Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Frederick Richard (Fred) Burley (1885–1954)

by Anthea Hyslop

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Frank Arthur Burley

Frank Arthur Burley (1881-1957) and Frederick Richard (1885-1954), corset manufacturers, were born on 29 June 1881 at Richmond, Melbourne, and 29 May 1885 at Hamilton, Victoria, third and fifth children of London-born parents Joseph Walter Burley (d.1891), fishmonger and commission agent, and his wife Isabel, née Gibson. Both grew up at Ballarat where their two aunts made and sold corsets; as boys, they often helped to scrape the whalebone used for stays. Educated at Urquhart Street State School, Arthur began his career in a grocery, worked in stores in New South Wales, then joined the Mutual Store Ltd, Melbourne. On 20 October 1908 he married Mabel Jane Makeig (d.1950) with Presbyterian forms at Mosman, Sydney.

Fred attended state schools, began work in a paint store at 13 and in 1900 entered the Ballarat warehouse of Melbourne softgoods merchants, Brooks, McGlashan & McHarg. He studied at night-school and business college, and rose to be departmental manager in 1908. On 21 December that year at the registrar's office, Collingwood, he married a schoolteacher Mabel Jane Mobberley. In 1909 he was sent to the firm's new branch in Sydney where he became warehouse manager.

With capital lent by relations, in 1910 Fred bought a controlling interest in E. Gover & Co., a small, 'made-to-order' corset firm in Market Street. When Arthur joined him in 1912 they formed Unique Corsets Ltd. Next year Fred embarked on the first of many visits to study the corsetry business in Europe and the United States of America. Despite wartime shortages, the company's staff increased from 12 to 60 by 1917. That year Arthur coined the Frenchified tradename, 'Berlei', for a popular new product; in 1919 the firm formally became Berlei Ltd and was registered as a public company in October 1920. With the purchase of W. Zander & Co. that year, Berlei's staff grew to 280 and new machinery was installed for large-scale manufacturing. The firm had three times moved to larger premises before the Burleys bought land in Regent Street and in January 1922 opened Berlei House, seven storeys of offices and workrooms 'constructed on the daylight principle', with display theatre, elegant sales rooms, a library and a roof-top 'playground' for employees.

All stays and lacings at first, Berlei's products grew more varied as their female designers sought new ideas and fabrics overseas. In the Berlei Review, founded in 1922 as a trade journal, the brothers warned the willowy 'flapper' against lasting damage to 'muscles and vital organs', or 'excessive figure development in the middle years', and urged her to 'corset for the future'. The means to do so—the dainty 'Berlette' brassiere, light-weight 'Corselette' and wrap-on 'Dance Girdle'—were promoted in elaborate musical revues that toured the capital cities, advertising the entire Berlei range: 'Youth Triumphant' (1924), 'Radiant Woman—At Beauty's Shrine' (1926) and 'Lady Be Beautiful' (1929).

Branch offices were opened in Melbourne (1921), Brisbane (1923), Adelaide (1929) and Perth (1929), and a factory in Melbourne (1927). In 1923 Berlei took over a major competitor, Australian Corsets Ltd, and used its stocks to equip Berlei (New Zealand) Ltd at Auckland. Founding president that year of the 'Australian-Made' Preference League, Fred promoted its 'Great White Train'. Much of the Burleys' success stemmed from their commitment to produce garments of quality and perfect fit, and to render excellent service to customers. They held annual conventions for sales representatives, advised retailers on window display and ran regular training schools for corset-fitters. Insisting on a scientific approach, they employed a physician Dr Grace Boelke to ensure that Berlei garments were 'anatomically correct'.

In 1926 Fred enlisted physiologists at the University of Sydney to assist in an anthropometrical survey of Australian women: the aim was to identify basic figure types, so that ready-made corsets might be designed to fit as if made-to-order. Professor Henry Chapman led the project. Some seven thousand women were measured in fine detail and the data revealed five fundamental types—big abdomen, heavy bust, big hips, sway back and average proportions. Berlei garments could now be designed and coded accordingly. Using an ingenious device, the Berlei Type Indicator, any corsetiere could compute in a trice the size to suit a client's measurements. Thirty years later the indicator was still a reliable guide to correct fittings.

