Sheridans’ History 1895 -1996
Fate has a habit of playing strange tricks. If Deakin’s Victorian Government had decided against building the Laanecoorie Weir in the river system near Bendigo in the 1890’s then the Sheridan family may well have remained in the brewery business instead of becoming the million dollar badge making and engraving business it is today. The dam restricted the quality of water needed to make fine beers and ales, and the Sheridan and Appleton Brewery was unable to get compensation from the Victorian Government. The failed lawsuit left Charles’ father, John Sheridan, the master brewer in the partnership, in deep depression. He died shortly after the court decision, at the age of 57. The year was 1895.
The death of his father left Charles with few options for a fifteen year old boy. The little town of Eddington (between Bendigo and Ballarat) provided few other business opportunities apart from the uncertainties of gold mining in Ballarat. He had promised his dying father that he would look after the family until all the boys were working. Once Charles’ seven younger brothers and sisters were no longer a burden on their mother, he left Victoria in 1901, at the age of twenty one, to try his luck on the west coast of Australia.
And when Charles Sheridan packed up his belongings and took the train to Melbourne to catch the boat to Perth, he took with him the one thing he could make a living with – his violin. A trained classical violinist in Ballarat, Charles had won several musical awards. Before he left, his mother made him promise never to go to the goldfields in Coolgardie and Kalgoorlie because typhoid fever was rampant and she feared for his life. So, young Mr Sheridan left the east coast clutching his violin case rather than a miner’s pick and shovel.
Why Charles chose to go to Perth is unclear. Perhaps it was the stories of the continuing gold mining boom in Western Australia that circulated around the hotels and pubs in the Ballarat / Bendigo District. Perhaps it was simply to get away from the constrictions of a small town and a large demanding family. Whatever the reason, it was a good decision. Nearly a century later his three grandsons, Charles (Chas), Philip and David are carrying on the business from the same house at 14 Florence Street West Perth, in which the business was founded, making badges and name plates for the governments and community of Western Australia.
In the early 1900’s, Perth and the port of Fremantle (15 kilometres from Perth and the site of the 1986 America’s Cup defence) were still the major entry and exit points to Great Britain and Europe. Charles may have felt Perth was more a “land of opportunity”, as Melbourne gave sufficient support to their goldfields. Perhaps, also, as Perth was the gateway from Europe, he may have felt it was THE location to get “first pick”.
When Charles arrived, virtually penniless, in this bustling city he was able to get accommodation with friends from Bendigo. His first job was painting a fence. He knew nothing about painting but his boss showed him how to mix the paint ingredients and how to use the brushes efficiently. It was his only job as an employee and the work must have been tough because he swore to himself never to work for someone else again. Charles also formed a small Chamber Quartet with fellow musicians from Bendigo. He also began an importing and indenting business. The types of goods he sold in Perth were mostly gentlemen’s accessories such as cummerbunds and dickeys, as well as small parts and components for tailors and milliners, such as hat vents. In fact, he did his best to procure those items not readily available in Perth. One item he imported that was fashionable around Europe at the time was stiff collars made out of celluloid. This material was the wonder product of that era – the “plastic” of the turn of the century. Celluloid had other uses as labels for food trays, door signs and other places where metal was too expensive. Although the demand for chamber music was not large, together with his importing business, he had laid the foundation for a career in his new found city.
Two years after arriving in Perth, Charles had saved just enough money to sail back to Victoria, steerage class, and ask his childhood sweetheart, Jessie Stott, for her hand in marriage. The slow journey to Melbourne was tempered by playing his violin to the passengers in steerage at meal times. When the captain of the ship heard word of this, he went down to the hall to observe for himself. One look at the finely dressed young man and the musical skill he displayed convinced the captain that this passenger should have quarters elsewhere. For the rest of the journey Charles was given a cabin with the ship’s officers and played for the first class passengers.
Jessie’s parents were not keen to have their young daughter taken to the most isolated city in the world. The difference in religious upbringing was also a very serious stumbling block. Whatever Charles said about life and prospects in Perth, it was enough to convince the family to grant his request for her hand. He promised not to return for Jessie until he could comfortably support her in the new city. It took two more years before he would go back to Victoria and bring her back with him. They married seventeen days after the ship berthed in Fremantle.
By 1906 Charles was well established in Perth. He had transformed his chamber quartet into a dance orchestra (still mostly comprised of his musician friends from Victoria). The band was in high demand at social and formal functions. Charles went on to organise supper dances at the Piccadilly and Ambassador Theatres. In those days, this was a significant form of night-time entertainment. He rented an upstairs office in the Eagle Chambers on Hay Street in Perth’s Central Business District from where he ran his importing business, practised with the band and booked performances. The Charles Sheridan Orchestra made him well known around town and his talents were well appreciated for vice regal occasions.
