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Saturday 12 April 2014

How Sydney Passmore Pincombe Won and Lost Royal Typewriters in Australia

This gold-plated Royal portable typewriter, presented by Royal McBee International Incorporated to Hector Reginald Austin to mark Austin's 50 years' service to the typewriter industry in Australia (1919-1969) - and later donated to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney by Hec's son Jack Reginald Austin - gives us the opportunity to look at the absolutely intriguing history of Royal typewriters in this country.
Royals were introduced to Australia in 1911 by Sydney Pincombe, headquartered at 46-48 Hunter Street, Sydney. Pincombe is the last of the major, nationwide Australian typewriter importers and distributors that we have looked at on this blog, having previously covered the Chartres family (Remington) and the Stott family (Underwood). 
Austin had a hand in importing and selling Royals for the best part of four decades - but he didn't serve all of those 50 years with Royal, and much less with Pincombe (in fact, less than 20 years). Born in Kogarah, Sydney, on March 1, 1892, he began in the typewriter industry soon after being demobbed following World War I service with the 5th Field Artillery Brigade in Egypt, Sinai and the Western Front, from 1915-1918. Austin initially dealt with Noiseless typewriters while working at the Metropolitan Training College on Pitt Street in Sydney, of which he became manager in 1922.
In the late 1920s Austin joined Sydney Pincombe Ltd and switched his allegiance to Royals. He quickly rose through the ranks at Pincombe and took over as New South Wales and Queensland general manager in 1932, three years after the sudden death of the company founder, Sydney Passmore Pincombe, at the very young age of 48.
Sydney Passmore Pincombe was born the son of a church minister in Wollongong on January 13, 1880, and educated at Newington College in Sydney. He established his company upon acquiring the Royal typewriter franchise in 1911 and formed it into a limited company in 1917. After his premature death, at his home at Turramurra on the Upper North Shore of Sydney on May 23, 1929, the company continued on under his name.
Sydney Passmore Pincombe
Sydney Pincombe Ltd sent Austin to the United States on Royal typewriter business in 1934. After World War II, Austin became the handsomely-paid £3000-a-year national managing director of the company. 
In October 1946, however, Austin, along his Sydney manager, Albert Montague Hyams, and the Melbourne manager, William John (later Sir William) Kilpatrick, all simultaneously "walked out" on Sydney Pincombe Ltd. Between the three of them, they had held a controlling interest of 6500 shares in the company.
In advance of their walkout, the three men had outmanoeuvred the surviving, shareholding members of the Pincombe family (notably Sydney's sister Stella Pincombe). Austin, Hyams and Kilpatrick had secretly and privately negotiated with Royal's parent company in the US, and had been granted the right to take the Royal franchise with them. Sydney Pincombe Ltd was left with Facit and R.C.Allen typewriters.
Eddie Ward, a wealthy working-class man?
The three Sydney Pincombe Ltd bosses had "smelled a rat" after one William Morris Urquhart had been given a job with the company in January 1946 and was granted 500 shares, enabling Urquhart to become a director. According to evidence presented at two trials in 1948, followed by a Royal Commission, Urquhart had merely been a "front man" (a "dummy" was the word used) for a Federal Government Minister, Edward John Ward (1899-1963).
The truth of that claim was never established, but it was not the "done thing" back then for a staunch Australian Labor Party member to also be, clandestinely, a very wealthy company shareholder, surrounded as he was in politics by genuinely working-class men, such as Prime Minister Ben Chifley.
It was also alleged that through Ward, as External Affairs Minister, Urquhart had tried to obtain from the Import Procurement Department licences to bring Royal typewriters into Australia in the immediate post-war period. The importation of typewriters into Australia had been barred at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Urquhart was forced to explain why he had not applied through Trade and Customs.
What we do know for certain is that, by his own admission, Ward had recommended that Urquhart "suddenly" be made managing director over Austin(Ward, in denying he personally had a major stake in Pincombe, disputed the use of the word "suddenly".)
Ward told the Royal Commission that Sydney Pincombe's sister, Stella Pincombe, had approached him and offered him Austin's position, which, as a minister, he couldn't accept, but that he had recommended Urquhart, who was at the time working with Ward as an assistant.
Whoever was responsible for Urquhart taking over the management of Pincombe, it resulted in the company not just losing the Royal franchise, but also becoming embroiled in the Royal Commission, which ostensibly was looking into corruption concerning a New Guinea timber deal. Ward was exonerated.
Whatever the real story was, Kilpatrick, using the money from his Sydney Pincombe Ltd shares, promptly formed his own import company, Business Equipment Holdings, in Melbourne, and was joined by Austin and Hyams, both operating in Sydney. Business Equipment Holdings was the new franchise holder for Royals. Kilpatrick, who had known Sydney Passmore Pincombe from his early days in Wollongong, had joined Pincombe's company in Sydney in 1920 and become company secretary in 1927. In 1933 Kilpatrick moved to Melbourne to run the Sydney Pincombe Ltd branches in Victoria and Tasmania, while Austin had charge of the New South Wales and Queensland branches. After serving in the Royal Australian Air Force in World War II, Kilpatrick returned to civilian life in 1945 and established Business Equipment Holdings in late 1946.
In 1965, Kilpatrick sold Business Equipment Holdings to American conglomerate Litton Industries, as part of Litton's overall worldwide acquisition of Royal (along with Cole Steel in the US, Messa in Portugal, Imperial in England and, later, Triumph-Adler in Germany). At the time of its sale, Business Equipment Holdings had 30 branches around Australia, employing more than 1000 people. The Litton takeover of Royal McBee will explain how Austin was able to rack up 50 years' service in the typewriter industry
Austin died in Sydney on January 20, 1980, aged 87.


Richard P said...

A very good contribution to Australian typewriter history -- where else but on Oztypewriter?

That sure is a special little Royal, right down to the carrying case.

Scott K said...

That;s an incredibly beautiful machine and case. Nothing to be scoffed at. And thanks for that great writeup on this piece of Royal history.

Nick Bodemer said...

I suspect by the design of the machine that Royal considered 1961 his 50th anniversary selling Royals (or they gave him a nine-year-old machine). The keytops are of a design that was replaced on the Royalite around 1962, and the case is of a structural design that was used until 1962, when it was replaced with a satchel with a front latch (that is too easy to accidentally unlatch)

Unknown said...

Very interesting article. I did a search for the Sydney Pincombe company after finding a Peerless typewriter ribbon tin in an antique shop in Richmond Tas. My father worked for Peerless Carbon and Ribbon company for over 40 years, starting as the delivery boy when he was 14, and ending up as office manager, selling typewriter ribbons and carbon paper, and fixing typewriters. The tin states Pincombe as an agent for Peerless ( an all Canadian company) which folded in the late "70s when it was taken over by Liquid Paper.