John Orr’s

posted in: Pictures 22

Here’s another interesting pic sent in by Nicole White. It apparently dates from 1954:

John Orr's store, 1954. Courtesy Nicole White.
John Orr’s store, 1954.
Courtesy Nicole White.
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22 Responses

  1. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Nicole
    1954 was the year my family returned to Durban permanently and I remember the City being decked out to celebrate the civic centenary. Many shop fronts were decorated and I recall that at the intersection of West Street, Brickhill Road and Point Road there was a huge metal arch structure spanning the roads which was lit up with globes. I have in my possession an official Souvenir Programme, an 80 page book which gives some of the highlights of Durban’s past 100 years. The celebrations started on the 14th May 1954 closing on the 15th August 1954. There were events virtually everyday including balls, sports, exhibitions, operas, ballet and other cultural events. There was even an International Surf Festival which included demonstrations of surfskis (the precursors of surfboards) which were unheard of then. Danny Kay, the well known Hollywood actor/comedian performed at the Playhouse I show the cover below as well as the Durban City Council 1954 and an ex tempore poem written by Roy Campbell. I include it because I reckon Roy Campbell was in my mind the greatest South African poet. A Durban boy he was schooled at Durban High. His poems I am sure are familiar to most matriculants of the 1960s as they were included in most high school English syllabuses. However I bet many never knew what he looked like and a picture of him is attached next to his poem. Roy Campbell was killed in an accident in Setubal Portugal 1957. He was 57 years old.
    John Orr’s was another well known Durban department store, a little uptown. My memory of it was that it had a big selection of dress and furnishing materials with a whole section filled with large rolls. My mother used to spend time looking through the stock while I had to patiently wait in the wings. It had a restaurant and as I recall did not have a food department. It also ran from West through to Smith Street.

  2. Brian Pitcher
    | Reply

    I found your article particularly interesting as (in 1964) I was a 15 year old employee of John Orr’s in the gents outfitting department. Some interesting facts…..My departmental manager was Archie Gibb who had been an sergeant major in the army of Tobruk fame. Then there was a John Waddington and a Mr Arnold. Both managers, the first in the gents shirt, payjama and underwear section and Mr Arnold the manager of the boys section. there was also a Doug Ward in the suits and trousers section as well as Derrick Thomas in the gents shoes department. There was a lift operating in the department with the driver being a Mr John Bishop. This lift went up one floor to the restaurant and then up another to the ladies “cloak room” and also stock rooms and the mens staff canteen on the same floor. I started working there on the 19 October 1964 as a trainee and clearly remember selling gents ties at R1.45, a gents lounge shirt at R3.95 and my first suit I bought on a sale at R5.00. My starting salary was R45 per month and my very first pay packer was R20 as I had only worked for half a month.
    We also sold many items one never see’s any longer like silk dressing gowns, silk smoking jackets, Pyramid initial handkerchiefs, Cummerbands, loose collars for tunic shirts, (Wolsey) woolen socks, Collar studs. a range of cuff links and tie pins, all destined for the gentleman’s wardrobe. We even sold Clydella and Rhumanell long pyjamas for winter and this in the Durban climate as well as pure woolen underwear for the eledrly gentleman. The store had sets of Blue, Red and Green lights strategicallt placed as these were for when one of the directors who may have been walking around the store to alert him to a call or some other need in the store. each director had his own colour combination and when his was lit up, he would call the switchboard to see who wanted him.
    I have so much more to tell and some interesting times and information in memory should anyone be interested. I was then a 15 year old youngster, out of school while now I’m an older guy of 66 years with fond memories of those years in a fine store in Durban.

    • Joan Mills nee Brown

      Wow this was really interesting reading all of this.
      My late father’s sister worked in the Shoe Dept in the Pietermaritzburg branch for a number of years & as far as I know her daughter also worked there for a while before being offered a job by I think it was Cuthbert’s.

  3. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Brian,
    What an interesting article about John Orr’s. Please do sit down and record your memories as no doubt you have vivid memories of a by gone era. You have just enlightened me about those “lights” which were on the ceiling of the shop. I think it was copied in several of the main stores. Remember the lights but never knew that! I have not been to John Orr’s for some time but understand that in a recent renovation a large ceiling was removed and revealed a glass dome that was hidden for many years. Can you throw any light on this?

