When David Jones arrived in the colony of NSW in 1835, it was still very much a frontier environment. The days when rum had been the currency were not that far behind and the labouring population of Sydney was reputed to be raw and irreligious. Governor Bourke had been wrestling to shift the settlement from dependence on a convict-based work force towards a capitalist economy and participatory democracy.
The colony offered opportunity to talented, but little-educated settlers to rise in the social scale and develop gifts that had remained hidden at home. David Jones proved to be one of these and he not only prospered but he also became a respected civic leader in Sydney. Sadly, the true source of the spirit of excellence he brought to the business life of the city has not only been forgotten it’s been abandoned.
The young Welshman had absorbed a strong ethic of honesty and hard work through living in Congregational church communities in Wales and London. He faced a tough challenge after crossing 14,000 km of ocean to set up shop in a hard-nosed business community that was aggressively expanding the colonial economy of the mid-1800’s. This is the story of how he and a unique community of Christian entrepreneurs, set about changing that culture and shaping Australia.
Ask most Sydneysiders about David Jones and they will point you to a noble sandstone building sited on Elizabeth Street opposite Hyde Park. It’s the flagship in a high-end Australian department store chain which accents its aura of quality and exclusivity by housing its own art gallery. Founded in 1838 it is claimed to be the oldest continuously operating department store in the world still trading under its original name.
As a teenager I sold suits, shirts, French cigarettes and then camping gear in a David Jones store in Parramatta. Sharp eyed supervisors wearing carnations and carrying green pens patrolled to keep us busy. Until recently, I had no clue that underneath all that class and austerity lies another, humbler more interesting story.
It goes back a couple of centuries to a 15-year-old Welsh farm-boy who left home to work in a grocer’s store in Pembrokeshire in South West Wales. There, the sturdy Congregational church community taught the young lad more than just skills in trading goods, but also the strong code of Christian ethics that were to become an important part in the powerful engine room shaping commerce in the rough and tumble business world of colonial Sydney Town.
It was a rough path for 20-year-old David Jones. In 1813, after only a year of marriage he lost his new wife in childbirth. Distraught with grief, he headed for London to continue his career in commerce, where he struggled to rise through a number of managerial positions, handicapped by speaking only Welsh. Providence supplied the young man with a community of gifted merchants who steadily widened his vision with a model of Christian enterprise and a heart to carry the Christian message to the world.
David went into partnership with one of these men - Hobart-based Charles Appleyard and in 1835 he and his new wife and family arrived in Sydney, determined to establish a business based on the principle of the sacredness of daily work and the importance of integrity. His mission was to sell “the best and most exclusive goods” and to carry “a stock that embraces the everyday wants of mankind at large.” Beyond that, their goal was to fund societies publishing Bibles, increase literacy, improve morals and engineer practical initiatives to meet the needs of those in distress, particularly those affected by the abuse of alcohol.
Where the harsh environment of the convict colony shrivelled the faith of many, it brought the best out in others like David Jones. In spite of his limited education, he immediately increased profits in the business tenfold. If he had a flaw, it was his legendary generosity to creditors and at times it threatened to ruin the store. In spite of some financial crashes, his business thrived and his leadership in the expanding city of Sydney grew.
Mid-19th century a remarkable network of energetic businessmen formed in the Pitt Street Congregational Church, combining their wealth to influence the growth of NSW. David Jones was one of them, along with John Fairfax who bought the Sydney Morning Herald and set a bench mark for Australian newspapers.
This group of entrepreneurs were men of action who modelled hard work and faith in God. Someone described them as being ‘diligent in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.’ Together, they brought a more benevolent culture into the hard-nosed Sydney business world.
David Jones for example, founded the Australian Mutual Provident society to give security to professional men, helped alleviate the sufferings of victims of the Crimean War, sponsored a college educating clergy, gave liberally to a number of churches beyond his own and was a founder of Sydney’s city council.
But always, his activism was underpinned by personal piety. His family reported that David retired for tea on Saturday nights for two hours to read his Bible and pray. There, he said he meditated and found guidance for his life. True to his Gaelic roots, his prized possession was his Welsh hymnbook. He firmly maintained Welsh was the most expressive language in the world and was always available to help immigrants from his native land.
In spite of his wealth and public success, David Jones was best known for his noble character and kind disposition. Those who knew him well said he always believed the best of the people he dealt with. In his eighty years he never lost the stamp placed on his character as a young man by men and women with the kind of strong Christian convictions that fired a heart of compassion for the world.
So next time you find yourself in a David Jones store, don’t be impressed by the excellence of the products on sale – remember the quality of the founder, the strength of his faith and the virile model of Jesus he brought to the workplace in Australia.
Join The Outback Historian, Paul Roe, on an unforgettable journey into Australia's Past as he follows the footprints of the Master Storyteller and uncovers unknown treasures of the nation.