Music Masters Radio Company 1932-1958

By Graham Donaldson

Music Masters showroom in Tattersall's Arcade in the late 1950's

1932 - first steps

Music Masters company was started in 1932 by a Mr. William Thomas Kelly, who at the time held the Kriesler agency for Queensland.

He lured engineer Jim Grant from Stromberg Carlson in Sydney. With Jim as technical designer, plus a couple of helpers, they commenced manufacturing radios in the laundry under the boarding house where Kelly lived at 38 Markwell Street in the Brisbane suburb of Auchenflower.

The radios were manufactured on a long bench under the high-set house. The downstairs bathroom was used as a storeroom, and the upstairs billiard room became the showroom, with radios arranged all around the wall.

1933 - company registration

The firm of "The Music Masters Radio Company" was registered as a non incorporated company on 11 April 1933.

The business description was given as "Radio Manufacturing & Sales", with the registered address being 40 Riverview Terrace at Auchenflower. The original member (legal owner) of the firm was Edna Isabel Hayles, but this was changed to William Thomas Kelly on 1 May 1934.

On 1 July 1945, Lily Elizabeth Kelly, Trevor Charles Kelly and James Clifton Grant were admitted as members. Also on the same date, the company name was changed to "Music Masters Radio Company".

William Kelly had two sons, Theo and Trevor Charles (known as Keg). Theo joined Woolworths in 1928 at the age of 21, was Managing Director of Woolworths from 1940-1971, and was knighted for his services to commerce and industry in 1966.

One of the very early Music Masters employees was a young man called Vernon Arthur Norton. His brother Harry worked as an attendant at the local garage. One day Jim Grant called in for petrol and asked Harry if he knew any bright young boys who might like a future in the radio industry. He suggested his brother, and after a quick trade test, Arthur (as he liked to be called) was hired. Joe Higgins was another of the early Music Masters workers who commenced at Auchenflower at the same time.

An extract from a 1940's Brisbane Street directory, showing the location of Markwell Street at Auchenflower where William Thomas Kelly resided at the time he commenced the Music Masters operation. I would like to thank Rick Milne of Southside Antiques at Annerley for the copy of this map from one of his old Brisbane Street Directories.

Number 40 Riverview Terrace was the location of the first registered address of a Music Masters factory. Production here ceased on 20 December 1933.

The wooden cabinets for the radios were manufactured by two local firms of cabinetmakers. Bell Brothers, at the corner of Water and Brunswick Street, Fortitude Valley, supplied some cabinets from 1932 – 1935. Burn Bell remembers, as a young apprentice cabinetmaker, delivering cabinets to Music Masters at Auchenflower on the back of his father's truck after work.

Arthur Hale & Sons of Merivale Street, South Brisbane supplied cabinets from 1932 until Music Masters commenced making their own cabinets in the late 1940's. Arthur Norton remembers cabinets being delivered from South Brisbane to Auchenflower by Arthur Hale using a horse and cart. Extensive use was made of veneer from the local camphor laurel trees.

To promote the business, photographs of the radios were produced and these were dropped in letter boxes around the adjacent suburbs. This brought in many new customers. They also placed advertisements in the local papers. The following are two advertisements placed under the "Wireless" section in Brisbane's "Courier Mail" daily newspaper.

Another company, the "Queensland Radio & Refrigerator Manufacturing Company Pty Ltd" was registered on 12th. January 1935, with its registered address being 239 Elizabeth Street, Brisbane. This company was wound up on 4th July 1938. Unfortunately all detailed records of this company are missing from the Queensland State Archives. It was almost certainly run by the same people as on the records available, it lists both the same Elizabeth Street and Stanley Street addresses as Music Masters.

Arthur Norton mentioned to me that he believed the founders of Music Masters bought out an established radio company a short time after the company was commenced in 1932. Since "Queensland Radio & Refrigerator Manufacturing Company Pty Ltd" and "The Music Masters Radio Company" were both operating from the same Elizabeth Street address in 1935, it is likely that this is that company. This is reinforced by the fact that the 189-191 Stanley Street address of the later Music Masters factory is also written on company records of the "Queensland Radio & Refrigerator Manufacturing Company Pty Ltd".

