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Gilpin, Oliver (1874–1942)

by G. F. James

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Oliver Gilpin (1874-1942), chain store proprietor, was born on 8 July 1874 at Seven Creeks near Euroa, Victoria, fourth child and second son of William Gilpin, farmer, and his wife Dinah, née Barton, both from Tyrone, Ireland. He was educated at local state schools and became a draper's assistant at Euroa. A testimonial as 'an energetic, pushing salesman, a careful stock-keeper … honest and industrious' gained him city experience with Ball & Welch Ltd, drapers, in their Carlton store.

He used an inheritance to open a drapery store at Korumburra, south Gippsland, in 1895, moving to Rutherglen in the upper Murray valley in 1899. Frustrated by irregular stock deliveries, he moved to Fitzroy, Melbourne, in 1902, seeking a warehouse and the benefits of combined supplies for effective development of country trading. By 1905 he was producing many stock items at Northcote and had established retail outlets at Bendigo and Warracknabeal. Branches at Echuca, Numurkah and Yarrawonga followed in 1906, with ten more in 1907. He moved his city establishment to East Malvern in 1911, and had opened forty shops by 1920 and seventy-four by 1928. All were managed by women, on a strictly cash basis. Drapery remained the main line, supplemented by ironmongery, crockery, school requisites and toys.

Gilpin saw the Depression years as a challenge. Between 1928 and 1931 he established eighteen new branches, including two in Tasmania, at Devonport and Ulverstone. The chain included South Australian branches at Mount Gambier, Millicent and Renmark, twenty-five stores in southern and western New South Wales, and ten in suburban Melbourne. Gilpin's Chain Store News was issued monthly.

A fleet of twenty motor trucks, with trailers, Australia's largest privately owned diesel fleet, ensured prompt deliveries and ready transfers between branches. Containers expedited loading and unloading, and minimized damage. The trucks also occasioned clashes with State governments, intent on maintaining rail haulage of commercial freight. In 1929 Gilpin challenged charges on goods taken across the Murray River, and unsuccessfully appealed to the Privy Council. In 1924 his business became a proprietary company and in 1931 a limited company.

At Euroa on 26 January 1897 with Wesleyan forms, Gilpin had married Annie Pease, a local dressmaker; she divorced him for desertion in 1920. There were three daughters and two sons of the marriage. On 25 February 1921 he married Ruby Gertrude Brewer of Williamstown, a former branch manager who was daughter of a Congregational minister. Gilpin divorced her in May 1926; there were no children. On 17 February 1928 according to Methodist forms, he married Muriel Doris Round, formerly a director of the company; a son Oliver was born in 1930.

In later years Gilpin lived extravagantly. He owned two Rolls-Royces. He built a two-storey luxury mansion, Idylwylde, in Balwyn, and intended to extend it to eight storeys. The 20-acre (8 ha) garden included an artificial lake, huge aviaries and a zoo of Australian animals.

Gilpin died of cancer on 19 October 1942 and was cremated. Idylwylde was bought by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in 1945 and by the Wesleyan Central Mission in 1978. In 1944 Foy & Gibson acquired a controlling interest in Gilpin's business and in 1951 the chain was bought by G. J. Coles & Co. Ltd for £1,250,000. Gilpin's estate had been sworn for probate at £157,472.

Select Bibliography

  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 July 1929, 18 Feb 1939, 1 July 1944
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 4 Oct 1949
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 2 Mar 1945
  • People (Sydney), 22 July 1959
  • Age (Melbourne), 22 May 1951, 9 Sept 1978
  • Bulletin, 3 Oct 1978.

Citation details

G. F. James, 'Gilpin, Oliver (1874–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gilpin-oliver-6392/text10925, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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