Sunday, December 9, 2012

Meet me at Begg's

Here's a book I picked up yesterday at Jason's Books in Auckland, and published this year: Meet me at Begg's, by Clare Gleeson, librarian and great-great-grand-daughter of Charles Begg, founder of one of New Zealand's best known music firms. I was drawn to it because a piano my grandmother bought for me when I was still a nipper (and when Grandma hoped I'd pick up a musical skill. Sorry, Grandma, that didn't work out) has written in gold on the inside of the piano -- "Charles Begg & Co."

Gleeson traced her ancestors back to a Scottish settlement named Walternaldie, where Charles Begg was born in 1825, "across the Dee River from the village of Aboyne, about 50 kilometres west of Aberdeen." The family had lived in the area for at least 130 years. One of 11 children, Charles Begg ended up in Aberdeen, apprenticed to piano maker John Marr, before going into business on his own terms in 1849 as "piano-forte maker". He married his first cousin Janet (Jessie) Milne in 1855. By 1861, Charles had a successful business in Scotland -- yet decided to emigrate that year to New Zealand, for reasons unknown. The Beggs settled in Dunedin, the "Edinburgh of the South", and by 1864 Begg had his own warehouse, diversifying also into selling sheet music (Gleeson's book comes peppered with images of the covers of music published by the Beggs over the years.)

However, Begg's premises was destroyed by fire in 1867; he was diagnosed in his later years with bowel cancer, went into a short-lived business partnership, then died on 21 December 1874.

His widow Jessie took hold of the reins of the business, working through insolvency and debts brought about by her husband's ill-fated partnership, and with assistance from fellow estate trustees John Reid and John Reith managed to maintain the business long enough for her sons Charles and Alexander to reach their maturity. Jessie Begg relinquished control to her sons in 1896, having strengthened the business, and even setting up branch agencies in other southern towns, such as Timaru.

Between 1896 and 1908, three branches and a London office were opened. In the latter year, the firm became a limited liability company under the brothers' management and by 1926 five more branches had been opened. Begg's introduced phonographs into their shops, keeping up with the changing times. Charles Begg Jr. died in 1916 though, leaving the business in Alex's hands. Charles' son Eric (born 1899) took on Alex's management, leading to messy litigation in the mid 1920s and retaliation from Alex who attempted to have the company wound up in 1926. In 1931, a new company was formed, with non-Begg family members as directors, and a rift began within the Begg family itself. From 1937, though, Eric Begg was chairman of the board of directors.

By the time the company had reached its centenary in 1961, things were changing. The end had begun. The centenary wasn't celebrated with as much enthusiasm as previous anniversaries. While Begg's stocked televisions during the rise of the medium in this country, and made quite a profit from the business, television still ultimately worked against them, as with so many other leisure-oriented businesses in New Zealand at the time. The company began assembling pianos in Auckland -- and took a loss when import controls on pianos were lifted. They purchased a wholesale musical importer, Western Enterprises Ltd, hoping to secure the Yamaha agency -- but didn't. Other disastrous investments culminated in the purchase of Frank Wiseman Ltd, an Auckland-based sports dealer, the firm now known as Beggs-Wisemans. However, Wiseman's director Norman Bennett came with the deal, and his aggressive management style led to 24 out of 32 Begg's managers either being fired or walking out.

In 1970, the company dropped the 100 year old sponsorship of the NZ Brass Band Contest, quit retail completely, turned to manufacturing and became known as Atlas Majestic Ltd (having taken over the company making Atlas stoves the decade before), and ended up being purchased by Ceramco in the early 1980s. The only part of the Begg's company still in business is Musico, sold on to an independent businessman, and importing musical instruments and music to this day.

Clare Gleeson has done a great job with this book, including info on the staff, the branches, the life and times of her family, and an insight into the rise and demise of one of New Zealand's brands. Thoroughly illustrated, well-indexed (I'd expect nothing less from a librarian!), I enjoyed reading the book, and feel it will be a great reference work in times to come. The book retails at $49.95 from Ngaio Press.


  1. Hi Lisa, does the book mention Beggs Christchurch? Still trading, at least on Trade Me


  2. It says in the book that "In 1970 the company decided to quit retail and the shops were offered for sale to staff, usually to the current manager. Many managers took the opportunity of going into business on their own account but as most were underfinanced, very few were successful." Gleeson refers to the purchase of the Dunedin business.

    There definitely is a Begg's Music Centre in Colombo Street. Their website says:"In 1986 Begg's Music was amalgamated with Christchurch Music Centre, now known as the “Beggs Music Centre”. The majority of our sales team have been with the company between 15 and 20 years!"

    So -- looks like it is one of the survivors, through amalgamating with another firm.

  3. Thank-you very much Lisa for your enthusiastic review of 'Meet me at Begg's. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it.

    In answer to the Christchurch question, Begg's Music Centre is nothing to do with Charles Begg & Co Ltd as it was, and much of the information concerning its history as it appears on their website is erroneous. The Charles Begg & Co Ltd branch in Christchurch was sold to three staff members in 1970 but the business did not prosper under this ownership and was taken over by another business which then assumed the Begg name. This business is not, as was the case in Dunedin until recently, and in Nelson still, a Begg's branch which was sold and continued to operate under the Begg name.

  4. Thanks, Clare -- that should well and truly answer Neil's question. It is a lovely book, well done!

  5. Hello Clare, my name is Jenny. We have just bought 4 Smith Street in Dunedin. The plans show that it was designed in 1907 for Charles Begg Jnr, who I presume was your great grandfather. I know that his wife was Katherine, his sister-in-law was Maud, their son was Alex, and that Charles Jnr died in 1916.
    I have ordered a copy of Meet me at Beggs from our local library, -and am likely to buy a copy for the house. Do you know anything about the house that you could share with me?
    Thanks in anticipation,

  6. Used to go to the old "Beggs" in Cashel Street, clutching my music as I was sitting classical piano exams, and would go up the stairs, and wait outside, until I was called !,
    I would then walk into what seemed like a small concert hall...and up the front was a stage, and someone sitting waiting for me with two pianos on th state, one of which was for me !!
    A little nerve racking, but passed all my exams mainly with merit / "no problem" ....thanks Beggs..I am pretty sad that theis famous shop is really no more