If you grew up glued to the TV as some of us were, you may remember this funny old lady. You might have smiled as she used her elderly belligerence to implore you to buy a washing machine, but then threw in an interest free period as if to remind you that the kindly granny look wasn’t entirely an act. You might have cringed as she attempted to entice you into her complex from a bubble bath. You might also have wondered whatever happened to Joyce Mayne, the doyenne of discount whitegoods in the dying decades of the 20th century.
Born in London, Mayne started out as an actress (and who’s surprised, given those ads) and a tap dancer. She arrived in Sydney in 1956, and the very next day got a job selling TVs at a shop in Penrith. A background in demoing gas and electrical appliances back in England, not to mention being the first woman to pass her all-male management course, didn’t hurt. When the shop owner’s wife learned that *gasp* a woman was selling TVs, she demanded Joyce be fired and replaced by a respectable gentleman. Unperturbed, Mayne went on to a job managing an electrical goods store in the same area, and in 1973 opened three of her own outlets. So great was her devotion to astrology that staff were recruited according to their star signs. “We prefer to employ Sagittarians, Scorpios, Capricornians and Aquarians – they’re the birth signs that produce the best sales people,” Joyce told the Sydney Morning Herald in January, 1979 – the eve of her greatest triumph as a retailer.
The ‘Joyce Mayne Shopping Complex’ on Parramatta Road, Auburn opened amid controversial circumstances in early 1980; filling the void left in the electrical retail scene by the 1978 death of Keith Lord, Joyce had the balls to hold the grand opening on a Sunday despite Sunday trading being completely illegal for a company of her size at the time. Damn. By exploiting a loophole in the law – subletting the 25 shops that made up her complex, thereby establishing herself and her tenants as equals – she was able to cash in on the more than 7,000 shoppers the centre would receive each Sunday. The downside? As a tenant, you had to endure the indignity of managing a store with a name like ‘Joycie’s Jean Barn’ (an actual 1982 store name, you can’t make this stuff up), but for Joyce herself, business was booming. Aside from a abortive flirtation with car sales in 1982, Joyce stuck largely to whitegoods and furniture, with locations soon sprouting at Taren Point, Camperdown, Alexandria and Newcastle. So involved was Joyce with the business that you’d often find her manning the registers during busy weekends. I bet you didn’t see Jean Lord doing that.
Once she’d created the Joyce Mayne chain, she quickly became a star of Sydney television in a long-running series of commercials. Anyone who watched late night commercial TV between 1978 and 1996 would at some point have caught a glimpse of Mayne’s ads, which showcased a shameless, unique kitsch and a garish sense of glamour, even for that era. This was in an age where furniture and whitegood chain owners all had a crack at fronting their own commercials, thus forcing an unsuspecting public to invite the vacant John Coote or the reptilian Gerry Harvey into their living rooms on an uncomfortably regular basis.
Joyce’s borderline offensive commercials, including one involving Mayne enjoying a bubble bath with Mafia types and making them offers they couldn’t refuse, didn’t immediately endear her to the public (something the low, low prices and interest free periods must have done instead). A subscriber to the ‘any publicity is good publicity’ tenet, the ads kept coming despite the public’s distaste. So too the profits – by 1990 Mayne, Harvey and Bing Lee had risen to the top of the industry. The woman herself attributes her winning ways to astrology (and a lifelong love of gambling, particularly on the horses). She took the riskiest punt of all in 1985 when she published Joyce’s Winning Ways, a bizarre part-memoir in which she claimed the stars picked winners. Unfortunately for Joyce, the stars never divined any victory for her own horse, Defilace.
In 1986, Joyce began winding down her involvement in the brand she’d fronted for so long, with hopes of retiring to Queensland. She’d spent the year writing a never-released followup to Joyce’s Winning Ways (perhaps she’d discovered a few more) and had fallen in love with the Sunshine State, retiring to Townsville in the late 80s but sporadically appearing in further, increasingly cantankerous TV ads in Sydney. In just a few short years she was calling herself Queensland’s Leading Progressive Astrologer, and claimed she could forecast up to ten years into the future. Given that the ads seemed to stop in about 1996, it makes you wonder…did you see this coming, Joyce?
Information on the end of Mayne’s life is scarce; she appears to have died in Townsville sometime prior to 2006, in relative obscurity. This obituary of Bing Lee’s son and Mayne contemporary Ken Lee (d. 2007) mentions that ‘the reclusive multimillionaire was last seen at the funeral of Joyce Mayne‘. Just to make sure she was dead, right Ken? The electrical retail industry is cutthroat, as evidenced by the way Mayne’s turf was carved up after her death. 1998 saw ubiquitous retail overlord Gerry Harvey stepping in to purchase the Mayne stores for his wife to run. There’s something very…misogynistic about that. The Joyce Mayne brand name has since been banished from Sydney, with only a handful of outlets remaining in regional NSW and Queensland. Six of Mayne’s seven ageing stores inherited by Harvey Norman were rebranded Domayne in 1999 and given a more upmarket makeover; gone were the lurid pinks and greens and all the associated tacky charm, replaced with a sleek modern finish and a very cold, corporate feel.
