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The rise and fall of Launceston’s textile industry

January 3, 2017

 

In 1970 there were about 4000 people working in Launceston’s textile mills. The biggest by far was the Patons and Baldwins mill at Glen Dhu with a workforce of over 2000. Within a decade, however, an industry that had existed for a century had all but disappeared.

 

Launceston’s commercial textile industry began on Wednesday 13 May 1874 when Agnes Bulman placed the first wool on the carding machine at the new Waverley Woollen Mills at Killafaddy. The wife of Waverley Woollen Mills founder Peter Bulman came from the Hogarth farming family of Evandale whose wool was used in the mill.

 

Wool was in plentiful supply in Tasmania at the time. Within 50 years of European occupation Tasmania had a population of less than 70,000 people but was home to more than a million sheep. The climate and farmlands of the island colony proved ideal for sheep grazing and Tasmanian wool proved to be of good quality. Most was exported to Britain.

 

In its first year of operation Waverley Woollen Mills produced goods worth a little over £1000 and in doing so claimed a £1000 incentive offered by the Tasmanian Government to encourage the establishment of a textile industry in the colony.

 

Weaving equipment and workers from Great Britain had been brought out to Tasmania by Peter Bulman and these experienced woollen mill workers, and their families, formed the basis of the Waverley workforce. (ref 1)

 

With the innovations introduced by Peter Bulman, who was quick to embrace new technologies such as the use of hydro electricity generation, the venture became a success despite the feeling of many people that locally produced goods were inferior to those imported from Great Britain.

But as the quality and reputation of Waverley’s tweed, flannel and blankets improved the mill’s products found a ready market in Tasmania and in the other Australian colonies.

 

Events like the Tasmanian Exhibition in Launceston in1891-92 did much to show the quality of local products compared favorably with imported goods. Waverley and the Hamlyn woollen company, of Devon in the UK, were both awarded Special First Awards for their products at the Launceston exhibition. (ref 2)

 

For nearly 50 years Waverley Woollen Mills was the dominant textile operation in Launceston and Peter Bulman, who had been trained as a millwright in Scotland before emigrating to Tasmania, had made the city a significant textile manufacturing centre.

 

On Bulman’s death in 1896, control of the Waverley mill passed to his young brother-in-law Robert Hogarth and the Hogarth family were to run the mill for the next 85 years. Robert Hogarth and subsequent members of his family involved with Waverley were sent to Scotland to learn the trade in the famous mills of the Scottish Borders.

 

In the early 1900s, Robert Hogarth became a strong advocate for an expansion of the textile industry in Launceston. He cited the favourable climate, cheap hydro electricity, a plentiful supply of soft water and a stable, capable workforce. (ref 3)

 

The success of the Waverley mill, which by 1900 had a workforce of more than 100, was frequently used by politicians, bureaucrats and the Press to support the case for other textile companies to be established in Launceston.

 

In 1910, after considerable pressure from local manufacturers, the Australian government introduced tariff protection. Import tariffs were primarily intended to encourage and nurture local manufacturing and were warmly welcomed but they also had the effect of motivating the big textile mills in Britain, fearing their markets would be lost, to look for opportunities in Australia.

 

In 1912, representatives from the Federal and Kelsall & Kemp mills in the UK visited potential sites at Geelong, in Victoria, and Launceston, in Tasmania, but the Great War of 1914-1918 delayed their plans for expansion in Australia. At the end of the conflict a new knitting wool company, Patons and Baldwins, was also investigating sites in Australia. (ref 4) 

 

Kelsall & Kemp (Tasmania) Ltd was formed in 1920 and bought land at Invermay in Launceston. The company shipped in 600 tons of cement for the construction of its mill, brought out 300 tons of machinery and, like Waverley 54 years earlier, recruited a core workforce from the UK to staff its factory. The mill cost £70,000 to build and began operating on 13 February 1923 producing flannel and later suiting, tweeds and blankets.

 

Patons and Baldwins was also formed in 1920 in the UK, in a merger of the long established Scottish company J. Paton & Sons, of Alloa, and the English mill of J. J.  Baldwins & Partners. Two directors visited Launceston and the company settled on the Tasmanian city as the site for its Australian mill. (ref 5)

 

A big tract of land was bought at Glen Dhu in South Launceston. Their factory cost £100,000 to build and would become the biggest of the UK mills in Launceston. Patons and Baldwins also brought in tons of cement for the construction of their red brick factory, which was built by local company Hinman, Wright and Manser.

