THE willows that flanked the streams of England's county of Hereford early last century provide' the material with which young Samuel Bridges learned the ancient craft of basket-making, Bromyard his birthplace. By the time he reached manhood he knew all there was to know abo the growing of willow, its ripening, cutting, stripping, and sorting, and it was with this store craftsman's knowledge that he and his wife landed at Sullivan's Cove in 1855 from Norfolk Isla where James, his first son, had been born in 1854
He set up house at 109 Elizabeth Street then, as it is today, a thriving thoroughfare. Past the door of the Bridges' home clattered the horse-drawn buses which connected the Hobart terminus at the Albion Hotel with New Town.
The crack of the drivers' whips, the scrape of metal shod toes as the horses, outward bound, sought a grip on the inclines, and the squeal of brakes as the buses coasted into the city were the everyday sounds of the street.
This was a stirring and formative time in the development of Hobart and Tasmania. The New Year after his arrival saw the name of the colony changed officially to Tasmania, and at the end of 1856 the first Tasmanian Parliament met.
In 1857 Hobart and Launceston were linked with electric telegraph, the whale oil lamps of Hobart~s streets were replaced by gas lighting, Hobart was incorporated by a Act of Parliament still in force. Government House at the foot of Elizabeth Street near Franklin Square was abandoned in 1857 in favour of a new £60,000 vice-regal residence on the Domain, into which the Governor (Sir Henry Fox Young) moved on 2nd January, 1858. Also in l 857 the old convict gaol at the corner of Macquarie and Murray Stree —the scene of countless public hangings—was sold as new premises for the Hoba Savings Bank.
While these events were taking pIace Samuel Bridges was building his reputation as a basketmaker. By the end of 1857 or ear he had been contemplating since his arrival.
His decision to open his own business soon proved itself. Steady industry brought progress, and he was able to make an arrang w of John Everall, for the occupancy of a small building across the street from his Elizabeth Street home. Business astuteness and thrifity habits added further rewards, for despite the general economic slump in Tasmania from the late 50's through the 60's and 70's, Samuel Bridges was able not only to improve his business and premises, but a!so to look for securities in which to invest surplus funds.
In 1865 began negotiations for the purchase of the business premises he occupied on the western side of Elizabeth Street (the site of the present registered office of the company), but the transaction was not completed for eight years because John Everall had died interstate. The premises were known then as 98 Elizabeth Street.
By 1880 sons James and Samuel junior had married, and the business partnership entered into a few years before it was remunerative enough to support all three partners and their families.
The founder, described by noted author Roy Bridges (a grandson) as "grim old North Country Grandfather Bridges, with his tall grey hat, white linen, and heavy watch guard and seals" was prepared then to leave the management of the business to the two younger men and retire from active participation.
The measure of the growth and strength of Bridges Bros.' business is contained in the 1883 "Handbook of Tasmania," in which Thomas C. Just under the heading of basket-making recorded that "this is a trade which of late has been coming into notice, and there are nine establishments where every description of basketware is manufactured. Tasmanian willows are of excellent quality, well suited for every kind of plain and ornamental work."
But Bridges Bros. met this competition without difficulty, proudly being able to advertise that their firm was under "ViceRegal Patronage"— a much coveted honour in the days when custom from Government House and the right to exhibit the Coatof-Arms in or over the shop front were considered to be the hallmarks of quality and dependability. Bridges Bros. Ietterheads advised that the firm was "By Appointment to His Excellency."
Bridges Bros. did not achieve this distinction without having won coveted awards in the hard school of trade competition. In 1878 the firm was awarded the S.A.P.A. Silver Medal for basketware, and at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1881 received the highest honours awarded in the Australian colonies for basketware and willow material.
Among articles the firm manufactured at this time were ' perambulators and invalid carriages with India-rubber tyres, music and newspaper stands, work and tea tables, rocking chairs, couches and sofas, nursing chairs, sewing chairs, swing cots, flower stands, single, double and triple bassinets (fine and strong), cradles, fishing baskets etc.
The firm was also the designer and sole manufacturer of "one, two or three seated wicker phaetons (cockle pattern)." Both brother-partners were keen sportsmen at a time when Tasmanian sport was at its height—the period in which such as K. E. Burn and C. J. Eady, the greatest cricket-footballers the State has produced, were breaking records and winning places in Australian XI's.
This prompted them to expand their business into the realm of sports goods, including imported fishing tackle, guns and cartridges. This expansion and the introduction of a toy section made bigger premises necessary.
The founder's faith in the business he established had been amply justified by, the time of his death, at the age of 82, on 8th November, 1903. He had seen the firm grow from small beginnings into one of Hobart's most reputable and successful enterprises.
His part in the commercial life in Hobart had, helped the city through some of its most difficult, yet formative years.
He had seen the population grow from 20,000 when he arrived in Hobart Town to about 40,000 at the time of his death. He had seen the first telephone link between Tasmania and Victoria in 1859, the building of the Hobart Town Hall, completed in 1866, the opening of the Launceston-Hobart railway in 1876, the abandonment of the old Port Arthur penal settlement in 1877, and the establishment with nine or ten subscribers of Hobart's first telephone exchange in 1883.
The development of Hobart and the progress of Bridges Bros. had gone step by step. Hobart early outgrew the wells and pumps which supplied its water. Mr. Samuel Bridges saw the construction mountainside reservoirs for conserving water rains. His firm lived through - as many others did not - the closure of the Van Diemen's Land Bank in 1891. He saw in 1893 the horsedrawn buses which swayed past his door replaced by electric trams—the first in an Australian capital.
This progress of a city and a business justified his faith in a new land.
The financial reconstruction of the business following the founder's death prompted Samuel Junior to sell his share, but to continue still as an employee. James took over his brother's holding from January, 1907, and on 31st December, 1925, brought his own son, Leslie Samuel, into the business, so maintaining continuance of the Bridges name in the management.
During most of his years in the business, Leslie Samuel Bridges served as a wicker craftsman nd under his skilled control Bridges Bros. reached his zenith in wickerware manufacture. To is skill is due much of the expansion and modernisation of the business as it is today. James died on 4th October, 1946, having just entered his 93rd year, and within a few months on 2nd March, 1947, Lesle Samuel on whom management had devolved for some 22 years, followed his father.
A few years earlier Leslie Samuel's son Douglas Leslie had been persuaded to renounce a banking career and learn something of the old basket-making firm's business and trading associations, and from this fact only was the continuity of the Bridges name maintained through a difficult period.