TC Frith: Man of vision
TC Frith: Man of vision. Died November 3rd, 1957
'A man of vision, public spirit, and a belief in social justice'
'A great humanitarian who himself worked hard but always believed in the dignity of labour',
'The father of local government in Lake Macquarie'.
These were just some of the epithets used to describe Thomas Charles Frith, the doyen of retailing in Lake Macquarie.Owner of Frith's stores at Boolaroo, Teralba, Toronto and Warners Bay, who died on November 3, 1957. 'T C' (a term widely used with respect and affection), displayed benign paternalism towards his employees, thus generating loyalty and lengthy periods of service. A similar regard was also extended to his many customers with resultant respect and loyalty.
Thomas was born in 1872, the son of Irish immigrants who initially settled at Hinton, then moved to Plattsburg to escape the regular flooding of the Hunter River. He left school at a young age to work for his brothers, William and Richard, at a brick yard they had established at Holmesville. When he was 14 he started working as a miner at the Co-operative Colliery, but this employment was to be of short duration and two years later he became a junior shop assistant for Frank Witherspoon's firm of Importers, Grocers and General Produce Merchants obtaining the necessary experience for his future career in retailing.
In 1897 Thomas Frith commenced business in Station Street, Waratah in a rented two storey building with residential premises on the top floor. The firm of T. C. Frith & Co., Grocers, Drapers & Produce Merchants, had, by January of 1898, not only secured the custom of many prominent Newcastle families, but had also purchased the property The business prospered and shop premises were extended to the rear street to accommodate stock feed and produce.
When the Sulphide Corporation built a vast new plant at Cockle Creek, Boolaroo in 1897, Thomas could see the business potential and decided to establish a store nearby. Settlement of the district had commenced in 1896, and although only a 'rag and bag' camp at the time, the workforce and their families required food and clothing. Thomas purchased a large block of land at Boolaroo on the corner of Main Road and First Street.
In those days before motor vehicles there was a great demand for fodder, especially from the nearby coal mines at Teralba where pit ponies were used to haul coal to the shaft or tunnel. This was to play a major role in the business for many years. Tom Frith would arrange for supplies of fodder from western NSW to be consigned to Cockle Creek Station where it would be off loaded and collected by horse and dray.
There were no restrictions on trading hours in the early days. The Boolaroo store would open for the convenience of Sulphide Corporation employees on the 7.45am shift, enabling them to make their purchases. In this period the shop generally remained open until midnight.
The firm offered a free weekly delivery service from the earliest days. This covered a vast area including Swansea, Nords Wharf and Cams Wharf. Deliveries were also made to Catherine Hill Bay and the two nearby mining settlements of Middle Camp and Mine Camp. The firms Order Man would leave Boolaroo on horseback on Monday morning, travelling to Catherine Hill Bay and other places en route. As well as obtaining orders for groceries and other goods, the Order Man would collect payment from customers who were given fortnightly credit. On Tuesday morning he would collect orders and money from the Swansea district and in the afternoon would make his way to Boolaroo, via Belmont and Warners Bay.
Each order would be packed in brown paper bags, labelled and taken to the jetty, either at the end of Second Street or at Speers Point, where 'Fisho' Jack Richardson would take them by launch and barge to Swansea. Jim Masters, the contract delivery man, would then complete the delivery. Other deliveries from Boolaroo Store made by horse and cart included Speers Point, Warners Bay, Cardiff, Young Wallsend (Edgeworth) and Holmesville. T C Frith even had butter and milk carts plying nearby suburbs including West Wallsend, Holmesville and Young Wallsend.
1904-6 saw an economic downturn resulting in extensive unemployment. Work was virtually non-existent and T C encouraged unemployed men to seek work wherever possible. He pledged to feed their families while there was food on the premises. Reassured, the unemployed travelled far afield seeking work. Men even travelled abroad to Canada and South Africa. Some returned years later and others sent for their families. Yet one and all made every effort to pay their debts and even after twenty five years or so, money was still being received by the firm from all over the world. As late as 1956 debts were still being honoured.
T C Frith always remembered the difficulties he had experienced in his early days and the support received from the closely knit mining community of Plattsburg. He continually defended the coalminers, speaking of their absolute integrity when others in the community berated them for their militancy.
T C Frith was a Retail Traders' Association representative on the Conciliation Committee dealing with awards, and his adherence to social justice often resulted in employees gaining improved conditions superior to those sought by the union. He maintained that a dignified trade demanded a dignified wage to attract the best type of men. He always asked staff to join the Shop Assistants' Union and his employees were 100% unionists long before compulsory unionism was sought by trade unions.
As the Boolaroo venture expanded over the years he opened stores at Teralba (1906), Toronto (1923) and Warners Bay. Sadly, in the latter part of the last century the stores hit hard times and the empire was wound up. The Teralba Store ceased trading in the late 1960s though some trading continued under the Frith banner for some time afterwards. The Boolaroo store closed in 1990.
TC Frith was a major figure in the Lake Macquarie community and was well known as a philanthropic figure. He was an Alderman on Lake Macquarie Shire council from 1917-1922, serving as president of Lake Macquarie in 1920. He was instrumental in light and power coming to Boolaroo and in the establishment of the first ambulance service in the shire. He was foundation Master of Lodge Speers Point and trustee of Boolaroo Methodist Church. The Boolaroo Bowling Club site was established by Frith in 1927 “to provide recreation for the men of Boolaroo” and he was club founder and its first president. During the Depression and through mine strikes Frith stores gave credit to hardhit families, Frith saying "I will feed the miners and their families while ever I have goods in my store. I will trust every man on his own merit."
Hartley, Dulcie 1997, Frith's : a century of service 1897-1997, Robert Hamilton Hill, Pymble, N.S.W], Fennell Bay, NSW
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