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Selley, Martin Israel (1897–1989)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Martin Israel Selley (Sally) (1897-1989), manufacturer, was born on 15 March 1897 at Sprottau, Lower Silesia, Germany (Szprotawa, Poland), son of Isidor Sally and his wife Regina, née Goldstaub.  After service as a non-commissioned officer in the German army in World War I, during which he was decorated for bravery, he studied industrial chemistry and became a partner in his father’s putty business in Berlin.  On 21 May 1931 in Berlin he married Erna Sarah Kristeller.

As a Jew under threat from the Nazi regime, Martin decided to emigrate and, after vain efforts to obtain entry to a number of countries, he applied for an Australian visa, which required a ₤200 deposit.  The Nazi authorities forbade such overseas exchange transactions.  He fled with his family to England on a transit visa with only putty formulae and ten German marks in his pocket.  After he failed to sell his formulae for enough money, and only three days before his visa expired, the German Jewish Aid Committee in London lent him funds and the family left England, arriving in Melbourne in the Strathnaver on 8 August 1939.

Settling in Sydney and needing capital, Sally entered into a three-and-a-half-year partnership with Max Wolf and set up a factory in a rented terrace in Surry Hills, making putty and other adhesives.  At first, samples of his putty in four-gallon (18.2 l) second-hand tins met with much resistance from glass merchants, some refusing to deal with a German.  But he persisted and, when he convinced the managing director of one of Sydney’s largest glazing firms of the superior quality of his product, his business, trading as Selley’s Chemical Manufacturing Co. Pty Ltd by 1944, took off.  Larger premises were opened at Marrickville and in 1948 he established his first branch factory in Melbourne.  In 1945 he was naturalised and changed his name by deed poll to Selley.

Enterprising and innovative, Selley was adept at solving technical and supply problems in order to produce new and improved putties and other adhesives.  A shortage of aluminium for the manufacture of kitchen utensils prompted him to invent a metallic cement for mending pots and pans, and as the import of heat-resistant putty for stoves ceased, he produced it locally.  Difficulties over the supply of linseed oil led the Federal government to allocate quotas to putty and paint manufacturers.  When the latter used their whole quota for the more profitable paint, Selley was faced with record demands for his product.  By using resins and other oils in his 'substitute putty' he reduced the amount of linseed oil required by about one-third, without compromising the quality.  During a visit in 1951 to the United States of America, where he inspected some of the first 'glass-box' structures, including the United Nations buildings, he noted that putty in aluminium window frames must not harden to brittleness and he developed a special compound, Plastic Glaze, to withstand the movement of glass and metal under variations of temperature and wind pressure.  Selley’s caulking compound, used on the giant 250-ton crane at Garden Island naval base, Sydney, completed in 1951, proved superior to the previously imported American product.

Traditionally, putty, a mixture of whiting (finely ground chalk) and linseed oil as a desiccant, was sold scooped out of large drums and wrapped in greaseproof paper.  When manufacturers decided to sell it in small cardboard cartons it rapidly dried out.  Selley solved this problem by adding an ingredient that kept it moist and pliable.  Sales of his cartons soared to over a million within two years.  Overall he developed eighteen products—including Selley’s Metallic Cement, Instant Grip, Plastic Wood, Unifix and Waterproof Glue—which he patented in Australia and other countries from 1940.  After creating his famous 'handyman bars' for hardware stores he sold the name and goodwill of the business to British Paints (Aust.) Pty Ltd in 1963.  Subsequent owners of Selley’s, before it was taken over by Orica in 1998, included I. G. Farben Höchst A. G.

A humble man, kindly employer and prodigious worker—no factory task being too menial for him—Selley regarded work as his hobby, and his success as resulting from a 'compound of hard work, ambition, and the wish to make his family happy'.  'We were happy when we were poor', he said, 'We got pleasure then from . . . knowing that we were free'.

In retirement he took an interest in promoting films and television shows made in Australia with Australian themes and actors.  In the mid-1980s he and his wife moved from their Mosman home overlooking Middle Harbour to the Montefiore Jewish Home, Hunters Hill, of which he was a benefactor.  Predeceased by his wife in 1988 and survived by their son, he died on 14 June 1989 at St Leonards and was buried in the Jewish section of Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Brasch, Australian Jews of Today (1977)
  • Jewish Communal Report, June 1973, p 3
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 November 1979, p 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1989, p 10
  • A12508, item 21/3663 (National Archives of Australia)
  • A435, item 1944/4/5568 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Selley, Martin Israel (1897–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/selley-martin-israel-15494/text26709, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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