Bridges Bros. was established in 1857 by English born Samuel Bridges, at 142 Elizabeth Street, Hobart. He produced all manner of wicker furniture, prams and baskets. Mr Bridges had learnt the skills of wicker weaving in Hereford, where he had grown up.
There was an early setback during the first year when fire broke out in a willow storage area, but nevertheless the business thrived.
Sons James and Samuel Jnr. joined their father as soon as they were old enough. A few years after Samuel Snr. died in 1903, Samuel Jnr. sold his share, but stayed on as an employee, leaving James as sole proprietor. Nevertheless, the name Bridges Brothers carried on.
There was another fire in the rear of the shop on September 27 1894. I guess the very nature of the business made fire a constant threat. On this occasion 16 tons of willow were burnt, and one ton of cane baskets. It was a big blow, especially as some of the baskets were waiting to be sent to the Melbourne Exhibition.
STRIPPING THE WILLOW
Willow for the business was grown within Tasmania, especially by the Derwent at New Norfolk.
Mr Samuel Bridges has charge of the willow stripping centre, which takes place in a space about one acre in extent in Burnett Street……at the westernmost end of the area are the green willows, all done up in bundles and stacked on their ends. The centre of the yard is given up to the strippers, which consist of women, girls and boys. (Tasmanian News Oct. 7 1895)
At that point, 84 people were employed for the three month season. It was a time of severe economic depression in Australia, so the work was a God-send for the poor.
The willow branches were drawn through an iron contraption which split the bark. Workers would then strip them into white wands, ready for weaving.
A decade later the number of workers had reduced to about 30, earning from eight shillings to twelve shillings per week. By now bamboo and rush were taking over from traditional willow. The stripping was still being done in Burnett Street, North Hobart. It’s a shame there are no images of the workers.
The firm expanded in the years that followed, manufacturing sporting equipment, especially fishing rods. Below is a leather matchbox cover, advertising their wares.
James Bridges died in 1946, aged 92. below is the family monument in the Cornelian Bay Cemetery. The business remained in family hands and at the same address until the 1980s.