When John Furphy invented a unique metal cart in the 1880s he gave rise to much more than a useful way to transport water.
Story By Terri Cowley
Walking around the dusty six-hectare factory site, Adam Furphy looks like any other worker in his fluorescent vest and hard hat. The fact is, however, Adam, the managing director of J.Furphy & Sons, is the fifth generation of his family at the helm of this proud Australian company, one that is so much a part of our history that its name has passed into the vernacular.
The word ‘furphy’, meaning a rumour or an absurd story, came about in the military camps of World War I.
In particular, it is believed to have originated in the Broadmeadows Camp, outside of Melbourne, during the first months of the Great War. The image of soldiers gossiping while having a drink of water from a Furphy water cart became fixed in popular imagination. By the time the soldiers sailed, ‘furphy’ had become a part of the vocabulary of these members of the AIF.
J.Furphy & Sons was established in Kyneton, Victoria, in 1864 and moved to its current location in Shepparton nine years later. The company still replaces the barrels of about 50 ‘furphies’ each year. But, not surprisingly, this part of the business is now dwarfed by modern-day services such as project engineering and fabrication, laser cutting and hot-dip galvanising. It supplies the food, dairy, brewing, chemical, oil and gas, manufacturing and heavy industries with storage, processing, materials-handling and structural equipment.
Adam is keenly aware of the legacy of history. But he’s focused on the business at hand at a time of major global economic challenges. The engineering section of the factory resembles a “tank-fabrication city”, in Adam’s words. Huge bits and pieces of storage tanks, pressure vessels, silos and galvanising kettles are laid out in the workshops among large pieces of equipment. Some of these will end up on oil rigs in Bass Strait. Some will hold 300,000 litres of milk. The kettles, for holding molten zinc, will end up in South-East Asia, the Middle East and China.
Members of the 122 staff work industriously, moving cranes and welding. The recent economic downturn has seen less activity in the workshop but skill shortages are a very recent memory and the company is keen to maintain the tradesmen and staff it has. It recently hired workers from China and the Philippines and has a solid local apprenticeship program. Balancing an iconic past with the modern reality is part of life for Adam, a 38-year-old engineering graduate who took over from his father, Andrew, in 1998. “We are proud of our history but we are focused on where we are going rather than where we have been,” Adam says.
When John Furphy moved to Shepparton 136 years ago, he set up a blacksmith and wheelwright shop, soon adding a steamworks, engineering facilities and an iron foundry. He left control of the business to his sons William, George and Charles and two generations later this was passed onto Andrew and brothers Roger and Timothy.
This story excerpt is from Issue #67
Outback Magazine: Oct/Nov 2009