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David Kersell Laidlaw (1902–1979)

by Cecile Trioli

This article was published:

David Kersell Laidlaw (1902-1979), businessman, was born on 16 August 1902 at Brunswick, Melbourne, ninth child of Adam Laidlaw, painter, and his wife Johanna Trisia, née Moriarty, both Melbourne born. The family lived in Edward Street, Brunswick, where Johanna made garments for the clothing trades. Educated at Stewart Street State School, at the age of 16 David went to Newcastle, New South Wales, to work with a relation who manufactured shirts. Laidlaw returned to Melbourne in 1922 and joined Castle Clothing, Brunswick, where he rose from foreman to manager. On 18 April 1927 at Scots Church, Melbourne, he married with Presbyterian forms Jessie Irene Barnes, a 19-year-old machinist.

In 1935 he decided to form his own company, D. K. Laidlaw & Sons Pty Ltd. Seeking to promote its Australian image, the firm adopted the name 'Yakka', an Aboriginal word meaning 'hard work'. The word had entered the Australian vocabulary in the late nineteenth century as synonymous with strength and endurance, qualities promoted by the company for its industrial-wear products. In 1939 the firm moved to its first industrial premises at 153 Weston Street, Brunswick, to produce combination overalls. Within a few years Yakka transferred to larger premises at 260 Lygon Street, East Brunswick. During World War II the company won several large government contracts, the main one with the Royal Australian Air Force. A welfare capitalist model of factory management was adopted and trade union support was advertised as part of company promotion: 'Hard Yakka, 100 per cent union made'. By the end of the war Yakka employed eighty workers.

The 1950s saw a period of rapid expansion in manufacturing in general and for Yakka in particular. A factory which made boys' shorts was opened at Sunbury, and in 1955 a third factory was built in Ballarat Street, Brunswick, to make jeans, and bib-and-brace and combination overalls. Yakka produced its own label jeans: 'Brand Em' was followed by 'Keyman' in 1962. In 1960 the company moved to larger premises at Broadmeadows, expanding operations interstate and distributing products directly to industry. Further expansion ensued, with factories established at Wangaratta and Wodonga, Victoria, and at Albury and Darlinghurst, New South Wales.

By the 1960s Laidlaw had begun to withdraw from the business, leaving it largely to his sons John and Brian who were made joint managing directors. John became sole managing director in 1976, Brian having taken the managing directorship of H. D. Lee Australia. Next year Yakka became the major sponsor of Collingwood Football Club, providing the players with special training guernseys that bore a large Yakka logo.

Five ft 8 ins (178 cm) tall and sturdily built, David Laidlaw was an active sportsman who played 150 games of Australian Rules football with the East Brunswick club. He had a bright, outgoing personality and a keen sense of humour. For many years he was involved in local community activities as a Brunswick city councillor, president of the Bing Boys' Club and a life governor of Mount Royal home for the aged. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died on 20 February 1979 at Brunswick and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at $60,960.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian, 22 Mar 1994
  • Hard Yakka—The History of D. K. Laidlaw & Sons Pty Ltd (typescript, no date, copy held in ADB file)
  • private information.

Citation details

Cecile Trioli, 'Laidlaw, David Kersell (1902–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 27 September 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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