Commercial Travellers

25 January, 2012 at 2:42 pm 8 comments

Tomorrow is Australia Day and to mark the occasion, Twigs of Yore issued a blog challenge inspired by a line from Australia’s National Anthem, Advance Australia Fair. That third line (“We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil”) inspired Shelley to suggest that we write about the occupation of an Australian ancestor.

Many of my ancestors were salesmen, and while few of them made much ‘wealth’, there was certainly plenty of ‘toil’. My grandfather was born Cyril Leslie Etherington – but he hated the name Cyril, so everyone called him Mick. He was a salesman for much of his working life but in the 1930s and 1940s he travelled around country NSW as a commercial traveller. Carrying sample bags of confectionery, he visited shops and businesses, taking orders for the White Signet Company .

In earlier days peddlers travelled the countryside, carting goods to individuals and businesses, enduring the hardships caused by long lonely journeys, great distances and poor country roads. By the twentieth century many country travellers travelled by rail when possible. The small town of Werris Creek became an important centre for country salesmen because it was located on a railway junction. Stories and songs were written and shared amongst the country travellers, and Werris Creek, All Tickets Please is one.

My grandfather was a great story teller and I still remember songs and poems he taught me as a child, about his life as a commercial traveller. (I wonder what people thought when a 4-year-old girl broke into song with “Just an old beer bottle, washed up by the sea”!)

Away from their homes and families for so much of the time, friendships (as well as rivalries) bonded the CTs (commercial travellers).  My grandfather joined the Commercial Travellers’ Masonic Lodge and attended meetings at Werris Creek. He also joined the Commercial Travellers Association.

Country Travellers ParadeThe “country travellers” worked together for charity as well. From 1906 various “cot funds” were set up to  raise money for sick children, to fund beds in hospitals. (In 1923 the many cots that had been provided by the CT’s to Sydney’s Westmead Hospital  were placed together in one ward, called the “Commercial Travellers’ Ward”.) Around country towns the commercial travellers held fund-raising events, with floats and parades, accompanied by “chocolate wheels” and raffles.

 In the 1930s my grandfather bought a Reo Flying Cloud for some of his travels. On dirt roads, the car often bogged and had to be pushed out.

Very occasionally, as a treat for my grandmother, my grandfather took her with him on one of his trips. But mostly it was lonely for both of them. After a fire at their home in 1946, my grandmother asked him to stay at home more, so he left country travelling and returned to working in the city.

The Commercial Traveller
Who are those with anxious faces, in the towns and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying attache cases?
Some are short, and some are tall, some have big bags, others small,
Some are dressed in style (Ye gods!) others down at heel (poor sods).

Tell us pray what is their mission, these who go with such precision –
Who are these poor hapless guys? Listen I’ll put you wise.
These (let me inform you sirs) are Commercial Travellers,
And their mission (it transpires) is pursuing men called buyers,
Who (although not blind at all) cannot see them when they call.
So they go with anxious faces, in the town and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying their attache cases.

Pity not their lot, my brothers, their reward is not as others.
When they’ve finished this life’s mission, they don’t go down to Perdition.
That’s a fate reserved for liars, thieves, Sales Managers and Buyers,
No, their path on earth was rough, and they were punished quite enough,
As they went with anxious faces, in the towns and busy places,
Journeying with weary paces, carrying their attache cases.

When these poor be-knighted mortals, knock at the Celestial Portals,
Show their card and tell their story, OPEN FLY THE GATES OF GLORY!
They have paid for their transgression, so they have a grand procession,
Led by angels playing lyres, last of all ten thousand buyers,
All by forcible persuasion brought from Hell for the occasion,
March behind them several paces, CARRYING THEIR ATTACHE CASES.

(Author unknown)


Entry filed under: Occupations. Tags: , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. geniaus  |  25 January, 2012 at 6:52 pm

    What a coincidence! Both of my inlaws worked at White Signet in the late 1930s. Father-in-law on the road in Sydney and Mother-in-law in the office.

    The life of a commercial traveller must have been tough with long distances and rough country roads.

  • 2. Sharon  |  26 January, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Thanks for the essential service provided by your grandfather to the families of ours who lived in more remote areas of our country. I have heard stories about how exciting it was when the travelling salesman arrived.

  • 3. Judy Webster  |  26 January, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I grew up in outback Queensland, 45 miles from the nearest town, and I remember the travelling salesmen who came once or twice a year. There was one man from whom my mother always bought sheets, pillow slips, towels, table cloths etc. They were of such good quality that we are still using many of them now!

  • 4. luvviealex  |  27 January, 2012 at 6:58 am

    I love the poem. It says it all!

  • 5. rebelhand  |  30 January, 2012 at 5:37 am

    What a vivid portrait of your grandfather – a great snapshot of history.

  • 6. Kerry Farmer  |  1 February, 2012 at 9:55 am

    I just came across a ‘patriotic song’ – “A new line of goods” ( – about commercial travellers selling items to fund raise for the war effort in WW1. Also Trove ( has articles asking commercial travellers to spread “patriotic messages” as they travel around the country during both world wars.

  • 7. Shelley  |  2 February, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    Thanks so much for this post. My great-grandfather was a commercial traveler for a printing company. I’ve never really looked into what I might be able discover about his work so it’s great to read this article. Thanks again.

  • 8. Ranker  |  31 July, 2012 at 4:13 pm

    Thanks for the lovely poem, loved it!! A story about the traveler


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