Penshurst Flax Mill to close

Free Press (Penshurst Vic.) 20th February 1952

Penshurst Flax Mill To Close: All Will Be Employed at Strathkellar.

Penshurst flax mill will be closed during the next few months as part of a plan to place and maintain the flax industry on an economic footing. This was made clear by Mr. W. F. a'B Weigall, chairman of the Flax Production Committee in an address to Glenelg Regional Committee at Hamilton. At the same time Mr. Weigall stated that the Penshurst mill would be retained intact for use in any national emergency; Penshurst growers would be asked to continue their interest and cart to the Strathkellar mill, and all labour at the Penshurst establishment would be guaranteed employment at Strathkellar.

Mr. Weigall, who was welcomed by the chairman of the Glenelg committee (Mr. E. G. Pearson), said that the industry had developed out of the war although flax had been grown sporadically in Victoria for more than 100 years.

It was a private company, Flax Fibres Pty. Ltd., which realised that war would endanger supplies to the British Commonwealth and that without flax it would be impossible to fight a war; and they started to develop the industry on sound lines.

The Flax Production Committee, to whose lot it fell to carry on the industry, was faced with the need to purchase a large tonnage following the overrunning of the Low Countries rather than to produce it economically.

Thus a development had been seen over two or three years which normally would have taken 20 to 30 years. Mr. Weigall said that the committee then knew little of flax production but had learned a lot. It had the erroneous belief that it should try and repeat methods used in Europe and in similar climates where flax had done well. It was felt that these conditions would be approximated by going to Tasmania and other damp climates. This view was supported by the various Departments of Agriculture and all scientific advice.

Unfortunately it had not worked out that way and at the end of the war the committee had had to abandon all its Tasmanian mills owing to the in-roads of rust. With the introduction of rust-resistant varieties he hoped the day would come when the industry might be re-established in the island State where formerly had existed 33 mills and depots and which had produced 16,000 tons of fibre— a valuable contribution to the requirements of the United Nations.


With the close of the war the agreement with the British Government was terminated and each contracting Government bore its share of the losses in proportion to the fibre obtained. The industry then fell into the doldrums and the Government decided that the time had come to sell its interests in flax. It first offered the industry to the respective States. The Victorian and South Australian governments indicated that they were not interested but the Western Australian Government bought the sole mill in that State which was now being run as a co-operative company, the growers leasing the building to the Government and conducting it as private enterprise.

The industry in South Australia and Victoria was advertised for sale in all countries of the world but no one showed any interest and at that stage he personally was frightened that it might die a natural death. A syndicate was got together with the object of keeping the industry going and was actually negotiating with the Government when the Korean War broke out. "It then became evident that flax was a defence requirement as the Commonwealth decided not to sell the industry but to run it themselves and develop it to the stage where it would produce 2000 tons of fibre per annum," said Mr. Weigall.

He went on to say that this decision gave the flax production committee a new lease of life. It then reviewed each of the flax growing districts in the light of experience gained over the years and made a close study of the merits of dew retting compared with tank retting.


Over a period of six years it had been found that the average yield from dew retted fibre was 7.7 per cent, and from tank ret• ted 12.5 per cent. It was also found that the cost of the dew retted product was nearly £1 a ton greater than when tank retted. Further the committee looked at labour requirements of both forms of production and found that 203 units of labour were used in dew retting to produce the same quantity as 100 units for tank retting.

In these comparisons quality was left to one side although on the basis of tonnage we know that, straw for straw, the tank retted product is better than dew retted," said Mr. Weigall.

Continuing, the speaker said it was obviously essential that to run the industry on the most economic lines it was necessary to have all tank retting and that dew retting could not be carried any longer. He added that in the event of the necessity to produce large quantities of fibre in a short space of time they would have to revert to dew retting to get it, irrespective of the cost of production.

"But to run an industry in the hope of making it successful on a permanent basis cannot be done by robbing the taxpayer," added Mr. Weigall.


