Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Wertheim, Hugo (1854–1919)

by Andrew J. Ray

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

Hugo Wertheim (1854-1919), merchant and manufacturer, was born on 12 July 1854 at Lispenhausen, in the German electorate of Hesse-Kassel, son of Meyer Wertheim and his wife Minna, née Heinemann. Tall and dark, Hugo reached Melbourne in the Great Britain in October 1875. Soon he was advertising, from premises at 39 Flinders Lane East, as agent for his father's cousin Joseph Wertheim, a well-established manufacturer of sewing machines. On 27 February 1882 Hugo was naturalized. Back in Germany, he married Joseph Wertheim's daughter Sophie Emilie (1864-1953) on 30 August 1885 at Frankfurt and the couple came to Melbourne. Thereafter, he frequently returned to Europe. In the 1880s he built a 17-bedroomed mansion, Gotha (later Hadleigh Hall, demolished 1935), at South Yarra, where musicians such as the visiting Paderewski played.

In a short time, with extensive advertising, Hugo established a substantial business, selling sewing machines, bicycles, pianos and other mechanical devices, under brands such as Wertheim, Electra, Planet, Griffin and Hapsburg. He also mounted elaborate displays at agricultural shows and in 1901 at the Pan American Exposition, Buffalo, United States of America. O. C. Beale worked with him before setting up his own piano business in New South Wales. Hugo continued to own 25 per cent of one of Beale's companies, which became Wertheim's Queensland business.

In 1908 at a cost of some £75,000, Wertheim opened a large, innovative piano factory at Richmond, Melbourne, intending to produce 2000 pianos and player pianos annually, predominantly using Australian materials. In laying the foundation stone, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, observed that 'few men with such opportunities for a life of ease would have embarked on such an enterprise . . . the first in Victoria to commence making pianos'. Theodore Fink remarked that Wertheim had left behind the controversial position of an importer and grown into the patriotic position of a manufacturer. Premier Sir Thomas Bent, to reported cheers, said that he had found him as good a Briton as any in promoting industry.

World War I, however, caused difficulties for Wertheim. Australian military intelligence files showed that he and his family were reported numerous times as spies or 'pro-German'. Beginning in 1914, various wild assertions were investigated and found groundless. Wertheim's second son Rupert Carl (1892-1933), known as 'Soss' (for German sausage), served in France with the Australian Imperial Force and was thrice mentioned in dispatches; in September 1917 he interrogated captured Germans, deriving information that averted a German counter-attack.

Hugo died of chronic hepatitis on 11 July 1919 at his home at South Yarra and left an estate in Victoria valued for probate at £51,539. His wife, two daughters and three sons survived him; Herbert Joseph (1886-1972), the eldest, continued the business. Rupert became a sharebroker; he represented Victoria in inter-State tennis in 1913-27 and Australia in Davis Cup matches against Czechoslovakia in 1922. The piano factory closed in 1935, becoming a Heinz food processing plant and, in 1955, GTV Channel 9 studios and offices.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria (Melb, 1903)
  • J. B. Kiddle, War Services of Old Melburnians 1914-1918 (Melb, 1923?)
  • Liber Melburniensis (Melb, 1937 and 1965)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917 (Syd, 1938), p 774
  • Richmond Australian, 9 Oct 1880, p 4
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 2 Nov 1901, p 12, 3 Sept 1910, p 30, 10 Sept 1910, p 27
  • Leader (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1903, p 35
  • Argus (Melbourne), 22 Oct 1908, p 4, 19 June 1935, p 6
  • Richmond Guardian, 24 Oct 1908, p 2
  • Punch (Melbourne), 17 July 1919, p 89
  • private information.

Citation details

Andrew J. Ray, 'Wertheim, Hugo (1854–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wertheim-hugo-13244/text6415, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 25 September 2016.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016