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Siddons, Royston (1899–1976)

by John Lack

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Royston Siddons (1899-1976), manufacturer, was born on 15 December 1899 at Williamstown, Melbourne, eldest child of Joseph Siddons, a miner from England, and his Victorian-born wife Florence Rees, née Gibbs. Royston attended state schools in Western Australia and Victoria, but left at the age of 14 to help his father's troubled carrying business in Melbourne. Two years later the family moved to Wonthaggi where he worked for the State Coal Mine, eventually as a shift engineer. In the evenings he continued at the local technical school the electrical engineering studies he had begun at Swinburne Technical College.

At the Presbyterian Church, Wonthaggi, on 25 July 1923 Siddons married Agnes Emily Smith, a schoolteacher. That year he set up as an electrical contractor with his own shop, but sold out in 1927 and returned to Melbourne. He and his family lived with his parents while he worked in wireless manufacture. In 1931 he leased a metal-casting factory at Collingwood and, with a staff of four and an annual wages bill of £1014, began producing hardware for cabinet-makers. Bolstered by his Methodist principles, a supportive extended family and a talent for cost-saving innovation, he survived the worst years of the Depression and began to prosper. He moved to larger premises at Clifton Hill in 1934. Having perfected the die-casting of padlocks from zinc alloy, he manufactured them under the brand name, Sidco. In 1939 he formed R. Siddons Pty Ltd.

A fire at the factory in 1941 and wartime controls forced a new departure. Siddons obtained Commonwealth approval to rebuild, on condition that a drop forge was installed to manufacture hand tools for the armed services. Friends provided the bulk of the capital to establish and equip Siddons Drop Forgings Pty Ltd (1942). As well as hand tools, the company contributed gun parts and bomb caps to the war effort. By 1945 Siddons was supplying the domestic market, in which postwar shortages of imported tools offered the opportunity for expansion. Sidchrome spanners, pliers, chisels, wrenches, hammers and screwdrivers soon became the firm's main profit earners.

In 1948 a new site was purchased at West Heidelberg. Next year the business became a public company, with Siddons as managing director in charge of 145 employees, including 35 tool-makers. He transferred parcels of shares to senior managers, and continued to enjoy congenial relations with shopfloor workers. His only son, John, trained on the job, starting as a forgehand in 1945 and passing through the major departments. The father's methods of promoting a harmonious workplace were to be developed by the son as a creed of industrial democracy.

Innovations at Siddons included low-voltage resistance heating (a technique in forging invented by Merrill Hanna, the company's laboratory head), a continuous 'austempering' furnace, automatic electroplating, and advanced forging presses from the United States of America. In 1949, while touring factories in the U.S.A., John Siddons encountered the revolutionary Ramset fastening system. He bought a machine and was offered the Australian franchise. Ramset Fasteners (Australia) Pty Ltd was incorporated as a division of Siddons Drop Forging in 1952, with John as general manager of Ramset, and Royston as chairman of Siddons. Import restrictions forced the company to manufacture Ramset guns and pins in Australia much earlier than intended, a technologically demanding transition that was achieved rapidly and smoothly under John's superintendence. Although Siddons tools were being exported to the Pacific Islands, South East Asia and the Middle East, by 1954-55 Ramset profits exceeded those of the hand tools division. Ramset subsidiaries were established in New Zealand and South Africa.

John Siddons oversaw the installation at West Heidelberg of a new forge and a steel-rolling mill (the second such mill in Australia). When he became a director of Siddons in 1953, the emerging tensions between father and son over management and marketing were transferred to board level. In 1955 Royston moved John from the highly successful Ramset subsidiary and made him general manager of the parent company, while retaining for himself overall control as chairman and managing director.

The resulting clash of generations, hurtful for the participants and potentially debilitating to the business, was recalled by John Siddons in his autobiography, A Spanner in the Works (Melbourne, 1990), as 'a period of great personal anguish'. The founding father—admired by the son for his physical and mental stamina, pioneering innovations and astute business judgement—seemed to have hardened into a dogmatic and dictatorial taskmaster, one who insisted on personal, centralized control and was given to maverick decisions. Following disagreements with five successive general managers of Sidchrome, Royston handed their post to his son and left on an overseas trip. During his absence advertisers coined the famous jingle, 'Y' canna hand a man a grander spanner'. Promotion by the television entertainer Graham Kennedy pushed sales to new heights. The Sidchrome trade mark became a household name throughout Australia.

Returning reinvigorated from his travels, Royston outflanked John with a corporate restructure that installed himself as chairman of a holding company, Siddons Industries Ltd, and its subsidiaries, Siddons Drop Forgings and Siddons Rolled Steel, and as managing director of his son's Ramset initiative. In 1957-58 Royston bought a group of William Buckland's companies which distributed automotive components. The expansion halved the Siddons family's equity in S.I.L. to 15 per cent, threatened long-established investors and left the company vulnerable to takeover. John spent 1959-60 setting up the Ramset business in Britain and returned in time to prevent the sale of S.I.L. to Repco Ltd during the 1960-61 'credit squeeze'. The board deposed Royston as managing director on 10 January 1963 and gradually eased him out of management. He passed the chairmanship to his son in 1968 and left the board in 1972.

Although Siddons had moved from Ivanhoe to Mornington, he still drove regularly to the West Heidelberg plant. From the 1960s he pursued other business interests, with limited success, in gold- and opal-mining, and in citrus- and olive-farming. He was a director of various companies connected with his business, and of others including Freighters Ltd, Ring-Grip Ltd and the Leviathan Ltd. For recreation he sailed and played bowls. He was a council-member of Wesley College.

Siddons died on 24 November 1976 at his Canterbury home and was cremated; his wife, and their son and two daughters survived him. A service was held at the Ivanhoe Methodist Church—where Siddons had been a lay preacher, trustee and Sunday-School superintendent. 'And what has this man contributed?' asked the preacher. 'He gave his country a tool with which to build . . . he gave his country the common spanner'. That year Siddons Industries Ltd, with subsidiaries in six countries, 1500 employees and a wages bill of $12 million, made a pre-tax profit of $3 million and paid $600,000 in dividends. Siddons' estate was sworn for probate at $696,899. One of his bequests helps students training for the ministry of the Uniting Church in Australia. Bram Leigh's portrait (1975) of Siddons is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Carroll, Australian Made (Melb, 1987)
  • Metals Australia, 10, no 2, Feb 1978, p 36
  • Herald (Melbourne), 25 Oct 1969, 25 Nov 1976
  • Australian, 14 Nov 1970
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Nov 1976
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 26 Nov 1976
  • Heidelberger, 1 Dec 1976
  • Sunday Age (Melbourne), 5 Jan 1992
  • A. P. J. Dixon, Siddons Industries Limited: A History (manuscript, privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Lack, 'Siddons, Royston (1899–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/siddons-royston-11689/text20891, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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