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Hirst, Godfrey (1857–1917)

by Graeme Cope

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

Godfrey Hirst (1857-1917), woollen manufacturer, was born on 6 January 1857 at Royd Edge, Meltham, near Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, son of Charles Hirst, spinner, and his wife Minerva, née Holmes.

Trained as a weaver in a family business, Hirst arrived in Victoria for the sake of his health in 1885. Initially an insurance agent in the Western District, he soon joined the ailing Victorian Woollen & Cloth Manufacturing Co. in Geelong, only to disagree with its management over the best means of competing with imports. Believing that there was a living to be made from quality products, Hirst decided to go into business for himself. Renting a shed in Fyans Street, he built his own loom and, using yarn supplied by his former employers and the Albion mill, began manufacturing flannels in 1888. Doing well despite the pall hanging over the industry as a whole, he moved to larger premises in 1889 and, in partnership with Charles Shannon, a woolbroker, and Charles Smith, a fellmonger, bought the defunct Barwon woollen factory in July 1890. Renamed the Excelsior Number One mill, the old factory prospered and, with Hirst in personal charge of its raw materials and sales, employed about one hundred people by February 1895. In 1899 the adjoining Victorian factory was added to the proprietary and refurbished as the Excelsior Number Two mill. Advantaged by interstate free trade after Federation and government contracts during World War I, the firm's pay-roll increased to more than 300 in 1917. The company then manufactured blankets, rugs, tweeds, and worsteds as well as flannels. After the death of Charles Smith in 1908, the business was incorporated as Godfrey Hirst & Co. Pty Ltd in October 1909.

In 1911 and again after the Number One mill was destroyed by fire in March 1912 Hirst returned to England in search of the latest machinery. In Geelong he supported the Gordon Technical College as a centre of textile education and was its president in 1913-16. His principal avocations were the Belmont and Corio clubs, music and bowls. A self-taught musician, he was organist at St George's Presbyterian Church from 1889 and a vice-president of the Geelong Musical Society. He also sponsored the Excelsior Mills choir and was active in the musical life of the Belmont Methodist Church. A man of strong principles and high expectations but reserved and lacking the common touch, he once stood unsuccessfully for the South Barwon Shire Council. He became a justice of the peace in 1908.

Hirst died after several years of failing health at his home, Royd Grange, Belmont, on 15 February 1917 and was buried in the Methodist section of Geelong Eastern cemetery. He was survived by his wife Sarah, née Carter, whom he had married at Huddersfield on 22 July 1876, three sons and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £65,999.

Hirst's example contributed to a revival of the woollen industry in Geelong during the 1910s and 1920s. The Excelsior mills were taken over in 1966 but continued to operate as Godfrey Hirst & Co. Pty Ltd, carpet manufacturers.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Southall, The Weaver from Meltham (Melb, 1950)
  • Geelong Advertiser, 16 Feb 1917, 28 May 1957
  • Hirst papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Graeme Cope, 'Hirst, Godfrey (1857–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hirst-godfrey-6684/text11527, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 28 November 2014.

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

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