May 17 - 23, 2015: Issue 214
John and Bob Johnson
Avalon from Bangalley Headland
John and Bob Johnson
In 2015 Johnson Brothers Hardware will have been open and operating for 60 years. To many of us in Pittwater this family, its businesses and their constant giving to others has become the stuff of legends. When speaking to these patriarchs, brothers who worked side by side for decades beginning and building these businesses, who have given and given and given, and done so without counting any of it, they are genuinely unaware of the esteem with which they are held in our community and adamantly disclaim any marked contribution. If you could bottle this it would have to be a just get on with it elixir that has carried forward into the next generations and what definitions like having some backbone or salt of the earth are, personified.
This week it is an honour to share a small insight into two gentlemen who are definitive members of Australia's largest unnamed and semi-invisible community organisation - self-made man;
Where were you born?
John: Auburn, in the Western Suburbs. I was born in 1928 and Bob was born 18 months later.
Bob: Yes, 1930.
What was Auburn like in the mid to late 1930's?
John: A lot of bush, open country, rural. It wasn't multi-cultural yet. I can remember there were the Chinese gardeners. They were all working class suburbs, no high class professionals just truck drivers and council workers, they were good days, growing up there.
Johnson Family: Back Row from Left Bob, Phylis (Granny), Bill (Pop) Jean Ellis (nee Johnson), John. Front Maureen Collins(nee Johnson)
What did your father do?
Anne: John and Bob's father was a truck driver.
Bob: He was working for Anthony Hordern's until the war (WWII) and then the union man, his union man, said to him 'look you've got a young family but I'm telling you now, you'll be taken by the Allied Works for essential work and they could send you to Darwin or wherever they like. I'd advise you to get on to more essential type of carrying. So he went and saw his union guy and the union guy got him a job carrying for a people by the name of Molloy and they were carting munitions and stuff like that from the wharves, so that's why they kept him here, near his family. He was too old for the Services, they wouldn't take him.
How old were you both when you started working?
John: I was 15, I didn't want to do my Intermediate. We went to the best schools Bobby and I; the convent at Auburn and then to the Maris Brothers at Lidcombe. Bobby went on and went for his Intermediate. He studied for it, but I just wanted to get out and make money. My first job was at the hardware store in Auburn.
John's First Job (1945 Horam's Hardware Lidcombe. John on far right.)
Bob: I went for it but failed. I worked in the city at Mark Foys. Remember Mark Foys? They were renowned for their displays and windows at that time, not now of course. I worked there for many years and when John and I had enough money saved we started a little hardware business on our own.
Where was the first hardware business you did together?
Bob: At Rydalmere.
John: It was strange because we went back up there from Narrabeen, where we were by then; you couldn't get an empty shop in those days, very hard, nobody was building anything. Unless you could find an empty shop and give somebody money to get out of it or if they went broke they'd say 'I want money for the key', that was their way of getting something back. Buildings and empty premises were so hard to get, so that's what we did. This had been a ladies hairdressing shop at Rydalmere and it was the only thing we could find around the place so, we borrowed money from the bank at Narrabeen where we lived, and I used to drive back up there everyday to work where I'd originally come from, Rydalmere, Auburn, that area. Bobby was still Window-Dressing and he'd pour every bit of money he got from window-dressing back into the business to try and get it going.
What products were you selling?
John: Light hardware, no heavy builder's hardware.
You just liked hardware?
John: I don't know; it was introduced to me by a lovely next door neighbour where we lived, he was an ex-Light Horseman from the First World War and he had, in those days, you wouldn't call it a poultry farm, but he had poultry and used to sell the eggs, and I used to clean out his chook yards for him. From there, Bobby and I got mad on horses, and this old ex-Light Horseman, he knew horses, well you'd never believe it, we said 'can you go to the sale yard and buy us a horse?' - well, he bought us this- it was an ex-milk cart horse.
Bob: Yes, it was a milk cart horse.
John: can you remember its name?
Bob: yeah, Tommy.
