Dictionary of Sydney

The Dictionary of Sydney was archived in 2021.


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Bebarfald's, known during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as B Bebarfald & Co, was a retailer of home furnishings and a manufacturer of furniture, trading for many years from their landmark location opposite the Sydney Town Hall on the corner of George and Park streets. After arriving from England in 1852, the founder of the company, Barnet Bebarfald, first traded in Melbourne, then Dunedin in New Zealand and Brisbane, before settling in Sydney around 1872. By that time, the company advertised as a 'new and second-hand furniture warehouse' trading at 256 Pitt Street. [1] Although not a common sight nowadays, furniture retailers were plentiful in central Sydney up until the mid-twentieth century, and Bebarfald's was to become one of the largest.

Building and consolidation

In 1894, Bebarfald's moved to its long-term home opposite Sydney Town Hall. The company doubled its physical size by buying and incorporating the adjoining shop into the business in 1899. In addition to furniture, Bebarfald's sold carpets, linoleum and furnishing drapery, as well as crockery, dinner and teaware, holloware (table service items such as sugar bowls, milk jugs, coffee pots and teapots, soup tureens, and hot food covers) and brushware. In 1908, the store was demolished to make way for a new four-storey building constructed across the whole site to a design by architect John Burcham Clamp. When a neighbouring property was purchased a decade later, Burcham Clamp was again commissioned to extend the building to the same design, thereby increasing the size of the store by one-third. [2]

Bebarfald's last and possibly most significant building activity occurred following the decision of the Sydney City Council in the mid-1920s to widen Park Street, requiring the resumption of a number of properties along its southern side. Under the new works, a small section of Bebarfald's existing building required demolition, but more importantly, the business now found that it would be occupying the prestigious corner site of George and Park streets, directly opposite the Town Hall. As a result, Bebarfald's again decided to rebuild and by the beginning of 1930 had constructed a Kent & Massie designed eight-storey building, with basement, on the site. [3]

The new Bebarfald's building was erected under the guidance of managing director De Renzie Myer Rich, the grandson of the founder. Other descendants, including some from the Shmith family, also sat on Bebarfald's board. Although he played no part in the Bebarfald's business, arguably the most famous retailing connection was through Barnet Bebarfald's son-in-law Harry Boan, who established Perth's largest department store Boan Bros, later known as Boan's Limited, with his brother Benjamin. [4]

The new Bebarfald's building allowed for more space and new displays. The whole of the second floor, opened by Governor Sir Dudley de Chair, was converted into display rooms: nine fully furnished period rooms as well as a complete six-room Spanish Bungalow style home with textured salmon-coloured exterior, Spanish tiles and courtyard featuring flower beds, trellises and pergolas. In addition, new innovative promotional activities were undertaken, including two daily sessions on the 2KY radio show, broadcast from the fifth floor of Bebarfald's store, which featured regular programs on household economics, dressmaking, furnishing the home, and an evening musical session with contributions from members of Bebarfald's Dramatic Society. [5]

Courses and advice

Bebarfald's also offered customers free dressmaking courses and established an advisory bureau headed by Mona Moncrieffe, one of Sydney's leading authorities on home dressmaking. In addition, the company established a home-planning bureau and in 1927 published a substantial volume, Safe home planning. This book, subtitled 'the most complete and most authoritative book on home planning, building and furnishing ever compiled and produced in Australia', included contributions from a number of experts, including architect Augustus Aley and landscape designer Max Shelley, and covered subjects ranging from purchasing land for a home to installing electricity, planning a garden and every aspect of furnishing the home. The bureau also offered a proto-interior decorator service, where customers could be supplied individually tailored home furnishing schemes. [6]

Bebarfald's have arguably become best remembered for their sewing machines, which first appeared around 1917. Elegant timber cabinets made at Bebarfald's furniture factory concealed British-made Vickers sewing machines, giving the impression of a substantial piece of cabinet furniture that would sit in harmony with other home furnishings. [7] By 1926, these sewing machines, along with many other goods sold by Bebarfald's, were branded as 'Blue Bird', often with the depiction of a bluebird in flight. [8] Bebarfald's had been designing and manufacturing its own furniture from as early as 1879, and by the 1890s workshops were located at the rear of the George Street store. [9] In 1919 a separate factory and warehouse was established in Cleveland Street, Redfern, and the success of Bebarfald's sewing machines led to the establishment of another specialist factory in the Sydney suburb of Leichhardt in the late 1920s. [10]

