents were freezing, the power had to be turned off quickly otherwise the contents would lose its aeration and become hard and chippy when served. It was a galah occasion for all the apprentices, who were expected to spend some of their time training, as they were allowed to scrape the freshly made ice-cream from the beaters and churn for their own enjoyment before they were washed and dried. The majority of the manufacturing was performed by the pharmacy apprentices under the watchful eye of the supervising pharmacist. Soda water was prepared in special carbonators which forced carbon dioxide into filtered water. A close watch had to be kept on the two machines in order to maintain pressures, for any breakdown during a hot spell was a very serious matter. The syrup percolators were also important pieces of equipment taking several bags of sugar in each container where the water trickled down through the sugar and passed through layers of cloth producing syrup ready for use in the manufacture of soda fountain syrups. These syrups contained citric acid, colouring and Bash’s flavouring essences (the best quality that could be obtained at that time) and their popularity was a good guide to their quality. The chocolate topping for the sundaes and syrups was prepared from Griffith Bros. unsweetened chocolate, sugar and water which was gently heated to dissolve, and on cooling a small quantity of Cassia Oil was added. The result was very sweet and pleasant to taste, the Cassia adding something unusual to the flavour. No wonder the pharmacy employed so many apprentices who upon completion of their indentures must surely have been some of the best “all rounders” within the profession.

The wages and salary sheets for 1912 and 1914 make interesting reading.

  1912 1914
Selves P.R.M. & W.T.M. 15-0-0 15-0-0
Cornish 4-0-0 5-0-0
Bannigan 3-0-0 3-0-0
Anderson 2-10-0 2-15-0
Allan 15-0 1-0-0
Bert (Hawke) 15-6 1-15-0
George (Dixon) 10-0 12-6
Newson - 3-0-0
Collins 1-0-0 2-0-0
Bruno 11-0 12-6
Donald - 5-0
Miss F. 1-2-6 1-2-6
Miss A. 17-6 1-0-0
Miss G. 12-6 14-0
Boy - 10-0
Foundation 2-15-0 -
3 Boys 1-13-6 -
Tunbridgh 1-5-1 -
  36-17-6 38-14-0

One of the longest serving employees’ and well known and respected pharmacists employed by the firm was Edgar Vincent Lawton or “E.V.” as he was affectionately known.

He was apprenticed to P.R. Magary in 1925 and duly qualified four years later having waited 18 months after completion of his studies to complete his apprenticeship and reach 21 years of age. He married Kathleen Elise daughter of W.T. Magary in 1933. Edgar was appointed a direction in 1940 upon the death of D.D. Magary and remained in that position for over 40 years becoming Chairman of Directors in 1953 upon the retirement of A.K. Newberry, altogether serving over 56 years with the company. George M. Dixon apprenticed around 1914 to Mr P. Magary spent 48 years with Birks Chemists and served the company faithfully and well until his unexpected sudden death in the pharmacy in 1961. He contributed much to the success of the business. Kenneth Wall also spent a lifetime of service opening a branch at 147 St Vincent Street, Port Adelaide and later becoming Managing Director upon the death of George Dixon. The Company celebrated its Centenary in August 1961 and to highlight the occasion the female staff and others dressed in wigs and traditional costumes of the 1800’s. Thousands of Adelaide citizens eagerly sought the generous sample bags and many participated in the competitions arranged to highlight this event. A number of distinguished guests visited the pharmacy to offer their congratulations and a good time was had by all.

Time has brought may changed to the business. Alterations, refits, and rethinking of the polices brought new life and vigour when required. During the first 50 years or so since 1900, manufacturing of house brand products was big business and many products were manufactured on the premises in an area known as “The Laboratory”.

