Bill a 'servent' of the wool industry

Bill a 'servent' of the wool industry


Sheep
Australia's oldest wool valuer Bill Servent (seated), who turned 80 on March 31, with PJ Morris Exports colleagues, managing director Pete Morris (left) and wool buyer Darren Calder.

Australia's oldest wool valuer Bill Servent (seated), who turned 80 on March 31, with PJ Morris Exports colleagues, managing director Pete Morris (left) and wool buyer Darren Calder.

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At 80 years of age, this is Australia's oldest working wool valuer.

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WOOL valuer Bill Servent jokes he might retire when PJ Morris Exports colleagues Pete Morris and Darren Calder retire at age 65.

Mr Servent's career in the wool industry has already spanned 63 years and, by then, he reckons he will be about 95 and probably ready to retire.

He turned 80 on Sunday, March 31, making him Australia's oldest working wool valuer.

Three days a week he drives from his Attadale home to the PJ Morris Norfolk Street, Fremantle, office.

Early on a Wednesday and Thursday he studies wool test specifications in broker catalogues of the lots on offer at Western Wool Centre (WWC) auctions looking for potential matches with client orders.

Then Mr Servent drives to the WWC in Bibra Lake and bids for the lots he wants in morning trading sessions of oddments, pieces and bellies wool before returning to Fremantle to update company computer records of purchases.

It is more difficult to appraise and put a value on bits and pieces of wool than it is to appraise and value fleece - there is less wool on which to base an appraisal for a start - but Mr Servent is arguably more experienced at it than anyone else in the country.

He has been working with wool since January 9, 1956, a date etched in his memory as the day he joined the industry.

There were no wool tests and no specifications to go by back then.

Wool valuers determined what specific lines of greasy wool were worth by appraising samples from each bale and, from what they saw in front of them, deciding what that wool might ultimately be suitable for, depending on their assessment of its fibre diameter, variation, staple length, strength, comfort factor and, most importantly, yield once the greasy wool was scoured and combed.

If wool was bought on behalf of a client who disagreed with their appraisal or valuation, they could expect a claim which, at best, delayed or reduced payment or, at worst, left them or the company they worked for with wool a client refused to pay for.

Mr Servent was born in Liverpool, England, just before World War II.

He lived in an evacuation area near Liverpool docks throughout the war because his mother refused to move out.

"We were bombed a few times - when they missed the docks some of the bombs came pretty close to us, they hit the house next door," he recalled in the PJ Morris office last week as he prepared for another sale day.

At war's end he moved to Beldon, a dormitory town for Bradford in Yorkshire's West Riding, then a thriving processing hub of England's global wool industry two decades before competition from synthetic fabrics arrived.

"There where mills everywhere and (wool) merchants on every street corner," recalled Mr Servent.

"I ended up in the wool trade by default, because at that time in Bradford if you finished school and didn't know what to do, the wool trade was where you ended up.

"I joined top makers and wool merchants H Dawson - you started off in the sample room and then graduated from there, but you were a dog's body and did a bit of everything, you got a good grounding in all aspects of the trade in those days, including the mills," he said.

Started in 1888 by Yorkshireman Harry Dawson who sailed to Australia on a wool-buying mission and formed strategic partnerships with woolgrowers here and in New Zealand, H Dawson & Sons Co, Bradford, Huddersfield and London, became one of the largest and most trusted wool brokerage firms.

In the early days antipodean woolgrowers relied implicitly on their broker when they consigned clips through a local agent for shipment to London to be sold there and trusted their wool cheque would come back on the next mail steamer.

By 1956 almost all of the national clip was sold in Australia - regular wool auctions began in Fremantle in 1904 - and mail came by plane, but urgent communication between H Dawson offices and agents or clients around the globe was still by cablegram via the post office.

Most cables were in code - internal company codes were used to shorten messages to reduce the cost based on the number of letters and words and to conceal commercial information from competitors.

One of teenage Bill Servent's first jobs was to learn the codes to decipher cables and learn where far-flung places like Perth, that they came from, were.

He entered a regimented workplace steeped in traditions on the lowly pay of 10 pounds a month in an industry "entirely different from today".

Only the exalted wool brokers were permitted to wear white dust coats in the valuing room, for example, to indicate their status.