In 1929 Fred founded Berlei (U.K.) Ltd, with offices in Regent Street, London, and a factory at Slough, Buckinghamshire. The Depression turned a costly venture into an 'uphill fight'. In 1933 Fred, governing director of the Berlei 'triad', took control and settled with his family in England, leaving Arthur as managing director of the Sydney firm. In Australia, Berlei responded to the slump with positive measures. The corset industry fared better than many, not least because feminine curves were back in fashion, moulded by the 'sensation of 1933'—two-way stretch elastic.

In Britain, where the best corsets had been French or American imports, Berlei had to train its own staff, but by 1935 its products were being sold in Paris and praised in Vogue. Wartime restrictions slashed Berlei's output and imposed 'utility' standards on the remainder. The factory at Slough was kept busy with government orders, ranging from butchers' aprons to bras and girdles for the women's services. When the government took over the workshops, production continued in the office block, albeit with a much-depleted staff, run from the Burley residence at nearby Denham. Fred joined the Home Guard.

In Australia, the war diminished Berlei's output: many skilled female machinists left to marry, imported materials grew scarce and by early 1942 most of the male staff had enlisted, including Arthur's son Edmund. The firm saw its foremost role as maintaining supplies of popular lines 'so that figure control and comfort may help our women to play their part'. As World War II progressed, Berlei made countless items for the armed services, from khaki shorts to anti-flash masks. In 1947 Fred returned to Sydney; he and Arthur gradually withdrew from active management of the company. By 1950, with supply again matching demand, Berlei's annual sales in Australia alone exceeded £1 million.

Throughout their long partnership the brothers had complemented each other. Fred, a 'man of vision', dynamic and imaginative, took the lead with bold innovations. By contrast, Arthur was quiet and unassuming, 'accomplished in finance and organisation', the good manager, beloved of his staff, who supplied a prudent 'brake and guide' for Fred's initiative. Both were very tall; but where Fred was strong featured and bright of eye, Arthur had gentler looks and a reflective air.

Yet the two had much in common, in particular a commitment to community service. Arthur was treasurer of the Young Men's Christian Association and in 1934 presided over the Australian Institute of Industrial Psychology. Besides supporting many other worthy causes, both were Rotarians; Fred was Australian district governor (1931-32) for Rotary International and president (1941) of the London branch. Rotary's ideal of co-operative industrial relations governed all their dealings with staff. Their employees, who knew them as 'Mr Fred' and 'Mr Arthur', enjoyed a staff provident fund and a profit-sharing scheme. Personnel management was the province of Mr Arthur. An executive-member of the State branch from 1924, he served as Australasian president (1938-42) of the Australasian Institute of Secretaries and in 1947 became first president of the Australian division of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries, London.

The brothers enjoyed golf and motoring. Arthur was a member of the Australian Golf and Ashfield Bowling clubs; in London Fred belonged to the Royal Automobile Club and in Sydney to that of New South Wales. Fred Burley died of septicaemia on 26 May 1954 at Wahroonga and, after a Congregational service, was cremated; his wife, son, three daughters and adopted son survived him; his estate was sworn for probate at £51,914. Following his brother's death, Arthur became the firm's chairman of directors. Survived by two sons and two daughters, he died on 4 May 1957 at Grose Vale and was buried with Anglican rites in Rookwood cemetery. John Berrie's portrait (1949) of Fred hangs in the Berlei boardroom.

Select Bibliography

  • Souvenir of the 'Australian Made' Preference League and the Great White Exhibition Train (Syd, 1926)
  • Berlei Review, 1922-42, Sept-Oct 1948, July-Sept 1950, Winter 1954, Spring 1957
  • Newspaper News, 1 Nov 1929, p 9
  • Secretary (Sydney), July 1957, p 106
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Apr, 17 May 1934, 1 Feb 1945, 16 Aug 1947, 27 May 1954, 6 May 1957, 16 Oct 1982
  • Berlei Ltd papers (Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Powerhouse, Sydney).

Citation details

Anthea Hyslop, 'Burley, Frederick Richard (Fred) (1885–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 May, 1885
Hamilton, Victoria, Australia


26 May, 1954 (aged 68)
Wahroonga, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

blood poisoning

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