The well known “Marva” and “Sanovia” lines were on sale up to the late 1980’s and early 1990’s with marva Cough Mixture an outstanding product. Several of these Marva products were distributed by F.H. Faulding & Co to other South Australian pharmacies. Other well known products during this period were “Capilloid” to prevent greying of the hair and Acne Corn Cure. Sanovia toothpaste enjoyed a good market in those early days and was wholly prepared at 57 Rundle Street. Early photographs in the late 1800’s of the pharmacy in the Archives show the words Sanovia Toothpaste painted on the exterior facia of the building. Another big job was the manufacture of “Licorice Powder” which was prepared in lots of one cwt at a time. This product contained senna power, fennel power, sugar and licorice power and required much sieving and mixing with the apprentices being covered from head to foot in the finished product. Another horror job was the preparation of Sanovia Depilatory Powder for it took days to get rid of the barium sulphide from the clothes and hair. The preparation of mosquito coils was another big job as the charcoal, potassium nitrate, pyrethrum powder and water was an arduous job for the lads. After moulding they were dried on a hot tray over a water bath. An experiment in rapid drying in a stove was not a success as the Fire Brigade was called in to remove a large volume of smoke which fortunately looked more alarming than dangerous. Marva Cough Mixture was almost a weekly job with ten gallons to a double batch and much hard shaking as there was no such thing as mechanical rockers in those days. Marva Cough Mixture contained quite a variety of ingredients including camphorated tincture of opium, squill syrup, acetyl squill, tolu syrup, chloroform, digitalis tincture, alcohol and syrup. Modifications to the formula in later years saw the removal of the opium and chloroform, as well as other changes more suited to more enlightened times. Knowledge of the harmful effects of potent drugs increased yearly. Tincture of opium was once sold openly and legally in a wide range of drops, tinctures, lozenges etc for use as a sedative. One can imagine the furore it would cause today with a young mother giving her small baby some opium tincture “to settle it down” at night in all probability popping in a Steadmans Teething Powder for good measure. These powders enjoyed a very large sale and one must wonder how much damage they caused in young children before it was discovered that calomel or mercury subchloride caused a condition known as “Pinks disease” in young children. The changes in infant feeding leading up to the production of scientifically formulated modern products is worthy of reflection. Baked and boiled flour, lactic acid, Kariol, Karvilac, Nestles condensed milk, Lactogen and Vilactogen were early formula’s along with fresh organic juice, tinned baby food, sodium citrate tablets one to each bottle, then rose hip syrup, cows mild, goats milk and whatever was next. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about good old fashioned “mothers milk”. Young lads love to fool around and Birks Chemists had their share. A favourite prank was to wet a duster or tea towel and then freeze it on the nozzle of a cylinder of carbon dioxide gas. A few seconds was sufficient to freeze the damp cloth rock hard which was then thrown onto the concrete floor and smashed into a thousand pieces by jumping on it. Miniature golf with a stirring paddle and tennis ball and “Test Cricket” again with the above implements were also favourite pastimes. Standing jumps onto the basement work tables tested the physical fitness of the lads. Chloroform and cotton wool for the young and uninitiated and footy in the winter with 2oz cotton wool packs changed frequently so as to not damage the stock. The musical bottles of W.T Taylor’s “orchestra” were quite tuneful too. George Mantin’s pasty eating contests generally attracted only one entrant – George himself. The pasties were Gibbs monsters and George boasted how many he could consume but he underestimated the doughy ends and retired defeated well short of this boasted target. Bill Taylor became the local hero when he said he could flush a broken container of liquid ammonia down the drain – alas again a job for the firebrigade. Bill seemed intent, on giving the brigade trouble for an another occasion whilst demonstrating the fire alarm system to other assistants he inadvertently touched the contact pin and was staggered to have the fire engine appear in about five minutes flat.

During the rebuilding operation in 1925 Adelaide experienced a torrential downpour of rain when give inches (125mm) of rain fell in about 2 1/2 hours. The building did not have a secure roof and consequently a great deal of water cascaded into the first floor stock room flooding the area to a depth of three inches. Holes had to be bored in the new ceiling of the pharmacy in order to relieve the pressure. Everybody was wet through and had to go home and change into dry clothes. It was quite a day. Edgar Lawton recalled that he had to come in early to let the builders in at 7.30 am but he had to turn up well before the appointed hour to let in the brickies so they could get on with their work. Closing time was 6.00 pm plus night work each week. It was no wonder he used to fall asleep trying to solve the “unknown” at inorganic practical on Wednesday evening classes. “I don’t recall getting one out properly all year” he said. During this time conditions in the basement were appalling and apprentices were expected to climb out of the basement on ladders and ascent to the first floor by the same means, carrying toothpaste powders and essential oils balanced in one hand while holding on with the other. Inevitably accidents happen and uniforms and clothes were drenched in oils and other chemicals. However, nothing could be worse than barium sulphide in the hair after making Sanovia Depilatory. “It’s a wonder I had any hair left at all” he recalls. Those persons who remember Edgar in his latter years would remember with a smile his fairly shiny pate.