"When you were valuing wool you had to wear a (grey dust) coat but when you went into the sale room you weren't allowed in in your valuing clothes, you had to change into a suit and tie," Mr Servent recalled.

"When I first started selling wool there was no such thing as a car or a tram, you put your samples under your arm and set off and walked and if it was too far distant then you looked for a bus," he said.

"It was four years before I got a car to use and even then it was hit and miss.

"I used to do merchant to merchant (trading) so you were walking with an umbrella if it was raining."

In the early 1960s more than 60 per cent of Australia's wool clip went to Europe - much of it to Bradford - for processing, but by the late 60s the industry's focus on textiles was shifting and by little more than a decade later more than 70 per cent of the national wool clip was going to China.

Mr Servent said an opportunity to become H Dawson's agent in Perth in 1968 threw his wool career "a lifeline".

"Margins (on merchant-to-merchant sales) were becoming thinner, in 1968 I could see it (wool industry in Bradford) declining, that was why when I was offered the job in Perth I grabbed it," he said.

"They needed somebody for Perth - if it hadn't been for the cables coming in from there I wouldn't have known where it was.

"We (he had married Muriel but they had no children at that stage) had the chance to emigrate, first to Melbourne for a year then pitched over here (Perth), sink or swim.

"We were '10 pound poms,' we thought it a bit of a lark, a couple of years in Australia and then return, but two years turned into three, four, five ?."

Melbourne was a shock, having to go to the back door of the post office at 5am to plead with staff to release cables that had come from England overnight.

"Without the cables you didn't know what you were doing, what the orders were you were supposed to be buying for - not like today where everyone knows what everyone else is doing," Mr Servent said.

A year later Perth proved another shock.

H Dawson did not have a Perth office and as their sole agent Mr Servent worked from his rented home in Fremantle.

"Elders Smith woolstores and Dalgety woolstores were in Fremantle and there were a lot more private wool stores as well where you could buy wool," he said.

"The wool centre where they sold wool was just up the road.

"Perth had three wool scours in those days, Melco, Jandakot and Swan just over the river, now we haven't got one.

"You still had the big stations up north running sheep so there were some big pastoral clips coming through - 50,000 bales, 35,000, 25,000, big volumes coming through."

"You quickly learned you had to watch wool from some of the pastoral areas.

"You only had a name on the bales to go by, but there were certain clips from the pastoral area that didn't do as well (in clean wool yield) as they looked, so you had to learn which ones.

"The sandplain at Esperance was another area you also had to be careful on because to look at the wool, it looked quite good, but when all the sand was washed out of it, the yield wasn't very good."

During the next 20 years with Dawsons Mr Servent hosted Chinese delegations, taking them out to visit woolgrowers and made two trips "best forgotten" to India to try to sell wool.

"We got around over there by aircraft and on tractors," he said.

"At one time we had a car and driver from the agent's office - it was close your eyes and hope for the best, we ended up down the bottom of an embankment at one stage to avoid a truck coming towards us."

In 1999, at age 60, Mr Servent and Dawsons parted company after 43 years when the company demanded he take "early retirement".

With enough contacts to continue buying wool as an independent agent, Mr Servent went into business, with Pete Morris, managing director of then PJ Morris Wools, one of a number of clients.

Over the past 20 years Mr Servent has slowly eased his workload and now works only for PJ Morris Exports.

On his longevity in the wool industry he admits occasionally "you have to reinvent yourself" to keep abreast of changes and new technology.

How long will he continue working?

"As long as I can do the job and Pete continues to employ me," is the answer.

For their part, Mr Morris - a wool industry identity himself - and Mr Calder are happy to listen to "weekly history lessons from Bill on how the wool trade has changed".

Mr Morris lamented the industry was slowly losing its colourful characters like Mr Servent who have survived its radical changes.

"We keep him off the streets," Mr Morris said.

Mr Servent still makes regular trips back to Bradford to see cousins and his wife's family - Muriel died six years ago.

"I've got a friend now with the same name so when I get dementia I'll still get the name right," he joked.

Mr Servant has daughters Jane and Louise and five grand daughters in Perth and, when not at work, is involved with the Wesley Uniting Church, Fremantle, and is secretary of the Victoria Park Croquet Club.

"There's always something to do," quips Mr Servent as he runs an experienced eye over the oddment lots statistics for the day.

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