Wednesday, August 4, 2021

H. G. Molteno, maker of Walther & Stevenson dolls house furniture


Eight years ago, I was excited to find my first dolls house furniture from the Sydney toy store Walther & Stevenson. I found more soon after that, and over the next couple of years found Walther & Stevenson catalogues showing the range available, and visited a fellow collector who owns more pieces. I published an article about the Walther & Stevenson dolls houses and dolls house furniture in the Dolls Houses Past & Present online magazine in 2015.

I think that I have now found the maker of this dolls house furniture! Searching digitised Australian newspapers on Trove for "dolls furniture", I came across a report in 1944, in several newspapers, about a government office adjusting the wholesale price of dolls house furniture made at home in Sydney by a Mr H G Molteno. Two papers included photos, and the furniture is recognisably Walther & Stevenson!


Compare the pieces in the photo above, from The Sun, Sydney, 18 May 1944, with Walther & Stevenson catalogue images which I have (rather clumsily) compiled below:

I haven't included a catalogue image of the stove (bottom right in the photo), as the catalogues don't show a stove of that design - but I do have one (photos of it can be seen towards the end of my Walther & Stevenson article).

The fullest report appeared in The Newcastle Sun, on the 18th May 1944, which wrote:

"BUREAUCRACY

AGED TOY MAKER GETS "THE WORKS"

SYDNEY— The Commonwealth Prices Branch has fixed prices for 79 articles of dolls' furniture, manufactured at home by Mr. H. G. Molteno, of Eastwood.

This achievement, Sir Frederick Stewart, MHR, said to-day, provided a fantastic example of bureaucracy run riot and of how interfering officialdom devotes time to unnecessary duties instead of matters of public importance.

Mr. Molteno first had to get approval of the Department of War Organisation of Industry to make dolls' furniture, though he had been doing so several years to occupy himself in his advancing age.

"He came to me about the delays and I wrote to the Minister (Mr. Dedman)," Sir Frederick said. 'The Minister communicated with the Minister for Trade and customs (Senator Keane).

"Mr. Molteno was instructed to submit a schedule to the Prices Commission setting out the list number and name of each article of furniture, the time and materials used for each article, the overhead cost, the value of the time and the cost selling price.

"He had to say whether a permit had been obtained from the War Organisation of Industry or Import Procurement or both, the date of issue of the permit, the makers of any similar articles and the prices at which they were sold.

Statutory Declaration

"This information had to be provided in the form of a witnessed statutory declaration and he had to give an estimate of his weekly output and provide a sample of each article, none of which measures more than a couple of inches.

"Letters from Mr. Molteno were ignored and for many months he was unable to make sales, though he and his wife were dependent on his work. At last, Senator Keane announced solemnly that the Commonwealth Prices Commissioner had been advised that the necessary investigation, 'although protracted' had been completed and Mr. Molteno was told by the Deputy Prices Commissioner in Sydney of the maximum price at which he might sell his productions.

"Perhaps it was these 'protracted investigations' that prevented the prices staff from looking into the matter of the Sydney milk supply," Sir Frederick Stewart said.

"Ridiculous Revisions"

He quoted these "ridiculous revisions" made in prices: A doll's ice chest, with hinged door, reduced from l0d to 7d, doll's verandah from 3 3/4d to 3 1/2d, a hallstand from 1s to 11 1/2d, a piano stool from 6d to 5 1/2d, an armchair from 5d to 3 1/2d, and a table from 5d to 4 1/2d.

"It is permissible to imagine the Commissioner and his staff having coopted a panel of joiners and carpenters, having communicated with the timber authorities in Canada, United States and Sweden, sitting hour after hour around a conference table debating solemnly whether a halfpenny or a farthing should come off the costs estimated by the maker."

 

I have not yet investigated archival depositories to see whether the documents submitted by Mr Molteno still exist. As well as the samples of each item, it would be very interesting to see the list of "makers of any similar articles and the prices at which they were sold".

 

Other newspapers carrying this report included the information that prices were reduced on 38 of the 79 articles of furniture made by Mr Molteno, including a "kitchen cabinet, with sliding doors and transparent panels, from 3/ to 2/6 (although it takes an hour to make)" (The Sun, Sydney, 18 May 1944); and "a grand piano with 11 separate pieces of wood to be cut and fitted, keys drawn and a considerable amount of finishing work done on it, the commission decided that the 3/6 sought was too much and that he should charge only 2/9." ( The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 May 1944: 4) This paper, and others, described Molteno as "an elderly man in poor health".

 

So who was H.G. Molteno? He appears in electoral rolls and directories as Herbert George Molteno. His trade is variously described as cabinetmaker, wood cutter, marquetry cutter and furniture maker. He was quoted in a newspaper report in 1914 of a commission into duties on imported goods:

 

Herbert George Molteno manufacturer of inlays, said that the present duty on imported inlays was 30 percent on those arriving from Great Britain and 33 per cent on those imported from elsewhere. He asked that the rates should be 60 and 70 per cent respectively. Inlays which he could manufacture and sell at £1 a dozen could be bought in England at 9 6 a dozen

The Chief Commissioner-Then a 60 percent duty would be no good to you

Witness-It would help me considerably, even if it did not bring the cost right up. Australian woods would be suitable for my purpose if I could get them the right thickness. Cutters of these inlays in England receive 4d or 5d an hour, with 1/ an hour for special work

Mr Lockyer-Then could any possible duty help you to compete?-Yes At present cabinet makers have to take stock designs and sizes. I could make any size, and my own designs to suit any particular style of furniture.” 


At that time, he was living in Melbourne, where he appeared in the electoral rolls from 1912 to 1924. A notice of his marriage in 1913 includes the information that he was "second son of the late F. J. Molteno of Ceylon" (Molteno ancestors and descendants are shown on a Molteno Family website). Herbert George Molteno was born on 26 December 1883 in Reigate, Surrey, England; his father was working as a photographer in London. I'm not sure when Herbert George left England for Australia (obviously before 1912).

 

By 1926, he appears in a Sydney directory, living first in Rockdale, then in Eastwood. His address from at least 1930 to 1937 was ‘Hauteville’, Gordon Crescent, Eastwood. From at least 1943 to 1963, he lived at 72 East Parade,Eastwood. This, then, was the address at which he made the dolls' furniture featured in the newspaper articles.

 

H. G. Molteno, as he appeared in the photo published in The Central Queensland Herald (Rockhampton, Qld.), 8 June 1944.

 

How long had he been making the furniture? The 1944 articles say "several years", so it's not clear whether he was the sole maker of the dolls house furniture shown in the Walther & Stevenson catalogues, or whether he took over the manufacture (and designs) of a previous maker. The earliest Walther & Stevenson catalogue I have seen dates from 1931, when 3 suites of approximately 10th scale furniture were available. By 1933, additional sets and individual pieces in a smaller scale were available, including several pieces of the furniture included in the 1944 photo. It seems to me likely that H. G. Molteno was producing this dolls house furniture by at least 1933, if not 1931. Some of the pieces were still available, in the same designs, in the 1953/54 Walther & Stevenson catalogue, so he probably produced it for at least 20 years. Molteno died in 1968.


If any descendants of Herbert George Molteno have any further information, I would love to hear from you!

1 comment:

  1. Just checked out your article in Dolls Houses Past & Present and was delighted to see the actual furniture that Molteno made. Thanks for sharing with your readers!

    ReplyDelete