A Look Into the Past, Part 1: The Early Days

April 12, 2016

 Hello again! Welcome to the start of a new series of blog posts entitled A Look Into the Past. Here we will delve into our history, with the hope of discovering some of the things that have made us who we are. We hope you'll come along for the ride with us, too.

 

Today, we start with the very, very early days of the company. David Batchen founded his eponymous business in 1965, and so to 1965 we will go. We don't have a time machine, but what we do have are David's memoirs. The following are some short extracts from these memoirs, covering the period around the founding of D.J. Batchen Pty Ltd. Enjoy.

...we also needed a foreman and persuaded Doug Burdon -- who had been employed at APL for a while but had subsequently left -- to throw in his lot with us. Doug had been in the permanent Navy for about fifteen years, and was pretty taciturn but very practical. He was impatient with people who had emotional problems:

 

"I'm not a psychiatrist," he would say. "Tell him to get back to work and stop whinging." With this philosophy, we got along well together.

 

Finally, we had to find a workshop, and settled on renting a small building (about 10m by 10m, with a mezzanine floor for a desk and a chair) at 135 Bombay Street, Lidcombe. All that remained now was to form a company called D.J. Batchen Pty Ltd, resign from APL, find some customers and get a telephone connected. The first and second were relatively easy, the third daunting, and the fourth impossible, despite the war finishing twenty years previously. We opened for business on 16th August, 1965, and the phone was connected about three months later.

 

David (left) and Doug, on their first day of work, 16 August, 1965.

Our first big job was for the Australian branch of an American firm of contractors to the mining and chemical industries called Dorr Oliver. They had won the contract to design, supply and install sewage treatment equipment at Fyshwick, near Canberra. 

 

To install the equipment, Doug Burdon recruited a team of a father and two sons who, with their wives, had driven from England to Australia in cars towing caravans. They had been second-hand dealers in England and regaled us with all sorts of tales of adventure as they would their way across Asia, including their stay in a Maharaja's palace in India. They claimed one of the sons -- who was cross-eyed -- had married and Indian princess in England and they all lived in luxury for a few weeks as guests of her father. We thought this a highly unlikely story until they called into the workshop after the Fyshwick job was finished. The cross-eyed son opened the door of his caravan, and there in the dim light was a beautiful Indian girl clad in a magnificent sari, dripping with trinkets.

 

They had great ideas about how they would make their fortune in Australia. One plan was to collect all the derelict cars they saw parked in the streets and sell them for scrap. One had the impression they wouldn't be too fussy over which cars actually were derelict.

 

 An old brochure, showing some work for Dorr Oliver.

We received orders for the fabrication of other equipment items from a variety of customers, but we also pursued the labour hiring field. The memories of this are so painful that I try to block them from my mind. It generally involved the hiring of a lot of men for a short time during a plant shut-down, and of course you had to wonder what sort of people would be willing to work under these conditions. Quite a few followed the plant shut-downs from job to job, and were attracted by plenty of overtime paid at casual rates.

 

Others were itinerants who had a very doubtful background. On one job we had four men who each gave us the false surname of Scraggs, and who each claimed to have six kids because that meant we took less tax out of their pay. I asked one of them why he had chosen that name, and he said Scraggs was a man generally disliked by his fellows, and with any luck this would land him in trouble. Will the real Scraggs please stand up!

 

This experience gave us insight into the lives of people who somehow couldn't cope with normal existence. One man had a garnishee on his wages every week, which meant we had to extract a certain amount of his pay and forward it to a hire purchase company. Eventually he would pay off his arrears, only to go into debt again a few weeks later, and be in the same position again. Another man's wife left him with four small kids, and consequently he was unreliable, but he would never ring us to let us know he would be absent, and it became difficult to be sympathetic. 

 

It also made us realise the way forward was to have a stable workforce whose skills you knew. It led us to regard long-term employment as a desirable goal, and resulted in some employees being with the company longer than I was.*

 

*If you were wondering, David "officially" worked for his namesake company for over thirty years, until his retirement in 1997. His memoir contains a list of "Company Builders", who served at D.J. Batchen for over 15 years. There are twenty names on that list -- a list that has grown longer since David wrote these words.

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