Penshurst Flax Mill

Written and Researched By Ron Heffernan.  What is Flax?

“Flax (also known as common flax or linseed) (binomial name: Linum usitatissimum) is a member of the genus Linum in the family Linaceae. It is native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. It is known as Λινάρι (Linari) in Greek. Flax was extensively cultivated in ancient Ethiopia and ancient Egypt. In a prehistoric cave in the Republic of Georgia, dyed flax fibres have been found that date to 30,000 BC, implicating it as the first domesticated species in human history. New Zealand flax is not related to flax but was named after it, as both plants are used to produce fibres.
Flax is an erect annual plant growing to 1.2 m (3 ft 11 in) tall, with slender stems. The leaves are glaucous green, slender lanceolate, 20–40 mm long and 3 mm broad. The flowers are pure pale blue, (depending on variety) 15–25 mm diameter, with five petals; they can also be bright red. The fruit is a round, dry capsule 5–9 mm diameter, containing several glossy brown seeds shaped like an apple pip, 4–7 mm long.

In addition to referring to the plant itself, the word "flax" may refer to the unspun fibres of the flax plant”.

Wartime Flax Production

Declaration of War - 3rd September 1939 - The Prime Minister Robert Menzies.

"Fellow Australians, it is my melancholy duty to inform you officially that in consequence of persistence by Germany in her invasion of Poland, Great Britain has declared war upon her and that, as a result, Australia is also at war. No harder task can fall to the lot of a democratic leader than to make such an announcement”.

That announcement put Australia on a war footing and was the beginning of a time when Flax became an important crop in the Western District of Victoria.

The Argus Friday 17 November 1939 - Flax Growing at Hamilton

HAMILTON Thursday -Members of the Department of Agriculture were present at an interesting flax and oats field day conducted at the properties of Messrs R W C and G T Kerr of Strathkellar about 6 miles from Hamilton. More than 140 people were present including the president of the Hamilton Pastoral and Agricultural Society (Mr J W Robertson) The Hamilton district flax crop is now 500 acres and when the 1200 mark is reached Flax Fibres Pty Ltd intend to erect a mill on Mr Allen’s Strathkellar property. The mill will employ 15 to 20 hands per 1200 acres unit and will, it is expected, pay £5000 in wages annually and about £10,000 to growers.

District farmers have enthusiastically adopted the flax idea and have promised support for the venture. Tests including manurial time of sowing rotational varieties and others have added excellent results from the view point of the department which expects the Hamilton district to be the best flax growing area of the state.

Camperdown Chronicle (Vic), Tuesday 5 March 1940 - Flax Growing in Likely Districts Indicated.

The war has cut off Australia's source of supply of flax and we must now produce enough for our own requirements, estimated at approximately 1500 tons a year. Experience in Victoria suggests that this would require an area of 10,000 acres under flax. Officers of the Department of Agriculture are confident that if necessary the whole of this flax could be produced in this State. As a result of the experiments conducted during the last three years, by the Victorian Department of Agriculture in conjunction with Flax Fibres Pty Ltd. cultivation methods, varieties and fertiliser treatments have worked out and applied with very satisfactory results and last year Victorian growers planted 2000 acres of flax for an average yield of slightly more than 1½ tons per acre, although yields of two and a half tons per acre were obtained in individual cases.

Flax requires a comparatively cool moist growing period for its best development, and, as a short crop of flax is discounted in price, it is important that it be grown in a safe district with an average annual rainfall of 24 inches or more. The departmental experimental plots are located in Colac, Hamilton, Drouin and Ballarat districts. In addition, test areas have been grown by Flax Fibres Pty. Ltd. in the Kiewa and Oven Valleys and South Gippsland. As a result of these experiments it is believed that good quality flax can be grown at Hamilton, Colac, Ballarat, Kiewa Valley, Ovens Valley, Coleraine, Strathkellar. Burrumbeet, Casterton, Lake Bolac and Learmonth. In some years satisfactory crops of flax might be grown in areas of light rainfall but the risk of short length crops probably would be too great for the successful development of the industry there. So far as irrigation districts are concerned it is considered unlikely that flax could compete economically with normal irrigation crops or pastures. There is a disposition on the part of some producers to regard flax as an alternative crop for hay, but the growing of flax is much more highly specialised and the ability to sell the crop is very restricted as there are few purchasers. It is understood that the demand for flax fibre in Australia in the future is likely to be largely restricted to good quality, water-retted flax fibre and there is a suggestion that purchasers are likely to restrict their buying to the finer types of fibre such as are produced by the new variety "Liral Crown." There is, in Victoria, sufficient seed of this variety to sow from 8000 to 19,000 acres but this seed is not available on the open market.

