It’s surprising they haven’t found the gene for plumbing yet. The Geschke family are onto their fourth generation. “Iron work, engineering and plumbing are definitely in our genetic makeup,” says Master Plumber and Co-director of Geschke Plumbing, John Geschke. His grandfather was an iron founder, his father was a plumber, his brother is a plumber, and now his son and nephew are plumbers. There’s definitely something going on there.
John’s brother Steve wanted to be “a plumber like Dad” since the day he could first walk and talk. After his first day of primary school, so the family story goes, Steve came home devastated – disillusioned with the whole “going to school” thing – because, they hadn’t taught him any plumbing.
A Geschke enlists
John’s grandfather Charles (Carl) Rudolph Geschke certainly showed early signs of the plumbing gene. He was born in the inner-city industrial suburb of Richmond in 1884, and became an iron founder with Galliers and Klaerr, Victoria’s leading iron founders and plumbing company. The St Kilda foundry predominantly produced stoves and heating appliances and, in 1888, patented a new gas hot water heater.
In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, Charles, like over 400,000 other Australian men aged between 18 and 45, enlisted to join the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF).
Copping anti-German sentiment
Although his family had been settled in Australia since 1849, when the first Geschke emigrated to South Australia, Australian-born Charles, with his German-sounding surname, suffered from the anti-German sentiment that was building in Australia. He would have really “copped it,” says John.
Before the war, the German community was well-liked and very much part of Australian life. (By 1900 they were the fourth-largest European ethnic group in all the colonies, behind the English, Irish and Scots.) Like the Geschke ancestors, many Germans were escaping from the religious persecution of Lutherans.
“There was also a potato famine at the time,” says John, “combined with a lot of talk that Australia was warm, sunny and pleasant... pretty appealing for someone in the middle of a harsh, hungry European winter”.
But by the time war broke out, the ripples of international tensions reached Australia. There was a frenzy of anti- German feeling across the country. It’s incredible to think about it now, but in 1915, Germans and Austrians were put into internment camps across Australia. German businesses, schools and churches were forced to close. Anyone of German descent or with a German-sounding surname, like “Geschke”, was treated with suspicion.
Charles was tested for his suitability to join the AIF and he responded, “I was born in Australia and have lived here all my life and I am Australian,” which the authorities accepted.
An iron founder goes to war
Charles embarked from Port Melbourne on the troopship HMAT Medic on 20 May 1916, recruited to the 23rd Howitzer Brigade and the 1st to 10th Reinforcements. He was in the artillery division – a gunner. It was a brutal and dangerous role.
Charles ended up on the battle fields of France and Belgium. The number of casualties on The Western Front was immense, for little gain. “He was in the trenches watching his friends’ heads being blown off,” says John.
Trench warfare was a pitiless existence. Life in the trenches was a continual battle with mud, lice and rats. In winter the trenches were constantly waterlogged. Supplies were running low so the men existed on a diet of thin soup with the occasional chunk of horsemeat. Men not only suffered continued heavy shelling but disease: trench fever, trench nephritis, and trench foot. This was Charles’ world for two years.
Almost 60,000 soldiers died and 156,000 were injured on the battlefields of the First World War, according to the Australian War Memorial (www.awm.gov.au). These are extraordinary numbers when you consider that Australia’s population in 1914 was just under five million.
Charles sustained shrapnel wounds. After hospitalisation he returned to the front line, then finally made it home. He had survived. He received a medal from King George V for his war service, says John, despite him being disciplined during the war for not saluting a British officer.
Charles makes it home
We can only imagine the horror that Charles Geschke experienced; he never, ever spoke about it once he returned. “’It’s too horriffic to talk about,’ is what Charles used to say,” says John.
“That’s all that was said in our family.”
This is common to returned ANZACs. There was very little known about how to help them process their experiences and heal the psychological wounds. The terms “shell shock” and “combat stress” were coined during the First World War, but now we know that many suffered deep psychological trauma, affecting their long-term physical, social and emotional wellbeing. Many, like Charles Geschke, suffered in silence.
When he returned from war, Charles returned to work at Galliers and Klaerr, started a family and, although he constantly struggled with ill-health, went about “normal life”. One of his sons, Norman Geschke, joined the Royal Australian Airforce in 1942 when he was 17 and he served in the Korean War flying many types of aircraft, eventually becoming a wing commander.
Hayes & Geschke Plumbing begins
Charles’ son Brian Geschke (John’s father) became a plumber and began working at his father’s workplace, Galliers & Klaerrs, installing industrial stoves made by the iron founders.
In 1951 Brian Geschke and William Alfred Hayes, his colleague at Galliers & Klaerrs, started Hayes & Geschke plumbing (some years later nicknamed Haste and Guesswork – most unfairly, laughs John). The business started in general maintenance and small commercial and industrial, but quickly specialised in industrial contracts.
Early on in the business, in April 1955, Hayes & Geschke joined the Master Plumbers. “He was a big believer in giving back,” says John. Brian was deeply committed to the plumbing industry and in training in particular. He became a welding instructor in the evenings after work at the Royal Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT).
In the years after co-founder Bill Hayes died in 1966, Brian took on some significant commercial projects including the Monash University Union Building, PLC school in Burwood and Mitchelton Winery.
“Dad definitely had engineering in his blood,” says John. “Dad had a love of engineering and a love of achievement... we’ve worked on wheat silos, heavy industrial sites and on big engineering projects. I remember going along with Dad to the Repco forge. The place was hot and dark and dirty. As a kid I was so impressed; I thought this was as close to hell as it gets!”
Not only that, but Brian acquired his “powder monkey” explosives licence and used it to excavate rock and demolish septic tanks. Sons Steve and John were now in heaven: they could hardly believe you could go along to Dad’s work and watch him insert gelignite and fuses into underground concrete structures or rock... apply the blasting matt... detonate the explosives... and then get paid.
The next generation of Geschke
Finally in 1972, Steve Geschke – the one who was devastated when his first day of primary school didn’t feature plumbing – got to start his apprenticeship. John followed soon after (winning the Master Plumbers Andrew Letten Gold Medal and the Kembla Travelling Scholarship). Now sadly without Hayes, but happily with two Geschke sons in tow, Brian changed the company name to Geschke Plumbing.
There have also been “adoptees” working with Geschke for life – a sign of very inclusive, supportive family business. Jack Dent was a site plumbing foreman for many years and took on the education of the apprentices. Gareth (Dicko) Dickson started his apprenticeship with Geschke and is now a partner in the business along with Steve and John.
Brian died in 2010. He was much admired and much loved, and his business inspired the following two generations to become plumbers. John’s son David, and Steve’s son Mark are both now qualified plumbers working with the company.
Geschke has moved into new purpose- built headquarters in Keysborough. The premises are a plumber’s dream: dedicated areas for administration; plumbing management; computerised design; estimating; meeting rooms; a workshop with Oxy, MIG, TIG, ARC welding, a folder, guillotine and lathe – and don’t forget the fully equipped gym.
Geschke recently celebrated 60 years membership of Master Plumbers, of which John is very proud: “We have the great satisfaction of a long history of achievement. But we also know that we have Charles’ and Brian’s genetic code. The gene for plumbing is firmly embedded.”