An advertisement in the 6 April 1935 edition of "Teleradio", advertising for agents for the new company

1934 - manufacturing at 239-241 Elizabeth Street

Production continued at Auchenflower until 1934 when the Music Masters factory was relocated to the first floor of the "Wildridge & Sinclair" warehouse building, 239-241 Elizabeth Street. This was on the eastern side of Elizabeth Street, next door and on the southern side of St. Stephens cathedral.

The sales showroom at this time was at 146 Adelaide Street; in the Blocksidge and Ferguson building on the western side of the street and up from Edward Street towards Albert Street, and opposite the old Finneys, later David Jones, department store. There was a total of 10 staff at that time, including three assemblers and three wirers. The top of each steel chassis was sprayed a silver colour, and the underside of the chassis a pale blue. To encourage neat work, the neatest set of the month would earn the worker a bonus, and would also be displayed at the Adelaide Street showroom.

The first reference to Music Masters in the Brisbane telephone directory is in 1934, where the following entry is found.

To comply with copyrights on the super-hetrodyne receiver design owned by a number of American companies, Music Masters had to pay 3/6 (three shillings and six pence) per "cathode stream" on all valves used in a radio with the exception of the rectifier. This money was paid to the Australian Radio Technical Services & Patents (ARTS&P) Company who collected the money on behalf of the American companies. An ARTS&P sticker, indicating that this payment had been made, was applied to all Australian radio receivers manufactured from 1934.

In 1936 the big southern manufacturers, who were supplying Music Masters with many of the essential radio components, banded together and refused to supply any more parts in an attempt to put the company out of business and thus reduce competition. Jim Grant flew to America to try to source replacement components, and eventually signed a deal with the Canadian firm of "Eliza Tinsley". Production continued with overseas parts for around one year. The local companies, realising that they had not reduced competition and had also lost the trade in components, relented and again agreed to supply Music Masters with Australian made components.

At this time, there were only two radio stations in Brisbane – 4QG and 4BC. 4BC did not normally broadcast on Saturday mornings, and Mr. Kelly made a deal with 4BC that if they broadcast a show for him on Saturday mornings, he would pay all costs. The show, using the musical theme song "Music Maestro Please", was successful in bringing in many new customers for Music Masters. In later years, Music Masters had a similar program on radio station 4BH.

The radio below was built by Music Masters in 1940. There is no model number on the chassis, just "Music Masters Radio Co" on the bottom of the dial and "Mozart" on a small metal label at the top of the bakelite dial escutcheon.

Another model, using an identical case but with a round dial and having a "Chopin" name, was produced earlier.

These radios had a stylised "MM" molded into the four bakelite control knobs.

Employees who joined Music Masters around this time and later rose to senior positions both within Music Masters and in outside organizations include Mackenzie Brown, Trevor Sherrard, Dave Lewis and Bob Ferguson.

Both Trevor Sherrard and Bob Ferguson later left to join the fledgling Department of Civil Aviation. Bob was tragically killed in a light plane crash at Longreach.

Mackenzie Brown and Dave Lewis stayed with Music Masters into the 1950's. Dave Lewis went on to become Service Manager with Music Masters, while Mackenzie Brown worked with Jim Grant in the design section, taking more and more responsibility for circuit design until taking full control when Jim Grant left in the early 1950's.

1937 - a new factory at 189-191 Stanley Street

In 1937 Mr. Kelly purchased a 15,000 square foot property at 189–191 Stanley Street South Brisbane for the new factory. The new factory was opened on 20 June 1937.

He also purchased eight small cream coloured Ford vans and two larger V8 powered vans for use by the delivery and service sections. A Morris vehicle was purchased after the war.

To promote the firm and the new factory, he had the sides of the vans sign-written with the firm's name, and had them drive around Queen and Albert streets. This continued until the police told him he was creating traffic congestion and ordered the practice be stopped.

The Music Masters factory at 189-191 Stanley Street in 1937.

The picture above shows the Music Masters factory at 189-191 Stanley Street in 1937. Note that this is only the left hand side of the building as shown in the 1949 photo. Also shown is the fleet of "Baby Fords" used both for the delivery of new radios and the servicing of radios previoously sold.