John: Tommy was its name, it had feet like that on it (indicates huge feet). We used to ride double up; that was our first experience. Then we both got so interested in horses we ended up buying and selling horses, then we learnt how to shoe horses, and we'd shoe horses at the Blacksmith Farrier, he'd move away, didn't want his head kicked in or anything, they were bad horses some of them.
Joan: They'd been maltreated.
John: We'd put a side on them from their neck down around their back legs and pull front and back legs together and give them a shove and over they'd go and shoe them while they were on the ground. The blacksmith wouldn't touch them. We were mad.
Where did you ride them?
Bob: You could ride all over the area where we were, West Auburn, and you could ride right through up to Granville, all those areas.
John: They were all open areas then.
So you went into Mark Foys, how old were you then?
Bob: I would have been 15.
How many years were you there?
Bob: I can't remember how long I was there; I went to other places after that. I went to David Jones for a while, then to a place called Goldman's, and then ended up at Broadway Taylor's, working for old Solly Cooper, a Jewish man. They used to pay a lot of money to get a good display going. You would get a lot more money from those guys then what you would from working at Mark Foys or David Jones.
Once you got a reputation, the smaller stores would want to try and get you to increase their sales. This was full time work. Then I used to work after those jobs; I had other people who wanted me to do work as well.
John: One job he used to go up to Newcastle. He used to knock off work, get on the train and go to Newcastle and I'd pick him up off the train about half past five in the morning at Hornsby; he was on his way back to start work again. So we always worked together but he was the guy doing it.
So you two just worked your guts out, from an early age, to get Johnson's established?
John: Oh yes.
How did you end up out here?
John: That's a story; we used to come camping, mum and dad would bring us down to Narrabeen Lake for our holidays and we'd camp there.
Bob: Nobody could afford very much during that era but we had some happy times there.
When did you first move to this area?
John: We first came to Narrabeen because our mother had a lot of rheumatic problems with her spine and the doctor advised her to get out of the climate of Auburn, which was pretty cold in those days, you would get frosts of a morning. He advised her to move to a seaside area where it was generally a bit warmer. We were quite used to Narrabeen so my brother and I bought a block of land down there and we used to travel from Auburn down to Narrabeen on a motorbike and sub-contracted out to build this cottage in Nareen Parade, Narrabeen. When we finished the cottage, mum and dad sold up in Auburn and moved down to the Narrabeen cottage we had in Nareen Parade.
Right: Living at Nareen Parade: Bob and John lived in this packing Crate on site while they built the house.
Left: Building the house in Nareen Parade. Right: Packing Case Accommodation!
The house at Nareen Parade, Narrabeen.
How old were you two then?
Bob: We were both in our early twenties.
John: I left a job at a little hardware store in Lidcombe; I had a job there for a few years where I learnt the business from a very hard boss but an honest, good man, but he was hard, and Bobby was one of the top window dressers in the city.
Where did you meet your wives?
Bob: John met Anne at Lidcombe, she lived at Lidcombe.
Anne: Which was the suburb next to where John lived; we used to walk over to the Para Dance at Lidcombe.
How old were you when you me him?
Anne: I was about 18.
What did you think when you saw him, the way he looked?
Anne: Well, I wouldn't say that I was that much interested in him...
He was interested in you?
Anne: Yes, but then I got interested in him after that and then literally, more or less, chased him.
What sort of dances did you do then?
Anne: Waltzes and barn dances that sort of thing.
Were you girls debutantes, with the white dress and being presented?
Anne: Yes, I was a Deb, at Lidcombe.
Joan: I didn't come from Auburn, I was originally from Five Dock and was a Deb at Five Dock Parish. My parents moved to Narrabeen when I was sixteen, seventeen.
And that's where you met Bob?
Joan: Yes, we joke that it was an arranged marriage.
Bob: We were very friendly with her family.
Joan: I was nursing at the time.
Bob: I didn't know she even existed because she was not living at home at the time, they had to live in quarters, nurses doing their training then, in the nurses quarters.