  4. Brian Pitcher
    | Reply

    Hello again Gerald. I had no idea my tale was worth much but I feel privileged to tell my story.
    We had an N.C.R. cash register containing 6 drawers in the department. the drawers were A, B, D, E, H, K. My drawer was E, but this apart, I have seen many such cash registers since (never another 6 drawer) and they retain such lettering. I find it interesting as normally they would have been named (or numbered) A, B, C etc or even numeric. Just thinking, I must be one of the few surviving staff of John Orr’s as I must surely have been the youngest employee on staff at the time being only 15 years old which makes me wonder at the interest in the store’s history….The management and directors at the time were, a Mr. Brunton Smith being the general manager, then the company secretary who’s name escapes me but I do remember he was in the Choir with the Manning Road Methodist Church. There there was Mr. Ossie Dawson of cricket fame I think as well as the Chairman being Mr. Carter. Mr. Harold Orr also often came into our department to buys his shirts and peculiarly enough he never allowed you to place his purchase in a paper bag as it was his way of saving money for the store. Strange hey. My manager never allowed a parcel to be wrapped with sello tape but insisted we wrap using string for the same reason. Our department was in a part of the store which had the ground floor where we were, then one up to the restaurant and again up to the canteen and stockroom whereas the rest of the store had only the ground floor and one up. There was another old wooden lift in the main part of the store going up the babywear, cots and prams and on the same floor more towards Smith street was the general office and management suites plus the boardroom. Thinking about the glass dome, I never saw it but logically it should have been placed in the central part of the three-building store. At the time of my being employed there, that would have been the crockery, glass ware and silver ware department which I remember was richly carpeted in sort of grey blue Wilton carpeting. I will always recognise Wilton as I spent some time in the furnishing department as well and we had that carpeting in stock. It was a rich and expensive carpeting material.There came a time when they built in escalators from ground floor to the crockery department to increase trade so the shop was dusty and noisy for ages during building operations. Further building operations took place extending the store outwards to the pavement (West street) as there were display windows (islands) in the front of the front doors and this space was required to expand selling space. There was tons of marble both light and dark in this and I picked up a piece of both to keep as keepsakes in memory of that occasion. I believe I still have them somewhere. Interestingly, there was a competition in naming a new store (which could have been renaming Bon Marche but I don’t think so) which was intended to be more up market rather than the the Hub or Bon Marche and the competition was won by a lady in store calling it Milady’s. That was where the name came from and today is still a well-known brand and still rather up market. No longer a John Orr’s label I should wonder.
    Next door to our store was the Masonic Hotel which John Orr’s bought out and expanded into placing the gents department there and so expand to a larger area and more modern in design as our fixtures were all dark mahogany with glass front drawers and all glass counters. Very staid and dated. I’ll never forget how we also sold Van Heuson lounge shirts. What made them special was that they were the only shirts sold in “sleeve lengths” To measure a mans sleeve, one has to find the centre of his back (by measuring) then he holds his arm up, crooked at the elbow and you then measure from the centre of his back to where he should or would want the sleeve to end. that was the required measurement. Very accurate and allows a slight show of cuff below his jacket sleeve which is what a “gentleman” would want. I wonder how many of your readers would remember a “dumb valet” do you.? They were all the rage at one time. I seldom wear a tie these days but when I do, I can now only tie a double Windsor knot and there was a time I had a pair of shoes for each day of the week as spending all day on ones feet one needs comfortable shoes. At that time, only the managers were allowed to (and had to) wear their jackets all day. The staff were only permitted to wear a lounge shirt and tie and trousers. Notice I said “trousers” not slacks or longs. Training……

  5. Jessica Dawson
    | Reply

    I just wanted to thank you both for sharing your memories. I am the grand daughter of Ossie Dawson, and in turn a decendant of both Robert Harold Orr and John himself. I have been doing thorough research on my heritage for a school assignment and this has really helped me to completely grasp how wonderful the shop really was. Your writings have been invaluable to my research and I am so thankful to have found them.

    • Brian Pitcher

      Hello Jessica and thanks for your response. Imagine you being the grand daughter of Ossie Dawson and meeting on here like this. Imagine also your relationship with the Orr’s. My word what a wonderful coincidence.
      I have remembered the name of the company secretary being a Mr. Johnson. He who sang in the choir of the Manning road Methodist church…Incidently my wife and I were married there in 1977. A couple of years ago.
      I remember the personel lady then was a miss Tolken who became married a short while later and then left leaving a Mrs Cunningham to replace her. When I left to go to Payne Bros. she gave me a short resume mentioning my few good attributes. I am sure I still have that piece of paper in my files somewhere. I don’t usually just throw things like that away. I remember the few ladies in the cash office at the time as I was the department “junior” and did all the running. There was a Heather, a June, who had a sister April who I was madly keen on and also a Maria Pretorius who I had a brief “friendship” with. It would be a shame not to mention the vacuum system we used to send invoices to a central point for scrutiny if a customer wanted to purcase on account as well as which if we needed change when the cash register was out of action for some reason.
      In the boys department there were also a Mrs. Winter and a Mrs Bloch and a younger lady who’s name escapes me. Upstairs in the mail order department there was a lady by the name of Mrs. Collier who also handed out stationery. I remember she had a son who had an accident on Durban Harbour when his light motot boat burst into flames and injured him though thankfully not too seriously.
      I think I mentioned, my manager Archie Gibb was a real disciplinarian. I can still remember him calling,,,,”Mr. Pitcher, come forward please”, with that scowl of irritation on his face. I was in fear of him every day of my life.
      In those days we used to deliver customer parcels in our Navy Blue and gold striped vans of which I think there were about four as they lined up at 6.00 pm to load and leave on delivery. This was managed by our security manager a Mr. Ggroblaar. Nice guy with a bull neck and broad shoulders. Always well dressed with a tie and jacket. Grey hair and glasses.
      Well Jessica, thanks again for responding to my writings. I really enjoy that part of my Durban history. If you’d like to respond, my e.mail address is