Another flood occurred in 1984 when the E&WS department were installing a 10cm high pressure pipe in the “lane” at the rear of the building. Around midnight a sudden build up of water pressure occurred and blew up the temporary head valve. Thousands of gallons of water flooded into the basements of the surrounding buildings over the next six hours setting off alarms and requiring a major turnout of police and fire brigades called in to clear the mess and pump the water from the flooded basements. The police range the managing director – Geoff Pride at 6.00am to inform him that he had better come in as there was a “small amount” of water in the basement. The resulting damaged and effects resulted in a million dollar claim from Birks Chemists alone.

In 1933 Birks Chemists bought the premises at 278 (a) Rundle Street near the East End Market and established a pharmacy there in order to give Edgar Lawton a job .The records show the first months turnover to be seventy nine pounds seventeen shillings and six pence and the first week under 20 pounds but they never looked like not paying their way from then on. A.K. Newberry used to claim the profits at 278 (a) were in the rent they did not have to pay. Conditions at the premises when Birks took over had to be seen to be believed. Three lorry loads of rubbish were removed before the place was fit and clean enough to be occupied. However there was a rich haul of bluebottles, carboys and “show containers” worth thousands of dollars at todays prices. One interesting memory occurred when the “Some Qualities” Adelaide Cup owned by one R.J. Pridham was sold for 100 pounds to a nearby gold buyer who borrowed the pharmacy’s troy weights to weigh the prize and later that night cut it into small pieced for disposal. A succession of young lads came and went, some dismissed for some petty theft or other misdemeanour. One boy broke down and cried when told not to report on Monday morning but some years later proudly reappeared during the war years wearing a paratroopers uniformed to be admired. He obviously bore no ill will for his dismissal. Of the employees David Marchant became one of Adelaide’s leading organists and Skeeter Brink was killed by an Italian mortar bomb in Libya. Skeeter Brink was killed by an Italian mortar bomb in Libya. Skeeter Brink’s claim to farme occurred during the great heat wave in 1938 when he inadvertently shook an ammonia bottle which erupted like a soda siphon spraying all over himself. Edgar washed him headlong in the back passage dowsing him with water from the back tap allowing him to get some fresh air and undoubtably saving his life that time. The ammonia bottle had been making strange clicking noises on the shelf and Edgar had been amusing the customers by tapping the bottle thus causing extreme agitation in the hot conditions. Brink decided to pick up the bottle and shake it. Many ‘no hopers’ inhabited the market area and surrounds in those days some of whom slept in the horse troughs wrapped in newspaper or slept on the warm bricks of Park Bakery next door. ‘Old Harry’ was one of those characters who would regale you with a mouthful of abuse should you care to address him. A three course meal at the Canberra Café opposite consisted of soup, roast pork with all the trimmings and apple pie with cream and cost one shilling and six pence. Happy days among the market gardeners when cricket was played between the stall holders and local shop owners versus the hills teams of Cudlee Creek, Basket Range, Ashton, Scotts Creek, Uraidla, Cherry Gardens, Houghton, Piccadilly and others.