A photo of Jim Grant taken in 1950
A photo of Mackenzie Brown taken in 1950

The process of radio manufacture in the mid 1930's was as detailed below –

1 – On orders from the office, the storeman would assemble the desired number of chassis and components.

2 - The assemblers would receive a chassis complete with the power transformer, electrolytic capacitors, tuning gang, aerial and oscillator coils, wave change switch (if applicable) IF transformers, volume and tone controls, the 20 W HT resistor and any necessary tag strips. All of these components were then attached to the chassis in the appropriate places.

3 – The wirer would receive the assembled chassis and install all of the point-to-point wiring and small components such as low wattage resistors, paper capacitors, trimmers and a pre-assembled power cord.

4 – The assembled and wired radio would then go to the dial table where the tuning dial was assembled and strung.

5 – The completed chassis was taken to the screened alignment room where the IF transformers, aerial and oscillator circuits were correctly aligned. The completed chassis was then given an overall test.

6 – The finished chassis were taken to the chassis and cabinet assembly room where the chassis was fixed into the cabinet, speakers were installed in the cabinet, control knobs were fitted and the finished radio given a complete check.

7 – The completed radios were moved to the dispatch area at the front of the factory.

In the factory, a large wall mounted 32 volt transformer was used to distribute power to all of the soldering irons.

In the late 1940's Music Masters took over the right hand side of the dual building complex from the Foxcroft Sign Company & Handi Works Pty Ltd, and using Reg Hale, Len Hale and another staff member poached from Arthur Hale & Sons, began manufacturing their own wooden cabinets. A large doorway was cut through the brick wall between the two buildings. This section contained a complete timber machine shop, plywood and veneer manufacture / assembly area, conventional and vacuum presses, a spray painting booth and a cabinet assembly area.

The picture below shows a 1937 model Music Masters in a timber case.

To promote the opening of the new South Brisbane factory and the fifth anniversary of radio manufacture in Brisbane, Music Masters placed the full page advertisement shown below in the Sunday Mail of July 18, 1937. The advertisement states that Music Masters were commemorating their 5th anniversary of radio manufacturing in Queensland, and also shows the fleet of nine baby Ford trucks used by the Service & Delivery departments.

It's worth noting that all valve radios sold at this time were very expensive when compared to today’s wages and costs. A typical valve radio sold for 25 guineas (£26/5-) in 1946 at a time when the basic wage was £5/5- i.e. a radio was worth around 5 weeks wages. This equates to approximately $2500 in today’s value.

An added expense was the listener's licence. To help fund the non commercial ABC stations, listeners had to buy an annual licence from 1924 until 1974. From 1956 onwards, you could purchase a licence which covered both radio and television receivers. The fee in 1924 when the scheme commenced was £4, and it was $26.50 for a combined radio & TV licence in 1974 when licence fees were abolished.

An advertisement in the Sunday Mail of July 18, 1937
Wiring and assembly bench on right, dial fitting bench on left
Radio alignment and testing rooms at left, dial fitting bench on right
A section of the radio test room (left) and coil winding machine (right)

Technical details

Music Masters prided itself in the fact that, where possible, components for their radios were wholly made in Australia, and that these components were manufactured from Australian primary products. The valves used were either Australian Philips or AWA Radiotron. Speakers were sourced from Rola, tuning capacitors from Stromberg-Carlson and M.S.P., resistors from IRC, switches from M.S.P and capacitors from Ducon. The power transformers initially came from Henderson, and later from the local firm of Ashby Barton in South Brisbane. Chassis were initially manufactured by a sheet-metal firm in the Brisbane city area, but later were also purchased from Ashby Barton. All aerial, RF, oscillator and IF coils were wound and assembled on site using a modern coil winding machine, using formers procured from a firm in Melbourne. Dials were procured from Efco, and at some stage the sign-writing company next door, Foxcroft Signs, was used to screen print the glass dials. The bakelite knobs, and also the bakelite cabinets at some stage, were supplied by Marquis Mouldings. From the late 1940's onwards, ALL components were Australian made.

State of the art components were used. Early sets used the 57, 58, 2A5 series of tubes then the 77, 78, 42 tubes. Philips introduced the "P" base, red and gold coat series and these were used until a new series became available. Metal tubes were used for a short time, then the 6A8/6J8, 6U7, 6B6, 6V6 types were used.