    • Mike Kennedy

      Hello Jessica. I assume you are the daughter of either Darrell or Bruce who I knew in the late 1960s. I was wondering where they might be now. I married a daughter of Jack Whiteley who was Chairman of the DCC for about 8 years. My email is
      Cheers . . . . Mike

  6. Lynette Beaton (nee Harpur)
    | Reply

    I have read your article with so much interest, Brian. I discovered this site on the internet after searching “John Orr’s” on the web. I too used to work there as a window dresser, from 1961 until 1965. It was my very first job and I was a shy 15 year old when I started working there, under the guidance of Arthur Brown, who was head window dresser at the time. I remember the Men’s Department, and being given the latest clothing to display in both the “show-cases” and windows. I was employed by the manager, Mr. Brunton Smith who knew my father well. He used to take great delight in calling me from across the store, “Miss Harpur! When is this window going to be finished!” I was terrified of him! Other window dressers at the time were Howard Riddle, Sheldene Meyer and Margaret Chisholm.
    It was such a wonderful departmental store and I have such fond memories of my time there, although I have to admit I was afraid of the bosses!
    I so enjoyed reading your account of the various departments. You must also remember the “Ticket Writers” who worked in the Display Department up on the very top floor, which we could get to only by an outside staircase? I forget the names of the 3 women who worked there, but their job was to do the lettering, with paint brush on the various showcards and price tickets that would be placed on the garments in the shop windows. Us window-dressers would also use that space for designing, painting and building the backgrounds and props necessary for the window displays. Everything was done by hand and each shop window a special, unique display reflecting the changing seasons.
    I remember particularly, when it rained, Mr. Smith would demand that we put out the umbrellas and raincoats on all the shop window dummies, to attract customers to buy.
    Thank you so much for sharing your memories and bringing back so many to me about this wonderful store.

    • Gerald Buttigieg

      Hi Lynette,
      Thanks for your comments on John Orrs. Window dressers and Ticket writers hardly exist these days whereas in the past they were “specific jobs” for some people. So many of these ” jobs” have disappeared. Remember lift operators mainly young girls who announced what was on the floor you had reached, in cinemas being shown to your seat by an usherette, at the station a porter taking your luggage to the train you were travelling on, a park keeper ( known as a Parkie) who patrolled a park and kept control over it? By the way any relation to Judith Harpur ?

    • Lynette Beaton (nee Harpur)

      Hi Gerald, It was good to read your comments! Yes, I must admit I miss those days of everything being so “orderly” in the shops and there certainly were a great variety of different “jobs” for people. Not everyone had to be a mathematician or have a university education. Most took great pride in their work. Going to the cinema was quite an event, with entertainment in the form of the world news, a “short” movie and a cartoon, along with the advertising slides, then a long interval with other employees coming around with ice-cream and other sweet goodies in a large tray which was supported by a strap over the shoulders. Only after that we watched the main film! I could ramble on an on, and it is great to reminisce on those wonderful times.
      I do not know Judith Harpur, but it is quite possible that we are related as there are not too many Harpurs spelt with a “u”, most being spelt with an “er” at the end. If Judith is interested, I do have quite a bit of history on the Harpur family tree, which I would be happy to share with her.
      Thank you for sharing your memories.

    • Gerald Buttigieg

      Hi Lynette,
      You may enjoy this script of mine from 2005 (Wow 10 years ago!) . Click on this link and it should take you there.
      Yes the Harpur surname is unusual.

    • Lynette Beaton (nee Harpur)

      Hi Gerald,
      I read with such interest, your memoirs about what people did for fun in Durban in the 60’s. Your detailed, and sometimes amusing account of what it was like then brought some smiles to my face as it took me back to those times. It was as if I was right there, taking it all in once again!

