Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harry Lea (1876–1957)

by Richard White

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Harry Lea (1876-1957), confectioner, was born on 22 February 1876 at Spitalfields, London, within sound of Bow Bells, and named Monascher, son of Harris Levy, boot finisher and tailor, and his wife Hannah, née Emanuel. Emigrating with the family to Western Australia when he was aged 12, 'Harry' went to work rolling cigars in a factory—the only time he would receive wages. After his parents paid for him to learn to make confectionery, he pushed a barrow, peddling his wares around Perth and Fremantle. He later sold bottles for recycling and did some gold-prospecting.

On 30 March 1905 Levy married 19-year-old Esther Goldman at her mother's Adelaide home. The young couple initially settled at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. They ran a refreshment room and catering business at Kadina, South Australia, for two years before beginning various enterprises in Melbourne and at Puckapunyal. With a growing family, they reached Sydney by 1916 and opened a fruit store on The Corso at Manly where their eldest son Maurice later demonstrated a prize-winning flair for fruit displays. To enhance the slower winter trade, Harry revived his confectionery skills, selling toffees as well as fruit.

The sideline prospered. In 1924 Levy opened a small milk bar and confectionery shop in Castlereagh Street, Sydney, to cater for trade from the Haymarket Theatre next door. He manufactured his products at the rear of the premises. By this time his elder children were involved in the business. In June 1930 Depression rents allowed them to take over a Pitt Street shirt shop. Levy changed his name to 'Lea' and called the firm 'Darrell Lea' after his youngest son. The style of confectionery display that came to be identified with Darrell Lea was quickly established. The shirt-racks, the experience with fruit-selling and Maurice's flair led to a focus on heaped pyramids of their thirty lines of chocolate. Darrell Lea offered, like Busby Berkeley, a kaleidoscopic overabundance and extravagance seemingly at odds with Depression stringency, and in sharp contrast to the more refined displays of competitors such as Newman's or California. Equally significant was the decision to sell at half their competitors' price, so they were effectively mass-marketing what had previously been a luxury. High turnover also maintained the reputation for freshness, based on individual batch cooking and the close integration of manufacturing and retailing. The uniform for their hand-picked salesgirls was developed from the ticket-writer's smock, an overlarge bow added for effect.

Harry, handsome and dapper, sporting his bowler and umbrella or motoring to golf in his Riley, left the development of the business to his sons who opened more stores in Sydney. The Darrell Lea Chocolate Co. Ltd was registered in 1935. Next year the firm successfully tendered for premises at No.1 York Street, under the first arch of the new Harbour Bridge, and manufactured there until a new factory was opened at Kogarah in 1962. In 1940 a branch of the business had been set up in Melbourne. Survived by his wife, daughter and four sons, Harry Lea died on 24 July 1957 at Marrickville and was cremated with Jewish rites. The company remained a family concern and his grandchildren joined the firm. In 2012 the company was bought by the Quinn family.

Select Bibliography

  • National Times, 14-20 Mar 1982, p 28
  • Woman's Day, 14 Jan 1985, p 14
  • Darrell Lea Chocolate Shops Pty Ltd (typescript history of the company) and company records
  • private information.

Citation details

Richard White, 'Lea, Harry (1876–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 3 March 2024.

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

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Levy, Monascher

22 February, 1876
London, Middlesex, England


24 July, 1957 (aged 81)
Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

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