12 July 1854—11 July 1919
Many Melburnians grew up playing on a Wertheim piano, but not many nowadays know about the man whose name their piano bears.
Hugo Wertheim was born in Germany in 1854 and emigrated to Australia at the age of 21. He began importing German goods such as pianos, harmoniums and bicycles and established a successful business. He was then able to start manufacturing pianos and sewing machines and at its height his factory in Richmond employed over 400 people.
The advent of the First World War saw Wertheim along with other German emigrants marginalised and treated with high suspicion by Melbourne residents, even though his son was serving in France with the Australian troops. (The son, "Sos" would later go on to be successful Davis Cup tennis player representing Australia.) However, Melbourne has always been a mercantile city, and anybody who could generate wealth and employment over a period of time would eventually be recognised and acknowledged. Among other recognitions, Hugo was welcomed as a member of the Melbourne Club - not normally a walk-up membership for a German Jew at this period.
We at White Hat were intending to expand on this brief profile when one of the readers of our newsletter, in response to a question about reed organs, contributed the delightful profile that follows.
Pleased once again I am, to be entertained by the weekly outpouring of information supplied by your newsletter and various amateur contributors, who's swelling ranks I will briefly join. . . .
One of your correspondents asked about a Wertheim reed organ he/she has just purchased. The labels (and any other materials required to make the old thing run properly) can be acquired through the Player Piano Co Inc, 704 East Douglas, Wichita, Kansas, 67202, USA. Tel: (316) 263-3231 ... but the catalogue I have is old and the phone number may need updating. Regrettably, much in keeping with the wares they sell, the Player Piano Co Inc (a player-piano and reed-organ parts specialist) does NOT have a web-site. Nor a fax machine either so I last heard. I would recommend phoning and ordering a current catalogue, though this may seem a bit expensive for just a few labels
... On the 'Wertheim' question I can be a little more expansive, but I'll try and keep it to under 30 pages. Hugo Wertheim was a young and very ambitious Frankfurter sent to the young colony of Melbourne by his uncle (with who's family he lived) as that was about as reasonably far away from his cousin Sophie as Uncle could think of. The Family Business was manufacturing sewing machines and upon his arrival here young Hugo (aged 21 in 1875) set about spreading the good name of Wertheim far and wide, resulting in Agencies throughout metropolitan and country Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. The apparent omission of NSW was due to him forming an agreement with one Octavius Beale (famous in later years for his pianos and orchids) who distributed the Wertheim sewing machines in that State. Hugo was light-years ahead of his time in implementing an aggressive market strategy and also in identifying market trends, and what he discovered after a short time here was that the real market force in things retail (and the first 'material possession' if we want to be strictly accurate) was the Piano!
Subsequently Wertheim pianos appeared under the name "Hapsburg Wertheim" possible as early as 1880. Sad to say, for those mis-led people who think badge engineering was invented by the car industry 100 years later, these were not Wertheim pianos at all, but simply re-badged, cheap, German-made pianos. Employing exactly the same formula of widespread Agencies in every town (in some cases the same people sold pianos and sewing machines) Wertheim soon established himself as a major player in the low-price piano range. The reed-organ belonging to your correspondent would also be 'badge-engineered', being most likely American or Canadian in origin. For convenience let us jump forward a little to 1908 when Wertheim opened the largest and most modern piano manufacturing plant in Victoria on 4˝ acres in Bendigo Street, Richmond [see picture], just over the back from John Wren's pony track on Bridge Road. The family company continued to produce sewing machines, but the piano side of the business was quite dominant by this time. Manufacturing quality pianos, the factory was run by eldest son Herbert, (with Hugo passing away in 1919) and was ultimately closed for good in the post-depression period in 1934. This closure produced its own little saga, amongst the sadness and suffering of so many of that time, in that Herbert wanted to continue manufacturing pianos but the Board did not, and his Mother had the casting vote and ordered the property sold (to Heinz Soups) and the business wound up. Herbert, it is understood, never spoke to his mother again. Mother incidentally, was Cousin Sophie, who Hugo had returned to Germany to marry in 1885.
The Wertheim legacy continues in various forms (I'm not sure of the relationship to the Wertheim vacuum cleaners) as the building that Hugo built is what we now know as GTV-9, Richmond. The Wertheim's had five children, one of the daughters I think it was Sophie who married a Fanning (possibly of the locally well-known Fanning's Hardware business out in Box Hill) and one of their daughters married a chap called Kennett, who had a son called Jack, who in turn produced an heir called Jeffrey, latterly Premier of the Great State of Victoria. That's as short as I can make it
The tomb of Hugo & Sophie Wertheim at Brighton Cemetery
... Keep up the good work. Regards Mike”
We might just add a little more information Mike's profile of Hugo by way of a postscript.
In the 1880s Hugo built a mansion, Gotha, in Kensington Street South Yarra with plenty of space for soirees - featuring the piano of course. The 17 bedrooms also meant there was plenty of room for guests to stay over. One such performer and guest was the great Paderewski - later to become Prime Minister of Poland. Obviously the importing and distribution business was doing well.
The opening of the Wertheim Factory in Richmond in 1908 was a grand affair with politicians, as always, anxious to associate themselves with the creation of a large number of new jobs. Present were the Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, the soon-to-be-prime-minister Andrew Fischer and of course the bustling Tommy Bent. The occasion was given musical credibility by the attendance of Percy Grainger, a pianist and musician of international repute, together with Professor George Marshall-Hall.
Wertheim Street in Richmond is named after Hugo Wertheim.
References and resources
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Andrew J. Ray, 'Wertheim, Hugo (1854 - 1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, Melbourne University Press, 2005, p. 403.
Some piano-related links on this site