In 1939, Fiszel and Rachla Epsztejn left Poland for a new life in Australia. Fifty years later, their daughter Anna fell in love with a man whose family, she would discover, was connected to her own by that archetypal Australian symbol – the garden sprinkler.
The Epsteins arrive in Australia
On 18 September 1939, young Polish newlyweds Fiszel and Rachla Epsztejn stepped off the RMS Ormonde at Melbourne. Only 17 days before, the invasion of their homeland by German forces had provoked the onset of World War II. By May 1940, a Jewish ghetto had been established in the couple’s hometown of Glowno. Later that year, deportations began to sealed ghettos in major towns and to forced labour camps. Fiszel was the only member of his family to make it out of Poland alive.
The Epsztejns were sponsored by Rachla’s uncle, Chaskiel Majer Borek, in a phenomenon known as chain migration, where migrants once settled would assist others to do the same. Chaskiel, known as Charles Brooks, was able to save at least 16 members of his extended family before war brought an end to migration.
Efforts to find work and learn English provided the Epsztejns with a diversion from the terrifying reports filtering out of Poland. In their new life the couple became Phil and Rachel ‘Rae’ Epstein, engineer and seamstress, living in a house they shared with Uncle Charles. In 1941, soon after moving to a one-room flat, the Epsteins welcomed their first child, Joseph.
Phil Epstein purchases Irwin’s
In 1943, the couple settled in a modest home in outlying Box Hill, where Phil had found work with a local manufacturer of farm machinery. That same year, he and a business partner bought Irwin’s, a successful landscape irrigation business that operated out of a small factory on the corner of Tooronga and Malvern roads in Glen Iris. Its former owner, Harley Irwin of Canterbury, was an enterprising and prolific inventor who specialised in the design, manufacture and installation of garden sprinklers.
The business, still trading as Irwin’s into the late 1950s, would be the first of several family enterprises. In 1945, Joe Epstein turned four and began his apprenticeship. ‘By the age of eight, I was practically a qualified fitter and turner,’ recalls Joe who, under Phil’s patient guidance, was confidently working a lathe and an oxyacetylene torch.
Phil worked seven days a week. On weekends and school holidays, Joe helped him assemble the irrigation systems destined for public gardens and the well-manicured lawns of Melbourne high society. Joe remembers the late Australian criminal defence lawyer Frank Galbally – a passionate gardener – calling Phil out at all hours to make adjustments to his sprinkler system.
A sprinkler is modified
In the late 1940s, Phil launched Telescopic Garden Sprinklers at a purpose-built factory in Ormond, Melbourne. A keen inventor, Phil modified one of Harley Irwin’s original sprinkler designs, devising a brass head with a variable water pattern. Phil continued to use the casting mould for the pedestal, stamped with its maker’s mark: ‘Harley H. Irwin, manf’, Canterbury. Vic’.
After Phil died in 1979, his daughter Anna retrieved one of his old metal sprinklers and took it home, where it did active service in her garden for the next 20 years. Occasionally, she would puzzle over the mysterious man whose name was stamped across an object that had, she was told, been manufactured by her father.
Phil’s daughter and Harley’s great-nephew meet
In 1992, more than 50 years after Phil and Rae Epstein arrived in Australia, their daughter Anna met and fell in love with a man called Ray Culvenor, whose forebears had migrated during the 1850s gold rush. During World War II Ray’s father Alec was courting his future wife, Joan.
On weekends, Alec helped Joan’s uncle make munitions for the war effort at the older man’s engineering factory in Melbourne. Joan would take the train from central Victoria to see her fiancé. During these visits she would stay at her uncle’s residence above the factory.
For a girl raised so far from the coast, Joan had an unlikely passion for lobster. Years later, pressed by Anna for an explanation, Joan recalled childhood Christmases heralded by the arrival of a much-loved Melbourne uncle, bearing lobsters from the city. When Ray asked how his great-uncle could have afforded such a luxury, Joan replied, ‘Uncle Harley had a successful business in Tooronga Road, Malvern, making pop-up sprinklers’.
A few weeks later, over dinner with Anna’s brother Joe Epstein and his wife Jan, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place for Ray and Anna. Joe was able to confirm that Phil had bought his first sprinkler business from Harley Irwin. He went on to describe the Irwin lawn sprinkler that Phil had adapted. Rising from the table, Anna went out to her garden shed, where she retrieved her father’s old sprinkler. In the warm light of the dining room, the four of them gazed down at the little object with its very unlikely family connections.
by Julia Church, researcher at the National Archives of Australia
View Archives records relating to this article:
- Rae Epstein’s application for registration as an alien resident, 1939
- Phil Epstein’s application for registration as an alien resident, 1939
- Application for letters patent for an invention by Harley Irwin: improvements in spray devices for watering gardens, lawns and the like, 1931