For my Archaeology major assignment I have chosen to do an oral history. For my oral interview I interviewed my Grandfather, Gerald Martin, who is 75 years old and lives in Aldgate in the Adelaide
Hills, South Australia. My aim for this interview was to find out as much as I could about the ship repair industry of South Australia, focusing on the company Simes and Martins. I was also interested in learning more about Simes and Martin’s Company history. While conducting this interview I aimed to be as polite, professional and understanding as possible and did my best to make the interview as enjoyable and fun for my interviewee as I could.
The company Simes and Martin’s was first started in the year 1904 by my Great Grandfather Phillip
George Martin and a close friend of his named William Simes, both of whom were marine engineers
(Martin, JP 2007, p1). The company started life as small sweets shop in Port Pirie, however shortly after this both cofounders decided to turn their business into an engineering company. The companies’ first headquarters was opened up in Port Adelaide and was no bigger than a 3x4 metre room (Martin, JP 2007, p2). The company was established in Port Adelaide because in those days it was a main shipping port and had a lot of large cargo and merchant ships dock there. To begin with
Simes and Martins only did deck and engine repairs on small fishing vessels. This was mainly due to their inability to handle anything larger at the time. They also made a small fortune in buying up old metal hulled vessels from interstate for example from Queensland and selling them for scrap metal.
However, the company soon grew larger from all the business they were getting and began to expand their operations to include repairs to larger vessels such as cargo ships and overseas vessels owned by Blue Star and Port Line (Martin, JP 2007, p2). They were also now capable of not only doing engine and deck repairs but also rigging, winch and propeller repairs. By this time the company had expanded from a single room operation to a huge factory complex that had its own foundry, boiler yard, fabricating shop and machine shop as well as employing over 60 workers, most
of which were highly skilled marine fitters and turners (Martin, JP 2007, p2). Simes and Martins were also responsible for building the very first fire fighting ship the “Fire Queen” for Port Adelaide and at a later date the very first fire truck for the local CFS (Martin, JP 2007, p3). During the war time the company also supplied England with a lot of farm goods such as wheat, eggs, oranges, lamb and butter and were employed by the Australian Defence Force to fit the cargo ships with turret gun emplacements for protection against submarines, as well as anti mine cables to defend against submerged magnetic mines (Martin, JP 2007, p2).
However, around 1965 the ship trading and ship repair business began to die off in South Australia.
This was due to the “containerisation” of the industry and South Australia’s ports being too small in comparison to the interstate ports in Sydney and Melbourne(Martin, JP 2007, p4-5). Because of this
Simes and Martins changed their business strategy from focussing on the shipping industry and began to manufacture and export concrete transit mixers to Tasmania, New South Wales and
Victoria as another source of revenue (Martin, JP 2007, p4). This business proved to be quite profitable as Simes and Martins became one of the leading sellers of concrete transit mixers in
Australia as is stated by Gerald Martin in the interview (sic) “The main supplier before that was
Fowler Rex and we gave them a head ache, we took about 20% away from them” (Martin, JP 2007, p5). After this the company moved into the “tanning machine” business and sold Simes and Martins branded tanning machines to Tasmania and all over Australia (Martin, JP 2007, p5). However, without the ship repair industry the company simply wasn’t earning enough money to maintain the companies’ profitability and keep it in the black. By the mid 1980’s the company finally went bankrupt and was forced to close down its operations after almost 100 years (Martin, JP 2007, p5-7).
From this interview archaeologists are able to determine a number of interesting things. Firstly they are able to get a first person account of what the South Australian shipping and ship repair industry was like, how profitable it was and how it came to an end. They are also able to find out what the main kind of trading was during World War Two and what role South Australia had from a business
point of view in the war. It also provides a detailed factual oral history of the well known Port
Adelaide shipping repair company Simes and Martin from one of the last governing directors.
When I was conducting this interview I ran into a number of problems. Firstly I found that I struggled to come up with and failed to ask more in depth archaeological questions while my interviewee was talking. Another problem I had during my interview was maintaining and giving 100% of my attention to the interviewee for the entire duration of the interview. I also found it hard at times to follow what my interviewee was talking about because he had a tendency to change what he was talking about in mid sentence.
When I conduct an interview in the future I will most certainly take what I have learnt from this interview and other past interviews and put it into practise. For example before I conduct my next interview I will make a point of writing down a series of in depth archaeological questions that I believe will be beneficial to what I want to learn for my interviewee to answer. I will also break the interview up into several 5 or 10 minute sessions so as to give myself and my interviewee time to reflect on what has been discussed and time to think of any more questions that may be relevant or points of interest to discuss. I will also do this to make it much easier for myself to maintain close attention to my interviewee and to better understand what they are saying. Another change I would make for future interviews would be to ask my interviewee to go back and clarify anything I had trouble understanding. The last change I would make for interviews that I conduct in the future would be to bring along a note pad so I can write down notes and thoughts while my interviewee is talking rather than just simply recording the interview.
The interview with Mr Martin revealed a lot of information that historical archaeologists would find interesting. This information is not only about the company itself but also about one of its founders.