 

Between 50 and 60 British workers were brought out from the UK to form the core of the workforce who produced woollen yarn for hand and machine knitting. Production started in August 1923.

 

Other smaller mills were established in Launceston in the 1920s including the Reliance Worsted Mills which was set up in 1924 in George Street by Messrs Broomby and Dent. They imported a manager, workers and machinery from Yorkshire. (ref 6)

 

Their worsted material was made using a mixture of merino wool and silk. For a time it held the contract for the material for the uniforms of Tasmanian Government railway employees.

 

The Tamar Knitting Mills was established in 1926 by the Thyne family in the former Tasmanian Co-operative Brewery building in York Street. J. E. Thyne had been the general manager of knitting mills in Victoria where similar enterprises were being established.  The new business made a range of knitwear.

 

By the late 1920s there were more than 1000 people employed in the Launceston textile mills at Waverley, Patons and Baldwins, Kelsall and Kemp, Reliance and the Tamar Knitting Mills.

 

The rapid expansion of the textile industry in Australia during the 1920s threatening a glut of products and as the world economy started to falter. Towards the end of the decade this became a reality. During the Great Depression, from 1929 to 1934, nearly half the woollen mills in Australia closed or were forced to reduce their production. The wholesale loss of jobs across the nation also reduced demand for many goods.

 

The new jobs in Launceston helped to cushion some of the effects of the Depression and in the early 1930s a campaign was mounted to encourage Tasmanians to buy locally produced woollen goods. Under the heading “Use More Wool and Help Your State” on 14 April 1932, the Weekly Courier said it was time to fight back against world events that were dragging down the Tasmanian economy.

 

The early 1930s were also a time of rising industrial unrest. In 1932 a national textile strike hit the big mills in Launceston. Striking Patons and Baldwins workers were part of a picket of the Waverley Woollen Mill where workers declined to join in the industrial action although some were prevented from getting to work by the picket line.

 

Bob Hogarth, who was joint-managing director of Waverley in the 1950s, recalled that it caused the partial closure of his mill for two weeks in August. “I say partially because whilst there was a strong 20 odd picket (mainly Patons and Baldwins employees) installed some distance along the road from the mill, the majority of the employees came to work through the bush via Ravenswood. I can still vividly remember as an 11-year-old riding my small pony through the picket line to school.” (ref 7)

 

As the world climbed out of the Great Depression and was plunged into another world conflict, the Reliance mill was a casualty, closing in 1938. From 1939, the surviving mills were pressed into the war effort and at the Waverley Woollen Mills, 95 per cent of production was taken by the Defence Department, which ordered 150,000 army grey blankets at the outbreak of hostilities.

 

By Easter 1941 the plant had been ordered to devote its entire production to the manufacture of army blankets. Between October 1939 to December 1944, Waverley produced more than 700,000 army grey blankets with the mill operating shifts around the clock, 5 days a week.

 

The workforce at Patons and Baldwins reached 2000 between 1939 and 1945 as production was directed to the war effort. Like Waverley, the Patons and Baldwins factory ran almost non-stop on government and military contracts, producing yarn for the manufacture of military clothing.

 

Tamar Knitting Mills added to its range of high quality knitwear, which included pullovers, cardigans, bathing costumes, coats, underwear, socks, hosiery, blankets and jersey cloth during World War II when it also produced camouflage netting and khaki drill trousers. The workforce at Tamar Knitting Mills doubled during the war years to about 100.

 

With so many men away at the war the make-up of the workforce at Launceston’s textile mills, as with other industries, underwent a change with women taking on jobs that were formerly the exclusive domain of men. At Waverley, where the workforce had reached 200, women had learned many of the jobs done by men before the war.

 

June Dean, who worked as a weaver at Kelsall and Kemp between 1941 and 1972, noted that before the war years it was rare for a married woman to work. “That’s when married women started going back to work, during the war years . . .” (ref 8)

 

The shortage of woollen products for the domestic market during World War II, particularly blankets, fabrics and knitting yarns, set the stage for a post-war boom for the textile industry. By 1948 Launceston’s population had grown to about 30,000 and the number of workers involved in the textile industry was approaching 3000.

