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Ernest Julius Wunderlich (1859–1945)

by G. P. Walsh

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WUNDERLICH BROTHERS: Ernest (Henry Charles) Julius (1859-1945), Frederick Otto (1861-1951), and Alfred (1865-1966), manufacturers, were born on 16 May 1859, 28 June 1861 and 8 July 1865 at Islington, London, sons of Charles Frederick Wunderlich, clerk and later indigo merchant, and his German wife Caroline, née Schmedes. Ernest began his education at Percy House College, London, and the Bender Institute, Weinheim, Germany. In the early 1870s the family moved to Vevey, Switzerland, where the brothers attended the public school and went mountaineering—Otto later climbed the Matterhorn.

From the age of 16 Ernest studied architectural and mechanical drawing at the École Polytechnique, Lausanne. After being apprenticed to an engineer at Vevey, in 1878 he became a clerk and travelling salesman for a London firm and indulged his love of music and theatre. To benefit his health, in 1881 he went to South Africa with agencies for pianos, but economic setbacks and the loss of his wares in a fire forced him to return to London in 1884. Otto, a graduate of the Université de Lausanne (Bach. es Lettres, 1880), came to London to study medicine at St Bartholomew's Hospital (L.R.C.P., M.R.C.S., 1885; Dip.Pub. Health R.C.P.S., 1889) and practised in that city.

In London Ernest met Fanny Amalia Hoesch (d.1942), a talented pianist and graduate of the Conservatorium of Music, Cologne, and married her at Burtscheid, Germany, on 15 May 1885. They arrived in Sydney in July. He worked as a manufacturers' agent, advertising for a time as a wine and spirit merchant. Having imported stamped zinc mansard windows for a Sydney builder, he turned to German stamped metal ceilings and erected some of his earliest imports in Sydney Town Hall and in the piano showrooms of Octavius Beale and William Paling.

Joined by his brother Alfred in 1887, Ernest took out his first patent for 'an improved ceiling' in April 1888. They sold their patents in December 1889 to W. H. Rocke & Co. of Melbourne who had established a ceiling factory at Redfern, Sydney; Ernest became manager in Melbourne and Alfred in Sydney. Late in 1892 the Sydney branch became insolvent: the brothers redeemed their patents, raised £10,000 and formed the Wunderlich Patent Ceiling & Roofing Co. Ltd (incorporated in 1904). By 1897 Wunderlichs advertised as sole agent for imported Marseilles tiles. On 27 March that year in Sydney Alfred married with German Lutheran forms Blanche Marguerite Guex, daughter of a Swiss banker.

Otto, 'The Doctor', reached Sydney in 1900. A formidable man, he specialized in the administrative, technical and scientific aspects of the company. He set up an improved costing system, remodelled the works, standardized manufacture, introduced better selling methods and deputed many tasks that had previously devolved on the principals. In June 1908 the Wunderlichs and Rocke united to form Wunderlich Ltd with nominal capital of £200,000; the three brothers became directors for life; William Baillieu and Theodore Fink were among the Melbourne board-members. That year Wunderlich claimed to be the first Australian firm to introduce a 44-hour week without a pay reduction. The company opened branches in all States and in Wellington, New Zealand. Though terracotta products continued to be imported, from 1910 they were also produced at the Wunderlich works at Brunswick, Melbourne. In 1913 Embosteel Ltd was absorbed. In addition to starting a profit-sharing scheme for employees in 1914, Otto instigated other improvements for the health and betterment of the staff. In the early years, however, the firm preferred to employ boys from private schools and discriminated against Catholics.

Ernest, 'The Chief', remained chairman until 1945, but was content to leave the everyday running of the business to his brothers while he pursued cultural interests. An enthusiastic musician and composer, he criticized Percy Grainger's 'free' music and published an album of songs and numerous piano pieces, some showing the influence of J. S. Bach. Ernest helped to establish the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music and endowed exhibitions there; his friends included Henri Verbrugghen, Joseph Bradley and William Orchard.