Joan: and my parents wanted me to go to the Narrabeen Parish Ball, and I said 'I'm not coming out there to go to the Parish Ball' They said, 'We'll get somebody for you' and I said 'I don't want you to get somebody for me!' (laughs - all laughing) I don't know anybody out there, I don't live out there...but anyway, they dragged me along and that's how we met,they arranged for him to take me to the ball.
Then you opened a hardware store out here?
Bob: We just wanted to get closer to here.
John: A fellow by the name of Syd Fisher had built a block of shops at the top of Harbord road, just past the school as you go up that hill. He built those and the same thing happened there; they were empty shops and he wanted key money for them, which we paid and that got us closer to home again because we were living at Narrabeen. So that was the start of it really. We didn't have it long and a bloke walked in and wanted to buy it.
Robert: This was around 1955. They only ended up there for 18 months and then they came out here.
Where was the first shop in Pittwater?
John: Around where the florists shop is now, in Old Barrenjoey Road, near Bakers Delight. Bobby and I had to go and see the fellow that had just finished this block of three shops and talk to him as to whether he wanted us as tenants or not; that's how hard it was then. And he probably looked at us, and us being very young men, and thought 'will I give it a risk or not?' but at any rate, we got in there.
First Avalon Shop Old Barrenjoey Road (Bob, Maureen & John)
Were there any children yet?
Anne: Yes, I had you then (to Robert).
Joan: You were only a baby then.
Robert: I was born in 1959 -they built the shops on the corner of Bellevue and Avalon Parade, Avalon, and they moved the store there in 1959/1960 - so I was born a little bit before that.
What was it like having a new baby and a new business at the same time?
Anne: Well, we didn't have our own house or anything like that then, we were renting, because everything was going into the business and I can remember going down to the shop with Robert in the pram as a baby and I would sit there and do some of the accounts and help in the shop, but, I don't know, it just seemed to roll along.
How many generations of Johnsons have or now work in the business?
Robert: Well, you can count Pop (John and Bob's Father) because even though he came later he did work in the business, and also Auntie Maureen. She worked for Uncle Bob and Dad for a long time in the early days as a young woman and was very helpful in establishing the business. Auntie Maureen and her husband Paul Collins (PC) still live in Avalon, so there's been four generations now.
What do you remember of Avalon of 1959?
Joan: It was a real village.
Anne: Old Le Clerc's store was there and I can remember going shopping there because we didn't have Woolworths or anything like that; it was a really really old building and the floor was timber boards and there was cracks in the floor and if you dropped your money, that was the end of it!
If you had a day off then, what would you do?
Anne: we had to have Sundays off
Joan: we'd go to the beach
Anne: yes, we use to spend our weekends on the beach
Day at the beach. Anne (Walking up the beach) Back Row Left Mark Right Robert. Front Row Michael, Therese, Angela. (Summer 1968/69).
Joan: we used to do a lot of picnics down at Whale beach remember?
Joan: down there. We'd have BBQ's and picnics
Anne: that was really nice
Joan: it was lovely; there was an old man down there that used to have boiling water and we'd take our own tea and coffee.
Bob; yes, I remember that
Anne: yes, we had a great time there
What were you selling through the hardware store then?
John: It was mostly a handyman type business at Avalon. DIY stuff. Then it just grew. We then had the opportunity of buying. There was a fellow named Dr Pockley who died, and his house was there where the lane is and down as far as the Post Office, and when he died they called it 'Dr Pockley's Estate' - the old cottage was moved back and a laneway was put in there and the Council declared all that area commercia and that's when we got the opportunity of building two stores on the corner there and we went into one of them and we put tenants in the other one.
Bob: The Bank - the Commercial Bank operation.
John: Yes, the bank. The Commercial Bank of Sydney. And upstairs we designed, when I say we designed; I had heard of an architect who'd drawn and built for somebody the buildings called 'The Walk' up at Newcastle and somebody said to me 'go up and have a look at that, that will just suit for you, and you'll have offices and what have you upstairs.' Which I did and then Bobby and I decided we'd build the same building. So it was representative of a building that was already established.
