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The rise and fall of Kelsall and Kemp

Kelsall and Kemp was the first of two large British textile companies to build mills in Launceston after World War I and commenced manufacturing flannel on Tuesday, February 13, 1923.

It had been a decade since representatives of Kelsall and Kemp Ltd had visited Launceston looking for a site for their proposed Australian subsidiary but the Great War had intervened.

They inspected sites at Geelong, in Victoria, and Hobart before settling on Launceston where the city council offered cheap electricity, plentiful fresh water and an available work force.

The same benefits also attracted UK knitting yarn manufacturer Patons and Baldwins to Launceston a little later.

Kelsall & Kemp (Tasmania) Ltd was formed in 1920 and an area of 10 acres (four hectares) was secured at the river end of Mayne Street, Invermay, most of which was owned by Mr E. M. King.

The site’s proximity to Kings Wharf was an important consideration.

On Monday, May 3, 1920, The Examiner reported that arrangements had been made for “the erection of the necessary buildings in ferro-concrete” to start as soon as possible.

“This work will be supervised by Mr E. G. Stone, who recently came from Victoria in connection with the construction of railway workshops at Launceston.”

Two months later The Examiner reported that the concrete floor of the Kelsall and Kemp factory covered “an acre and a quarter” with columns and girders and some of the roof giving an idea of the extent of the new woollen mills.

The company had shipped in 600 tons of cement for the construction of the mill and brought out 300 tons of machinery and recruited a core workforce from the UK.

Post-war shortages delayed construction of the factory but The Examiner’s coverage of the opening noted that the mill was “a massive structure of concrete, and a fitting tribute to the confidence English investors have in Tasmania's future as a manufacturing centre.”

The newspaper said the opening ceremony was an informal affair attended solely by those with a financial interested in the venture including Messrs F. P. Hart and G. Cragg (Tasmanian directors), J. H. Lord (English director), C. Danvers-Walker (secretary), General W. Martin and C. K. Stackhouse, representing the English interests.

The mill cost £70,000 to build and within 10 years was on a sound financial footing and employing more than 300 people.

Kelsall and Kemp and its Doctor branded products weathered the Great Depression to become one of the most profitable mills in Australia. It was bought by the Coats Patons company in 1969 and was renamed Doctor Textiles.

The removal of trade tariffs on imported textiles in the early 1970s saw the decline of the mill and it was forced to close in June 1977. The main building was demolished in 1996.

IMAGES -- Top: Aerial view of the Kelsall and Kemp factory in its heyday. Photo courtesy QVMAG (QVM:1988:P:0349). Middle: Packaging cloth at Kelsall and Kemp are Jean Wallace, Lou Duncan, Christine Dean and Ernie Burton. Photo courtesy QVMAG (QVM:1988:P:0360). Bottom: The new Kelsall and Kemp mill in Launceston in 1923. S. Spurling photo.

Written for the Launceston Historical Society and published in The Sunday Examiner, 11 December 2022, page 31.


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