We’ve come a long way since the days of turn of the century plumbing hardships. With the steady march of progress in industry, innovations in plumbing technology and ideology have come on in leaps and bounds. The first half of the 20th century was the turning point in our industry where breakthroughs were made that define our trade as we know it today. Amanda Bain explores advancements that were made in the earlier years in the second instalment of our History of Plumbing series. All aboard the time machine!

The years during the First World War were described in the minutes of the meetings as a miserable time for plumbers. Labour shortages, encroachment by builders on plumbing work, and unfavourable determinations by the Wages Board had many plumbers questioning their future. Materials were di cult to source and many young men volunteered for the Australian Imperial Forces, depleting the available workforce. But these challenges did not deter the industry; members of the Association assisted and serviced their communities outside the realms of plumbing by supporting the Red Cross and the Lady Stanley Appeal, and later, helping the State War Council to employ returned servicemen.

With many plumbers serving their country in the armed forces, those still at home had to expand their skill sets to meet the demand of the advances in the industry. It was at this time that the plumbing industry saw the first of many technological revolutions taking place. Sewerage connections, septic tank installations, electric bells, hot water radiators, and hot air warming and ventilation systems were all now part of a plumber’s repertoire.
The landscape for how apprentices and plumbers were classified was also about to change. New legislation in the form of the Apprenticeship Bill, introduced in 1927, saw the establishment of an Apprenticeship Commission who regulated the system that ensured apprentices were properly indentured, registered and educated. The balance between technical knowledge and practical skills training for plumbing apprentices was an issue that continued to be of concern throughout the 1930’s, and was often a topic of debate between the Association and the Commission.

As the City of Melbourne celebrated its centenary in 1935, the plumbing industry also achieved a significant milestone. The classification of plumbers was finally achieved in 1935 with an amendment to the Health Act. It laid down the standards and requirements for plumbers to be registered. It was fitting then that the Association’s contribution to the City’s celebrations in this year was an exhibition on the history of plumbing.

Throughout the Depression and during the Second World War, the plumbing industry was called upon to help stimulate business and overcome some of the devastating economical effects of this time in our history. The government initiated a project to sewer country towns around Victoria, and for plumbers such as George Stone, Frank Murray, Bill Gray and Charlie Allen, this was a timely and lucrative period. However, despite the prosperity experienced by some, a severe shortage of plumbing materials, along with home building grinding to a halt saw many plumbers leaving the trade for alternative employment.

Plumbers at war
In 2015 to coincide with 100 years since the Gallipoli landing, Australian Plumbing Magazine featured four articles remembering some of the war heroes and Master Plumbers members who served their country. You can revisit their stories through the Australian Plumbing Industry magazine website archives at australianplumbingindustry.com.au/features/past-issues

The shortage of materials and labour continued to plague the industry into the early 1950s making it more difficult than ever to run a successful plumbing business. But the Association was a constant force amongst these challenges providing support, advice and information to its members to help them through these difficult times.

There were many reasons the 50s were a significant decade for the Association and its 50 year anniversary in 1952 was one of them. As part of the celebrations, which included another exhibition of plumbing equipment, they staged a rather unique competition – the search for Victoria’s ‘Bathroom Baritone’. The competition, which was broadcast on radio, required contestants to sing a song while standing under a running shower! The finalists were brought together at the Geelong Town Hall to sing under a specially erected shower on stage, with the winner receiving a £50 prize. Can you imagine something like this being staged these days?!

The Association also pressed on with its commitment to education of the trade and introduced an overseas scholarship to send the best plumbing student to England or America to gain experience in overseas methods. The first recipient of the scholarship in 1953 was Graham White. Master Plumbers is pleased to announce that its international scholarship program has been reignited this year, with Bryce Healy of Cooke & Dowsett visiting Denmark for ve weeks. You can read about Bryce’s experiences on page 39 of this publication.
The 1950s were also a turning point for plumbers in how they operated, when it became more apparent that in order to succeed, they would need to run their trade as more of a business. The Association responded by providing lectures and advice on topics such as advertising, accounting, taxation and selling to women; the latter of which included the dubious advice, “Don’t put a housewife on the spot by upbraiding her for mistakes which necessitated the service call. It’s her mistakes which keep you in business”– something that would certainly not be tolerated by today’s standards!