The businessman in Charles was evident already. By this time he was living in a large inner city residence, had bought land on the Swan River in East Perth, and owned a beautiful yacht, called Furnley. He was doing well by any yardstick. As well, he and Jessie were the proud parents of Doreen and the younger Charles Sheridan II. A near tragedy on his yacht during a storm scared the daylights out of his delicate young wife and their three month old daughter. He sold the yacht, declaring his family more important than any boating pleasure.
Around this time the Western Australian Government resumed the land on the Swan River to build the Perth Gas Works. Near what was to become Gloucester Park and opposite what is now Burswood Resort Casino, the land had increased in value substantially, even in the short time it was held by Charles. The amount of compensation must have given Charles a strong appetite for real estate. He received enough money to build an elegant residence in Florence Street, West Perth – still the family residence and location of the business today. He went on to purchase four other properties. Two were beach houses (now coastal residential areas) and two were commercial rental properties not far from Florence Street. It appears he considered it more prudent to purchase the various properties than to furnish his new residence. It took nearly five years before he could afford to furnish fully the house.
By all accounts, Charles was a dapper man who took care of his appearance, and was always very polite. He was also accustomed to getting his own way as an orchestra leader and in business and family. He convinced his brothers and sisters to move to Perth after their mother passed away, but his strident and domineering demeanour alienated all but his brother Philip. The two families had regular outings at the beach house in North Beach, yet neither Philip nor any of his family ever joined Charles in the business. Doreen and Charles II remained very good friends with Phil’s daughters, Kath and Nell, for the rest of their lives.
In 1913, Charles helped the husband of Jessie’s best friend to repay a large gambling debt. His name was Ernest Austin, a jeweller by trade. The repayment of Mr. Austin’s debt is locked in Sheridan’s history as the start of the Company that still exists today. Rather than give the man any more cash, a small workshop was set up behind the Florence Street residence for Ernest to work off his error in judgement. Before long he was employing additional staff to help Mr Austin fulfil a contract for thousands of hat ventilators (small rivet holes in the felt to stop perspiration by the wearer. **** Austral’s name?
Charles also went back to Melbourne for a few months to learn all he could about celluloid buttons. These were essentially a domed tin plate disc with a printed picture or label covered in clear celluloid. The trick was in how to assemble them together and attach a pin on the back. He must have found out, as they proved to be a runaway success. (There is still an old button made for the East Perth Football Club in the Company’s archives).
The popularity of cheap buttons as membership badges convinced him to move up to the high quality of glass enamelled, copper badges along with other stamped metal products. All gentlemen at the time wore suits and were members of some club or other, be it football, yachting or some other excuse for a quiet ale among friends. There was no television around as a distraction and so life was much more sociable. Everyone was proud of their various Associations and keen to display some form of identification on their coat lapel, or as cufflinks and tie bars. As well, governments had need for various metal items like dog tags or travel tokens.
Charles advertised for a die and toolmaker in Great Britain. In quick time he brought out a man by the name of Frank Rogers. Charles helped Mr Rogers and his family set up residence in Leederville, close to the premises. With a contract during World War I to supply military cap badges, Austral Engraving Company moved from being a small engraving and jewellery repair business to a manufacturer of substance. Doreen recalls as a child seeing hundreds of gold military badges lined up in the family lounge and dining room being inspected by Department of War officers. The contract was the beginning of a successful metal stamping business.
Given the tyranny of distance, this was an auspicious time for any manufacturer in Western Australia. Clients would always show preference to those firms that could supply a quality product earlier than goods from the east coast or imported from Europe. An order from Great Britain could take four to six months to arrive. The onset of World War I would not have helped with supplies to the colonies. Normal wartime restrictions and dangerous sea lanes would have made many goods unavailable altogether. These difficulties convinced Charles Sheridan to change from Importer to Manufacturer permanently.
Making badges is still labour intensive, but seventy years ago it was even more so. Every job is unique, apart from sometimes sharing a common shape. The badges are made from copper or brass, which are stamped using a hardened steel die. In the early days, each client’s design was carved by hand into the soften steel. Special letter punches that stamped each character backwards on the die were used to set the wording on the design. There were many boxes of punches needed for the different leader sizes, not to mention the letter styles (fonts).
