In 1886 and 1887 George Sargent was operating a bakery from 64 Glebe Street. His neighbours were William Mustow at number 66 and William Williams on the other side. Another William, George’s older brother, ran a bakery at 574 Harris Street. Altogether, five pastrycook sons of James Sergeant, a Warwickshire grocer, migrated to Australia: James, Joseph, William, Harry and George.
In 1883 George Sergeant, then foreman a fellow worker was Frank Gartrell – of Callaghan’s bakery in George Street, married Charlotte Foster, the seventh of nine children of a coachman. On leaving school Charlotte had managed a George Street confectionery shop. Within six months she so increased sales that her weekly wage was raised from 14 shillings to a pound. In later life she told a magazine interviewer that her personality and beauty had attracted the attention of a theatrical manager who offered her ‘any figure as an inducement’ to go on the stage but her mother would not consent. It may have been coincidental that Charlotte liked to be called ‘Lottie’ a contemporary Australian was Lottie Sargent, an actress.
Lottie, of course, did not reveal to the interviewer that five years before marriage she had borne a son, Henry Hartley Foster, registered like hundreds of others ‘father unknown’. Publicly assumed as George’s son, Hartley took on George’s re-spelt surname, considered better for business because less common.
At Glebe the pattern of the Sargents’ working partnership was established, George doing the baking and deliveries while his wife fronted the counter. By 1889 the family had moved to Surry Hills. A prize shared with a brother in Tattersall’s Sweepstake enabled Charlotte to buy a bakery in Surry Street. The output of 100 loaves a day increased sevenfold when the Sargents were contracted to supply bread to the Innes string of coffee houses. The strain of meeting this demand took its toll on George’s health – within two years the bakery was sold for 13 times its original purchase price.
Six months later, with funds shrinking and George recuperating, Charlotte decided it was time to get back into business and went to an auction in Pyrmont to purchase baking equipment although she had nowhere, as yet, to put it. She enjoined a man there to bid on her behalf and, when asked by the carter where to deliver the goods, recalled seeing a ‘To Let’ sign on premises in Paddington. She then rushed off to organise rental in time for the delivery. The shop opened with only ninepence in credit and Charlotte had to go next door for change for the first customer.
The ‘Little Palace’ at 390 Oxford Street (opposite the fire station) soon became a popular landmark. George, sporting a handlebar moustache and nicknamed ‘The Colonel’, baked bread, cakes and scones. Charlotte, ‘The Princess’, presided over the shop. When penny pies were added to the menu business flourished; George became known as ‘The Apostle of Pie’.
The Paddington business was sold and in 1895 another upmarket move was made: to 11 Hunter Street in the city. Hartley began working in the bakehouse under the shop. Other tenancies in the building were taken over as sales boomed. However, George fell ill again, the enterprise was sold and the couple travelled abroad. On returning and wanting to re-enter the city pie market, they had a legal battle with the purchaser of the Hunter Street business. A settlement was made and the Sargents recommenced trading, in Pitt Street. In 1909 Sargent’s Ltd was registered as a public company; by the time of the Great War the firm owned six cafes and 36 tea rooms in Sydney and Melbourne (where George’s brothers James and Joseph ran operations). Premises at 252 Pitt Street were advertised as ‘the largest Tea Rooms in the Commonwealth’. George, chairman of the company, personally inspected all supplies for quality and short-changing and Charlotte, in charge of female staff, was equally meticulous in attention to detail.
In September 1915 Hartley, now a corporal in the AIF, was guest of honour at a farewell banquet at Sydney Town Hall where, while acknowledging the work of women who had made soldier comforts and raised money, he declared, ‘We don’t want the money, but we do want the sons, husbands and sweethearts. Good as the volunteer system is, it is not the fairest in the interests of the Empire. Some mothers have given as many as five or six sons to the war; some who could have given none. For that reason, I honestly and sincerely hope that conscription will come.’ He urged other pastrycooks to follow his example and offered to march with them to the recruiting depot.
After the enlistment of their only son his parents raised over £4000 for the war effort. They supplied the wool for their waitresses to knit 300 pairs of soldiers’ socks and Charlotte organised a ‘café chantant’. At Christmas 1917 a dinner for 1,200 poor was laid on at Sydney Town Hall, 12,000 soldiers’ children were entertained at the Showground, and 2000 soldiers’ dependants welcomed to the family home, ‘Hartley Hope’ in Vaucluse Road, Vaucluse. All staff were given ‘False Alarm Friday’ (8 November 1918) off and paid double time the next working day.
As it turned out Hartley did not embark until December 1916. Wounded, he was captured and held as a prisoner of war in Germany from July 1917 to June 1918, not returning to Australia until March 1919 when, given a rousing welcome by family and the firm, he was noticeably unwell and reticent to talk of his experiences.
At home on a Saturday morning in August 1921 George died, after leaving his office the night before somewhat earlier than usual. He was 62. On the day of his large funeral Sargent’s closed for business. Charlotte took his place on the board, but the company suffered without her husband’s guidance. After ‘a wretched year’ some 170 shareholders in February 1924 attended a half-yearly meeting, chaired by Hartley, at which allegations of lax management were raised. The directors, ‘not talkative in their report’, were labelled ‘weak in the extreme’ and, despite Charlotte’s defence, a committee was appointed to investigate the company’s affairs. Things got worse in the next six months – excessive amounts were paid in renting new food outlets, and the factory manager at Burton Street, Darlinghurst, resigned, saying that after 33 years with the company he had been ‘treated like a dog’.
The Sargent family’s direct connection with the company ceased that year. Aged 68, Charlotte, died in May 1924 at Hartley Hope, leaving an estate of nearly £37,000. In September Hartley, at Medlow Bath recuperating from illness, fell 400 feet from a muddy cliff. The verdict was accidental death. He was buried with his parents in a vault at Waverley Cemetery. (Coincidentally, another director, tea merchant John Alexander Duff Gibson, was killed in a street accident in July.)
The resurrected Sargents brand today has its factory at Colyton near St Marys where it manufactures frozen pies, including the Big Ben brand. The company supports the Sargents Charitable Foundation.