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The man who built the Waverley Woollen Mills

December 3, 2017

 

Peter Bulman, the man who established Waverley Woollen Mills, was the pioneer of Launceston’s textile industry. This article is an extract from my book THE OUTCOME OF ENTERPRISE published in 2009 for the Friends of the Launceston Library . . . 

 

Expatriate Scot Peter Bulman left Launceston for Scotland in late January 1872 to buy machinery and recruit staff for his proposed woollen mill on Distillery Creek near Launceston.

 

He joined the steamship Somersetshire in Melbourne on January 25 for the voyage and was no doubt full of optimism for his project.

 

The Examiner reported that he arrived in England in the middle of April 1872 and spent the first part of his visit looking for machinery, particularly machinery that could be adapted to produce the wide variety of woollen cloth stipulated to win the £1,000 bonus being offered by the Tasmanian government for the first person or company to produce woollen goods worth £1,000 from Tasmanian wool.

 

He spent nearly two months visiting the major mills of southern Scotland, looking for equipment and workers prepared to relocate to Tasmania.

 

He was reportedly getting frustrated at his lack of success and in June advertised in Scottish newspapers for expressions of interest in joining his venture. Again he seems to have received no response.

 

Eventually a visit to the town of Selkirk introduced him to members of the Johnstone family and provided some hope at last.

 

Members of this family had built the Burn Mill, on the banks of the Ettrick River, in 1871, and Daniel Johnstone and his nephew Archibald seem to have been running the business. David Johnstone, Archibald’s brother, had been working in a woollen mill in Ireland.

 

The Examiner reported Peter Bulman’s meeting with the Johnstones: "On visiting their manufactory (he) found they were making just the character of articles suited to the requirements of Tasmania, being varied in description and quality".

 

 He was obviously impressed by their expertise because he decided to offer the Johnstones a partnership in his venture.

 

Details of the original agreement between Peter Bulman and the Johnstones do not seem to have survived but it appears to have been set at 10 years (from January 1873, the time the Johnstones would have been fully involved in planning their departure for Tasmania) and Peter Bulman held a larger share in the partnership than the others.

 

Before leaving Great Britain, Peter Bulman spent £700 on machinery, ordering carding and teasing machinery.

 

The Examiner reported that the equipment was all new but Waverley company documents suggest that some of the machinery was second-hand and was to be refurbished before being sent to Tasmania.

 

It seems likely that some of the machinery came from the Johnstones’ Burn Mill in Selkirk. Half a dozen or so weavers (some records say seven and others nine) were also recruited to provide the expertise for the new mill in Tasmania.

 

Peter Bulman left Scotland in December 1872 for the voyage back to Australia, leaving the Johnstones to wind up their business in Selkirk and oversee the shipping of the machinery.

 

Interviewing Bulman on his arrival home, the Cornwall Chronicle reflected on the scope of his endeavour "removing 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".

 

Peter Bulman decided to call his woollen mill Waverley after the famous novels of Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott (the name was later used for the Launceston suburb that grew around the mill).

 

When some members of the Johnstone clan arrived in Tasmania in October 1873, they found several cottages built in the mill grounds which now also comprised a dye house, a machine room of 125 ft by 25 ft and a partly completed weaving room of 86 ft by 18 ft.

 

Part of the equipment for the Waverley mill arrived on the steamer Derwent from Melbourne on November 3 in nine packages, according to The Examiner of November 8.

 

When the ship unloaded, the main shafting, all the teasing, spinning and finishing equipment, was carried by bullock drays, in many trips, to the newly constructed timber clad buildings at Killafaddy.

 

It was not an easy undertaking and the condition of the roads saw the drays frequently bogged up to their axles. Not all the parts for the new mill were brought out from the UK and some fittings necessary for the installation of the machinery were made at the foundries of William Peter and William Knight, in Wellington Street.

 

Peter Bulman, the Johnstones and their helpers worked day and night, according to The Examiner, to install the last of the machinery and get the mill ready to start producing woollen goods. A water race from Distillerty Creek was constructed to drive the equipment.

 

The Waverley mill was an impressive sight at this time, according to some observers. The buildings were set on stone foundations, quarried nearby, with paling walls and hardwood floors, and The Examiner described them as the most modern factory buildings in the state of Tasmania.

 

On Wednesday, May 13, 1874, Peter Bulman’s wife, Agnes, placed the first wool on the carding machine in the now almost complete mill.  It was a low-key affair but those associated with the enterprise were invited to be present.

 

Over the next three months locally bought wool was turned into cloth, tweed, blankets, worsted stuff, shirting and flannel.

 

The machinery reportedly settled in well and by the middle of August, a surprisingly short time after the first yarn was produced, the first batch of goods was ready for sale.

 

On Friday, August 21, 1874, just three months after the first wool was placed on the mills’ looms, horse-drawn lorries weaved their way through the streets of Launceston carrying the wide range of woollen products on a well publicised trip to the auction rooms of Messrs Bell and Westbrook.

 

The Examiner reported that on Saturday, August 22, 1874, 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 £1,143 pounds, a net of £1,041 9s 8d after auctioneer commissions. Mr Bell reportedly told his customers that Waverley tweed was of the finest quality and he would be forthwith using it exclusively for his suits - a pledge he apparently kept.

 

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, all three Johnstones withdrew from the Waverley partnership and Peter Bulman became the sole owner.

 

He ran the mill with the help of his young brother-in-law Robert Hogarth, whom he had sent to Scotland for four years to learn the weaving trade. When Peter Bulman died in February 1896, ownership of the mill passed to Robert Hogarth. 

 

Peter Bulman's obituary in The Examiner said he was a man of sterling worth: "(He made) keen observations in all matters relating to the manufacture of material, constantly improving the capacity of the mill. He did everything in a thorough manner. He was possessed with dogged determination and overcame difficulties before which other men would have quailed."

 

Robert Hogarth and subsequent generations of his family carried on the enterprise until the 1980s. Peter Bulman set the foundations for Launceston’s textile industry, which at its peak in the 1960s employed more than 3,000 people.

 

THE OUTCOME OF ENTERPRISE: Launceston's Waverley Woollen Mills

 ($25) is published by the Friends of the Library and is available from www.julianburgess.com.au, the QVMAG Shop and some bookshops.

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