Cabinet had decided that in view of the Korean emergency the industry must be continued and made it a condition that all flax is tank retted. It made sums of money available for conversion of existing dew retting mills.

The committee had met all sorts of difficulties in carrying out this policy, for while the industry was of defence significance, just how significant had not been determined until that morning, for it had been subject to the same cuts in capital expenditure inflicted on all civilian departments.

That day the decision had been made to make it a defence project so far as buildings and works were concerned, and to enable it to proceed with the necessary expansion of the industry and he believed they would see these works go ahead. The committee had then determined where it would endeavour to have produced the various tonnages to make up the 2000 required. So many factors came into the picture that the committee had to be convinced that any decision made was right, firstly on the agricultural side—it had to be sure it could get enough flax, not for one, two or three years, but for all time; secondly, water supplies were available for tank retting (and this was of equal importance to the first consideration); thirdly (but not so important), that sufficient power was available and, fourthly, labour plus transport facilities, and above all the willingness of farmers to become , flax growers and produce the quantity of straw needed.


It was decided, said Mr. Weigall, to recommend that 24 new tanks be erected in units of four which would mean six new four unit tanks.

The committee looked at all areas in the light of their agricultural history, availability of water, power and labour and with the desire to spread the risk from fire and drought over as wide an area as possible. It was resolved that where a mill existed in a district for economy's sake it would be better to extend a little rather than build a new mill.

Mt. Gambier had provided a happy experience from the agricultural side and it was decided to build an eight tank unit with four scutchers there. The next locality considered was Lismore which had a remarkably good agricultural history but had a water problem. There was now a proposition to pump water from the Ettrick or Lara springs to provide a better town supply, and as the pipeline would run past the mill the committee was supporting the local trust. This would enable an eight tank unit to be operated at Lismore.


As Strathkellar was one of the biggest existing mills, with four scutchers and a lay-out sufficient to handle a big tonnage and a boiler big enough to ret twice as many pits as there were pits there. It was obvious that facilities for retting should be expanded at Strathkellar to a size to match the scutcher capacity.

The mills at Colac and Winchelsea provided the same problems as the mills at Penshurst and Strathkellar—one had tank retting facilities and the other did not. It was thought more economic to continue and improve, if necessary, the existing facilities at Colac and Strathkellar rather than put in new boilers and tanks in the smaller mills at Winchelsea and Penshurst.

There was also an agricultural consideration. Because seasons varied it was deemed wise to have these large mills in different districts and not in the one district. Mr. Weigall said that if Penshurst were continued with four tanks a district with a radius of 14 miles would require 4500 acres to keep them going. That was a large acreage especially as the response from growers in recent years had been well below this.

On the point of falling acreages Mr. Weigall said that the first of a number of factors leading up to this decline was the individual attitude. Interest in the industry had waned. Farmers felt it was no longer urgently necessary to produce flax; also farmers saw in the mill yards substantial quantities awaiting processing; but that position no longer existed—stocks might look large but had fallen alarmingly low. However, mills possessed enough flax to keep them processing around the clock but there would be little left at the end of 1952 and it would require a first class response from growers to maintain mills next year and the year after. Mr. Weigall said that another factor in the decline in production had been the price. Farmers had been out of pocket by the price offered in 1950 as compared to other forms of primary production. He believed that the price paid should make flax a reasonably profitable crop and this had now been adjusted.

Mr. Weigall pointed out that each four tank unit needed 1500 acres to maintain it; therefore in this district acreage of 3000 was required.

He added that another problem faced at Penshurst — although he emphasised this was an influencing factor only had been water. Inquiries were made of the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission and they said that the town had sufficient water for domestic and stock purposes, but they did not think there was any surplus to continue a flax industry. Mr. Weigall added that if greater supplies of water were developed at Penshurst the major problem would still not be resolved — how to lift district flax acreage up to the 4500 required. On the question of finance, Mr. Weigall said that to install tanks alone at Penshurst would involve £25,000 to £30,000, while a boiler would run into £12,000 to £14,000.