As a trustee and president (1926), Ernest tried to modernize the Australian Museum, Sydney, and founded its magazine in 1921; he donated a group of Aboriginal figures executed by Rayner Hoff and a number of Egyptian artefacts, and in 1939 gave the museum his library of books on archaeology and anthropology. An able amateur astronomer and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, he set up an observatory at his holiday home at Gunnamatta Bay, Port Hacking, which in 1924 he placed in trust for the New South Wales branch of the British Astronomical Association, of which he was president. He belonged to the Athenaeum and New South Wales clubs. His other recreations comprised boating, deep-sea fishing and entertaining international visitors (including the singer Lotte Lehmann and tennis player Jean Borotra). Like his brothers, he travelled extensively overseas. His autobiography, All my Yesterdays, with a foreword by Neville Cardus, was published in 1945. Survived by his only son, Ernest died on 11 April 1945 at Bondi Junction and was cremated without a service. His estate was sworn for probate at £27,597.

Despite having to contend with anti-German hysteria, the Wunderlichs had survived World War I, building a new tile factory at Rosehill and a ceiling factory at Cabarita to make asbestos cement sheets from the company's mines at Barraba and Beaconsfield, Tasmania. Strong promotion was a feature of the firm's expansion in the 1920s: attractive catalogues and booklets were produced by artists and designers, notably William Dobell. During World War II the firm produced Wirraway cowlings, food cans and service badges for the war effort; Wunderlich also supplied building materials for post-war reconstruction.

On 31 December 1904 Otto had married Eva Francie Marion Ladd at the manse of St Luke's Presbyterian Church, Redfern; they were to have three sons and a daughter before she divorced him in April 1917. He later married Nance Annie Kaganski. Otto published Accountancy in Modern Business (1927), a Technological Guide to the Private Exhibition of Arts and Crafts in the Wunderlich Showroom (1932) and, privately, a translation in verse of the mediaeval French epic, La Chanson de Roland. Survived by his wife, and by a son of his first marriage, he died on 12 May 1951 in Sydney and was cremated.

Alfred was probably the most accessible and least forbidding of the brothers. Meticulous in his actions, he had wide business interests: chairman of Wunderlich Ltd from 1945, he was a director of Meggit Ltd, Manufacturers' Mutual Insurance Ltd, Federal Match Co. Ltd, Michael Nairn & Co. (Aust.) Pty Ltd and Linoleum Holdings Ltd, and president of the New South Wales Chamber of Manufactures and the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia (1911-12).

He belonged to the New South Wales Club and the Athenaeum, Melbourne, enjoyed dominoes, fencing and swimming, and sculled on Sydney Harbour until he was 80. President (from 1922) of the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney, he had a fine bass voice and sang regularly in its chorus as well as solo. Alfred loved French culture and worked devotedly for the Alliance Française in Sydney; in 1933 he received the gold medal of its Parisian headquarters and next year was appointed chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. For all but the last few years he went regularly to the Redfern works. At the age of 101 he died at his Centennial Park home on 12 July 1966 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His daughter and two of his three sons survived him.

Wunderlich's success owed much to the brothers' paternalistic attitude to their workforce which was rewarded by loyalty, a tradition of quality work and long service. The firm's products enhanced the interiors of many homes and public buildings, and its red roofing tiles and fibro sheets transformed the cultural landscape of suburban Australia. James Hardie (Asbestos) Ltd took over Wunderlich Humes Asbestos Pipes Pty Ltd in 1964; in 1969 Wunderlich Ltd was taken over by the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Many records and artefacts from the old Redfern works are preserved in the Power House Museum, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Forbes, History of Sydney (Syd, 1926)
  • Wunderlich Ltd, Forty Years of Wunderlich Industry, 1887-1927 (Syd, 1927), and published trade catalogues on building materials (Syd, 1922-50)
  • F. Clune, Saga of Sydney (Syd, 1961)
  • R. Strahan, Rare and Curious Specimens (Syd, 1979)
  • S. Bures, The House of Wunderlich (Syd, 1987)
  • Australian Museum Magazine, 16 Apr 1935, p 340
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 16 Mar 1912, p 616
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May, 16 Sept 1921, 6 Apr 1922, 9 Jan, 27 June 1924, 14 Jan, 28 Mar 1929, 9 Feb 1934, 7 Mar 1935, 16 Jan 1936, 17, 22 May 1939, 25 Apr 1940, 14 Apr 1945, 11 May 1963, 14 July 1966
  • Canberra Times, 8 July 1965
  • Wunderlich records (University of Melbourne Archives).

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Wunderlich, Ernest Julius (1859–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ernest Wunderlich, c1940

Ernest Wunderlich, c1940

Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, 393507

Life Summary [details]


16 May, 1859
London, Middlesex, England


11 April, 1945 (aged 85)
Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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