An unexpected gain from the expedition to South America was the introduction of Mate Tea into South Australia as a “cure” for Rheumatis. As outlined earlier, the promoters of the expedition to Paraguay set off in hight hopes of forming an ideal society in South America but even before they arrived the members were arguing concerning who would be in authority, the group foundering even before they got going properly. William Birks, quarrelling with his brother George, left the expedition when the ship, sailing from Adelaide, docked enroute in Sydney. Mate` Tea or “Paraguayan Holy” (Ilex Paraguaze) consisted of the dried and crushed leaves of this shrub which grows over a wide area and was the main beverage of the inhabitants of a number of South American countries. The leaves were brewed in much the same way as are the teas so commonly used in Australia and Europe today. The liquid was then poured into a gourd often decorated with silver ornamentation and sucked through a boombilia or drinking straw in the shape of a hollowed out spoon. Birks Chemists imported and sold Mate`Tea for many years in large amounts. One interesting story related to the importing of the bulk tea. It was the practice to import the tea in small barrels standing about half a meter tall from London. On one occasion the word ‘small’ was omitted from the order with the result that three huge barrels arrived at Port Adelaide weighing over half a ton, much to the red faces and consternation of the directors when delivered to the pharmacy at 57 Rundle Street. However by displaying one of the barrels in the window with the story extolling the virtues of Mate Tea, and with aggressive selling, they finally got rid of it all. Future orders over the years were clearly marked “in small barrels”. Both P.R. & D.D. Magary saw military service in World War I, the former as staff sergeant with the 3d Australian General Hospital on Lemnos Island in the Dardenelles campaign. On transfer to England he obtained commissioned rank. Donald served in the 12th Field Ambulance in France and Belgium, participating in particular in the then new development of resuscitation teams. In July 1929 Mr D. Magary was elected as a member of the Council of the Pharmaceutical Society of South Australia. At his first meeting (E.F. Gryst in the chair) he was elected Treasurer. He was president during 1931 and 1932. During the years there were marked changed in the educational system. The turning point came when the Council abandoned plans for the establishment of a College of Pharmacy in favour of the Diploma in Pharmacy course at the University of Adelaide, as negotiated in the main by Mr Magary with Professor A. Killen Macbeth. And so it came about that Donald Magary attended the first meeting of the Board of Studies in Pharmacy in December 1932 as President of the Society. Birks was in the limelight at the end of 1933 when one of their apprentices, George MacRae was the only successful student who had completed his apprenticeship and also attained the age of 21 years. As a consequence he made a lone appearance on behalf of pharmacy at the subsequent commemoration ceremony Donald’s term of office also included the beginnings of the Pharmaceutical Chiropodists Society, his directorship of Pharmaceutical Dispensers Ltd, his being a delegate to the committee to consider a contract formula for N.H.L. and the much debated topic of earlier closing than 9.00pm on weekdays and 10.00pm on Saturdays.

The war years of 1939 - 45 brought many changes and new sights to Rundle Street. It brought the A.W.P., stirrup pumps and first aid classes – one overzealous pharmacy “recruit” broke a girls rib giver her artificial respiration. The pharmacy was completely blacked out at nights and the goings on in “little old Rundle Street” had to be seen to be believed. Prostitution was on for young and old; a flashing torch caught many with their pants down for sure, but the Police refused point blank to handle the situation as to arrest a soldier in uniform was to invite retaliation from his mates. The military then brought in hundreds of “provo” marshals from all over Australia to control the situation. It was an unforgettable sight to see the many hundreds of servicemen emptying out of the Oriental Hotel opposite the pharmacy at 6.00pm closing time; they filled Gawler Place to overflowing, often so many were there they pressed dangerously against the glass of the pharmacy’s windows. The American provosts looked most business-like with their two large colt revolvers, one on each hip and their block buster’s hanging from their belts. To the Aussie soldiers the Yankee servicemen were “over paid, over sexed and over here” but they seemed to have a hypnotic effect on the local women. It was lessons watching the provosts handle a “dangerous customer”. Two would approach him one on each side while the third would come up quietly from the rear. At a given signal the one behind would push the drunks head down, a quick arm twist and a heave, and into the van he would go. Upon questioning a Sergeant provost as to what they did with the fellows he said “Our job is to get them out of the city; we take them up to Woodside or Sandy Creek empty them out and come back and get another load. The day A.K. Newberry was informed of the death of his son Kent in what was described as the “disastrous air raid on Nuremberg in January” was one of the saddest days of the war years. An employee at the time said “To watch the Boss suffer and yet be determined to sit it out was an experience we shall never forget. Kent was the apple of his father’s eye and I don’t think he ever really recovered from the shock death of his son”.

Every ongoing business has a crop of personalities known for good or bad and for many other reasons. Some of D.D. Magary’s comments concerning the staff over sixty years ago make interesting reading in retrospect.

