Charlotte Roseby continues our ‘Plumber at War’ series by remembering Master Plumber George Worboys, who returned from World War I and established Worboys Plumbing.
When George Worboys began his plumbing career in the early 1900s, Melbourne’s sanitation system was still in its infancy.
Not long before George was born, Melbourne had been known as Marvellous Smellbourne: an appalling stench wafted from the many cesspits and open drains, and ‘nightsoil’ collectors frequently dumped their loads on public roads. George’s parents would have probably either experienced, or at least been aware of, the savage outbreaks of typhoid in the 1870s and 1880s due to unhygienic conditions in the inner-city slums of Melbourne, in which hundreds of people died.
There is no underground drainage system,” wrote Richard Twopenny in Town Life in Australia in 1883, describing Melbourne:
“All the sewage is carried away in huge open gutters, which run all through the town, and are at their worst and widest in the most central part, where all the principal shops and business places are situated. These gutters are crossed by little wooden bridges every fifty yards. When it rains, they rise to the proportion of small torrents, and have on several occasions proved fatal to drunken men. In one heavy storm, indeed, a sober strong man was carried o his legs by the force of
the stream, and ignominiously drowned in a gutter.”
In 1905, when he was 14, George became an apprentice to Dick Suiter in Little Collins St Melbourne, a plumbing rm with 60 staff. Presumably, it would have been a busy place to work; after all, just seven years before, in 1898, Melbourne celebrated its first sewer connection to Werribee. Between 1900 and 1911, most households were becoming connected to the sewer system and installing ‘water
closets’, flushed by pulling a chain connected to an overhead cast-iron cistern. “The work would have been hard, heavy and dirty,” says Worboys Managing Director Peter Jensen.
George enlists in the Australian Imperial Force ‘for service abroad’
George Worboys had finished his apprenticeship when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1914, joining the ranks of the 6th Infantry Battalion. The battalion was completely recruited from Victoria, drawing from Melbourne and the nearby northern suburbs.
The Australian War Memorial records show that the 6th Battalion was among the first infantry units raised for the First World War. It was formed within a fortnight of the declaration of war in August 1914 and they embarked from Port Melbourne just two months later.
An extraordinary four minutes of silent lm footage exists in our National Film Sound Archive that records the loading of the transport ship “Hororata” on 19 October 1914. George Worboys was one of the men setting sail on this very ship, on this very day.
In this piece of rare footage, hundreds of men wait on Station Pier in Port Melbourne while others pass sacks from hand to hand up the gangplank. It’s a huge operation; the transport ship also had to carry the troops’ military stores, as well as wool, metals, meat, our and other food. Horses are slowly making their way up another gangplank, urged on by their handlers.
It’s a lovely Melbourne Spring day, and many of the men are lying in the sun while they wait for their turn to board. Others make their way onto the ship with their kit, awkwardly carrying their rifles. As the ship moves away, the troops wave their hats and handkerchiefs. They are a picture of excitement and innocence. It’s moving to watch and wonder which of these grinning men is George.
After a brief stop in Western Australia, the 6th Battalion proceeded to Egypt. As part of the 2nd Brigade, the 6th Battalion later took part in the ANZAC landing on 25 April 1915, as part of the second wave, in the Gallipoli Campaign. This was also known as the Dardanelles Campaign – the Dardanelles being the highly contested narrow band of water overlooked by Gallipoli. After an unsuccessful attack there were many casualties. The 6th Battalion faced appalling conditions and the full horrors of war.
George Worboys’ service records tell the rudimentary facts of what happened next: “Private Worboys... wounded in action at the Dardanelles 15/5/15... Next of kin advised.” His casualty form details that he received a rifle wound and was moved to No. 1 General Hospital in Heliopolis, Cairo. A few weeks later he was admitted to the Convalescent Camp with “B.W. [bullet wound] foot... For return to Australia per [the ship] Hororata for Change.”
“The injuries he sustained became serious lifetime concerns,” recalls George’s first apprentice and lifelong employee Norm Rhodes. “He returned to Dick Suiter plumbing but sadly his days of working on the tools were at an end.” George moved to office work.
