The Nelsons were living in Madeline Street (now the Carlton end of Swanston Street) in 1877 when their tenth child Ralph Hadley was born. It was a large family of 13 children with all but four surviving infancy. As a boy Ralph often stayed home to assist a rheumatic mother, officially leaving school when he was 13 years old. Soon after he started work as a lift attendant in a large stationer’s shop. His second job was at the Melbourne University Biological School where Ralph caught and chloroformed frogs for students to dissect. His father was a caretaker at the Working Men’s College (now RMIT) and the family struggled through the Depression years of the 1890s. Ralph worked without pay as a gymnastics instructor at the Gordon Institute for Boys until in 1895 he was offered a job looking after a plumber’s shop. He spent 12 months there learning a trade which was to stand him in good stead for his future.
In 1896 Ralph followed his brother Edward to the goldfields of Western Australia. He remained in trade however, carrying with him a letter of recommendation from his Melbourne employer and soon found work as a painter and then a wood turner. These years were a steep learning curve for the largely unskilled but keen young man. Ralph earned the reputation for being able to turn his hand to anything from replacing washers in wells to hunting Kangaroos. Homesick however, he returned to Melbourne in 1898 grown up and independent.
Work prospects in the city were still poor but Ralph had plumbing knowledge and so he joined the emerging government sewerage works. He returned to the Working Men’s College to study and became one of only two students to pass the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works examination receiving a First Class Certificate. A Master Plumber in St Kilda gave Ralph his first job in the trade and he was there for seven years learning everything there was to know about plumbing and sewerage. During this time he worked on connecting the Queen Victoria Market and shops along Elizabeth and Victoria Streets to the Melbourne and Metropolitan sewerage system.
After 1899 the Nelson family was living in Port Melbourne where Ralph met and began courting Hannah Storey. The couple married in 1902 and rented in Richmond for two years. Ralph brought his invalid mother to live with them and in 1903 the couple’s first child Ralph Walter (Wally) was born. In 1909 the Workmen’s Home Settlement Bill was passed and making use of this assistance scheme, the Nelsons were allotted land to build a house at 39 Collins Street in Thornbury. Their budget was fifty pounds and the couple could only afford to construct the back half of a four-room cottage plan. The rest of the house would have to remain a skeleton until future funds could be earned. A keen carpenter in his spare time, Ralph built the mantelpiece which would be installed when the dining room was eventually complete. The family moved in with two van loads of furniture Ralph had made. By this time the children numbered three, Wally, Harry and Alma and for a few years while the building of the house continued, life was challenging. Long hours, hard work and help from family ensured that the project was eventually completed and the Nelsons had a house of their own.
For the Nelsons 1912 was a good year. At almost midnight on New Years Eve Edna Hadley was born in the front room of 39 Collins Street. She was to be the only surviving child born in the family home. Earlier that year although life was still hard, fortunes were improving enough for Ralph to purchase land at 5 pounds a square foot on High Street in Thornbury. Here he built the shop that had long since been his dream. He spent 25 pounds of savings on fixtures, a counter, scales and shelves. The stock worth 100 pounds was obtained on credit. Nelson’s Cheap Ironmongery and Crockery Store was the first in that section of High Street. The shop took off with seedlings being their first best selling line but success soon brought expansion into the grocery shop next door. Electrical and sporting equipment, ‘ladies items’, toys, kitchenware and shoe repairs were added later to what had become a general hardware emporium. In 1918 Ralph added the much loved conservatory to the back of Collins Street. He filled it with begonia, ferns, exotic plants and Italian statues including one set in a fish pond. The conservatory was used as a backdrop to family portraits as Ralph developed his amateur photography.
Throughout the 1920s and 30s the High Street shop went from strength to strength. Hannah passed away in 1926 and Ralph married again in 1933 to an old flame May Reid. The couple honeymooned in Japan which doubled as a buying trip for a new line of china to add to the shop. In 1932 Harry Nelson married Verna Fawcett and set up home in Arlington Street, Regent. Ralph opened a second shop in Regent’s High Street with Harry as manager. Unfortunately it closed after a fire in 1937 and energies were concentrated once again to the Thornbury business. Wally and Harry purchased land in the new subdivision at Roxburgh Street, Preston and built houses. Some time in the 1940s Ralph made them partners and the business became R. H. Nelson & Sons. A mezzanine floor was added after WWII to display quality china and crystal and Edna became head of this department.
By the time Ralph Nelson retired in his 70s everyone, children, spouses and grandchildren had worked at some point in the shop. It was up to Wally and Harry though to carry on the legacy. A smaller shop was opened in the 1950s as a frontage added to Wally Nelson’s home at 732 Plenty Road, Reservoir. His energy was concentrated there until it closed on his retirement in 1968. Harry retired and sold the Thornbury shop in 1972. By that time Nelson’s hardware business had been an institution of High Street for 60 years.
As a man of standing in the Thornbury community Ralph Nelson was President of the Druids Lodge of Thornbury and later admitted to the Grand Lodge. He was also Master of the Lord Northcote Masonic Lodge and was instrumental in building the Masonic Temple in Bastings Street. He was a keen bowler becoming President of the Thornbury Bowling Club from 1945 to 1948 and President of the Old Penders Grove Settlers’ Association responsible for building Penders Grove Hall. The Nelson family participated in the Italian Club social evenings where they played as a band, Alma on piano, Ralph playing violin, Harry the banjo, and Wally the drums. Ralph also entertained audiences with magic assisted by his daughter Alma. Ralph Nelson had lived an extremely full and interesting life by the time he passed away in 1973.