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150 years since work started on Waverley Woollen Mills

Construction of Tasmania’s first textile mill, at Killafaddy on the outskirts of Launceston, commenced on land fronting onto Distillery Creek in 1873.

Scottish-born farmer Peter Bulman returned from a trip to Britain in March that year where he had bought machinery and recruited workers for a proposed woollen factory.

Before leaving for Britain, he had signed a 99-year lease with surveyor and property owner James Scott for six hectares of land and arranged for buildings to be erected on the site.

Mr Bulman, who had trained as a wheelwright before emigrating to Tasmania in 1857 was spurred on by the Bonus Act, a government incentive of £1000 for the first local enterprise to produce woollen goods to the value of £1000 from Tasmanian wool.

The Cornwall Chronicle reported that since Mr Bulman's return from Britain he had been “engaged in preparing the land for the reception of the machinery” in a building 33 metres long, by 7.6 metres wide.

A fall of nearly 30 metres on Distillery Creek was harnessed by a waterwheel to drive the mill’s machinery.

In an interview, Peter Bulman explained how he was relocating “an entire manufactory, owners and operatives from the Old Country” and placing it “as a whole in a colony where the raw material forms a staple export to a market 16,000 miles distant.”

The woollen factory became a partnership between Mr Bulman and members of the Johnstone family of Selkirk on the Scottish borders who had operated the Burn Mill on the banks of the Ettrick River.

Cottages were built in the mill grounds for worker accommodation and machinery, including the main shafting, all the teasing, spinning, and finishing equipment, was carried in many trips from the Launceston wharves to Killafaddy by bullock drays.

They named their business the Waverley Woollen Mills and The Examiner described it as the most modern factory in Tasmania.

On Friday, 21 August 1874, the first woollen goods were loaded onto horse-drawn lorries for a well publicised trip to the Launceston auction rooms of Messrs Bell and Westbrook to be sold the following day.

The Examiner reported that the first sale of Waverley woollen goods “attracted a very large concourse of people – indeed it is doubtful whether the mart was ever so thronged before.”

The sale realised £1143 pounds, a net of £1041 9s 8d after auctioneer commissions. Peter Bulman had met the requirements of the Tasmanian government’s Bonus Act and the partners received the prize in January 1875.

Over the next decade, the Johnstones gradually withdrew from the Waverley partnership and Peter Bulman became the sole owner with the business passing to his young brother-in-law Robert Hogarth on his death in 1896.

Waverley woollen goods proved popular in Tasmania and in other states and became a major national brand. Today Waverley is the longest continuously operating woollen mill in Australia.

IMAGES -- Top: Bales of wool arrive at the mill in the late 1890, (Hogarth Family archives). Middle: Mill founder Peter Bulman, (Hogarth Family archives). Bottom: The Waverley factory buildings about 1901, (Weekly Courier, July 27, 1901).

Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in The Sunday Examiner, 9 July 2023.


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