Irish in Australia’: Octavius Charles Beale

The Beale Piano Factory in Annandale Sydney was once praised as the ‘largest piano factory’ in the British Empire. It was founded by Octavius Charles Beale who arrived in Australia as a child from Co. Leix during the gold rush of the 1850s. By the mid 1920s the factory had turned out more than 60,000 instruments and Beale himself was a prominent business man and public figure, confidante of politicians and active in manufacturers’ associations.
Prior to making pianos, Beale started his business importing German upright pianos into Australia; some of them still exist and are branded ‘Hapsburg Beale’. At its peak in the 1920s the Beale Company employed over 300 people with the majority of male workers including forgemen and carpenters but the fine fingers of women were considered ideal for the delicate task of stringing pianos.
The Beale Company boasted that its pianos, with innovative iron tuning system, were made by ‘Australian workmen from Australian material’. The name became synonymous with quality pianos and player pianos. Unable to compete with the low cost of Japanese and Chinese imports, the Beale factory at 47 Trafalgar Street, Annandale, closed in 1975 and its buildings are converted into luxury flats. Beale pianos are produced by Pearl River Pianos in China for an Australian company.
A successful linguist, Beale had revisited Europe and England for the Franco-British Exhibition, of which he was a commissioner. Beale pianos were awarded Gold Medals at the Franco-British Exhibition (1908) and the Royal Agricultural Society of N.S.W. Exhibition (1897 and 1898).
In the category ‘A continuing presence’, a Beale player piano (pianola) and stool (1926) was loaned by the National Museum of Australia to the Canberra exhibition: Not Just Ned: A true history of the Irish in Australia (2011).
Octavius Charles Beale (1850-1930)
Born on 23 February 1850 at Mountmellick, Queen’s County (Leix), his father was Joseph Beale, woollen manufacturer and his wife, Margaret, née Davis. In December 1854 he and his mother joined his father and brothers in Van Diemen’s Land. In Hobart Town, Mrs. Beale founded a small school, one of several which amalgamated into the Friends’ School.
Brought up as a Quaker, he was sent back to Ireland in 1859 to be educated for six years at Newton School, Waterford. At 16 he entered a Melbourne hardware firm, Brooks, Robinson & Co. and at 23 set up a branch in New Zealand. He returned to Melbourne and became a partner two years later.
On 9 October 1875 at the Congregational Church, Woollahra, Sydney, he married Elizabeth Baily who bore him thirteen children. She died in 1901 and he married her sister Katherine on 4 March 1903.
After a brief association with a company as sewing-machine importers, he moved to Sydney about 1884 and established Beale & Co. Ltd., piano and sewing-machine importers where he was managing director until 1930. In 1893 at Annandale he established a large piano factory making their components and introduced a revolutionary improvement, the all iron tuning system, patented in 1902. He also made sewing machines and, as a large employer of labour, maintained ‘a friendly association’ with trade unions.
A prominent business and public figure, he held a number of positions which included President of New South Wales Chamber of Commerce, a trustee of the Australian Museum and the Bank of New South Wales. In 1903 he was appointed one of twelve members of a Royal Commission into the decline of the birth rate in New South Wales. He later conducted, at his own expense, a Royal Commission of Inquiry into Secret Drugs, 1905-1910.
His widely disputed two-volume report about the criminal unscrupulousness of manufacturers and advertisers was critised by some members of parliament and legislation had to be enacted to give him the protection of retrospective privilege. His racialist and strongly pro-natalist population theories exposed in Racial Decay: A Compilation of Evidence from World Sources (Sydney 1910) merited its later description as … ‘quite the oddest book ever published in a field where there are many competitors’.
He became a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Royal Society of Arts; as a liveryman of the Company of Musicians he was granted freeman of the City of London in 1918. At his home in Australia, he grew rare plants in his garden, particularly orchids; he was knowledgeable about botany and Australian timbers. From Irish cultural heritage and Anglican/Quaker influence, he is known as employers’ organiser, eugenicist, hardware merchant, importer, linguist, orchidologist, piano manufacturer and political activitist.
Fascinated by the ritual and history of Freemasonry, he became an Anglican and joined the Christian Masonic orders. He combined the refinement of a classical education with the forcefulness of a successful business man and is remembered by his family as a stern pater familias in the Victorian manner.
Octavius Charles Beale was killed in a motor accident at Stroud, New South Wales, on 16 December 1930 and was buried in St. Thomas’s Church of England cemetery, Enfield. He was survived by six sons and four daughters of his first marriage and by his second wife.
A Select Bibliography includes documents, correspondence and family papers at the State Library of New South Wales and Report on secret drugs at the National Archives of Australia. A biography ‘Beale, Octavius Charles (1850-1930)’ is authored by Neville Hicks, E.J. Lea-Scarlett. A well preserved photograph portrait of a seated and elegantly dressed man is held at the National Library of Australia. It carries an inscription “Very faithfully yours, Octavius Charles Beale, August 1905”.
Ita Marguet
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources used in preparation of this text. It follows texts on Irish in Australia: Explorers and Settlers and Thomas Walsh: Ireland to Australia (by Ita Marguet, April 2011).