Once the die has been made to fit the cutting tools, it is hardened and tempered and the badges can be stamped. After the badges have been embossed and trimmed, the arduous task of colouring in the designs began. Up until 1970 glass enamels were used. Water was added to the powdered glass until a mud-like slurry could be manipulated using ink pen nibs. One or two colours were carefully dropped into the various areas created by the die. The badges were then fired over a gas flame hot enough to melt the glass. This procedure was repeated until all the colours had been applied. The excess glass then had to be rubbed back with a wet carborundum stone. Calluses on the fingers were the standard look for enamellers. The badges then had to be fired again to put the glaze back on the glass. The badge was then ready to have a fitting carefully soldered to the back (cracking glass was a problem), and for the whole item to be electroplated.
In the early 1900’s, it was materials that were expensive and the labour cheap. The designs were pressed onto the copper or brass using hand operated fly presses or more powerful drop hammers. It was a slow and arduous operation that didn’t require large manufacturing equipment or premises because orders were usually for between 12 and 1000 items. A series of small sheds behind the residence was satisfactory.
The highly productive years of 1914 to 1918 (World War I) provided Austral Engravers with the experience and funds to expand, not to mention the need to accommodate increasingly larger orders. The military contracts had been difficult to keep up with, and so a large, friction screw, embossing press was purchased, second hand from England after the war. Affectionately known as “Big Bertha”, this machine, which could apply 80 ton of pressure per square inch of metal, is still called upon occasionally to justify the floor space it occupies. “Bertha” enabled the company to make a larger range of products and to make them faster. Medallions, common seals, enamelled bumper badges and large brass characters were just some of the vast range of goods Sheridan’s could now offer to the state.
As a father of the early 1900’s Charles was archetypal – a strict disciplinarian and not one to tolerate any nonsense. Both children learnt music as part of their normal education at St Brigid’s convent. Doreen took to the piano and Charles II learnt both the violin and piano. They continued their lessons at the convent when they moved on to high school, studying in the mornings before racing of to school.
At one stage, Charles II was sent to New Norcia, 60 kilometres north east of Perth, where the Christian Brothers had a boarding school. Having been mollycoddled by his mother, young Charles was always given notes by Jessie to apologise for being late from music lessons. After a term of this nonsense, the head Christian Brother of St Patrick’s College, called upon Charles senior to deal with the problem. Thereafter, young Charles appeared to leave for school on time. Only when the headmaster rang back three weeks later asking where the boy was, did the penny drop. Charles senior asked a friend, just arrived from Melbourne, to follow the lad to school. It transpired that young Charles had been going to town; selling newspapers in the morning; catching the train to Fremantle to go fishing and watch the ships come into port, then return home in time to avoid suspicion. Doreen recalls that her brother was “as shrewd as a barrel of monkeys.” Not wanting to upset his wife, Jessie, Charles discreetly asked the Brothers for help. “Only one thing for it, Mr Sheridan: at least six months separation from his mother”. During his penance in New Norcia, Charles II tried to “escape” by train back to Perth, but the Brothers new the routine and caught him at the station. And whilst he suffered other indignities like being chucked into a water tank to learn to swim, Chas junior came back a changed young man – stronger and more independent. The threat of being shipped off to New Norcia was often used on his own children in later years.
The reputation and expertise gained by Sheridan’s from the World War I led to other government work. But Doreen clearly remembers that the suspicion of corruption within the Tender Board during the mid 1920’s seemed to mean many quotations were unsuccessful. It wasn’t until someone suggested that Charles hold his next quote until five minutes before closing time, and then to follow the submissions box until it was opened in front of the tender panel, that contracts were awarded more frequently.
Although engraving name plates, plaques and labels were still important, metal stamping in all its forms was the bread and butter of the early business. This was the era of metal ashtrays and bottle openers, copper washers and dog tags, bicycle licence plates and metal heel plates. In addition to work from all levels of government, Austral Engravers was also making badges and equipment parts for sporting clubs and private enterprise. Most of the work was in the metropolitan area as the rural regions were still to difficult to service.
By the 1920’s, Austral Engravers was the largest badge maker and engraver in Western Australia. The name was changed to Sheridan’s Austral Engraving and Stamping Company as Charles felt that a man should stand behind his product. Around 1924 the name was changed to SHERIDAN’S ENGRAVING & METAL STAMPING COMPANY. This name better reflected the range of goods Charles Sheridan was manufacturing at the time. For sixty years it was a household name. Yet, while all production continued behind Florence Street, commercial etiquette demanded an office and showroom in the city. He again chose Hay Street, at Number 846 opposite His Majesty’s Theatre. Charles didn’t want people to think of Sheridan’s as a backyard business.
Charles II and Doreen were working with the Company by this time. Both also followed their father’s footsteps musically. While Chas was trained in the violin and piano, they were not to feature in his musical career. Getting ready to play with his father’s band one day, he picked up a fellow musician’s saxophone and promptly played “God save the King”. It was the first time he’d ever held the instrument but his eyes lit up and from then on it became his instrument of trade.