Before engaging in the growing of flax, producers should satisfy themselves that they will be able to dispose of their crop to firms who are in a position to process the crop properly and are able to sell the fibre and they should a clear understanding, preferably in the form of a contract to the price to be paid for the straw. There are definite limits to the distance from the flax mill that it is economical to cart flax straw but the maximum would be from 30 to 40 miles, although a much shorter distance is preferable.

The indications are that both the price paid for processed flax fibre and the price paid to the grower for flax straw, including seed, will be subject to control by the Commonwealth Department of Supply, which is expected to make an announcement shortly.

The Argus Tuesday 9 July 1940 - Flax Appeal Succeeds

14,000-acre Crop

Enough land has been offered by farmers, and approved as suitable by the Department of Agriculture, to sow the whole of Victoria's share of the 400 tons of flax seed which is expected to arrive shortly from England. Mr Martin, Assistant Minister for Agriculture, said yesterday that it was hoped to send to Great Britain, for urgent war needs, most of the flax grown on 14,000 acres already planted or to be sown shortly in Victoria. Enough seed would be retained to repeat the sowings next year

The normal area of 2,000 acres planted last year, he added, had been increased to 8,000 acres before the British appeal was received. Since then the following areas had been approved for planting - Ballarat, 1,106 acres, Hamilton, 1,030, Riddell, 1,093, Koo-wee-rup, 1,374 Drouin, 366, Leongatha, Thorpdale, Mirboo North, 743. In the Myrtleford district about 300 acres had already been approved, and it was hoped to accept another 300 acres making the total approved extra sowing 6,312 acres.

The Horsham Times (Vic), Friday 30 August 1940 - The Flax Industry Vast Potentialities,

Address to Rotarians

The manager of the Strathkellar Flax Mill Mr. R A McVicar treated members of the Rotary Club of Hamilton to an interesting address on the vast potentialities of a Flax industry at the weekly dinner. The origin of flax made linen was traced back to the days of the Pharaohs of Egypt which have yielded its cloth bound relics in remarkable state of preservation to the present century. Ireland was the best known country for its production of flax, but Mr McVicar reminded that many other countries shared in the production of the plant which is treated in Ireland and finally turned into linen. Belgium was noted for its fibre, which was almost the same colour as linen but unfortunately the war had cut of this supply.

Flax growing had been existent in Gippsland and at Colac in the Western District for a number of years, but only in recent times had vast potentialities presented themselves. The mill at Strathkellar was engaged on a 24 hour shift, which would last for the duration of the war and there were indications that the demand would continue to exist. Referring to production, Mr. McVicar said that the plant was very delicate in its early development, requiring plenty of air and freedom from weeds. He described the various operations after reaping and binding remarking, that flax' growers were not perturbed by cold mornings, as the heavier the frost, the better was the fibre.

Replying to questions, Mr. McVicar said that 40 hands were engaged at the Strathkellar Mill. “Experienced men could not be obtained in the district as much as was required”, said the speaker who went on to relate that growers in the Western District had much greater yield than in Gippsland or in any other district in Australia, owing to the suitability of the soil. He predicted that demand would continue after the war as, if Australia could make her own requirements instead of importing 45 per cent from Russia, the benefit to the country would be very great. The crop carried a Government guaranteed return of £5 per ton, and if the crop produced failed and did not provide tonnage to the acre, the Government still guaranteed the £5. Average tonnage in the Hamilton district was two to two and half to the acre. Flax required more nitrogen than any other plant, but tests recently, carried out showed that the crop deprived the soil of minerals to no more extent than wheat. He would not advise cropping for more than one season. The possibility of the extension of the flax spinning industry to country centres was mentioned by Mr. McVicar who said that the manufacture of the finished article from the raw product would create a great deal of work. One firm in Melbourne has 500 employees and the building covered 14 acres.