 

Then in 1949, James Nelson Pty Ltd was established by the UK company James Nelson Ltd, Valley Mills, Nelson, Lancashire, to produce rayon fabrics in Launceston. Like the other British textile companies that set up in Launceston, James Nelson brought out equipment and workers from the UK for its purpose-built factory at Mowbray. (ref 9)

 

Production started in August 1951 and imported rayon yarn was used to produce fabric for the makers of dresses, blouses, underwear, linings and materials used as a replacement for silk. It later produced furnishing and upholstery fabrics as its workforce increased.

 

Edward Ratcliffe, a plant engineer at James Nelson, recalled that thousands of people were employed in textile mills around Launceston in the 1960s – 2000 at Coats Patons, 1500 at Kelsall and Kemp, 200 at James Nelson, another 200 at Waverley Woollen Mills and more again for Thyne Brothers. (ref 10)

 

In 1954, the Hobart Mercury reported that the Patons and Baldwin mill was the largest enterprise of its kind in the Commonwealth. It had undergone many extensions and by 1967 more than $7 million had been spent on expanding the Glen Dhu site and establishing a plant at George Town to produce synthetic yarns for machine knitting. Nearly all production was exported to the mainland.

 

The Tasmanian Year Book 1970 says that in 1967-68, there were 3,986 people – 1,772 men and 2,214 women – employed in the manufacture of textiles and textile goods in Tasmania. The industry employed 11.3 per cent of the 35,178 manufacturing workers with production worth $13 million to the economy.

 

Overall men greatly outnumbered women in the Tasmanian workforce in the 1960s but the textile industry was the exception where it employed more than 33 per cent of the state’s female workers. Most worked in the five major mills in Launceston.

 

The rapid expansion of the textile industry in Launceston between the 1920s and 1960s was part of the wider growth of manufacturing in Tasmania, driven by cheap and reliable electricity produced by the state’s hydro power schemes. The Tasmanian Year Book 1976 says that assured rainfall and mountain storages had given birth to massive development of hydro-electric power and, indirectly, to industry.

 

Before World War II, it notes, there were few large manufacturing industries in Tasmania. “The economy of the State was dominated by primary industries which in 1938-1939 accounted for 60 per cent of the net value of production of all recorded industries.”

 

“Despite the limitations of geographical isolation and a relatively small domestic market, the State went through a period of important industrial development following World War II; the cessation of hostilities released a world-wide demand for goods and services, and a number of new Tasmanian factories were established to take advantage of the situation.”

 

Tasmanian Year Book 1976 listed the major textile manufacturers in the State at the end of the 1960s as:

  • Coats Patons (Aust.) Ltd (in Launceston and George Town).

  • James Nelson (Aust.) Pty Ltd (in Launceston).

  • Kelsall and Kemp (Tas.) Ltd (in Launceston).

  • British Carpets (Aust.) Pty Ltd (in East Devonport), which started production in 1961.

  • Tootal of Australia (in Devonport), which started producing synthetic woven and knitted fabrics in 1952.

  • Universal Textiles Australia Ltd (in Derwent Park), which started manufacturing printed fabrics in silk, polyester, nylon, rayon and cotton in 1947.

 

Some of these mills, like other large employers, provided their workers with social and medical facilities and fostered a wide range of sporting and recreational activities. Sports, social functions and worker support facilities became important benefits for mill workers.

 

At Waverley, a former fish hatchery pond in the mill grounds was converted into a swimming pool in 1923 for the use of workers in summer and fruit trees were planted to create a shady place to relax in their breaks. Waverley also operated its own staff bus service for a time.

 

Elsie Saltmarsh, who worked in the warehouse at Patons and Baldwins from the early 1950s to 1988, stated that sports days, dances and worksite Christmas parties were enjoyed by workers. “We used to have some really terrific times. We had a very good medical benefit. We had something taken out of our pay . . . for our eyes and teeth and things like that.” (ref 11)

 

As the 1960s came to a close the textile industry was at its peak but 50 years after the British manufacturers set up their Launceston factories the import tariffs that encouraged their establishment were about to be removed. The election of Gough Whitlam’s federal Labor government in 1972 brought with it a promise of a reduction in tariff protection, a reform that would have far reaching implications.