Young Charles Sheridan had gone straight into the family business, leaving school as soon as he could. He then proceeded to learn all facets of the business. Once versed in the abilities of the firm he began selling (it was called interviewing in those days) to potential clients. Doreen only ever worked in the office at Hay Street. She recalls with pleasure meeting Reverend Flynn. He had just started up the Royal Flying Doctor Service and came to Sheridan’s to get his first set of uniform badges. As both Charles senior and Chas were out, Doreen recalls arranging the appointment for Rev. Flynn while discussing the concept he had just begun. The die still exists for the large gold plated cap badges worn by those first pilots.
With the badge making and engraving business providing a good income during the day, augmented by the Sheridan Orchestra playing at night time functions, the family business was heading into the 1930’s in a healthy financial state. At least there was enough profit for Charles and Jessie to take a much deserved world tour. It was during the German leg of that trip that Charles came face to face with the beginnings of The Great Depression
The Germany of 1928 was in a parlous financial state. The harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty had ravaged the humbled nation and the general poverty had created a breeding ground for discontent (and the eventual rise of the Nazi Party). When Charles saw what was happening in Germany he cut short his trip and returned to Perth to look after the business.
It was just as well he returned when he did. The Slump proved to be much longer and far more vexatious than anyone predicted. Government work and business in general slowed down and few clubs or organisations could afford to pay for luxuries such as badges. The work in hand started to taper off and forward contracts for new business was becoming increasingly difficult to find. The Company was no longer operating profitably. Staff levels were cut to the core, with the family working by day and playing music by night. This period left an indelible mark on Charles, Chas and Doreen. Caution and frugality remained catchwords forever after.
Their musical career became more important than ever when The Depression took hold. Charles senior gave up playing in 1929 to concentrate on the now struggling company. Chas took over as conductor and continued at a new venue. The band became known as the Charles Sheridan and his Embassy Band. After work, Chas and Doreen would scrub up to play at the Embassy Theatre that night. It was fortunate that people at this time would do whatever was needed to save the shilling needed to escape the squalor and hardship that awaited them the next day. Even today many people fondly remember the pleasure the Sheridan Band provided during this time.
For Doreen, however, the pressure became too much. Even with severe pain in her left arm, her father insisted she continue to work in the office by day and play with the orchestra at night. Finally she collapsed one night and had to have surgery on the arm the next day. Some months later, when Charles senior was in Melbourne at a Chamber of Commerce trade fair, Doreen told her mother that she had to take a long break and asked that her father not be told. Doreen went back to Melbourne to stay with friends and relations. By the most amazing of coincidences, Doreen and her father met each other in Collins Street in the city. Doreen recalls that her father turned as white as a ghost. He was courteous but definitely not amused. Doreen didn’t feel able to return to the business for three years, and trained as a nurse during her absence.
While on the road to economic recovery, Charles planned to extend the range of products still further. A major contract was won to supply the street signs for a growing Perth. This required the purchase of a high temperature, oil-fired furnace because the signs needed to be sprayed with porcelain enamel, a very durable product, as those who remember porcelain cookware will attest. The room sized furnace had to be kept running twenty four hours a day to run profitably as it took the best part of a day to heat up. The main competition was Metters, a large company in Western Australia that made all types of porcelain coated goods from fire grates to wood fired stoves, as well as those infamous mugs and pans. The company had a monopoly on porcelain enamelling in Perth at the time. The contract was disastrous for Sheridan’s as Metters higher volumes meant their operating costs were much lower, not to mention that their experience meant fewer rejects.
The Irish blood in the Sheridan family refused to give in, and many late nights were spent keeping all the furnaces operating correctly. But they were producing goods for more than they were charging. Often Charles II was called from a musical performance to try to get a furnace started again. During their experiments with porcelain enamel, Sheridan’s even developed a technique for coating car exhausts inside and out with this durable coating. Not surprisingly, the “lifetime” exhaust was unwanted by the car manufacturers. Charles senior had to borrow against his properties to remain afloat at this time. To continue to run at a loss would head the Company further down the road to insolvency. Eventually, the furnace was shut down, only to be fired up as demand required.
Whether it was the stress of The Depression or the personality of the man, Charles Sheridan senior could be a difficult employer. This was especially applicable to his two children. Apart from Doreen’s extended break, it was not unusual for Charles junior to leave home for a couple of days at a time and stay at a hostel in the city. No one remembers if he showed up for work during these altercations with his father but he always returned after tempers calmed down.