Above - Australian Army web equipment made from flax.  
It is a very tough material.

Cairns Post (Qld) Thursday 11 December 1941 

 Flax Industry Need for Increased Production.  Report Of Rural Committee.  (From Our Special Representative.)

Canberra, December 5.

When war broke out an examination of the position of the flax fibre industry in the Empire revealed a serious shortage in supply. Flax fibre is an important raw material in the manufacture of many articles of equipment for the fighting services, and steps were immediately taken to increase production in Australia to assist in supplying British spinners as well as meeting our own requirements.

Linen thread for sewing military boots and clothing, parachute harness, web equipment, canvas, cordage, fire hose and various kinds of linen material are some of the things made from flax fibre and in constant demand under war conditions. In peace time the United Kingdom imported 70,000 tons per annum, chiefly from Russia and the Baltic States, Belgium and Holland. Only 8000 tons, or just over 11 per cent of her requirements, were produced in the British Empire, and this was less than one per cent, of world production.

Flax is grown commercially for the production of fibre and linseed oil some varieties are best adapted for oil and others for fibre.

Position in Australia.

The second progress report of the Joint Committee on Rural Industries, of which Mr. Jos. Francis is chairman, is devoted to flax production in Australia. Evidence was taken in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania, and mills in Victoria and Tasmania were inspected, "the committee has yet to report on the position in South Australia and Western Australia, where areas have recently been sown to flax and mills established for its treatment.

Seed was sent from Great Britain, sufficient to sow approximately 13,000 acres and there was sufficient local seed available to sow another 8000 acres. A hurried survey was made of the potential flax-growing areas in Australia, and suitable areas were located in Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia-12,000 acres, 8000 acres and 1000 acres, respectively. The Commonwealth Government guaranteed growers who entered into production by agreement a return of at least £4/10/- per acre to cover their costs of production.

A Flax Production Committee was set up, and there is also a growers' sub-committee in each producing State, with liaison officers from the Department of Agriculture. The committee controls all operations and has established mills in Victoria, Tasmania and Western Australia; it also proposes to erect mills in South Australia.

The Joint Parliamentary Committee was informed that, although visits had been paid to New South Wales and Queensland and the Ministers for Agriculture consulted, it was not considered advisable to attempt to grow flax for fibre in those States. The New South Wales Department was provided with some seed for experimental purposes, but no further action was taken.

The Minister for Agriculture in Queensland told the committee: "I am not prepared to advise the producers in Queensland to embark upon an industry which, in my opinion, can lead them only to disaster"; and the Director of Agriculture said: "Sufficient trials have been conducted in the State to demonstrate quite clearly that flax growing for fibre purposes cannot be regarded as a safe industry. Only during seasons when the autumn and winter rainfalls are above average could good crops be produced. During average seasons the straw would be much shorter than that required by the Commonwealth Government. Until such time as a remunerative market exists for short straw the growing of flax cannot be advocated in Queensland."

Committee’s Recommendations.

There are at present 13 mills in operation-six in Victoria, six in Tasmania, and one in Western Australia

For the coming year the number of mills and depots will be greatly increased and additional facilities provided at a total estimated cost of £171,000. Improved scutching machines will be made locally from particulars received from England, and their design has enabled considerable saving, to be effected in building costs.

"Although as a war measure flax cultivation has increased to more than 60,000 acres," says the Joint Committee, "evidence shows that Australia's post-war requirements are likely to be met by an area of 20,000 acres. Bearing this in mind, care should be exercised in the selection of sites for mills which will prove economic units. And repetition of the problem of marginal lands as has occurred in the wheat industry must be avoided. "Spinners in Australia should be able to use the product of at least 20,000 acres and encouragement should be given manufacturers to extend their operations."

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