Mr. Weigall went on to say that under the tank retting processes the industry was now paying its way — not exorbitantly but quite well. If it continued in this way the price to spinners could be reduced and the farmers paid more.

He said it was intended to close Penshurst shortly. It was now scutching surplus retted flax from Lake Bolac mill.

In conclusion, Mr. Weigall said the committee gave an undertaking to Penshurst growers that they could deliver to Strathkellar at no worse terms than they had done to Penshurst.

On the acreage grown in this district last year, production would have to be increased by nearly 2000 acres, he said, in answer to the chairman.

In reply to Cr. A. Laidlaw, Mr. Weigall said there was no question of closing the Lake Bolac mill. The committee was now in process of balancing the equipment. It now had four tanks, and another scutcher was being installed to balance the tank capacity.

In further reply to Cr. Laidlaw, Mr. Weigall said the water being used from Lake Bolac was quite satisfactory but would not want to be any worse. To secure the better quality water available at Willaura would be no advantage as good quality water was needed only for the boiler, but very small quantities were used.

To Mr. K. S. Anderson (Portland) Mr. Weigall said the maximum area under production during the war was 7500 acres. The price then was between £6 and £7, compared with £13/10/ for standard straw today plus bonuses for quality to bring it up to £16/15/.

Further to Mr. Anderson, Mr. Weigall said it had been found that like wheat growing and other primary industries where considerable labour and effort was involved acreage had fallen. He believed people must turn the soil if they were going to improve their properties. The farmer was attracted to the type of crop he could take off with a header; flax had to be stripped and stooked, and needed more men.

In reply to Cr. R. Schramm Mr. Weigall re-emphasised that the committee could not go beyond the advice of the water commission regarding supplies at Penshurst, and suggested if local people wanted more information they should take it up with that department.

Also present to hear the address were members of the Casterton Flax Growers' Association headed by the president (Mr. F. R. Widdicombe) and the secretary of the Hamilton Association (Mr. J. L. C. Young).

Border Watch (Mount Gambier), Thursday 21 February 1952

Penshurst Flax Mill to Close

The Flax mill at Penshurst will be closed during the next few months, as part of a plan to place the industry on an economic footing Chairman of the Flax Production Committee (Mr. W F. Weigall) stated recently, in an address to the Glenelg Regional Committee at Hamilton. The Penshurst mill would remain intact for use in any national emergency, said Mr Weigall. Growers in that district would be asked to continue their interest in flax and to cart to the Strathkellar mill. All labour at the Penshurst mill would be guaranteed employment at Strathkellar, he said.

Border Watch (Mount Gambier), Thursday 21 February 1952

Penshurst Flax Mill To Close

The Flax mill at Penshurst will be closed during the next few months, as part of a plan to place the industry on an economic footing the Chairman of the Flax Production Committee (Mr. W F. Weigall) stated recently, in an address to the Glenelg Regional Committee at Hamilton. The Penshurst mill would remain intact for use in any national emergency, said Mr Weigall. Growers in that district would be asked to continue their interest in flax and to cart to the Strathkellar mill. All labour at the Penshurst mill would be guaranteed employment at Strathkellar, he said.

The following letter was written by Mr M C Timbs a Public Servant as The First Assistant Secretary with the Prime Minister’s Office. It was sourced from Government documents now in the Public domain. Some names are masked

18th March 1952

Mr Bunting

You have asked for my comments on the attached submission from Mr. Ewen relating to the proposal to establish a Flax Commission in place the Flax Production Committee and seeking approval for the Committee to go outside the Department of Works and Housing to place its necessary contracts and also for funds.

I agree that early action should be taken to establish a Commission, provided that none of the members, with the possible exception of Weigall, should be in any way associated with it.

