My mother gave me an exquisite pink slip one day, and I noticed that it was made in Australia by Eleanor Lucas. I had never heard of her, but when I looked her up I was quite amazed. This enterprising widow lived a tragic life - she lost two husbands and two children. However, she found the strength to start a clothing business that eventually employed hundreds of girls and she also devoted much time to charity work.
Eleanor's family immigrated to Australia from Yorkshire with their parents. The children were left in the care of friends when their mother died, and Eleanor only went to school until she was 14. She married John Prittard Price when she was 18, but the marriage ended tragically when her husband died in a fall at the soap factory where he worked. Eleanor was penniless at 30 with four children. The youngest was a baby of only seven months. Funds were raised for the family, enabling them to live in a cottage.
Eleanor decided to make money herself, so she bought a sewing machine. She made underwear and shirts, even sewing in bed! She also married again to a William Lucas, but he was killed in a mining accident two years later in 1888. Eleanor continued to work at her sewing.
She formed her business into a company called E.Lucas and Co., and it became the first mechanised factory in Ballarat. Her employees, the 'Lucas Girls', made beautiful lingerie with eyelet embroidery, blouses, children's wear and dresses. The factory had a showroom to display their items. This impressed Sydney Myer (the founder of the famous Australian store Myers) who became one of the first large customers.
The Lucas girls became famous for their fundraising during the First World War. They planted an avenue of trees to honour the enlisted men of Ballarat and raised enough funds to build an Arch of Victory that was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1920. (More about this next time).
Mrs Lucas died in 1923 but her son took over the business which lasted until the early 1960s.