“Lionel B – good until last month then insubordinate – left May 38.
Maisie Chantrell, now Mrs Tideman, worked in the office for ten years.
Dorothy Berry and her daughter Mrs Buckton stayed with us for a number of years and gave very good service to the company.
Max Edwon and Lionel Upton worked well.

Over the years a number of apprentices were unable to complete their courses for various reasons either by virtue of poor results or unsatisfactory performance in the Pharmacy”.

He says “R/H. took taylors money – sacked 18/9/37.
E.M.B. – probably dishonest – fair worker but silly.
W.J. – Stutters, slow, honest, forgetful”.

Some other personalities over the years include

  • Ella Kempson, Birks first female apprentice, was indentured on the first of April 1927 and was followed by a number of young women including the daughter of Edgar Lawton - Rosalind Mary Lawton.
  • Ted Barlow - was apprenticed and duly qualified. He left for service as a government Pharmacist, became a prison warder and later progressed to become Master of the Adelaide Gaol.
  • Jack Priess - left Birks and joined the Riker Chemical Company, rising to become the manager of the Australian Organisation. He transferred to the principal company in America and was acknowledged by his associated as quite brilliant in his field.
  • William T. Taylor was well known in Whyalla where he established the first pharmacy in the area.
  • John Oswald, after qualifying, practised at Port Pirie in the family pharmacy later to become a well known member of the S.A. Parliament.
  • Lawry Sweeney worked for BIkrs in 1935 (later at David Jones) became a successful league football umpire.
  • Don Parsons and John Simons married sisters - all employed at Birks. Edgar Lawton commented "as I chose all four staff members it appeared as though I was running a marriage bureau instead of a pharmacy".
  • Margaret Ganly and Peter Somerville both worked for Birks and later married. Margaret later did law and rose to become a world authority in legal medicine and Peter became a doctor and later a professor and taught in a university in Canada.
  • Axel "Harold" Anderson commenced in 911. His son David became one of Australia's senior diplomats serving overseas at a high diplomatic level.
  • Robert H. (Bob) Elix - apprenticed in the 2-'s he qualified as a pharmacist and went on to qualify as a doctor of medicine. He was a league footballer with Port Adelaide and served as a doctor in the A.I.F. in World War II.
  • Brian M. Sims, a nephew of W.T. Margary, qualified in the 20's and spent some time in New Zealand representing the Bayer Company.
  • Ted Hunter - caretaker and cleaner of the building was fine musician who played organ at St Bedes Church of England Semaphore.
  • George Macrae apprenticed 7-1-29 at fifteen shillings a week. A well known pharmacist at Berri and later in Rundle Street, City.
  • William McLaren (Bill) Sage along with Edgar Lawton commenced work at Birks chemists on the same day in December 1923. They studied together and quite remarkably achieved the same results in both the Pharmacy board exams and the open University papers. Their study method was to question one another every morning while dusting and cleaning the stock and dispensary bottles. Edgar said "Bill pipped me in one exam by putting in an alternative equation to the preparation of Iodoform which I did not think to be that important as it was hypothetical".
  • Richard (Dick) Clampett - qualified 1955 and later became the Registrar of the Pharmacy Board of South Australia.
  • George Dixon apart from his management role was skilled in window dressing and he not only arranged the normal product displays but also some most unusual ones as well. An outstanding attraction was to show a large sample of Northern Territory uranium ore alongside a Geiger counter placed on a revolving unit and as the Geiger counter drew near the ore it raised a tremendous clatter which attracted must attention from passers-by.
  • So called ethical displays were favoured by A.K. Newberry and interesting displays of chemicals. Apparatus and botanical specimens would be shown. Each exhibit would have a card giving details of its origin and use in Pharmacy. The Christmas window displays were considered outstanding and were very much admired by customers and passers-by. George would spend many days planning and arranging these windows shows.
  • Harold Richards was in charge of the gift department established in the basement after the dispensary and store section was transferred to upper floors of the building. The basement gift department was well known in Adelaide and for many years did very well as the concept of gift departments and specialised areas selling speciality glassware, souvenirs, commemorative plates, Australiana mementos etc was not established to the extent that exist today. Later the basement was turned into a health footwear department by Geoff Pride in 1982 and was for many years Australia's largest retailer of Chemist type shoes and sandals with a turnover of over a million dollars per year. The opening promotion was a fashion footwear parade on a special catwalk in Rundle Mall featuring very attractive models brought over from Melbourne for the wekk long extravaganza. During fitout of the shoe department an under floor well was discovered. This caused much excitement and the South Australian underground cave exploring group were lowered to the bottom another 20 meters down to the water which was about two meters deep. Unfortunately no forgotten treasures were discovered. A special wishing well type brick surround was build and a light shone down to the water. This attracted many people into the department just of see the old Adelaide well. Still later when the chemist footwear phenomenon began to fade the basement was closed and the stairs off Rundle Mall were removed. This allowed for the redesign of the entrance to the pharmacy, and interestingly, increasing the opening to the shop by thirty precent resulted in an increase in the turnover on the ground floor by about the annual turnover of the basement without of course the overheads of staff, expenses and stock. A very valuable lesson in getting customers to cross "that invisible barbwire fence across the front of each retail establishment" was learned.

