Mick’s Perla

This was meant to be a simple tale about Mick Simmons’ Perla mouth organ – first sold in 1927. It became something extra due to information obtained on Mick and his family. I’ll begin when Henry Michael Mitchell Simmons (better known as Mick to his mates) first toddled onto the shores of the new colony.

Michael Simmons disembarked the Cambodia in 1854 with his family as a two year old, having sailed from the Mother Country the year before. When just twenty-one he rented a boutique (twelve square feet) premise at the junction of George and Campbell Streets in Sydney. With a borrowed five pound note he established a tobacco business. The ‘Tobacco Box’ as it was known, specialised in all things tobacco (including their own brand ‘Can’t B Beat’).

The business flourished and, at some pointed time, a new store was purchased a few hundred yards away in Sussex Street. This operated both as a factory and an outlet. Hairdressing was added to the services of Mick Simmons and the sale of sporting goods – with a particular emphasis on Cricket, Fishing and Hunting. In 1889 his son Raphael was appointed a director of the firm. Sadly in 1894 Mick passed away at the young age of forty two. He had complained earlier in the week of mild abdominal pain and had managed to keep working. On the Friday afternoon he attended the Sydney Cricket Ground for a test match between Australia and England when severe abdominal pain hit. He was diagnosed with peritonitis and immediately operated on. He didn’t recover, passing late on the Sunday.

The word Perla and accompanying label was trademarked in 1898. Mick’s widow and sons had taken over the reins of the business and began selling their own brand of Cigars called Perla. Perla is Spanish for Pearl. It had been mooted that the Perla mouth organ was named from the Aussie colloquial word ‘pearler’, but this didn’t originate until the 1940’s as a term for a really good delivery by a bowler in cricket.

In 1899 a new flagship store was opened at 720 George Street directly opposite the Queen Victoria Markets and employed a hundred people.

1903 Postcard – Mick Simmons of George Street

In 1904 an additional store was opened at 179 Oxford Street as a Sports Depot, hairdresser’s saloon and a tobacconist’s shop. The saloon had five barber chairs (worth over £30 each) designed with the latest technology and the sterilisation of their equipment was of the highest order. A lever could position the customers in any position necessary for the optimum cut.

Commercial buildings, Oxford St (181), c1913 (01/01/1913 – 31/12/1913), [A-00036729]. City of Sydney Archives, accessed 11 Sep 2021, https://archives.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/nodes/view/663096

In 1905 Mick Simmons of George Street was expanded to two new levels and included smoking lounges (count me out), hairdressing parlour, shooting range and a full size tennis court. By 1915 there were stores in Newcastle (1909) and in Edward Street, Brisbane.

1908 Exhibit Royal Agricultural Easter Show (outside)
Mick Simmons exhibit at the Royal Agricultural Easter Show 1904 (inside)

Mick Simmons had a permanent prime position (next to the Ferris wheel) at the Royal Sydney Show. A striking red brick, red tiled building with a turret and flagpole. Inside the structure there was an elaborate display of tobacco products and rifles.

Sunol, seen advertised on the building, was a popular tobacco of the day and Mick Simmons advertised it thus, “A man never looks so happy and comfortable as when enveloped in a cloud of smoke, rising in blue wreaths from the fragrant weed, nor does he over look so ‘dour,’ and altogether ‘out of sorts’ as when he has come home minus his usual supply of ‘Sunol’ Tobacco.”

A prominent tobacco item on display in 1909 was a new smoking mixture called Lonus, which was highly recommended by doctors. Say what! The tin opposite bears the print ‘manufactured for Mick Simmons’.

In 1924 new premises were opened with the old building being demolished. A world ‘state of the art’ wonder store was built.

This photograph of Mick Simmons’ store in 1930 was touted as, “huge crowds attending the demolition sales.” However, I have seen it purported that they were there to see Don Bradman on the balcony. This would make some sense. The Don had just returned from a triumphant Ashes tour of England and had been in the employ of Mick Simmons since 1929. Many prominent sportsman were employed by Mick Simmons Ltd and this was a significant factor in the popularity of the store. Cricketers, Stan McCabe and Archie Jackson were at one time in their employ. Facilities available on the rooftop in 1935 included golf nets, a putting green and a tennis court, where patrons could receive tuition from the experts. Inside was furbished with a billiard hall, a rifle range, indoor cricket nets and a theatrette used extensively for lectures.

Ray Simmons

R M Simmons (Raphael Mendoza) was known to many as simply Ray (probably sounding more Aussie – a bit like his father before him). Ray headed the business as Managing Director and it was on his watch that the highly prized Perla Mouth Organ hit the stores in 1927. I’ve sought higher authorities to find the maker and one highly prominent world collector believes it could be Johann Schunk because the fluted cover is similar to the Miss America harp (sold in the States at about the same time). Perhaps? I’m not convinced as the Perla’s fluting appears to be continuous, unlike the Miss America. It’s interesting that the Chromatigrand, sold by Mick Simmons in the late thirties, was by Johann Schunk. They also moved Albert’s Boomerang mouth organ range within their stores at this time. I’m so sorry to say I couldn’t locate a physical specimen of the Perla. If you have one just give us a hoy.

Perla Mouth Organ

1927 Mick Simmons advertisement

Perla’s weren’t just cigars or mouth organs they also came in the form of golf irons, tennis rackets, cricket bats (Perla Driver – 26s), coir cricket mats and baseball gloves – you name it and there would have been a Perla line.