1921: George begins Worboys
When Dick Suiter’s plumbing firm went broke, George purchased what was left of the business and in 1921 began Geo. M. Worboys Proprietary Limited (later renamed Worboys Plumbing) and operated in Little Collins St Melbourne with more than 20 staff.
As Norm, now in his 90s, recalls: “A short time later a legacy girl [a family member of a returned serviceman helped by the Legacy organisation], Patricia, 20 years his junior, recovering from TB, came into the picture.” George married Pat and vowed to take care of her and her young boy.
To give Pat an occupation, says Norm, George opened an additional premises in Collingwood and put Pat in charge in the o ce. The marriage lasted until the end of their days.
George was fiercely loyal to his fellow returned servicemen and his care and consideration for his fellow humans is evident. Most of his apprentices were “legatees” – sons of fallen soldiers. For many years the Worboys logo featured two soldiers carrying rifles.
George made a lot of connections through his war days as well as the RSL (Returned & Services League of Australia) and the masonic lodge, and these worked to his advantage in the business, says Peter. “George offered readers of the RSL Duckboard Journal ‘a fair dinkum deal’. He picked up a lot of work. In those days, those connections opened many doors.”
George built up the business, developing a strong reputation of good service, treating customers with respect and for ‘being there’ when needed.
Worboys has a strong tradition of dedicated employees. His first apprentice Norm spent 54 years with the company. “George was like a father to Norm, Norm was his blue-eyed boy,”, says Peter. Norm remembers his time with George Worboys very fondly. He eventually took over the full working operations and became a Director of the company, not retiring until 1992. Albert Tressider was one of George’s first employees; his son Geo now runs the company. “The chapters in history that I have memories of, with so many people spending their whole working lives working for Worboys,” says Norm. “That is why it has been my desire for the company to live on forever.”
After the war: a life dedicated to returned service men and women
George had a deep concern for the welfare of his fellow returned servicemen, and was very active in the RSL movement and their quest to promote the wellbeing of returned men and women of the defence forces and their dependants.
He was a life member of the Melbourne RSL sub-branch known as the Duckboard Club – the term ‘duckboard’ was first used during World War I to describe a slatted timber path that was laid down on wet or muddy ground in the trenches or in camps.
In 1925 George became president of the Duckboard Club and would be so for 10 years, weathering the storms of the internal politics of the early days of the RSL and the divisions between the various national, state and Melbourne branches. Historian Alan Jackson has documented the struggles and animosities of those days, and is launching a history of the Duckboard Club later this year.
He writes that George Worboys “not only stepped into the fight for the rights and welfare of returned veterans, but also into the fight within the RSL movement.” Clearly he was a brave man.
George had a rare ability to build bridges between people and organisations, bringing together the activities of his own RSL branch and Legacy – an organisation in which he was a founding member, dedicated to caring for the families of deceased and incapacitated veterans. George is also credited with negotiating a merger of the Duckboard club and the South African and Active Service Association, says Alan, creating club rooms in central Melbourne “for the provision and comfort and convenience of its members.”
The Master Plumbers and returned soldiers lose a champion
George died on Boxing Day 1945, aged just 53. The cemetery was lined with ex-servicemen, saluting, with a hand on their hearts. “This sombre and humbling occasion made me feel very proud of walking in the shadow of such a well-respected man and teacher,” says Norm Rhodes.
“His death was not merely a blow to his friends”, writes historian Alan Jackson, “but a matter of deep concern to all those interested in the returned soldiers’ movement.” Alan has discovered a tribute to George Worboys in the Duckboard journal, January 1946. It reads:
“A stout friend and a fair ghter: assuredly no mean epitaph. Nor was he just a man of words and pious aspirations: his hand was always ready to dive in his pockets to help a good cause; not could he even be persuaded to accept one penny for expenses incidental to his services for the Branch.”
“George Worboys was able to establish a highly successful business and he earned no mean respect for fair dealing... Here let us say Farewell, good and faithful friend.”