Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Law, James Lindsay Gordon (1881–1963)

by Raelene Frances

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

James Lindsay Gordon Law (1881-1963), shirt manufacturer, was born on 21 January 1881 at Ballarat, Victoria, eighth child of Scottish migrants James Law, contractor, and his wife Margaret, née Bartholomew. James senior was killed in an accident in Tasmania when the youngster, known as 'Lin', was only 6. He was educated in state schools at Ballarat but left at 11 and was subsequently tutored by his eldest sister, a schoolteacher. His first job was with Banks & Co. at Ballarat in 1892. After working from 1896 as a salesman with Paterson, Laing & (J.M.) Bruce in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, in 1904 he met his future partner James Kerr Pearson (1881-1950).

Born on 31 July 1881 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of James Pearson, drapery warehouseman, and his wife Mary-Ann, née Kerr, Pearson had come to Victoria in 1902. Employed by Richard Allen Pty Ltd he then worked as a traveller with Kornblum & Co. In 1905 he founded a company manufacturing shirts and Law became a partner in 1906. From 1911 Pearson & Law was a limited company in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy; in 1917 it became Pelaco Ltd (from the first two letters of each owner's surname). Law was managing director from 1911 until the early 1950s. Pearson was joint managing director from 1917.

On 12 January 1915 in St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, Law married Elsie Russell, a saleswoman. The couple lived most of their married life at Brighton, Melbourne, and had four children. He was very much a family man. Although nominally a Methodist, he was not religious. Pearson, a Presbyterian, had married Amy Harriet, sister of E. C. Dyason, at All Saints' Church of England pro-Cathedral, Bendigo, on 24 May 1910.

A member of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, Law was sometime president of its clothing trades section and of the Commercial Travellers Club, and vice-president of the Australian Industries Protection League. He was the employers' representative on the Victorian Shirt Wages Board during both world wars and a key witness for the employers in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in the 1920s.

Best known for his innovative approach to the management of clothing production, Law elaborated his philosophies in a series of articles in the Australasian Manufacturer (1916-17); he included 'scientific management' principles derived from Frederick Winslow Taylor, and paternalist approaches to industrial relations. Law was an avid reader of relevant literature and, after World War I, spent five months in the United States of America observing production methods. In the Pelaco factory he employed Taylor's ideas on subdivision of labour and supervision of workers as well as Henry Ford's standardization of products. He was also influenced by the industrial efficiency movement, using physical conditions of work and length of work periods to maximize the productivity of the workforce. The outcome was a modern, well lit and ventilated factory, equipped with recreation and lunch rooms, a piano, and radios provided for the use of workers.

Pelaco was one of the first companies in Australia to employ an industrial psychologist, and published a regular factory newsletter, Pelacograms, to inspire a sense of community and pride. Law believed passionately in piece rates as a solution to 'the problem of labour': 'Capital must awaken to the fact that it does not matter how high a man's wage is so long as he earns it, and Labour must awaken to the fact that if he receives a high wage it must be earned'. The practice of employing large numbers of juvenile females on piece rates brought him into conflict with both the Clothing Trades Union and the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, especially in the 1920s when he became a leading anti-union campaigner in the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures.

Of average height, 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, Law was good-looking, clean cut, a forceful character and a fighter. Nevertheless, he wished to be seen as a fair man: despite designing his workrooms on the open-plan model to allow maximum supervision, he refused to wear rubber-soled shoes for fear that workers would think he was sneaking up on them. In his youth he rowed with Albert Park Rowing Club. He had joined the Victorian Scottish Regiment during the South African War but did not serve overseas. From the early 1920s he belonged to Melbourne Rotary Club and Victoria Golf Club. In later life he played tennis at home and enjoyed gardening and motoring. He was also a member of the Athenaeum and Melbourne Scots clubs.

Pearson too enjoyed golf and tennis and belonged to the Athenaeum club. He died on 2 October 1950 at Richmond, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £92,967. His wife, two daughters and three sons survived him. Law died on 18 February 1963 in a private hospital at Fitzroy and was cremated. His wife, one daughter and three sons survived him. His estate was sworn at £22,701. The company's mass advertising—with captions, 'Mine Tinkit They Fit!', under an image of an Aboriginal man 'Pelaco Bill', and 'It is indeed a lovely shirt, sir!', with the product held by the model Bambi Smith—made a lasting impression on Australian consumers.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Frances, The Politics of Work (Melb, 1993)
  • Australasian Manufacturer, 28 Oct 1916, 24 Mar 1917, 2 June 1917
  • Triad (Sydney), no 2, 1916, p 57, no 3, 1916, p 46
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Raelene Frances, 'Law, James Lindsay Gordon (1881–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/law-james-lindsay-gordon-13040/text23579, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 29 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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