Expansion of the business included the opening of new branches: by 1940, Bebarfald's stores were located at Newcastle, Parkes, Wollongong and Lismore, as well as a Blue Bird sewing machine showroom in Brisbane. By 1950, staff levels had grown to about 500. Although profits were healthy in the 1950s, the trend towards decentralisation of retailing from city to suburbs was evident to most retailers. After World War II, suburban branches were opened regularly, so that by 1964 Bebarfald's stores were located in nine Sydney suburbs: Parramatta, Cabramatta, Caringbah, Fairfield, Jannali, Maroubra, Stanmore, Sutherland and West Ryde. [11]

Diversification fails

While suburban retailing prospered, the 1960s saw the closure of a number of large and well-established stores in central Sydney, particularly in the furniture trade. In the city, additional competition came from department stores like David Jones and Farmer's, while Sydney Wide and Macy's undercut traditional furniture stores at the cheaper end of the market. The large floor area required for furniture, rising city rents and the ease of parking in the shiny new suburban shopping centres meant that furniture retailing in central Sydney was becoming unviable. [12]

In an attempt to diversify its business, Bebarfald's introduced an espresso bar, pharmacy and food department in 1959, and then four years later added men's and women's clothing, accessories, jewellery and cosmetics departments to its city store. But in the year to 30 June 1965, Bebarfald's incurred a loss of almost £1 million. The attempt to diversify its city business had failed and Bebarfald's management decided to close the city store on 31 August 1965. [13]

Woolworths obtained the long term lease of Bebarfald's city store but only used the basement and first two floors for retailing, the other floors being given over to offices. By 1967, two additional floors were added resulting in the removal of the heavily corbelled cornice. The original and impressive barrel-vaulted entrances had been removed in 1955 and the building was painted – the original concept had maintained the natural cement colour. All of these changes altered the feel and balance of the building for the worse. [14]

After four straight years of losses amounting to over £3 million, Bebarfald's was taken over in 1968 by one of its largest shareholders, Ajax Insurance Limited – both companies had major shareholders in common. Ajax was a subsidiary of IAC (Holdings) Ltd and during 1969 Bebarfald's operations were extended into non-retail areas like mortgage lending. Bebarfald's suburban and regional portfolio was rationalised – stores at Newcastle, Wollongong and Cabramatta were sold, while new Rockdale and Miranda stores were added. All of these branches continued to trade under the Bebarfald's name until around 1973 when they became part of Macy's Emporium (Sydney) Pty Ltd. [15]


[1] Sydney Morning Herald, 26 September 1872, p 8

[2] Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September 1899, p 6; 26 November 1908, p 3; 19 May 1920, p 8

[3] Building, 12 March 1929, p 43; 12 April 1930, p 53; Sydney Morning Herald, 4 February 1930, p 8

[4] David Hough, Boans for service: the story of a department store 1895–1986, The Estate of F T Boan, Claremont WA, 2009, pp 8–9

[5] Building, 12 April 1930, pp 62–64; Sydney Morning Herald, 7 March 1930, p 5; Journal of the Retail Traders' Association of NSW, March 1930, pp 27–29

[6] Bebarfalds Ltd, More frocks for less money: 'how to judge a sewing machine', Sydney, c1929; Bebarfalds Ltd, Safe home planning: the most complete and most authoritative book on home planning, building and furnishing ever compiled and produced in Australia, Sydney, 1927

[7] Sydney Morning Herald, 5 April 1917, p 6; Bebarfalds Ltd, How to judge a sewing machine, Sydney, 1927

[8] Sydney Morning Herald, 2 August 1926, p 2; The Home, September 1917, p 16

[9] Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July 1879, p 4; 17 December 1896, p 6

[10] Bebarfalds Ltd, More frocks for less money: 'how to judge a sewing machine', Sydney, c1929, p 28

[11] Sydney Morning Herald, 19 September 1950, p 3; Bebarfalds Ltd, Annual report and statements of account for the year ended 30th June 1964, Sydney, 1964

[12] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 February 1965, p 8; 28 February 1965, pp 107–108

[13] Sydney Morning Herald, 30 October 1959, p 12; 24 July 1965, p 4; Journal of the Retail Traders' Association of NSW, January 1963, p 15; March 1963, pp 5–8

[14] Sydney Morning Herald, 27 September 1955, p 15; 1 June 1967, p 13

[15] Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November 1965, p 107; 6 March 1968, p 19; 29 April 1970, p 22; Bebarfalds Ltd, Annual report and statements of account, Sydney, 1960–67; White pages: Sydney & suburbs, Postmaster-General's Dept, 1972–75