If the truth be known, young Charles was much happier running a contemporary dance orchestra than a dirty, smelly manufacturing company of the thirties. Once, while on holidays in Sydney, he had the opportunity to play in a large orchestra. He sent a telegram to Doreen to send his saxophones over by ship. After playing with the band a short time, the opportunity arose to join the group to play in Japan. When Charles senior got wind of this, he wrote a letter stating how the Company’s toolmaker had lost his finger in an accident. His son reluctantly cancelled his trip and came back to Perth only to find the accident was a ruse. Perhaps this ruse ensured that Sheridan’s would not die with its founder.
The metal stamping company relied on toolmakers to make the various cutting tools needed for new designs. As mentioned, Frank Rogers was the first. His apprentice was Ray Hibben, who started work with the company as a young lad in 1938. Apparently Mr Rogers was a temperamental artisans and a reluctant teacher. So Mr Hibben essentially copied the skills from Mr Rogers as they worked side by side. He quickly and skilfully took over the position when Mr Rogers quit suddenly. Ray Hibben was also an impressive engraver and later became an accomplished die maker. Frank Rogers returned some years later, after working in the Eastern States, but Ray Hibben’s enthusiasm for the job ensured he was now the master. Over the years, Ray learnt and became proficient at every manufacturing facet of the business and truly deserved the title of Production Manager.
Another string to Sheridan’s bow was a unique scheme whereby home owners and commercial premises could register their keys with the WA Key Register Company. This company was operated from the Hay Street office. If someone lost their keys, a replacement, held by Sheridan’s, would be available for a charge of five shillings. This business proved very popular and continued until World War II, a precursor to the key cutting businesses which can now be found in every shopping centre and hardware store.
When Australia became embroiled in the Second World War, every young man wanted to be a hero. Ray Hibben was no different and promptly enlisted. He was dragged from the railway platform just before his train left for Sydney. This was because Charles II had advised Manpower that Ray was essential to industry. It was a very angry young man who came to work the next day and he never completely forgave his boss. It must have been hard on Chas, as well, because he held a lifelong fascination with aircraft, being a member of the Royal Aero Club.
In 1941 Charles Sheridan, the founder of the Company, died from Thrombosis after a medical operation. He was sixty years of age. On his deathbed, Charles made his son promise several things: never fly a plane, and give up the music to concentrate on the business. Chas, now thirty three, was true to his word. He hung up his saxophone and never played professionally again. The Sheridan Orchestra ceased to play and the various members moved on or reformed other bands. Some went to war.
Charles’ death had several other implications for the business. Concerned for his frail wife, he made professional trustees responsible for all financial affairs in the business and property, and to pay for Jessie’s upkeep. Charles probably thought she was not going to live much longer, and wanted to ensure his sick wife would not have to struggle financially. He willed the Company to his son, along with the Florence Street residence and North Beach holiday house, and to Doreen all of the rental properties. Doreen continued to work in the Hay Street office and occasionally tried to organise things in the factory.
Jessie, never a strong woman, was devastated by her husband’s death and began to neglect herself. Three months later, the family doctor asked Doreen to get her sick mother away from the house and be with her Victorian family. They landed in Melbourne on December 7, 1941, the very day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Eventually, Jessie recovered from her depression and, missing her son, returned to Perth three or four months later.
Doreen, however, stayed in Melbourne. With the outbreak of war with Japan, she offered her services as a nurse. When they found she had some knowledge of metal manufacturing, the Ministry of Munitions seconded her to the Materials and Supply division. There Doreen remained for the duration of the war, and she never worked for Sheridan’s again.
To the amazement of her family, Jessie survived for another twenty seven years. Throughout this time, the trustees collected rent from Doreen’s properties to pay off the mortgages as quickly as possible, and then proceeded to sell them without her knowledge or consent. She received no income from the properties and only a call from a friend made her race back from Melbourne to save a property in Rockingham that was being left to run down. She suspected it was to be sold cheaply to someone connected to the trustees. Her faith in the trustee firm quickly evaporated.
The trustees also collected all profits from Sheridan’s Engraving, and attempted to place an outsider into the business as manager. Charles refused to work under those conditions and eventually they acquiesced. But he was still only paid wages as a manager. All major decisions had to be approved by the trustees and the banks.
The terms of the will were indeed harsh and the distribution of properties and responsibilities caused much disharmony between brother and sister as time marched on. The repercussions remained in place until Jessie’s death in 1968. When the terms of the will finally lapsed, he swore never to get into debt again. As a result, capital equipment was only purchased if the Company could pay cash. It also meant that real estate investment held little interest, unlike his father. Until his mother’s demise, Chas Sheridan never fully felt he was the master of his own business. He promised his sons he would never leave a will that would rule them from the grave.