 

On 1 May 1974, just a few days before the Waverley mill was to celebrate its 100th anniversary, The Examiner reported on a meeting in Launceston between the Textile Council of Australia and the Launceston-based Deputy Prime Minister, Lance Barnard, and the Federal Industry Minister, Kep Enderby.

 

The newspaper report said the textile industry feared a serious recession within three months, with possible wholesale retrenchments in the wool textile field, if tariffs were cut further. Textile mill owners demanded the 25 per cent tariff reduction be revoked. They wanted input into the changes and the establishment of an Australian textile industry board to deal with the textiles arrangements of the recently introduced international General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). 

 

The mill owners argued that it would take time for the textile and apparel industry to come to terms with increasing imports and changing lifestyles. Coats Patons (formerly Patons and Baldwins) had already announced it would be retrenching 175 workers.

 

The textile council seemed to get little joy from the Deputy Prime Minister and his Industry Minister who tried to blame recent mild winters for the ills of the textile manufacturers. But imports of clothing had increased by 80 per cent in the six months to December 1973 and showed no signs of slowing.

 

Australia’s textile mills had to deal with the tariff reductions at a time when wool prices and labour costs were going up, further reducing their competitiveness. For blanket makers like Waverley there were other factors at work. The wider acceptance of synthetic fabrics, electric blankets, more energy efficient housing and even the wider installation of central heating systems were all having an impact.

 

In 1977 the clothing maker Thyne Bros (Tamar Knitting Mills) moved their much reduced operation into Waverley Woollen Mills where they leased part of the factory. They closed their spinning and weaving operation in York Street and used Waverley cloth for their shirts and jumpers. It was meant to help both companies survive the tough times. They were not the only mills in trouble. (ref 12)

 

The fortunes of Kelsall and Kemp had also declined and in 1969 they became part of the Coats Patons company. The mill was restructured in the mid 1970s and the name changed to Doctor Textiles but it was forced to close on 30 June 1977.

 

The workforce at Coats Patons had reached 2,200 at its peak and had been Tasmania’s biggest employer of women but by 1970 it also was in decline. Competition from synthetic knitting yarns and a move away from hand knitting saw the factory a shadow of its former self.

 

In 1997 Coats Patons finally closed its Tasmanian mill at Glen Dhu and moved its operation to New Zealand. And despite diversifying into automotive and broadloom carpet manufacture, production at Waverley also continued to decline and by the late 1970s the workforce was down to 60.

 

In October 1981, Waverley Woollen Mills was sold to the Temple family of Bendigo, who combined textile manufacturing with tourism activities. It ended more than a century of Hogarth family involvement. The mill has since changed hands several more times.

 

The James Nelson mill at Mowbray also underwent several ownership changes and in 2008 was acquired by manager Wendy Langridge and her husband Peter in a management buy-out.

 

In 2015, Waverley and James Nelson were the only survivors of Launceston’s once great textile industry. Combined they employed less than 100 people, a far cry from the days when streams of workers poured from the mills at shift end. The hundreds of workers, and their families, who came from the other side of the world to work in Launceston’s textile factories, had merged into the local community.

 

(The author is a contributing writer to The Fabric of Launceston: A Collaborative Community History in which this article was first published.)

 

 

References:

1. The Examiner, 4 August 1874, Page 2

2. Tasmanian Exhibition 1891-92 Launceston, Page 43 (Friends of the Library, Launceston, compiled by Prue McCausland and Marion Sargent)

3. Cyclopaedia of Tasmania Vol II, Pages 117-118

4. The Examiner, 17 March 1920, Page 4

5. The Mercury, 17 November 1954, Page 18

6. Launceston’s Industrial Heritage: A Survey, Page 42. M. Morris-Nunn and C. B. Tassell, 1982

7. Waverley Woollen Mills company history, Bob Hogarth, QVMAG Collection.

8. Launceston Talks, Oral Histories of the Launceston Community, Page 77, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery 1990).

9. The Examiner, 16 June 1951, Page 3.

10. The Examiner (Danielle Blewett), 16 September 2003

11. Launceston Talks, Oral Histories of the Launceston Community, Page 73, Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery 1990).

12. Outcome of Enterprise (Julian Burgess), Friends of the Library, 2009.

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