1937 Mick Simmons advertisement

Jack Arnold

Jack Arnold, in the Mick Simmons’ advertisement above (just his graphic was used in other adds with no reference to his name) was a Tivoli performer and a member of George Sorlie’s Revue Company. He was also a highly sought after performer for sporting and community socials. A singer, guitarist and harmonica player, Jack played a fine rendition of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes while smoking two cigarettes, playing the guitar and harmonica and whistling all at the same time. Now that would have been something to behold! Other tunes in his repertoire included: Tiger Rag, Boots and Saddles, Lazybones and South American Joe and, a comedy song that would always bring the house down, Underneath the Bed. There were many chromatic harmonica exponents in Australia promoted as our Nations Larry Adler. I’m not sure that all were in the same calibre as Larry. And with no disrespect to Jack, as I never heard him play, the label champion is often used indiscriminately.

1937 Mick Simmons Advertisement

The World Fame autograph P C Spouse model was manufactured in Germany by F A Bohm. Percival Spouse was considered as Australia’s harmonica champion with four titles.

Sam Simmons

Samuel Simmons, two years older than his brother, was a mystery man (not him pictured). Little information was secured flipping through the newspapers. He was mentioned as a signatory to the registration of the company in 1910 and he was left one fifteenth of Ray’s estate when Ray passed in July of 1949. The article above, (Sydney Evening News, Tuesday 23 January 1900), may or may not be the man in question, but he would be about the same age. There are a couple of other mentions of a Samuel Simmons in trouble with the law. Reported in the Balmain Observer, (Saturday 19 October, 1907) under the heading ‘Drunk’, was “Samuel Simmons, dealer was charged with being drunk whilst in charge of a horse in Church Street. Fined 5s.” In most references to the business, Ray is the head honcho and the one quoted.

Daniel Simmons

Daniel Mendoza Brixton Simmons, the youngest of Michael’s tribe, was born in Brixton – hence the middle name. He was a director of the company in 1910, but he wasn’t in 1934 (maybe even earlier). Fond of the fillies, and not just the racehorse kind, he was married twice before having a clandestine affair with Mrs Cecilia Piggot (pictured below), who would later walk down the aisle as his third wife. Before the grand event, Bricky (Daniel) had been arrested for shooting and wounding two men near the Cross Roads Hotel in Liverpool, Sydney. One was the husband of Mrs Piggot. He must have had a good lawyer as he was found not guilty on the basis of self defence! Bricky didn’t get off scott free as he had to pay £2000 in damages when found guilty in the Divorce Court of stealing Ray Piggot’s wife. During the proceedings Daniel told the court he was a man of little means and was paid £5 6s 3d a week as a traveller for Mick Simmons Ltd.

Matilda (Tilly) Simmons

Tilly Simmons had ventured to London in 1899 with her mother and while there, she fell in love with the actor Samuel Thomas Govett. In 1903 she married Sam against her mother’s wishes. Then, having been ostracised by her mother, she would raise two children without her mother’s support. Tilly left Sam after the birth of their second child citing cruelty and neglect. He died in 1922 leaving her nothing in the way of finance. And who was the famous actor? He was one half of the Paluski Brothers, Sam Paluski.

Sam pictured left, a photo of the brothers and a cigarette card.

The brothers were a famous music hall double act, whose routines were used by many of the famous double acts that came after them. Sam was the straight man. One of their classic patters, ‘He Can’t Do It’ involved Will Poluski asking Sam questions and then he’d hop around the stage shouting the phrase. Will had another act where he would wrestle himself, which Monty Python (and others) would use years later. Sam also appeared solo in several short silent films, such as: ‘Nosey Parker’, ‘Oh that Woollen Undervest!’, ‘Nobby the Knut’, ‘Nobby the new Waiter’ and ‘Nobby and the Pearl Mystery’. In 1919 Sam would also have his own financial worries when he failed to repay several sizeable debts. He stated, “his financial difficulties were due to the extravagance of his ex-wife, who had £5 per week out of his earnings, which averaged about £500 a year.” He went on to imply the majority of his debts were; money borrowed from his brother (£300) (to repay debts incurred by his wife) and £268 to a motor car company that was also a result of his wife’s indulgence. No mention of his children!

The Fighting Jew

You may have noted that the name Mendoza appears in the middle name of both Raphael and Daniel. Michael Simmons’ mother, Matilda, was the daughter of Daniel Abraham Mendoza. Dan Mendoza was the boxing champion of England from 1792 to 1795 and was known as ‘Mendoza The Fighting Jew’. He was the eighteenth champion of England and was noted for his unique defensive skills. In fact, before Dan there was no defence used in boxing, it was just punch after punch. In 1789 he published a book, The Art of Boxing, outlining his skills of defence that were inspired by fencing strategies. Dan, being of second generation Spanish – Portuguese descendant, might be an explanation on why the name Perla was trademarked. Matilda’s brother Abraham landed in the colonies much earlier. He was found guilty of assault and sentenced to life. He was transported as a convict on the Morley in November of 1816. Her brother Isaac and sister were also convicts having been shipped to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania now).

From cigars to pearls to families. I’m sure there is more to the Mick Simmons’ story than what I’ve transcribed here, and if anyone can add anything it would be appreciated. There would have to be a physical specimen of the Perla mouth organ, surely (don’t call me Shirley). Seek and I will find!


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