With the war at hand and Doreen in Melbourne, he closed the Hay Street premises and small offices were squeezed into the back yard between the factory and the house. The advent of World War II ensured continuing expansion for the Company. Normal business was suspended or at best curtailed during these times of self denial. Charles didn’t have a lot of time to grieve for his father or miss his mother and sister, because of the incredible strain of running a business under Wartime government order. It became still more frenetic when the United States Navy arrived in Fremantle.
Bombed out of Pearl Harbour, the Yank Navy berthed with few stores and fewer uniforms. For the tailors and badge makers of Perth it was a bonanza. All the officer’s uniforms had gold or silver badges and buttons – not plated brass, but solid 9ct gold and sterling silver items. At one stage, Sheridan’s were using so much gold, the Company was investigated by the Royal Mint and the War Department to ensure gold wasn’t being stolen or sold to the Germans. When they arrived unannounced, strips of the precious metals were scattered all around the factory, the staff having become quite blasé about “just another metal”. Today, the relics of those years are still around with hundreds of Australian, New Zealand and United States military dies still in archive racks. Visits or enquiries from historians occasionally mean removing protective grease for closer inspection.
Manpower (the arm of wartime Government devoted to supplying the war effort) demanded a triple shift from Sheridan’s and all manufacturers for the last two years of the conflict. The three eight hour shifts of twenty to thirty staff needed Charles’ full attention.
Not long after the War came the housing boom and the related demands for manufactured goods. Sheridan’s continued making licence plates for cars and bikes along with other metal stampings. There was a big demand for real estate and other advertising signs. One large contract was for Castrol Oil and these could be seen all over the countryside.
While his father never believed in advertising because “the product should sell itself”, Charles II became convinced that promotion of the business was vital to its survival. Before long, there were billboards on every major entrance from the populous northern suburbs into the city. Some people thought Sheridan’s owned and worked out of the premises on which some signs were placed. Regular advertisements were also placed in the local newspapers and in various sports club fixtures books.
A very clever gimmick at the time was the manufacture of fake coins. They were actually copper medals slightly larger than the old penny. Charles had squeezed as much information about the Company’s products onto each side of the medal along with the words “Heads U Pay”. This meant the coin could be kept for two-up rather than tossed out as a cheap stunt. Under the cover of darkness, he would drive through the main streets of Perth scattering the coins along the curbing. Human nature did the rest. Eventually he was “hauled over the coals” by the city council and threatened with a string of offences if he didn’t stop.
Throughout the post war period the metal stamping business continued to provide consistent cash flow with badges for businesses, schools and sports clubs. Chas would always employ one or two salespeople, called travellers in those days, and have them on the road seeking new business. The rural sector came into its own, once funds were made available for roads to be bituminized. Chas Sheridan made regular trips to the country visiting all the Road Boards, now called Shire Councils. Along with taking orders for the local car registration plates, he would meet the local community. The major sport of the day in the country towns was Aussie Rules Football. And with the farming communities seeming to be growing money instead of wheat or sheep, badge orders were as common as tractors. But life on the farm was never etched in gold, and by the 1970’s the droughts had taken their toll. As the young folk left their farms and communities, sporting clubs and their patrons disappeared and so did their orders for badges. Like the war dies, a large section of football club dies are covered in protective grease and are mementoes of a better time.
After a five year courtship, Chas married Beryl Olsen in 1953. Charles III was born in 1955, Philip in 1956 and David in 1958: Three potential heirs to the family business.
It was in 1956 that Sheridan’s had another near fatal blow. One Friday afternoon an employee, smoking in the factory, tossed a cigarette butt into the paint spray booth when he saw Mr Sheridan coming. (Smoking was forbidden in the factory and it had nothing to do with personal health). The paint fumes exploded and, with years of sprayed paint caked around the booth, the fire spread rapidly burning down the back half of the factory which was mostly a series of connected corrugated sheds. A falling beam ruptured the oil line to the main furnace and this help fuel the inferno. Friends and some of the employees from those days can recall that the smoke covered the city. Flames also went through the top half of the factory and offices and nearly took the stately home with it as well. It was a major catastrophe for the business but because the heavy machinery was spared, Charles managed to keep the business going and staff were back at work the following Monday, however difficult the circumstances. To avoid the impression of a destroyed business he allowed no one other than family and employees near the premises to see how bad the fire had really been.
Luckily for Sheridan’s, the factory was insured and some good came out of the fire. A single large factory, with a high ceiling and better natural lighting, was erected and connected to the top half. It took about six months before the business was back to normal. Even today, there are large timber pillars with charcoal encrusted at their tops like dark demons waiting for their next meal. Coats of white paint and aluminium foil insulation go some way to hiding the horror of that day.
