Signs of the times

Signs of the times

Charles and Evelyn O’Harte, Patricia Woodley (nee O’Harte) and unknown man, c1940s, George Street, Sydney, Speciality Studio. Courtesy of Woodley Family Collection

In the background of many street photos are glimpses of Sydney’s architecture, from still-recognisable locations to popular landmarks of the day. Many photos also show signs advertising businesses now long gone, including popular cafes like Repin’s and Sargents.

Repin’s Coffee Inns

Today’s cafe culture in Sydney is most often attributed to the wave of Italian and central European immigration that followed World War II. While the influence of these immigrants on our morning routine cannot be overstated, there is one man whose story is often overlooked – Ivan Dmitrievitch Repin.

Russian-born Repin and his family arrived in Sydney in 1925, having fled their homeland when the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917. After working a few different jobs, including driving taxis, Repin opened his first coffee shop in September 1930 at 152 King Street. Located across the road from the Supreme Court, and in close proximity to Martin Place and the government buildings on Macquarie Street, Repin’s venture was soon a success among workers and and daytrippers to the city. Building on this momentum, Repin expanded, opening a second cafe the following year, in Castlereagh Street, and another in 1933, in Market Street. By the mid-1930s there were two Repin’s Coffee and Tea Shops on both King and Pitt streets, and a fifth on Market Street. In 1937, Repin moved one store from Pitt Street to George Street, and opened another store, Repin’s Quality Inn, at 108 King Street.

With hindsight, the opening of multiple new cafes in the midst of the Great Depression appears a risky venture. However, the economic conditions that might have sunk Repin’s business instead worked to shape it. His coffee shops became sanctuaries for companies who could no longer afford to pay rent for office space; employers met their staff in one of his many establishments to read the mail that they had collected from the General Post Office.

Inspired by his research trips to the United States, Repin modelled his coffee shops on American cafes, offering ‘fast, clean service at minimum price’.1 At a time when most people drank tea, Repin’s served coffee at 3 shillings a cup with cream in little pots on the side or, for those who could afford an extra 3 shillings, ‘Vienna style’ with whipped cream on top. He began roasting coffee beans at the entrance to his stores, enticing customers in with the alluring aromas. His stores also sold freshly ground beans by the bag, an innovative practice at the time. By the end of the 1930s, Repin’s was as ubiquitous in Sydney as Starbucks is now in Manhattan.

Reliable, respected and reassuring, Repin’s was as familiar as your grandmother’s sitting room – just with better coffee.

  • 1. J Laffin, ‘The Repin story’, Hotel and Café News, April 1955, p12.

Sargents Refreshment Rooms

The meat pie is an iconic part of Australian culture. Many commercial pie makers have come and gone in Sydney, but there is one company that has been producing and distributing this Aussie staple for over 130 years.

In 1883, George and Charlotte Sargent opened their first bakery in the inner-city suburb of Glebe. Charlotte, Australian born, had begun her career in hospitality soon after she finished school, managing a confectionary store on George Street, while George, born in Warwickshire, England, was the son of a grocer. After winning a Tattersall’s lottery in the late 1890s, the Sargents purchased a shopfront on Surrey Street in Darlinghurst, where they baked and sold 700 loaves of bread a day.

The Sargents company began producing meat pies in 1891, with the opening of a store in Paddington that sold the pies for a penny each. Four years later this shop moved to larger premises on Hunter Street in the city.

In the early 1900s, George and Charlotte sold their business and travelled overseas. Meanwhile, their son, Hartley, opened two bakeries in Pitt Street – one of which included a factory– as well as refreshment rooms at 390 George Street. On their return from their travels, George and Charlotte became business partners with Hartley.

The George Street business was reviewed in the Evening News:

‘… new café at George-St, with its four floors and garden and smoke room on the roof. The top floor is devoted to the cafe business, the second is being fitted up in first-class style for wedding breakfasts and receptions, the first is to be used as a cold luncheon room, and the ground floor as a refreshment room.’1

The article further stated that, at the time, the company employed about 300 girls and young women in the refreshment rooms, and more than 60 people in the factory on Pitt Street. The factory went through over two tons of meat and seven tons of flour each week.

The Sargents’ success was due in no small part to the personalities of Charlotte and George, who built good rapport with their customers and staff alike. Charlotte was fondly referred to as ‘Princess’ and George as ‘Colonel’. In April 1904, Charlotte hosted a masked ball for the firm’s employees at the George Street refreshment rooms. About 300 people attended the event, which was written up in the newspapers:

‘… from beginning to end the scene was one of happiness … Mrs Sargent, attired in a black evening gown, made a charming hostess, and was assiduous in her attentions to the numerous guests. Mr G Sargent was an able lieutenant.’2

Sargents was registered as a private company in 1906, and by 1912 the business was catering for both the NSW and federal parliaments, and had expanded into Melbourne, supplying the newly built Parliament House. Within a few years, Sargents had grown to 36 refreshment rooms and shops, a manufacturing depot, a catering section and ballrooms.

The refreshment rooms in George Street, Sydney, were hugely popular with city workers and people spending a day in town:

‘Sargent’s shops were Sydney, they were everywhere: wonderful restaurants, famous pies, coffee cake and walnut bun, sponge lady fingers, apple charlotte, huge chocolate eclairs, and seasonally tiny little individual Christmas puddings.’3

But it was their meat pies that made the company famous:

‘… for a quick meal one could have a large pie with tomato sauce, a crisp, crusty bread roll, plenty of butter, a delicious pot of milk coffee or tea, all for 1s [about $4]. They had the noisiest shops in Sydney. Pies were in their own little tins; then, before serving, the tin was placed in a container. “Placed?” It was thrown! Even now if someone has a noisy kitchen, we who were there say, “Sounds like Sargent’s!”.’4

In 1962, after decades of being an intrinsic part of Sydney, the Sargents refreshment rooms began to close. By 1964 all had shut their doors, and the company no longer supplied pies to the Royal Easter Show, which had once been a significant customer. Sargents changed hands multiple times over the next two decades and eventually moved to producing only frozen pies ­– which the company still manufactures today.

Whether George and Charlotte could have expected such a long life span for their business is impossible to know. The following statement, published in 1904, at least implies that while they were aware of the quality of their product, they were perhaps unaware of how it would stand the test of time:

‘The firm does not boast that its goods are the best in the State, but it claims that there are none better manufactured in the city.’5

  • 1. Evening News, 8 December 1904, p3.
  • 2. Evening News, 9 April 1904, p4
  • 3. Lydia Gill, My town: Sydney in the 1930s, State Library of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 1993, pp59–60.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Evening News, 8 December 1904, p3.

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About the author

Hayley Edmonds

Hayley Edmonds was a former project volunteer at Sydney Living Museums.

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