Collingwood Notables Database
Thomas Shelmerdine came from a hatmaking family in Stockport, Cheshire, which, with nearby Denton, was a leading hat manufacturing centre in the nineteenth century England. By the age of sixteen he was working in the business with three of his five brothers. His father Samuel, along with James Kirk and Cephas Froggatt, patented ‘improvements in machinery or apparatus for felting or “planking” the bodies of hats … improvements also applicable to other felting purposes’. With this pedigree, Thomas would also prove to be an innovative manufacturer in Melbourne and was widely regarded as a pioneer.
He arrived in Victoria in 1876 with his wife and their younger daughter, Lillie. By October of that year he had formed Shelmerdine, Davison & Co, and rented the Nicholson Street, Abbotsford hat factory which had been built by James Hobson Turner some four year earlier. In December, newspapers around Australia were flooded with advertisements for hatmakers in all branches of the trade to work at the Denton Mills in Collingwood. Within a few months the establishment had progressed to the extent that on 17 February 1877 The Argus printed an extensive article describing the processes, which were then producing around 1200 felt hats per week. This factory was different in that it started from scratch, processing the raw materials of sheep wool and rabbit skins. Steam power was used at various points. Around 40 hands were regularly employed, about half skilled operatives who had learned their trade overseas and the others apprentices, women and girls who were learning on the job. In 1880 Shelmerdine wares at the Melbourne Exhibition were widely praised; an article in The Bendigo Advertiser also expounded at length on the benefit to farmers of the use of pestiferous rabbits for making hats.
Shelmerdine’s first wife had died in 1877 and towards the end of 1880 he married Margaretta Lockwood of Williamstown, first sending his daughter Lillie back to England. By 1881 the area long known as Dight’s Paddock had been subdivided and was on sale as the Campbellfield Estate. Most of the estate was made up of small building blocks, with two exceptions: Campbellfield, soon to become the home of architect William Pitt, and Yarra House, another early riverside mansion which had been the home of pioneer John Dight. On a piece of land measuring somewhere between five and eight acres, the latter property attracted Shelmerdine both as a substantial home for his soon to be enlarged family, and also as a site where he could establish his own hat factory.
In August 1884, newspapers in Hobart and Sydney as well as the local Argus were advertising for blockers, plankers and trimmers to work for Shelmerdine in his new enterprise. The Mercury and Weekly Courier (30 September 1887) included the Yarra Hat Mill in a series on local industry, describing the usage of a gas engine as well as a steam boiler. By then Shelmerdine employed about 100 hands.
Shelmerdine had ongoing industrial relations problems, starting with his refusal in 1884 to honour a gentleman’s agreement with local hatters to implement the eight-hour day. In the 1890s there was a series of strikes, which must have strained family harmony. Shelmerdine’s younger brother David had followed him to Melbourne in 1878, and he and his son Frank, both working at the Yarra Hat Mills, participated in striking and picketing. By 1896 the unrest had settled down and Thomas was able to make another trip to England, mainly for work purposes, but where he would also have visited the two daughters from his first marriage who had been largely brought up by their maternal grandmother.
Thomas died of chronic alcoholism in 1899, leaving his widow Margaretta with a large young family but a substantial legacy of around £25,000 including the thriving business. Margaretta continued the business until her eldest surviving son Samuel was able to take over the management. In 1925 Yarra House was sold to Dunlop Rubber but Margaretta maintained her involvement with Abbotsford affairs until her death in 1952, when her funeral was held at St Philip’s.
|Stockport, Cheshire, England
|Date of Marriage
|Sarah died May 1877
|Elizabeth 1869, Lillie c. 1871, Hester c. 1876-1879
|Margaret Lockwood, (c. 1855-1952)
|23 October 1880, Williamstown.
|Thomas 1882 (died in infancy), Samuel 1883, Ernest, Preston, Stanley, Edgar 1890, Doris 1894
|Status of Building
|Yarra House, Trenerry Crescent
|Status of Building
|St Philip's Anglican, Abbotsford
|6 September 1899
Annual Report of the Commissioner of Patents for the year 1870; Mercury; The Argus; Australasian; Sydney Morning Herald; Herald; Brisbane Courier; Bendigo Advertiser; Sunday Times (Perth); Punch