All Music Masters radios carried a three year warranty, with the exception of the valves which only carried the Australian manufacturers three month warranty. Service calls were free for the first twelve months, and to discourage frivolous calls for the remaining two years of the warranty period, customers were charged 2/6 (two shillings and six pence) per service call.

Music Masters named their radios after the great composers of yesteryear, and they carried names such as Beethoven, Wagner, Liszt, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Caruso, Chopin, etc. Beethoven was the best electrically and furniture wise, and thus the most expensive. Many of the early Music Masters radios unfortunately had no detailed model number information on them apart from the name of a composer on the dial. Exceptions to the composer names were the "Anniversary Special" bought out in 1937 to celebrate five years of radio manufacture, "The Cricketer" model bought out to coincide with one of the cricket tests played in Brisbane, and the "Coronation Grand" brought out in 1937 to coincide with the coronation of King George VI.

In the early 1950's Music Masters began marking their sets with a descriptive model number such as A524, A524M, A554M and A661. The prefix A denotes AC power, B and C were used for battery sets, D denotes AC/DC power, L for 32 volt vibrator and V for 6 volt vibrator. The first number indicates the number of valves in the radio. It is not known what the final figures and letter represents, but they presumably uniquely define the particular model type.

Beside the normal 240 volt operated sets, they produced battery and vibrator sets for country listeners. As pockets of DC mains still existed in Brisbane and Toowoomba in the late 1930's, they also produced AC/DC sets with safety facilities incorporated to protect customers from the "hot chassis". An advertisement in the 1948 AORSM (Australian Official Radio Service Manual) indicates that they were selling 52 different models at that time. Types varied from five valve broadcast receivers, to dual and triple band units with higher quality audio output stages. In later years record players were fitted to convert the sets to radiograms. Cabinets were either wooden, covered with veneer or leatherette, or bakelite. The battery operated receivers followed the trend of the AC models using the latest components. Power supplies were initially A, B, and C dry cells, then the "air cell" was used for filaments. Later sets used 6.3 volt tubes and a vibrator HT supply running off a 12 volt accumulator. During war time, components were in very short supply to the civilian world, so a set was produced using a 6J7 in every stage, even the audio output. Also, two gang tuning capacitors were virtually impossible to obtain at times, so Music Masters produced a set with fixed tuning for the five Brisbane stations. The stations were selected via a five position switch, with the dial being replaced by five lights, with the station call-sign being lit when that particular station was selected. They even made a demonstration set running on domestic gas, producing 1.4 volts and 135 volts using thermocouples.

Up to the time of WW2, any radio bought was usually the customer's first one, and each was installed by the supplier. A wire was tacked around the room for an antenna, and the proud owner was then given instructions regarding the operation of his new pride and joy.

At their peak in the late 1940's and early 1950's, Music Masters were manufacturing and selling around 100 radios every week. An advertisement in the 1947 AORSM indicates they had sold over 50,000 radios at that time. All radios were sold "directly from the factory to you" via their own city showroom and suburban and country agents. The Brisbane city showroom was relocated to the Tattersalls Arcade at 209 Queen Street in April 1939.

Service and Repair

The advertisement below shows the very wide dealer network Music Masters had established throughout Queensland and Northern NSW.

The Music Masters dealer network

Even in the late 1940's, Music Masters had a quality control systems in place. The photograph of a stamp on the chassis of a small Music Masters radio shows the name of the assembler, the wirer, and I’m assuming also those who did the alignment and final testing. This would have enabled supervisors to track down common problems if they occurred on the assembly line.

A quality control label

In the late 1940 there was a prolonged series of electrical strikes resulting in frequent blackouts. This was of course disastrous to a factory such as Music Masters. In an attempt to provide a reliable source of power to the essential components of the factory, a motor was removed from one of the baby Fords, mounted on a stand and coupled to an 110v alternator obtained from one of the numerous wartime disposal firms then operating. The 110v AC was then fed in parallel through a dozen small 110V – 240V transformers, borrowed from Pyrox tape recorders, to provide sufficient power to drive the large 240V – 32V transformer that fed all of the factory’s soldering irons. Thus production could continue. Later a motor/alternator unit was purchased to provide power to the rest of the factory.

