Predictions of mass unemployment, closed businesses not reopening paints a grim view of the times ahead. The mass shutdown created by the CoronaVirus hit fast and it hit hard. People from all levels and all walks of life have had to adjust to a new paradigm. No matter how dark the picture is painted there is always hope. Australians have come through very tough times in the past – the Spanish flu, the Great Depression, two World Wars, Vietnam, bushfires and more, communities worked together and as a nation we triumphed.
This story isn’t related to any of the above events, but it is a story of hope and triumph. It’s a story of how one small family business was saved from failure by the goodwill, understanding, trust and support of other businesses. It may have happened decades ago, but it is as relevant today as it was then and it’s a true story.
Morton Pennants was established by my parents, Morrie and Gwen Morton around 1932. They designed and manufactured screen printed souvenirs, flags, banners, award ribbons and more. They worked hard and they worked together. Morrie was the designer and artist, creating innovative products and he was also very clever with his hands, designing and developing most of his machinery. Gwen was the rock, the one who made sure stock was ordered and delivered, mixing the various paints and inks used, helping with the manufacturing, while at the same time, providing moral support and keeping the house running.
They were also entrepreneurs, keeping an eye out for different events that would be good for souvenirs and this often meant travelling to many towns and cities around the country.
In 1951 they were preparing for the Royal visit of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh for an extended tour of Australia in early 1952. They were deputising for King George VI who was too ill to travel and it promised to be a lucrative project for a small suburban manufacturing company.
Since the inception of the business, flags and banners had been made for a variety of events, from local shows, to festivals, but nothing was as large as the Royal Tour promised to be. Morrie and Gwen had worked hard in their business for almost twenty years and whilst it ticked over providing a living, it never brought in the riches that Morrie had always dreamed about. This Royal Tour was the long anticipated opportunity to change that. Plans were in place to manufacture an abundance of stock and follow the tour to as many locations as possible. This was a huge task, requiring extra material to be ordered, staff employed for the factory and a team of trustworthy flag sellers recruited to travel the country. The latter had to be fit enough to walk around the cities and stand for hours selling to the expected huge crowds while carrying bags filled with their flags. One flag in itself is very light, but bundled together in rolls of twenty-four, with each bag holding up to forty rolls, they became very heavy.
By Christmas 1951, everything was in place and production of the flags well under way, with contingencies in place to keep manufacturing to ensure supply when, hopefully, sellers ran out. As 1952 rolled in, the future looked very rosy indeed and everyone, Morrie and Gwen, factory staff and sellers were all feeling the growing excitement of a Royal Tour that the whole country had been anticipating. These were the days without television, so to see the Royal couple, people in their thousands were expected to gather to wave and cheer and of course, buy a flag. It was all looking good.
Then disaster! On the 6th February, 1952, the King died along with Morrie’s dream. When the news broke Morrie was devastated. With an abundance of stock in hand and as much again on order and with mounting debts, plus having to destroy the flags already made as they carried the date of the tour – 1952 and couldn’t be used for any future tour – the future was suddenly not so rosy.
Morrie was inconsolable and couldn’t see any future for their much loved business. However, he hadn’t counted on the resourcefulness and strength of his wife.
Gwen had developed strong relationships with all their suppliers – fabric manufacturers, ink and paint companies and several ancillary companies, all of which could see the promised success of the Royal Tour. She called each and every one of them and asked to meet personally with the managers. She then jumped on buses, trains and trams – visited every supplier, explained the situation and asked if they could assist. Each one, without fail agreed to not demand the return of the stock and if Morrie and Gwen could pay half of the bills outstanding, they would hold the balances for up to two years.
The following year, Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen Elizabeth II and the delayed Royal Tour was rescheduled for the following year, 1954.
So all the plans Morrie and Gwen had in place took on a new persona. They decided that it was viable for Morrie to travel to the UK to set up the business in London, from where he would design Coronation flags that Gwen and the crew would make in Australia and send to him. No such thing as super jet flights, mail between Australia and the UK in 1953 took about 6 weeks, so logistically it was difficult. However, Morrie managed to make a modest living travelling around the UK with the flags and gauging the mood of the people. Eighteen months later he returned home and they worked hard on the rescheduled Tour with the bonus being the family travelling from one side of the country to the other following the Royals.
So rather than the devastation Morrie envisaged, the success of this Royal Tour was followed by making flags for the Olympic Games in 1956 and several very lucrative years until Morrie’s health began to fail – but therein lies other stories. But the moral of this story is that through the generosity of other traders, a small family business managed to survive one of the most cataclysmic episodes they had ever faced or ever would face.