The interview revealed that one of the founders of Simes and Martins, Phillip Martin was actually an illegal immigrant (Martin, JP 2007, p1). Phillip Martin was originally from England and was working
as a marine engineer aboard a merchant vessel (the name of which is unknown) that was docked at
Port Pirie. While the ship was docked he decided to jump ship and live in Australia (Martin, JP 2007, p1). He then went on to be one of the cofounders of Simes and Martins the largest ship repair company in South Australia. He also went on to become a very wealthy man. By the end of his life he ended up owning one side of Black Diamond Court in Port Adelaide and one side of Jetty Road in
Semaphore, as well as being the co owner of Simes and Martin (Martin, JP 2007, p6). He also owned a very large house on the beach front which is now Lefever Hospital in Semaphore and in addition he owned 4 or 5 successful race horses (Martin, JP 2007, p6).
Archaeologists would have found it interesting that Simes and Martins were responsible for the creation of the world’s first cement transit mixer with a hydraulically operated release shoot and magnetic clutch operated cement pump, as well as the above mentioned fire ship the “Fire Queen” and CFS fire engine (Martin, JP 2007, p4).
These facts about Simes and Martins are useful for historical archaeologists to know because it helps them piece South Australia’s history together because it gives them biographical information about the origin of one of the founders of Simes and Martins that they would otherwise never have been able to find out. It also shows what a significant role the company played in the South Australian shipping industry.
I have learnt a lot about the process of conducting a successful oral history interview from this experience. I have learnt the importance of being patient and allowing the interviewee time to recall events without being pressured or rushed. I have also learnt that your interviewee will give you much more information and will be able to remember much more in detail if they are in a comfortable environment with as little ambient noise as possible. Another thing I have learnt is that it is you should never push your interviewee to talk about painful or upsetting memories. I also learnt that the best way to gain the most information from your interviewee is to give them a few
days notice before you interview them. So that they have plenty of time to think about what they are going to say to you and to collect their thoughts and any mementos they may have on the topic e.g. diaries, log books, photos etc. This ensures the interview will be more successful and productive for both the interviewee and the interviewer.
As an archaeologist I would use the results I have gained from this interview with Mr Martin as a base for further research and study on the history of Simes and Martins. For example I would confirm what Mr Martin has told me by consulting the states historical record databases such as the land titles office, the South Australian Genealogical Society (to ensure the story about Phillip Martin was true) as well as the South Australian Maritime Museum and the South Australian Museum. I would also find them useful as they provide me with a more personal perspective of the history of
South Australian shipping and ship repairs industry, something that I would not have been able to gain by simply looking at historical records and databases. I would also use these results to come up with more questions relating to the company itself as well as the shipping industry as a whole. For example did Simes and Martins ever do any work outside of the shipping and cement transit mixer industries? Or when was the peak of the South Australian shipping industry?
Oral histories are great ways for learning about the past. Archaeologists can only gain certain information about the past from conducting oral histories. This information includes things such as: what things were like from a certain persons’ perspective or in this case, the story of how Simes and
Martins came to be and the personal stories of its founders. Another reason why oral histories are a good way of learning about the past is because they can often can give archaeologists information about the little things that occur in day to day life but do not appear in any written records such as what the personalities of the employees working at Sims and Martins were like or what strengths the company had (e.g. Were they better at fixing propellers then decks? Or did they prefer to fix engines?) However, oral histories do have their draw backs. They can often be very one sided or biased and can often be misleading or exaggerated by the interviewee (sometimes without them
even realising it.) Oral histories are also greatly affected by the nature of a persons’ memory. For example an elderly persons’ memory of an event that took place 60 years ago will more than likely be less reliable then it was when the event first happened. Due to this fact the information gained from an oral history sometimes needs to be largely discarded or completely discarded by archaeologists simply because the interviewee is exaggerating the truth too much or because there is no way of proving what the interviewee is saying.
An oral history conducted by an archaeologist would differ from an oral history conducted by an historian in many different ways. For example an archaeologist would make their focus mostly on the details of how the company operated and ran or how profitable the business was during certain time periods or even what kind of machinery and tools they used and at what times. Where as an historian would focus more on just the story of the company how it evolved, when it started and why it went bankrupt etc. Another way an archaeologists’ oral history would differ from that of an historian’s is an archaeologist would ask a lot of questions about what the working conditions for the workers was like i.e. how safe the work was, did they get paid over time, did the workers wear protective clothing or high visibility gear etc, and what kind of ships the company worked on mostly, where as an historian wouldn’t go into too many specifics on this topic. Archaeologists would also ask a lot of specific questions about how the machinery worked, what its purpose was and how often they broke down.
The company Simes and Martins has no doubt played a significant role in South Australia’s maritime history. From the information gained from the interview with Mr Martin I have been able to get a much clearer and detailed idea of how the shipping and ship repair business ran and operated. The interview with Mr Martin has also helped historical archaeologists find out about the history of
Simes and Martins and its important role in Port Adelaide during the peak shipping period, types of employment at that time and place, skills and equipment used and what ultimately lead to its decline and subsequent bankruptcy.
By James Martin
Martin, JP (ed.) 2007, Oral Histories Interview Transcript of Gerald Martin, J Martin, South Australia.