The unreliable power was also a major problem to the service section. A serviceman would arrive at a residence to repair a faulty radio, only to be told by the lady of the house that the power had just gone off. Unless the fault was something obvious like a broken dial cord, the serviceman had to either call again or take the chassis back to the factory for repair.

Other products

As well as selling radios to the local population, Music Masters also exported radios to Singapore and Hong Kong. The radios were exactly the same as those produced for the local market, and were still fitted with Australian dials. Usually they were sent via rail to Sydney and shipped from there, but if suitable arrangements could be made, they were trucked to the wharves at Hamilton and dispatched directly from Brisbane.

Immediately after WW2, 78 rpm turntables were extremely difficult to procure, so Music Masters looked at manufacturing them at South Brisbane. Based on a Music Masters design, the baseplate, motor and platter were made by Ashby Barton, and the pickup and arm purchased from “Young Atom”. Difficulties in obtaining the correct rotational speed without excessive wow and flutter meant that only approximately twenty units were ever produced.

Music Masters assembled, sold and serviced Husquavana sewing machines for a brief period after WWII.

In the early 1950's they purchased around twenty Kirby sealed refrigeration units with the idea of making refrigerators. A wooden prototype cabinet was produced, and Ashby Barton then produced a prototype metal cabinet, but warping of the cabinet doors and leaks in the sealed units spelt the end of this venture. A number of these Kirby units were purchased by Music Masters serviceman Robert McFarlane, who fitted them into “Queenslander” refrigerator cabinets manufactured by the firm of Lucas Bondfield at Salisbury. It is possible that these “Queenslander” cabinets had been manufactured for Music Masters.

Music Masters were also the Queensland service agents for Pyrox wire recorders and 16mm movie projectors. A few of these recorders were fitted into radio cabinets to enable the owner to record the radio program. Serviceman Robert McFarlane was doing all of this work until he left Music Masters in 1952. He then did the work at home under a service contract with Music Masters.

Besides radios, the Music Masters showrooms in Queen Street also sold still cameras, 9.5mm Webo and Pathe movie cameras, Gen 9.5mm movie projectors, vacuum cleaners, toasters and electric jugs. Noel Hills, then working at Kings Music, was asked in 1953 to come to Music Masters and manage the newly opened music and record department. Staff at the showroom numbered approximately twelve, with Noel Hills managing two girls in the music & records section, three staff in the photography section, four staff in the radio & appliance section and four staff in the office.

To supplement income, Music Masters also manufactured and installed public address systems in churches and large buildings. They installed PA systems in St. Mary's church at Ipswich, the Milton Tennis Courts, Wynnum Presbyterian Church and for the Queensland Industries Fair. They also signed a contract to manufacture, supply and install 26 two-way radios into B&W cabs, but lost £2,000 on the deal.

As well as making the standard radios, Music Masters would also custom make a radio to a customer's requirements. One such order, from an airline pilot, was for a radio containing both a record player and a record cutter. The radio was duly designed and manufactured, and Mackenzie Brown, who oversaw the design and manufacture of the radio, was later invited to a party at the owner's residence.

1940 Music Masters "Beethoven"
An advertisement in the Brisbane Telegraph of Thursday, June 26, 1947
Music Masters factory in 1949
Extracts from Brisbane telephone phone books of 1934, 1953, 1958, 1960 and 1968.
An advertisement from the 1948 AORSM manual. It was the era of the radiogram.

Music Masters staff in front of one of the service vans in December 1947

Standing L - R – Robert Ferguson, Esther Allen & Zena Whelan

Kneeling L - R – Dave Lewis, Len Hourigan, Percy Schneider, Joe Higgins and Doug Laver

Office workers Zena Whelan and Esther Allen in the Stanley Street office, 1947
Employee Shirley Adams holding two of the company's valve portable radios
Badges used on the Music Masters radios during the 1940's – 1960's

1958 - sale to HG Palmer

Chief designer Mr. Jim Grant retired due to ill health in the early 1950's, and Mackenzie Brown took over this responsibility, with Neville Alexander taking on the role of factory manager. Mackenzie Brown left the firm in 1952, and founder WT Kelly, then aged 69, was spending very little time at the factory.