      What wonderful years those were, with so much to do and safe travel to and from venues on a good bus service which ran until late at night! I remember the Durban Ice Rink in particular, where I spent many a happy afternoon, skating with friends, the beach front, Rachel Finlayson Pool and rock-bands that played at the “sessions” and other venues. I remember “Cooky Look” and Mike Shannon and the Diamonds who sometimes played there. In fact, I got to meet him in person, not long ago at a musical evening in Knysna! He still sings and leads a group of singers of which one of my best friends is a member!
      The Al Fresco Terrace you mentioned was also a popular venue with my friends and I. Do you remember a band called “The Bats”? They often played there, as well as at a night club called “The Macabre” in Pine Street, where they had tables shaped like coffins!! Their music was very popular and they often performed a comical little “cabaret” act.
      The cinema (bioscope!) too, was a big thing in our lives and I can remember spending the whole of Saturday afternoon sometimes, sewing a new dress and doing my hair in rollers, getting ready for the big night out at the cinema, afterwards walking along West Street, window shopping and having a late night ice-cream at the Polar Bar on the corner of Broad Street. There would then be a bus to catch home at mid-night, if you didn’t have your own transport.
      Your article brought back so many memories that have been locked away in the recesses of my mind, wonderful memories of when I was young and growing up in a truly beautiful city, as it was then. Thank you so much for sharing the link.

  7. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Lynette,
    Thanks for your kind words. There is plenty on this site that recalls the past. Remember that on the “front page” there is a SEARCH facility. Click on Search and enter the subject you would like to read about. There are stacks of memories but unfortunately all over the website so this is the best way to find something if it is there of course. The Al Fresco was our groups Friday night gathering point from 5 to 7 pm when it “closed” and became a restaurant. You had two hours to find out where the parties were at otherwise it was down to catch a movie or Cookie Look at one of the Beachfront hotels.

    • Lynette

      Hi Gerald,
      Thank you for that, I’ll take a look.

  8. Brian Pitcher
    | Reply

    Lynette Beaton. The years you were there at John Orr’s are exactly when I was also there. I started on 19 October 1964 and left sometime like early 1968 so we definately met up there. I remeber Arthur Brown. He was a motorcycle enthusiast as I was. I was a tallish, skinny guy with glasses and like you very shy. I also remember Al Fresco Terrace, Cooky Look, and the rest. In fact I used to dance exhibition at al Fresco when the Flames were there. How about the Discoteque at the Beach Hotel. It would be wonderful to make your acquaintance and revive old memories if at al possible. I don’t live in Durban but often weekend there at kleast once a month. please get back to me if you would like to.
    Brian Pitcher

  9. Lynette Beaton
    | Reply

    Hello Brian! Yes, it seems we must have been at John Orrs around the same time, or at least just the year before I left to work for Beare Bros. I can’t remember you as you describe yourself, but being an “apprentice window dresser” I was generally so absorbed in getting the job right, I didn’t take a lot of notice of the staff as a whole! We quite possibly did meet up at some stage. I was also more familiar with the other departments as I only occasionally had to dress the small showcase outside the men’s department, when Arthur Brown would be the one to organise with the staff as to what would go into the windows. I worked as his assistant most of the time, and also helped Howard Riddle occasionally.
    I like the idea of meeting up and sharing some memories, but unfortunately I am living in Knysna now! It is years since I went to Durban. If you ever come down this way, let me know. It would be great to share some “blasts from the past!”

    • Brian

      HI Lynette, Just a short reply….Did you or do you remember a mutual friend Hughie Millar.? If yuo do then I have a picture of you in memory. You had longish hair of off blonde colour and a really wicked smile. You were so natural and vibrant and I was a young gawkish kid and may I say, crazy about you,,,,sigh…

  10. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Arthur Gammage has sent me an interesting article concerning the discovery of the dome in JOhn Orr’s building. I never knew this existed and cannot remember it ever being discussed in newspapers.

    JOhn Orr's Dome

  11. Graeme
    | Reply

    Hi Gerald, when was this discovered???

  12. Gerald Buttigieg
    | Reply

    Hi Graeme
    The article I posted appears to be fixed in size and an attempt is being made to get a larger image of it so you can read the print. The date of the cutting is 2013. I recall the article was in the newspapers. I have not had the opportunity to see the dome in person.

  13. Andrew Hyde
    | Reply

    Hello. My name is Andrew Hyde.
    I live in Miami Florida.
    The connection here is that i worked On Seventh Avenue garment district New york city. The national salesmanager of the company had dear friends at Charles of the Ritz perfume company. I remember one lady married a into the Orr Family. The friends traveled to visit.
    I am happy to research John Orr after learn difference of Rhodisia and Zimbabwe.
    The lady name is mrs cathy talamo orr today.
    Possibly Mr Brian, you have the corporation office to inquire and to refer me to contact the office
    Many regards.

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