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Ballantynes predecessor set long hours for his employees

Joan Woodward - 04/02/2011

Many setbacks dogged the establishment of a drapery shop on the southwest corner of Colombo and Cashel streets, including shipwrecks, fires, high interest rates, and labour disputes.

The land changed hands several times after its purchase from the Canterbury Association in 1851 because of a deep gully running through it.

David Clarkson, a builder from Lyttelton, finally bought it and a small shed very cheaply a few years later. He made plans to open a drapery shop. His cousin, T. Atkinson, joined him and was left to get the building ready for opening, while Clarkson sailed off to Australia to buy stock.

On September 26, 1854, the opening was announced of Dunstable House, named after Mrs Clarkson's birthplace, in Bedfordshire, where she had learned the art of making straw hats. In addition to her hats, the shop sold cotton thread and other imported materials.

The partnership with Atkinson did not last very long, and David Clarkson's sister was employed to help. The Clarksons did so well that after a few years the business expanded into a two-storey structure facing Cashel Street. Dunstable House had two shop assistants.

Although long working hours were usual at the time, those demanded by the draper trade were notorious. Some shops were open for about 12 hours a day on week days, longer on Saturdays, and there were no rules. Trouble brewed.

On New Year's Day, 1862, a public newspaper notice appeared: "We, the undersigned drapers of the City of Christchurch, beg to announce that we have agreed to close our respective establishments on and after the 1st January, 1862, at 7 o'clock pm (Saturday nights excepted), and respectfully invite the co-operation of the public in reducing the present hours and unnecessary hours of labour, in conformity with the hours of business in other provinces on New Zealand, the Australian colonies, and every city and town in England."

One name conspicuous by absence from the signatories was David Clarkson.

He stood firm for about 18 months, but in June 1863 the drapers' assistants, mostly men, got together to form an "Early Closing Association" with the aim of reducing their working day by a further hour to close at 6pm.

Newspaper letters were in strong support, with some scathing references to David Clarkson, who alone opposed their efforts. "In spite of several visits, he still does as he likes," said one correspondent, "closing sometimes at a quarter past seven. He deprives his assistants of time with their wives or families, or opportunity for recreation, after twelve hours labour."

There was, of course, no public transport; six days a week, in all weathers, workers had to walk to work and home on unlit and sometimes muddy streets. In September of 1863 the merchant firms of Christchurch, including Dalgetys, Goulds, Heywoods, L.D. Nathan, and others, agreed to close at 1 o'clock on Saturdays a move which was not followed by the drapers. The lobbying continued and David Clarkson chose to sell out.

William Pratt, a farmer from Riwaka, had just arrived in Christchurch looking for a business for his sons. Dunstable House seemed just the thing, but money was scarce and he had to pay 20 per cent interest on a loan to raise the purchase amount. He took over in January 1864, keeping on the two assistants and engaging a new head man.

In spite of the hard time Pratt prospered, eventually buying more land to the east in Cashel Street to expand the shop. He also bought the corner section on the Colombo Street side.

A firm supporter of early closing, he lost no time in applying it to his own business. Public-spirited and sociable, he became so well established in Christchurch affairs that in 1869 he was elected mayor, to loud cheers from the voters. Two years later, as mayor, he presided over a meeting of the "Saturday Half-Holiday Movement" in White's Hotel.

"In other places the Saturday half-holiday has been granted by businessmen," he said, "and should be followed here. Until now, employees and employers were all in the shops until 10 o'clock at night, and felt quite exhausted at closing time. The sympathy of the ladies will no doubt assure the success of the movement." It did.

Not surprisingly, his own good will was assured, and Dunstable House grew, in spite of most of his stock being lost in the Great Fire of Lyttelton, where it was stored, in October 1870.

However, in 1872 William Pratt realised sadly that his sons did not want to carry on the business, so he decided to sell out and retire. By then he had 12 assistants on his staff. He gave a farewell ball and supper in the shop, and the staff marked the occasion by presenting him with a silver tea-urn.

The new owner was John Ballantyne, from Selkirk, Scotland, who had spent some time in Australia and was keen to settle in Canterbury. He had a sound training in the drapery trade, but had always been a farmer at heart.

He bought Dunstable House in May 1872, managing it with great success and adding a branch in Timaru, but after a few years he finally achieved his dearest wish, a farm of his own. The running of the business was handed over to his sons.

The firm remains in the Ballantyne family after being a focus for Canterbury shoppers since the nineteenth century.

Editor's note
You may recall seeing this article in the Press 16-04-1992.

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