Giant of Ballarat retailing turns 90

Lauris and William Messer. Mr Messer has just turned 90. Picture: Event Evolution – Photography.

Lauris and William Messer. Mr Messer has just turned 90. Picture: Event Evolution – Photography.

When international star Barry Humphries brought his daughter to Ballarat to attend boarding school, he went to the clothing institution Messer and Opie in Bridge Mall to purchase her uniform.

William ‘Bill’ Messer Jr, the son of co-founder William, remembers meeting the creator of ‘housewife and superstar’ Dame Edna Everage vividly.

“He’s a very tall chap, very large, and I took him upstairs to open an account with us. The account manager was a very quiet man, a devout Methodist. He’d never heard of Mr Humphries. So after they had finished creating the account, the account manager came back downstairs and said to me, ‘That was a very strange fellow’.

“Why?” I asked.

“I asked him what occupation I should put on his account, and he said, ‘broken-down actor’!”

Bill Messer is now a very fit and active 90. Once a board member of the Queen Elizabeth Centre (since 1965), a member of the Victorian Hospital Board Division Three and of the Country Division of the Retail Traders of Victoria, he has been a member of the Ballarat Masonic Lodge for 70 years and is a former president and secretary of the Central Wendouree Bowling Club, of which he is a life member.

Messer and Opie staff around the period Bill Jr joined.

Messer and Opie staff around the period Bill Jr joined.

He recalls with accuracy his father’s attitude to business and his standing in the community. William Messer Senior had returned from the Great War with a Military Medal and part of his thigh blown away. As a young man both he and his good mate Frank Opie worked at the enormous department store Morsheads in Bridge Street.

He found himself doing window displays and ticket writing on the weekend, prompting his young wife to suggest he should go into business for himself as she never saw him.

Messer mentioned this at work to his mate Frank, and their conversation was overheard by a colleague who promptly relayed it to store owner WR Morshead.

Messer and Opie ad, The Courier, 1941

Messer and Opie ad, The Courier, 1941

Both Bill Messer Senior and Frank Opie were summarily dismissed after lunch that day, forcing their idle conversation into a concrete plan. Messer and Opie was born at the end of the Great Depression, but it was still a great time of poverty, and the company earned great respect for offering generous long-term credit to its customers.

Bill Jr left school in 1943 with the intention and desire of becoming a chemist. In those times a chemist needed to serve an apprenticeship, and with men returning from the war and taking government-supplied positions, he turned instead to the Commonwealth Bank where he worked for six years.

But the call of the family business was too strong and Bill joined his father’s business in Bridge Street just as men’s fashions were beginning to change.

Messer and Opie ad, The Courier, 1956

Messer and Opie ad, The Courier, 1956

“There were a lot of tailors in Ballarat,” recalls Mr Messer.

“Mather and Bellingham, Alf White, Adelaide Tailoring Company, Mark and Philp, Gribbles the tailors, Bills – there were so many tailors.

“One day I remember a Mr Cohen, a Jewish gentleman from Melbourne, came up and he was going to make ready-made suits. I think everyone was a bit sceptical of how they would work. But he perfected the game and of course eventually put the poor old tailors out of business.”

Mr Messer says prior to the ready-made, men wanting to buy a suit would come in to the store to be measured and fitted.

“Mather and Bellingham would come down and measure them, or my father –  he was good at measuring and so was Mr Opie – and it would be made through Mather and Bellingham. And then they would sell the shirt and the tie and the accessories that went with it.”

Messer and Opie ad, The Courier, 1968

Messer and Opie ad, The Courier, 1968

At the time, a man was not considered properly dressed unless he was wearing a waistcoat as part of his three-piece suit.

“People generally dressed much better than they do today. The suits they were making – Sackville and Hi-tone were the two main ones, and Haverton Park in NSW –  they made very, very good suits. They’re all closed now.

“They’re imported, mainly from China now, and they’re pretty ordinary in my opinion.”

William Messer has been married to Lauris for 65 years.