The 1960’s saw the second mining boom of Western Australia and there were around twenty five people employed with Sheridan’s, its star was shining brightly once more. As Joan Macleod, the Company’s receptionist at the time remembers: “It was still relatively primitive in those days. I had to type daily entries into the ledger machine rather than a computer, but business was pretty good. Sheridan’s was also one of the few companies which employed a female commercial traveller. Both Laurel Nazzari (the traveller) and I were employed by Sheridan’s for most of our working lives and we were very much one big family affair.”
Although business was good during the 1960’s, Sheridan’s was not without competition. Apart from another smaller manufacturer in Perth, the Eastern States had begun to turn their eyes towards this isolated State. The extra competition soon saw the other manufacturer drop badge making and concentrate on engraving. Sheridan’s market domination and advertising meant that its future remained secure for the time being.
It was almost a forgone conclusion that Charles’ three sons would join the Company. Living at the front of the factory, it became their weekend playground. Sneaking in through a small window, they would ride trolleys down the centre aisle. As the boys grew up, their adventures in the factory included melting borax and lead with the soldering jets to make “glass” jewellery and metal shapes. At one stage they were embossing leather using hobbing dies and the big presses. The staff would often come to work Monday morning knowing they had been again been visited by large mice.
In an endeavour to explore new sources of revenue, Charles made many trips abroad. Most were on trade mission aboard the M.V. Centaur going to Hong Kong and Singapore. Other trips were made to the United Kingdom to visit badge makers and establish contacts with finding suppliers (makers of badge fittings).
Charles also tried to find ways to reduce the labour content of badge enamelling. He bought various pieces of machinery to replace the tedious task of rubbing down of the fired glass. But, because enamelled badges are slightly domed, most of the equipment only succeeded in grinding down the centre. On one of his journeys, he came across a completely different approach to colouring using epoxy resins. He had Ray Hibben, his production manager, experiment with every kind of two pack adhesive or finish they could lay their hands on. No one from the East was giving away any secrets. They finally tracked down the manufacturer of a suitable product after several years of heartbreak and frustration. Mr Hibben jokingly wanted the new technique called “Raylite” as a passing slur against an Eastern States competitor who referenced a specific in-house name for the process.
The discovery of resins was a turning point for the industry in general and for Sheridan’s, in isolated Perth, in particular. As the colouring of badges was now the last process, fittings could be riveted by machine rather than soldered cautiously by hand. Chipped glass enamel became a thing of the past. Low temperature hot plates were used instead of 800 degree furnaces.
By the age of fourteen Chas junior was doing contract engraving during the school holidays to make extra cash. Even while completing a Degree in Commerce at the University of Western Australia, he spent all his spare time in the factory. Like his father he learnt to operate presses and most other skills in the factory, this time under the wing of Ray Hibben.
Philip went to the Western Australian Institute of Technology (now Curtin University) for two years part-time to study for a Bachelor of Business degree in Accounting and would spend summer vacations in the Wheatbelt loading wheat for Co-operative Bulk Handling. His spare time in the early days at Sheridan’s was spent engraving name bars and plaques.
Around this time, Charles II was considering the idea of dropping engraved name bars from the range of goods. Deliveries were sometimes taking up to eight weeks if blank stock ran out, and the dissatisfaction of some clients was becoming an embarrassment. Philip was just leaving on a trip to the United Kingdom with W.A.I.T. and asked his father to hold off until his return. While in England, Phil took the time to visit some of the large badge companies and the Canning’s Electroplating Supply Company.
When he came back to Perth some weeks later, Philip resolved to take over the engraving section of Sheridan’s and, later, to upgrade and run the electroplating section. Plating of all badges and bars used to be done in a large porcelain casserole pot bubbling on top of a gas ring. Philip demolished the insides of the old oil fired furnace and converted it into an impressive electroplating line capable of all the surface finishes required for modern badges. Philip relished the opportunity to run his own contract business to Sheridan’s obviating the need for too much arguing with his father.
David Sheridan also made extra money from holiday work and this lead to full-time employment at fifteen years of age. He was later persuaded by his father to get a formal trade certificate that could be useful both in the business and just in case Sheridan’s experienced future problems. David commenced a five year apprenticeship under the guidance of Ray Hibben with the final six months at an engineering firm for more extensive training. He became a qualified fitter and turner in 1980.