In more recent times the pharmacist directors of the company were Geoff Pride, Elliott Theel and Fred Raimondo. Geoff came to the company in 1956 serving his apprenticeship under Kenneth Wall at the Port Adelaide branch and later managed a branch in David Jones before transferring to “Head Office” as managing director and one of the new owners in 1980. He retired in 1999 after forty-three years service with Birks Chemists.

No history of Birks Chemists would be complete without a short reminisce of some of the other pharmacist trading nearby in the City earlier this century. Strempel and Jolly traded near the Beehive Corner and was later managed by Jack Kinnear who was quite obviously the Roman Catholic spokesman for pharmacy for Catholic action on moral issues. The interesting thing was the tremendous difference between the rough and tough “normal” conversations and the polished and very intellectual statements appearing from time to time under his name, No one in pharmacy ever believed he wrote the articles.

Topperwier of Burdens who like so many of the chemists of that era seemed to get a little eccentric as he grew older; he used to knock on the back door of Birks and want to discuss quite odd matters. Cornish, Glover and Nirgint had shops in Rundle Street for a time. Stevens ran a pharmacy at one end of Adelaide Arcade and Runge had a shop at the other end in Grenfell Street. The Misss Parker had their name carved on a shop in King William Street near South Terrace and when they eventually sold out there was a mad scramble for the large and valuable collection of carboys and blue bottles. Spencer at North Adelaide did well for he held the Memorial Hospital contact. The Guild was well aware of this but did nothing to stop the practice which was frowned upon at that time. Ted (Tiger) Lipsham the hard swearing and touch School of Pharmacy Controller, later to become Registrar, deposed Oscar Walter in a never to be forgotten “meeting of the long knives” with barely a handshake. The story is told of a city pharmacist who at the end of a long day and night was handed a prescription by a customer which read;

Rx Pot Brom 10gr
  Syrup Aurant 30min
  Aq Chlorof ad ½ floz mitte 8 floz
  ½ floz tds p.c.

When told it would cost two shillings and six pence the customer exploded and said the whole lot should cost only a shilling. Whereupon the chemist invited him into the dispensary and plonked down the solution of Pot Brom, syrup of organise and Chloroform water, a bottle and cork on the dispensary counter and said “Make the bloody thing yourself and you can have it for a bob”. In the days of lodge dispensing Birks Chemists had a lodge contract with the Port Adelaide Master Chemists Association to make up medicine for eight pence a bottle when the patient brought their own bottle hopefully in a clean condition. Another old time was John White, for many years on the corner of Stevens place and North Terrace. He never put a foot wrong as the saying goes and was followed in the business by his son and grandson John. The company shifted in later years to North Adelaide and Collinswood and is still in operation today. Highman of 278a Rundle Street East takes us back to the days of Caught and before him Harley who was indeed one of the early chemists of Adelaide. What a treasure of blue bottles, carboys and unguent jars came Birks way when they purchased the place so many years ago. In 1999 the remaining two pharmacies were sold and this chapter of the company ended.

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