And so it is at Auburn, formerly the site of the aforementioned Joyce Mayne Shopping Complex. The complex has been largely replaced by a Harvey Norman outlet and the Domayne centre itself…it’s a far cry from the pink and brown monument splashed all over town in Mayne’s commercials throughout the 1980s.
But Joyce’s spirit lives on in this, the only feature in the entire complex that still bears her name. Yes, every time an item is taken away from the premises without a receipt, a part or fitting is pinched from a unit, a graffiti artist damages the property or the 99.99% of sensible, honest people feel the need for an apology, Joyce and her legion of invisible security cameras are there. The brutal juxtaposition of strongly worded threats in a bold, dangerous font signed by Mayne’s dainty typeface is classic Joyce, and wouldn’t seem out of place in one of her ads.
It’s sad that a pioneer like Mayne has been so thoroughly relegated to the annals of history, but by making herself the brand, Joyce may have inadvertently brought it on herself. Who was the real Joyce Mayne? An amusing excerpt from the SMH interview, January 1979 provides little illumination:
‘”And in another life I’d like to be a criminal law barrister,” she added mysteriously, without further explanation.’
Perhaps that life is being lived now, and maybe someday the full story will be told, but for the time being, as always, if you know more, let Past/Lives know. Vaya con dios, Joycie.
The history of the companies emblazoned on this building is as murky as the canal flowing past outside. T.C. Whittle was a construction company responsible, from the 1940s to the 1960s, for New Selborne Chambers on Phillip Street in the CBD, the St Margaret’s Hospital for Women in Surry Hills, and the Cameron office complex in Belconnen Town Centre (demolished 2006) among others. But even that illustrious resume didn’t stop T. C. Whittle from ending up delisted from the ASX in 1980, dodgily changing its name to TCW Investments, and finally, being deregistered completely by ASIC in 2005.
Belmadar, on the other hand, was known mostly for roadworks, and we all know how well done those are in Sydney. It’s no surprise then that Belmadar is gone, and the current tenants are an events production group called Licorice Productions. It’s one of a number of new companies moving into the formerly industrial Mascot/Alexandria area to not feature heavy pollution as an output. This building in particular backs onto the Alexandra Canal, and while there immediately weren’t fish jumping happily from the water and dolphins waving hello with their flippers, there may still be hope for it yet.
You’re looking at Sydney’s most polluted waterway. And I thought Rhodes was bad.
In the late 1880s (it’s always the 80s), someone envisaged a grand canal stretching from Botany Bay to Sydney Harbour. It would start at the Botany Bay end of the Cooks River, and lead all the way through the city before opening up at Circular Quay, thereby giving the Eastern Suburbs the island refuge from the great unwashed they’ve always wanted. To that end, I’m surprised it never happened.
Shea’s Creek, a small offshoot of the Cooks River, was chosen as ground zero for the new tributary, which was supposed to act as an access route for barges to transport goods between the multitude of factories set up along the creek in the area. Factories including brickworks, tanneries and foundries. Factories that drained their runoff directly into the canal. A canal that is, according to the EPA, “the most severely contaminated canal in the southern hemisphere”. So keen to pollute were the industrial warlords of yesteryear that they had to invent waterways to defile.
At the time the canal was constructed, Sydney’s roads were a terrible mess completely unsuitable for transporting goods, making an aquatic access route more practical. Thankfully, Sydney’s roads today…uh…they…they’re pretty uh…let’s get more canals happening.
Between 1887 and 1900, Shea’s Creek was ripped up and turned into the canal. By 1895 it was looking unlikely that it would ever reach Sydney Harbour. The NSW Government had decided that as a sewer, the Shea’s Creek Canal as it was known then was doing a good enough job as a carrier of stormwater and runoff, and that there probably wouldn’t be a need to spend all those pounds carrying on with the project. Tenders were called again to complete the canal in 1905, but there were no takers.
The canal was renamed the Alexandra Canal in 1902, after the then-Queen Consort Alexandra. Coincidentally, the suburb that the canal ended in, Alexandria, was also named for her. I bet she was proud, too.
This is how it ends. The mighty canal winds down to a stormwater drain, which then continues to wind up through Alexandria before disappearing. Apparently, the cost of the already 4km canal was so prohibitive as to cancel the rest of the project. It might also have been that the powers that be were trying to save lives, for in creating the Alexandra Canal, they had also created…a bloodthirsty monster!
There have been several attempts since 1998 to clean up the canal, add cycleways (more cycleways!), cafes and restaurants, and generally make it a nice place to be.
As you can see, it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe when the city’s insane lust for cycleways finally stretches the canal to Sydney Harbour, that fantasy can be realised.