Letters to Gar
by Sue Maclellan

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Letters to Gar  by Sue Maclellan

Product details
Paperback: 278 pages
Publisher: Sue Maclellan
ISBN: 9780992278205
Trim size: 229 x 153 mm

This book is a compilation of letters written to John Maclellan by family, employees and friends during the First World War. To his grandchildren John was known as Gar.

I started on this journey with the discovery of one letter from the father of Benjamin Jack, “Captain Jack” as I fondly call him. Numerous searches of my family’s copious boxes of historical records (hoarding would be a description used by most) has led to the discovery of more letters, diaries, books and pamphlets.

Australia was a small place in terms of a connected society in 1915 and Victoria even smaller. There are many references in the letters to others who were family members, friends, school friends, members of the guilds and professions. Soldiers wrote home providing snippets of information about others hoping it would be passed on to loved ones.

Gar was born in Leicester in 1863 to Margaret and James Maclellan who both came from Glasgow. James Maclellan disappeared when Gar was three leaving Margaret to raise her son by herself with support from the Gibson family. In 1882 Margaret and Gar left Scotland for Melbourne with the assistance of her brother William Gibson, to make a new life for themselves. Gar initially worked for ironmongers in Melbourne before going to the family firm Foy and Gibson.

Mark Foy had arrived in Australia in 1866 and established stores on the goldfields first in Bendigo and then in Greytown, Castlemaine and Spring Gully Creek. The business then moved to Smith Street, Collingwood, in 1868. William Gibson arrived in Victoria in 1882 and went into partnership with Francis Foy, son of Mark Foy. Following the dissolution of the partnership in 1884, Francis Foy went to Sydney and William remained in Melbourne as the sole owner of Foy and Gibson.

In 1890 Samuel Gibson and John Maclellan, both nephews of William, joined the firm in a newly established partnership. The first indenture in 1890 was between William Gibson, William Dougall, Patrick Tiernan, Samuel William Gibson, John Maclellan and James Dickie Christie of Glasgow. A second indenture in 1896 did not include William Dougall.
In 1896, expansion occurred with a Perth store opening, the Bulk Store in Smith Street, Fitzroy, and the first factories built in Oxford Street, Fitzroy. The London store opened in 1897 and in 1900 Gibsonia Mills and Eagley Mills were established, manufacturing Gibsonia blankets and flannels for Foy and Gibson stores and other wholesale manufacturers.
The third indenture in 1902 was between William Gibson, Samuel Gibson, John Maclellan and William Gibson Junior. This indenture expressly states that the Prahran Store, called the Big Store, was to operate in the “style of Maclellan & Co.” whilst the other stores in Fitzroy and London were to be Foy and Gibson. In 1903 a store was opened in Brisbane and in 1907 one in Adelaide.

Many of the men who wrote to Gar were family members or employees at the Big Store in Chapel Street, Prahran.
Newspaper reports indicate that the staff of the Big Store contributed to the war effort. Men at the store gave up 5% of their wages for one month and material was bought at cost price from the proceeds. The women employed in the factory gave their time voluntarily and made garments for soldiers. This effort was matched in kind by the company. Other goods were included in kits made for soldiers such as pajamas, Sunday shirts, shirts, socks, bandage rolling machines, hospital bags, writing materials, and games and books. These were displayed proudly in the window of the Big Store before they were given to the Red Cross for shipping overseas. Gar also had the contract with the Commonwealth government for the supply of flannel for the duration of the war.

Gar spent a considerable part of the war in England, leaving his wife Jessie in Australia. According to reports in The Argus newspaper, he went to England to recuperate from a serious illness. This was true; however, in reality he was managing the English and Scottish part of the business, Foy and Gibson, and ensuring that goods could be shipped to Australia. Table Talk, another Victorian newspaper, described him as “successfully bouncing through the submarine zone and landing in Piccadilly Square. He went to London by way of America with the express determination of finding out ways and means of sending a satisfactory supply of merchandise in which his firm is interested to this part of the world.”
The death of his cousins Samuel and William Junior and uncle William Gibson in 1918 compounded the problems for him both personally and professionally and he returned to Australia. He also had the responsibility for William Gibson’s other sons who had what can best be described as “interesting times” in the war.

Some letters refer to the Girls’ Guilds. These were described eloquently in the Ballarat Star as “a movement initiated by Mr John Maclellan … and it is accomplishing a great deal of good in the way of physical culture and mental brightness. It is not a pretentious or loudly advertised scheme, but just a gathering of girls attending any particular church in a girls guild for companionship and culture. The aims are high, and if they are not all achieved the members certainly receive a mental brace as well as a measure of physical training by means of games and exercises.”

Whilst he was in England Gar spent time with his son Roy who had enlisted and trained as a gunner, and together they visited relatives and friends throughout England. There is one poignant letter in the collection from Roy to his mother describing the various relatives and the activities he and his father undertook in England whilst Roy was on furlough.
My indulgence including additional information on the life of the brothers Clive and Eric Connelly is because Eric was my great uncle, married to Dorothy Maclellan, the only daughter of Gar. From reading the surviving letters, it is clear Gar sought and received advice from Eric.

The letters written home reflect that Gar considered that his responsibilities to his employees continued while they served in the army. He is described in one newspaper report as “an austere Scot who carries his responsibilities as controller of a great trading establishment with all due gravity.” In keeping with his philosophy for the guilds many soldiers received books and games to assist in passing away time on board transport ships. The letters home contain fascinating descriptions of Egypt, life on board transport ships and their experiences at various war battlefields and on furlough.
When writing home men spared their family members the grim reality of what each of these men faced and lived on a daily basis. Some of the letters to Gar do express the hopelessness of the situation yet also express a strong admiration for their fellow Australians.

Brief biographical material on each of the correspondents has been included, where possible, to bring to life the letters of those who fought on the various fronts of the war. The letters have been transcribed as written, and grammatical errors, spelling mistakes etc. have not been corrected or changed.

The material I have sourced from records aims to provide a confirmation or some contrast to the content of the letters. It is easy in hindsight to contemplate the misery, bravery and courage of not only those who fought but also those who remained at home.

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