From Australia’s Jewish Past: Sidney Myer – creator of a department store empire

June 14, 2022 by Ruth Lillian
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Sidney Baevski was born on 8 February 1878, in Krichev, then part of the Russian Empire and now known as the country of Belarus.

Sidney Myer

He was the youngest of eleven children born to Ezekiel Baevski, a Hebrew scholar, and his wife, Koona Dubrusha. He was educated at the Jewish Elementary School in Krichev and later managed his mother’s drapery business. He emigrated to Melbourne in August 1899 with very little money and little knowledge of English to join his elder brother, Elcon who had left Russia two years earlier. Several months after Sidney arrived in Melbourne, the brothers adopted the family name of Myer (the second name of their eldest brother Jacob).

Sidney and Elcon both worked in Slutzkin’s underclothing business in Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Later they established a small drapery shop in Bendigo, which proved to be successful. The store was named Myer, the first of many to come.

Sidney took his goods, stockings, laces, etc., from door to door, and, in spite of knowing little English, sold his wares. He then bought a cart and travelled through country towns. The business was later moved to Pall Mall, Bendigo, where it prospered and other shops were added, following which the Sidney was able to buy the Bendigo business of Craig Williamson and Thomas.

Late in 1909, Sidney travelled overseas to study British and European merchandising methods and to establish contact with manufacturers and exporters. In 1911 Sidney purchased the business of Wright and Neil, Drapers, in Bourke Street, near the General Post Office, and a new building was completed and opened in 1914. He raised staff wages, then closed the store for a fortnight’s stock-taking and ordering; and in June, after a spate of full-page newspaper advertisements, Melbourne experienced its first Myer sale. Old stock sold for a song, new stock was priced almost at cost, goods once kept behind counters were strewn upon tables, and the rush lasted for a week.

The Doveton woollen mills at Ballarat were purchased in 1918, and in 1921 a new building fronting on Post Office Place, was added at Melbourne. These became the Myer chain of department stores. The Myer Emporium grew with the purchase of such old established businesses as Robertson & Moffat, and Stephens & Sons.

In 1925, Myer Ltd was listed on the Melbourne Stock Exchange and the new building on the Lonsdale Street frontage was built. A separate building in Queensberry Street, Melbourne, was erected in 1928, and the Collins Street businesses of T. Webb and Sons – china importers – and W H Rocke and Company – house furnishers – were bought and transferred to the Bourke Street building. A public company had in the meantime been formed which by 1934 had a paid-up capital of nearly £2,500,000. A controlling interest in Marshall’s Limited of Adelaide was also acquired. By this time, the company was employing 5,300 people with medical and nursing aid for the staff, and rest homes for them at the seaside and in the Dandenong Ranges. Some of Myer’s friends and business associates feared the business was developing too rapidly but it was in a prosperous state and fast recovering from the effects of the Depression, when Myer died suddenly on 5 September 1934 of cardiac failure near his home in Toorak, at the age of 56.

With regard to his personal life, in March 1905, Sidney married Hannah Nance Flegeltaub. They had no children, although from 1911 he acted as guardian of his nephew, (Sir) Norman Myer. In mid-1919, Sidney went to the United States to study retailing. While there he divorced Hannah in Reno Nevada, although the divorce was not recognised under Australian law. While in Nevada, Sidney converted to Christianity.

On 8 January 1920, Sidney married Merlyn Baillieu (later Dame Merlyn Myer), on her 20th birthday. They had two daughters and two sons – Kenneth AC, Neilma, Sidney Baillieu AC and Merlyn Baillieu (Lady Southey AC). Merlyn travelled to San Francisco for the birth of each of their four children to ensure they would be considered legitimate. Legitimate they certainly were and in the following paragraphs, it is more than interesting to read about their business, political and philanthropic lives.

The Myers returned to Australia in 1929. Kenneth Myer was a philanthropist, a prime mover behind the Victorian Arts Centre; Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation; and was offered and declined the invitation to be Governor-General of Australia. Ken and his brother Baillieu set up the Myer Foundation in 1959. Sidney Baillieu married Sarah Hordern of the Sydney Hordern retailing family in 1955, thus linking two of Australia’s wealthiest families. Sidney Baillieu and Sarah had three children: Sid, Rupert and Samantha.

One of Sidney’s granddaughters, Joanna Baevski (the only daughter of Kenneth and Prue Myer to take her great grandfather’s name) is a Director of The Myer Foundation.

Sidney’s legacy lives on. His love of music, having played the violin, led him to establish free, open-air concerts with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in 1929, which were always well attended by Melburnians. During the Depression of the 1930s, Sidney felt a responsibility to contribute something to the community that had assisted him in achieving business success and a personal fortune. Rather than terminate employment of workers in Myers Department Store, all staff, including himself, had their wages cut. Relief work was personally financed by him to provide employment opportunities. For the unemployed at Christmas, he financed a Christmas dinner for 10,000 people at the Royal Exhibition Building, with gifts for all children.

His funeral was attended by some 100,000 people. His gravesite, a sepulchre for the reception of urns of ashes, is in Box Hill Public Cemetery in Melbourne. One-tenth of his estate went to establish the Sidney Myer Charitable Trust, now known as the Sidney Myer Fund, to continue the tradition of philanthropy begun by its founder. The most famous philanthropic funding was for the construction of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the Kings Domain, Melbourne in 1958, which is named in his honour. He is also the namesake for the Sidney Myer Asia Centre building at the University of Melbourne.

The Australian Jewish Historical Society is the keeper of archives from the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 right up to today. Whether you are searching for an academic resource, an event, a picture or an article, AJHS can help you find that piece of historical material. The AJHS welcomes your contributions to the archives. If you are a descendent of someone of interest with a story to tell, or you have memorabilia which might be of significance for the archives, please make contact via or its Facebook page.


2 Responses to “From Australia’s Jewish Past: Sidney Myer – creator of a department store empire”
  1. Benseon says:

    A disgrace to his Jewish heritage,

    • Adrian Jackson says:

      Benseon – I assume you are talking about Myers conversion to Christianity but does it really matter? Jews, Christian, and Muslims too, worship the same one god and In fact thee is not much difference between these three religions other than a few different customs and practices.

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