55 Avalon Parade just after completion (Note our delivery truck at front and CBC Bank in Corner Shop).
Shop Front, 55 Avalon Parade.
Were you both in the shop by this stage, had you given up the window-dressing?
Bob: No; I didn't come into the shop until..
Joan: You came in when we got married in 1960
The Woolworths that used to be opposite your current shop; when did that open?
Anne: What year was Therese born? It was open then.
Did that start bringing more people into Avalon to shop?
Bob and Anne: Oh yes.
Anne: It was great, I don't know why they closed it.
Bob: In Avalon Parade there weren't a lot of shops; there was no Commonwealth Bank, there was no Post Office, there wasn't any of that Woolworths Building when we first started.
Joan and Anne: Where we are now was a Coles supermarket and where the Bank of NSW was was a Nursery, no, it wasn't, it was a J T Stapleton's.
Anne: the real estate was down where the Westpac bank is
Robert: The nursery was there too; it was only a little tin shed then
Bob: then you had a Bond's Nursery between Stapleton's and our first shop.
Were there more houses now?
Bob: They were starting to build more but there was nothing on the Plateau at all (Bilgola plateau), there was no water up there.
Everywhere you go someone is always telling you that Johnson's donated the materials or Johnson's gave this to us at cos. All these projects are all about building community and community infrastructure; something for one of the schools, or sponsoring a sports team or materials for structures needed for looking after the local wildlife. Where does that stem from, this constant reinvesting back into the community?
Joan: Simple community mindedness.
Anne: With the Maria Regina statue you mentioned, at the school, all our kids have gone there or went there and all of Robert's kids have gone there.
Robert: In most cases, the sporting side, there are so many grandkids; they've all played in these different clubs.
Anne: Our kids are still in the area and the kids are still playing with the football clubs and we're still going, through our grandchildren, at the Catholic School and Avalon Public school.
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD to JOHN and BOB JOHNSON - This award is the first of its kind issued to a member of the Avalon Bulldogs Junior Rugby League Club and it goes to two gentlemen who have been associated with our club for over 40 years as sponsors and parents. Information and Photo courtesy Brian Friend. John and Bob with Patricia Giles and Mark Ferguson (Pittwater Council) and Dick Harris and Paul Collins (Bulldog Life Members).
To Robert; but if I was to get a list off you of how many things have been given over how many years?
John: oh goodness!
Everyone knows there has been a lot, over many years, and there still is. We don't get through a fortnight without somebody telling Pittwater Online about some new contribution you have made. Ok; what was the first thing you gave back to the community?
Anne: I'd say it would have been through the church
Bob and John: Yes.
Robert: Dad and Bob were both foundation members of the Lions Club, they were both Voluntary members of the Fire Brigade in Avalon, they were both heavily involved with St Vincent De Paul when they were younger as well so there is a lot there was that idea of giving back to the community through those sorts of things from very early on.
So it was part of your upbringing?
Bob and John: Yes.
Robert: In fact, with the Fire Brigade, in its early days and because it was mostly a Volunteer Station, we actually had the bells in our store. They came back through the shop and then into the firemen's houses, so if someone had to call the fire brigade it would often be switched through to the shop first. The station did have a resident fire captain, Fred Andres, but he worked in town during the day.
Did you play with the fire bells as a little boy?
Robert: We did; there was the odd occasion where we actually accidentally set off false alarms for fires.
Anne: We still have one of the helmets; the old brass helmets. Johns' is still here.
What was the best thing about running your own businesses?
Bob: I think it was that knowing that any profit that you made was yours and that you could invest that, as we did, and have projects all along the way.
John: It started when Bob and I were still working, we were probably considered reasonably wealthy, because of that flourishing business, we'd also been out west and bought land where there is now actually factories that we built, 2 acres of factories in Campbelltown, in Blaxland road. Then we went and built into Gosford, Albany street, three stories of shops there. Robert handles it all now, it just seemed to grow.