The wages explosion of the 1970’s was difficult for Charles senior to reconcile. The thriftiness instilled in him during the years of The Depression and World War II had made materials the most important part of the manufacturing equation. As the price of copper rose, he used to get a foundry to melt the blanked strips of copper sheet into long bars rather than sell to a dealer at one tenth the buying price. He then had the Perth Mint roll them into cumbersome strips which Sheridan then annealed in one of the furnaces. It wasn’t until the strips were cleaned in pickle (a weak acid solution) and the wavy edges trimmed on the guillotine that they could be put through the machinery. Charles even attempted to melt the metal on the factory premises. A small smelting furnace was bought second hand and set into a pit in the ground at the back of the factory. Special moulds were manufactured and tested. However, the equipment was never fired up and become a haven for red back spiders before it was removed twenty years later.
Another “money saving” idea was to cut the corners off the strips of copper if there was enough metal to blank out a smaller badge for some future job. Hours were spent trimming the corners of the strips and using the sharp edged pieces later on. Rather than blanking out the job continuously on the press, each piece had to be judiciously placed into the tooling and blanked individually.
The use of remanufactured copper strips, the attempt to smelt the metal and the trimming of the old strips caused much acrimony between the Charles senior and junior. In time, the cost of these exercises become self evident and the staff went back to doing what they did best.
During the transition to resin coated badges, Sheridan’s charged the same price as enamelled badges. Chas convinced his father to go “cold turkey” and see what happened if glass enamelling was dropped permanently. Only one customer, the R.S.L., complained and they went elsewhere.
Charles II became quite ill with throat cancer in the late seventies, and while Joan Macleod and Laurel Nazzari helped keep the administration of the business running smoothly, young Chas found more of his time being taken up behind a desk. Charles senior spent much of his final years in the house because of the effects of chemotherapy. These times provided for a reasonable transfer of responsibility and knowledge, as Chas would simply walk up to the house to get any advice needed.
The sudden death of Ray Hibben in 1981 was a terrible shock to everyone. Known by the three boys all their life, Ray had been a member of Sheridan’s family. His skills had been essential to the continuation of the Company. By this time he was the only die and toolmaker employed by Sheridan’s; and, at home, he continued working with his wife, May, colouring badges on contract rates. Chas went back into the factory for a crash course in tool making and Philip learnt how to engrave dies.
May Hibben had start working for Sheridan’s in 1941, where she met and eventually married Ray. After her children had started school, she began contract glass enamelling from their home. After Ray’s death, she continued with the badge colouring for a few more years with the help of her son and other friends.
It was a shaky time not helped by the death of Charles II in 1982 and his wife, Beryl, the following year. But the three brothers weathered the storm and, in due course, completed a restructuring of the business.
In 1984, the Company’s name was changed to SHERIDAN’S FOR BADGES to again reflect the core activities of the business. Street signs and licence plates were being manufactured by other firms using new techniques that others could simply copy, or new technologies that were expensive to set up. Even machine engraving had become inundated with small one and two man concerns. But badge making remains a complex, labour intensive process that takes years of patience and experience to develop. “We continue to learn from our mistakes every week” says David.
By the late eighties, Sheridan’s had tossed the ledger machine on the tip and become computerised. It wasn’t long before the digital technology become part and parcel of engraving and die making. Philips agency meant the Company had access to the latest engraving equipment. A laser engraver was in use by 1995, but only a small scale.
In 1996, Sheridan’s for Badges is in a strong position with all three boys still involved in the business. Each of the sons has a clearly defined role and function. Chas is involved with office administration, computer requirements, and overseeing the badge colouring division. Philip is in charge of electroplating and engraving, as well as developing his agency for computer engraving machines and signage systems. And David is in charge of the main factory keeping machines, tooling and staff in smooth running order. This delineation helps them maintain an individual autonomy essential to family members working together.
The three Sheridan brothers have also decided on a strategy for the future of the Company. `We have decided to continue as a small business of about twenty people. We know that competing with the large firms of the Eastern States and Asia would be futile. There is no “level playing field” for labour intensive companies competing with Asia,’ says Chas. `Our present size is sufficient for us to personally manage the business and supply badges at a reasonable price. Service and intimate knowledge of the product has helped keep our name synonymous with badges in Western Australia.
This is the reason we have chosen the slogan “Sheridan’s, the name behind the badge”. We have looked at Taiwan and Vietnam as manufacturing centres for our Company but we are very apprehensive about moving offshore.
From the street, the house on Florence Street looks likes any other residence in the suburb of West Perth. Apart from discreet signage, only a walk down the side of the premises reveals the offices and manufacturing facilities are still located on the original site. And while computerised production has replaced some of the tasks, “Big Bertha” is still there, reminding the family of another era. None of the sons have carried on the family’s musical traditions but they are certainly carrying on the business.