In my view the attached submission seeks to make Commerce and Agriculture and the Flax Production Committee the wronged party. I have had quite a deal to do with them and my own personal view is that for insincerity, bungling, general maladministration and failure to know where they are going they are to the forefront of any business that I have ever been associated with.

Perhaps I might comment on a few of the remarks made in the submission, (vide para 2, page 1). The Department of Commerce and Agriculture (mainly Sxxxxxxxx) did their utmost to have the fibre producing industry retained as a Government enterprise, and in order to do so submitted a certain programme to the Joint War Production Committee and the Defence Committee and to Cabinet Committee which was badly thought out, not related to their real intentions, and in relation to the first item which was put forward for funds £10,000 out. (They estimated the site at Mt Gambier which they knew particularly well to cost £1,000, and, in point of fact, it cost £11,000). At that time Treasury opposed the plans of the Committee, not because the flax Industry was not essential, but in my own case I was sure that the Flax Production Committee was inefficient, and when I subsequently met then in Melbourne to discuss their estimates, (because they were blaming Treasury for the delays) I pointed out certain significant factors associated with the estimates. Although the estimates had gone forward to the Joint War Production Committee and Defence Committee, they had not been submitted to, nor provided by, the Flax Production Committee as such, and in point of fact had been prepared by the Deputy Chairman Boss (a C.S.I .R.O. officer) and Dxxxxx (a Finance Officer). I was informed that this programme on which Cabinet Committee had based its decision was a very tentative estimate and the Committee had not examined it and could not accept responsibility for it.

Although Cabinet approval was given on the 10th October 1950, and Cabinet at that time agreed to provide the necessary funds for the conversion of the industry to tank retting, the first approach for funds was made towards the end of November for the purchase of the Mt Gambier site, but other than that no request for funds was made for at least eight months after the October decision. This is when I left Treasury (July, 1951), and I understand that no request for funds was made for funds after that. In the circumstances it is senseless to endeavour to lay the blame elsewhere.

My own personal view is that Sxxxxxxxx who was Chairman of the Committee, and also Chief Executive Officer, spent too much time traipsing around the world either for Jute or for Flax. The reason why funds were not allocated was because Cabinet decision specified that they were subject to examination of details of specific projects by the Treasury, but details of those specific projects were in point of fact not submitted to the Treasury.

Flax is important. It has very high defence significance. Private industry does not want the fibre producing section of the industry, whilst the Government will do the work. Something should be done, and done quickly, to get control of the industry away from the present Committee, and under the control of a small body, preferably not more than three of men of sound business acumen and foresight. The Department of Works and Housing has been without a doubt, an important factor in the delay. In my view the Committee should not be forced to accept the Department as the only avenue available for its capitol works programme and the reason for this would be twofold, namely, relative cost and relative delay.

The Committee was at one stage hampered for a very considerable time (according to Sxxxxxxxx) by the failure of the Public Service Board to notify a classification for the Chief Engineer, and as a consequence the job could not be advertised. I am unaware as to whether this position has yet been filled.

You will note on page 6 of the submission the bleat in relation to the funds provided in the estimates. This, of course, is no more than a reflection on the Department of Commerce and Agriculture and the Committee, and a good indication of the extent to which they had proposed, when preparing the estimates, to proceed with the task in hand and this approximately 12 Months after Cabinet approval of the tank retting programme. In any case of course, funds would have been provided from the Defence vote for the work, but it would be interesting to find out the extent to which requests have already been made to Treasury, together with details of specific projects for examination, and I think that we would find that the error will be rather on the side of the Flax Production Committee and Department of Commerce and Agriculture, than Treasury or Works and Housing.

18th March 1952.

Mr M C Timbs

This was a scathing report on the Flax Production Committee; it shows that most newspaper reports were still treating the committee with some reverence. Although to be fair they would not have had access to this report. There are no follow up Government papers available to inform us of the outcome the report.

Continued page 7

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