Bobby gave me a free hand. I'd say 'I think I might go and have a look at this Bob, it may be good' and he'd stay in the shop and I'd buzz off and it did prove to be a good partnership because that's how we got on and ended up with vastly more then what we started with.
What other projects have you invested in?
Bob: Well, sheep at Mudgee.
John: The farm. My other son Mark is up there running that now. He bought a little place close by. We had an ex-shearer man who had lost his wife, and has since had a couple of strokes...
Bob: We needed someone there for security because we purchased this farm and we'd only be up there once a month and we got burgled and they took all our shearing gear out of the shed; all the machines, my grinder,all of it, and then they went to the house and even took the bloody grate out of the fireplace, the refrigerator, everything.
Joan and Anne: With all the food in!!
Bob: So we needed someone there for security, and this old tired shearer fellow, he knew sheep too; he was good, and he improved our sheep quite a lot, used to look after them. You have to be conscious when you're looking after sheep - they get fly strike, all sorts of things, and the kangaroos smash the fences, there's a bit involved. He came and lived there by himself for many many years, and later married again, but then had a stroke or two and is now a bit incapacitated but he's still living there, rent free until he dies as far as we're concerned.
Johns' son Mark has now purchased a property a few kilometres away and he does work over on our place, doing the fences and killing the weeds, all that maintenance. We also still have the factories at Campbelltown, that was another investment, and at Gosford.
How many children have you had?
Anne: We've had 10.
Bob and Joan: 10
Bob: It was strange because there were six boys and four girls on both sides of the family.
Anne and Joan: it was a lot of fun.
What was it like bringing up 10 children?
Joan: You just got in and did it because that's what you did.
Anne: You don't even think about it, just get on with it.
Did they help out when they were growing up?
Anne: The older ones did, when it got to that stage.
Joan: The older ones worked well together, Robert and Therese on their side of the family and Patrick and Bernadette on ours. They are very responsible people because they had lots of little brothers and sisters to look after.
Did you have to make 10 school lunches?
Joan: They made their own lunches.
Anne: They learnt to do everything.
Robert: It was pretty basic; peanut butter, vegemite or something but, we did it.
Anne: And when they were old enough they all had their chores to do around the house - somebody might have to help clean the bathrooms on their side and somebody else had yard work - they all had jobs to do.
What was good about bringing your children up in this area?
Joan: it was very safe up here; they could run around
Bob: run wild
John: run riot you mean
Anne: run wild yes.
Joan: yes (laughs) they could get out and have fun; not like these days when you can't let your kids out of your sight.
Anne: and they all sailed
Bob: many years of sailing
Anne: They all sailed from little Manly juniors up at Avalon Sailing Club. It was a real family down there at the clubhouse; Joan and I would get there and be sitting in the tuckshop or doing the finishing on the radio, all the family were involved.
Bob: and both John and I were presidents of the Avalon Sailing Club at different stages. A lot of the kids were Club Champions as well. There's a lot of their names on the board down there
Can you recall any mischievous misadventures they got up to apart from calling out the Fire Brigade?
John: Their son Richard is famous for making the biggest elastic band ever heard of.
Joan: Oh yes.
Anne: It went all around Brookvale Oval!
John: Richard went to St Augustine's you see, and he got the idea of joining all these elastic bands
Bob: he got them from the Post Office I think.
When was this?
Robert: Must have been mid 1970's because he was still at school
Joan: Yes, it was then, he must have been 14 or 15 or something like that. It was funny.
Robert: It was good fun as a kid too because when we were younger, because we were open on Saturdays, and mum and Auntie Joan would be working on the Saturdays taking a day each, on the alternate Saturday the whole of the cousins would be at the other house- it was great fun, fantastic as a kid growing up in that environment.
When did you start at the shop Robert?
Robert: I was late because I went off to Uni first and did a degree in Economics and Accounting so we could put that back into the business, so I didn't start until 1981. My younger brother Mark would have been first in, and Michael came in straight from school too.
