Former Rivers workers remember the company’s long history

THE Rivers and Paddle Bros names are synonymous with Ballarat. 

Starting in the late 1800s in the back shed of a property in Carlton, the company – then known as Paddle Bros – has gone on to have 180 stores across the country. 

Founded by Joe Paddle, the company spanned four generations before going into receivership in the early 1980s.

However, the company’s long-running association with Ballarat didn’t start until just after World War II.

Ray Paddle began working for his family’s business when he was 16, shortly after the war. 

“The company was already operating in Melbourne, in Fitzroy, and after that was when the company decided to open a machine room in Ballarat, because of the availability of female labour there,” he said. 

Ray was working in Ballarat when the company went into receivership.

“It was a name that was known throughout the community and we employed around 300 people there at one time,” he said. 

“I stayed there right until the finish. 

“It was sad after all those years, but it was a funny thing in the footwear industry – a lot of the old companies got to the fourth generation and they just disappeared.”

Paddle Bros originally occupied a building on Lydiard Street before relocating to newer premises on Grenville Street.

The business then leased the Ballarat Guncotton Factory, giving it multiple manufacturing centres across Ballarat.

Ray said the company also bought another business called Emu Shoes, which was based in Ballarat on Barkly Street.

This building burnt down in February 1963. 

Negotiations to build the large Sebastopol factory began in 1949 with the idea to combine all the operations that had opened across the city. 

The factory was completed and opened in 1960. 

The company was bought by Peter Goodman, who changed the name to Rivers in the 1990s. 

Neil Paddle, Ray’s cousin, has developed a fascination for his family’s company and has been working his way through the company’s history. 

“I am still collecting things,” he said. 

“Both Mum and Dad worked in the factory, and my father died when I was quite young.

“Old ads would run in the newspapers we used to get, and I can remember sitting around with my mum and aunt discussing the old family photo of Joe and the seven brothers.” 

Neil only worked in the family business during the school holidays, but he does remember when the company was eventually sold.

“Look at the cars now, the same thing is happening,” he said. 

“You are getting cheap imports and you can’t justify it with the wages that are required to manufacture anything.”

Ray said he wasn’t shocked to see the business had again been sold after being bought by Specialty Fashion Group last week. 

While Ray has now moved on to a quieter life in Queensland, he does admit to having mixed feelings when he sees one of the many Rivers stores across the country.

“It doesn’t worry me any more,” he said. “It used to, but it doesn’t anymore.” 

“Maybe not worry me – I had a feeling of – I’m not sure how to explain it – disappointment I suppose.

“That’s life, and when it happens life still has to go on.

“It was a good experience and it was a good period in my lifetime.”

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