longwhitekid

Continental Love

In Continental Shoes, Footwear, O'Brien footwear, Remington Bicycles, Shoes, Viscol on March 21, 2011 at 10.46

This badly damaged tin sign was photographed very roughly in a few pieces, and posted for sale on Trademe, quite a while back now. It was all scratched up and smeared with blobs of paint which I removed most of while I was cleaning up the graphic and patching the bits back together.

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I was kind of taken with the hilarious “Mad Men” feel of the graphics, I guess that it’s not so far-fetched that a woman may fall all over herself for a man because of his snazzy shoes – but usually there’s a little more to it than the kind of fetishistic eyeballing she’s giving his lace-ups, one would hope (like it says, it’s with any luck a second look he’s getting). Given her clothes, hairdo and the font styles I’d place this around the mid 1960s, perhaps a touch earlier. However the company had been around for quite some time by then and was considered to be thriving and well successful.

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Grey River Argus, July 1884

Michael O’Brien was an Irishman who learned boot-making there before arriving in Melbourne in 1861, and after a year relocated to New Zealand. the business was established in 1884 (I don’t know why it took him over twenty years to start up on his own, or what happened in between), starting off in a premises that was known as the “Skating Rink” . Great name – I’d love a little more detail on the back story behind this! The ad here is from 1884 in the year the business launched .In 1902 due to massive growth he re-established the business in Dundas Street , Greymouth.

the New Zealand Tablet, June 1899

According to the “The Cyclopedia of New Zealand” of 1903, “The factory of this important business stands on a well-chosen site close to the Christchurch railway station. The premises are of two stories solidly constructed of brick, erected on the most modern and up-to-date lines. In the words of the Government Factory Inspector, the factory is “one of the best model factories in the colony. “ It recounts the premises, operations and manufacturing process in great detail. Big bikkies was their own “Premier Brand” footwear, “Remington” Bicycles, Their own patented “Viscol” waterproofing liquid, a variety of imports such as Wellingtons – the now ubiquitous “gumboot”. By the time the (second) Boer War was underway they had a government contract to supply boots.

the New Zealand Tablet, Dec 1899

Souvenir postcard of the O’Brien Factory in Dundas Street, Christchurch, circa 1920s

From this postcard and these later photographs of the plant in the 1940’s, the business was considered a landmark of importance for a tourist brochure – and by then we can see they were pumping out their own rubber products such as soles, gumboots, and possibly bicycle tyres, (but no connection to Continental Tyres) on site. Of the Continental brand from the sign, not much is known at present, however I have a feeling I remember them being around in the 1970s as a popular dress shoe.

Industries at Christchurch: “Christchurch -City Beautiful”, Souvenir Publication, 1940s, Christchurch City Libraries Digital Publication Collection

A record I’ve found of someone having worked for them as an accountant shows that M. O’Brien & Co Ltd survived well into the 1980s, and from there it can be assumed they were swallowed by another larger concern, perhaps Clarks, Dunlop, Bata or Skellerup – and phased out. I am sure there will be more to this story in future, especially once I can investigate trademarks a bit more, however although the “Premier” brand was registered, it doesn’t seem “Continental” ever was. In the meantime I marvel once again how a random, grungy image can lead me on a whole journey!

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Addendum, early Aug 2013: I found this ad in The New Zealand Dairy Exporter, of March 1943, regarding O’Brien & Co’s government contracts to make boots for the armed forces also for WWII. No doubt they also performed this work during the First World War.

aThe New Zealand Dairy Exporter March 1943 - M O'BRIEN & CO - FOOTWEAR sml

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Addendum, late June 2014: This M. O’Brien & Co promotional shoe horn turned up for sale at auction recently. I’m not sure if “Premier Boots” was a brand, but I don’t think so – probably used as an adjective.

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O'Brien ChCh bootmaker Shoe Horn edit copy

 

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All content of Longwhitekid copyright Darian Zam © 2013. All rights reserved.

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  1. you have tweaked my interest with the M OBrien storey.
    they were stock market listed and could have been taken over by Lane Walker Rudkin who may have had the addidas agency in NZ. OBriens made boots for the army and maybe even the all blacks. Grandson? Micheal OBrien played cricket for St Albans in Cristchurch – I think they have a trophy named after him.

  2. Thanks for the information, Nigel. Admittedly I didn’t, in the early days of this blog, look very deeply into the stories. Cheers

  3. Nigel,
    I think we are related via the O’Brien family. After far too long I’m beginning to research the family but also the business. Darian Zam has done some remarkable work already and not just on M O’Brien and Company but also on so many other areas of NZ’s commercial heritage. I’d like to make contact with either of you if possible via email or cell phone. In the meantime I can add a couple of notes of information. The business was indeed established before 1881. It was established in 1866 in Greymouth. I attended its Centenary in 1966 at the then Russley Hotel in ChCh. The company’s founder, Michael O’Brien, arrived in Greymouth from Ireland via the Victorian goldfields and Melbourne. Much the same journey and timing as Dick Seddon whose pathway eventually led him to his election as Prime Minister of NZ.. O’B was a major supplier of boots to the military and I think its first contract might even have been for the Boer War but certainly WW1 and other wars. It also manufactured rugby and soccer boots. Thousands of young lads played in O’B Boots as did a number of rep rugby players and All Blacks. In the 1970’s the company entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Adidas and in ensuing years the company’s distinctive O’B brand was subordinate to Adidas and eventually the business was taken over. A case in my view of short term gain for little long term upside. The business was one of the most innovative in NZ early to mid 1900s. I’m researching this now and have already visited Greymouth as well as the NZ Rugby Museum. Interestingly I asked one of the personnel there who was in his mid 50 years if he played rugby could he remember the football boot he wore. Without hesitation he said – Oh that would have been an O’B Boot – most of us wore them! In respect to the cricket player Nigel mentioned that was Frank O’Brien, a prolific run maker for Marist and Canterbury who went onto play for Northampton County pre WW2 Northampton then being the leather and footwear centre of Britain.
    Cheers,
    Michael (O’Brien) Potter
    Mebourne

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