W.T. Kelly died in 1956, his son Trevor, also a registered owner, then took over managing the business. However it is believed Trevor died very soon afterwards, and the business was subsequently managed from Sydney by his brother Theo.

Neville Alexander was given the onerous task of telling the staff that local radio manufacturing was to be cut back dramatically. When Neville Alexander left not long afterwards, Theo appointed a cousin, Mr. Cooper, as factory manager. He was not liked by staff, and many of the other key staff also left to find employment elsewhere. Theo eventually sacked Mr. Cooper and replaced him with Cyril Sanders from Woolworths, but it was too late.

Having lost too many key staff and facing stiff competition from southern manufacturers, the firm went into decline, and Theo arranged for the sale of the company to H.G. Palmers in 1958 at a price rumoured to be £1,000,000.

The name was then changed to "Music Masters Pty Ltd", with the directors being Herbert George Palmer, Norman Hector Palmer and Kenneth Anderson Palmer. The description of the business was given as "Dealers in household & industrial appliances of all kinds".

Following the takeover, local radio production was limited to around five wirers/assemblers manufacturing HiFi radiograms. The cabinets for these units were manufactured externally, with only the finish being applied by the few staff remaining in the old cabinet section. Radios and TV's, manufactured by southern Australian and Japanese firms, were sold under the HG Palmers brand. The range of HG Palmers TV's was priced from 129 guineas to 209 guineas, and buyers were encouraged to take out a service contract. It is believed that the more expensive TV's were made by HG Palmers in Sydney under licence to Stromberg-Carlson.

At some stage after the HG Palmers takeover, they also started selling furniture in Queen Street, and became agents for Johnson outboard motors. A range of Japanese built but HG Palmers branded sewing machines, from the Mk1 up to the Mk5, were also sold by the company. Also sold was a range of Japanese built but HG Palmers branded transistor radios.

To cater for the service needs of TV's, the service manager George Bloor, an ex navy man, hired many ex navy technicians and trained them in-house on TV service. These technicians had to work six days a week to keep up with the demand for service. The more difficult cases were picked up in the firm's VW Kombi service vans and brought back to Stanley Street for repair.

1965 - collapse of HG Palmer

The 1960's marked the start of the hire purchase and rent/buy era. Many customers who could not otherwise afford a TV or radiogram, were encouraged to buy one with the down-payment of a small deposit and pay the balance off over time. HG Palmer was one of the leaders in this field. However some of these customers proved to be unreliable in their repayments, and this proved a real problem for HG Palmers, both for their cash flow and the collection/storage of the repossessed goods.

Receivers were appointed to H.G. Palmers on 27 October 1965. The collapse of HG Palmer, which had 150 electrical stores around Australia, became known as one of the biggest corporate collapses of the 1960's.

Apart from the service and sales divisions which continued for a few years, this spelt the end for Music Masters.

This tallies with records in the Brisbane telephone directory, as Music Masters is last listed in the 1968 directory. Music Masters inside service section remained in the original left hand building, while the right hand building was used as a repair depot by HG Palmers for washing machines and refrigerators, storage for new refrigerators and washing machines, and as storage for trade-ins and repossessed appliances and furniture.

1979 - winding up

The "Music Masters Pty. Ltd." company was not officially wound up until 8 November 1979, and went through a series of owners during the intervening period.

From photos of the 1974 Brisbane flood, it is obvious that the river side of Stanley Street had been cleared prior to 1974. Almost the whole of the remainder of Stanley Street between Melbourne and Vulture Streets was cleared during the construction of Expo 88 in Brisbane. As near as can be determined, the Russian pavilion in Expo 88 occupied the site of the old Music Masters factory.

The former Music Masters factory (white faced building in right centre front) during the Brisbane January 1974 flood. (Image lbp00080 from Brisbane’s John Oxley Library – "Looking over South Brisbane during the floods, 1974")

I would like to thank the following former Music Masters employees for all the help they have so willingly given to me as I researched this article.

With their permission, I have used extracts from articles previously written by Bernard Harte and Trevor Sherrard.

Graham Donaldson

Member, Historical Wireless Society of South East Queensland Inc.

September 2007