Did you do some work on the weekends too though to earn some pocket money?
Robert: Always; we all did.
Anne: They all did, they weren't allowed not to.
Robert: and you'd come in after school as well.
Joan: And they all used to get out and deliver pamphlets as well.
To Robert: what was growing up around Avalon like for you then?
Robert: Idyllic, it was the best place to grow up.
Did you surf?
Robert: Yes. I surfed, did things like that. I was also a quieter kid so I didn't start going out and partying until a bit later then most; I waited for my brothers and cousins to get to that age when we were all going out together.
How many Johnsons are working in both shops now?
Robert and Anne: there's myself, Michael, Angela, Lisa, Peter, Kathy, Jed, James, Josh, our wives Janelle, and Adrian and our Brother in law Craig - so there's eleven.
When did Mona Vale open?
Robert: Michael and I opened Mona Vale. Dad and Uncle Bob were semi-retired by that stage.
Bob: We bought that Mona Vale site from Rick and Danny Conn ..Rigg's Hardware in January 1989.
Do you get some sense now you've retired of how you have invested in and built, with what's in you and your determination to succeed, part of Pittwater's infrastructure?
John: We don't really think of it like that; we leave it in the hands of the ones that are running it now.
Robert: I honestly don't think when they started this that they had any idea that it was going to be as successful as it has been. There was no deliberate attempt to go out and build infrastructure, they were just trying to do the right thing for their families.
Anne: and we never even thought we'd have that many kids either (laughs).
A Grade Avalon Bulldogs team 1993 - Sponsored by Bob Johnson and with 7 Johnson Family Members as players. Photo courtesy Brian Friend.
What do you hope for or envision for your children now?
John: for Bobby and Joan's children - they're already involved in other things but for us, I just want the business to carry on as Johnson Brothers, to have a representative of Bobby and I, for it to carry on and grow.
They've bought a timber yard now of course, and that's a big project - and Jed, one of our sons, runs the inside, and then outside you've got Michael and Josh, that's another one of our sons and his son, running the timber side of it. It's all working pretty well.
What do you want for your children?
Joan: I think what Bobby and I want more then anything is just for our children to be happy and successful people, and they are.
Bob: Yes, they already are. They're all happy in what they're doing.
What do you do for a day off now gentlemen?
Bob: I do a bit of gardening, we swim every morning at Avalon Pool (Joan and Bob).
Anne: We just sit here and look at the view (over Clareville).
John: There's three boats along there close to the jetty, but they're not used by us much anymore, it's the grandkids -there's Bobbys' boat.
To Robert: what makes a local hardware store better then a chain hardware store?
Robert: There's no doubt that it's the service, you build a personal relationship with your customers; 80% of the people that come through our doors we know; one of us will know them personally. You build a relationship with them, you learn to understand what they need.
What is your favourite place in Pittwater and why?
Bob: Avalon Beach is our favourite (Joan and Bob), no question - we swim there, we know a lot of people there.
Joan: We go down every morning, meet the same people everyday and have a chat, it's lovely, talk about this - talk about that.
John: I'd say right here
Anne: Clareville Beach
John: We see the sailing when it's on; there's always activity there and the boys love it; Bobbys' got his boat out there and my own boat is there, so it's lovely. This is our special place -here.
What is your motto for life or a favourite phrase you try to live by?
Bob: Be nice to people.
Anne: Just try and get along with everybody
Joan: If you haven't got anything nice to say, say nothing.
John: I don't think I have one, I think I'm just happy, just enjoy life, I'm happy with the way it has turned out; so, just enjoy life.
Unbelievable it's been, from nothing to very successful and we've only told you part of it, but it's an empire now and Robert and the others control it. Quite lucrative and quite big. Bobby and I and Joan and Anne have got everything that we need in life and so we think about the others now they're all shareholders, the whole family.
Joan, Bob, John and Anne Johsnon - Clareville, Winter 2013.
Bob, John and Robert Johnson.
Clareville Beach at Sunrise.
Copyright The Johnson Family, 2015.