Saturday, January 22, 2011

A History Of Our South East Timber Industry

An essential industry:
As soon as European settlement began to establish itself locally, so too did the industries necessary to support the growing population. Amongst the more important ones was the timber industry in its many guises.

These workers supplied a wide range of material necessary for the growing population – including sawn timber for housing, roofing shingles, fence palings and posts and rails for fencing, and even, in the very early days, what were known as treenails or wooden pegs used in particular for boat and ship building.

Wattle bark:

Wattle bark harvesting was one of the earliest industries locally, providing employment for many generations of residents. Ship crews sheltering in Twofold Bay from the very early days were stripping bark, while whaling crews also laboured to make the first recorded shipment of bark from Twofold Bay in 1821.

Timber workers pictured with the fruits of their labour. As concern rose about diminishing timber supplies, Forest Reserves were legislated. By 1881 there were 461 Reserves across NSW amounting to nearly one & a half million hectares. By 1888 this stood at 1000 Reserves totalling two million hectares.
During 1833, the schooner Friendship left Twofold Bay with a cargo that included one ton of bark, while in 1835, the same vessel carried away three tons. In 1844 the coaster Susan arrived in Sydney from Twofold Bay with two tons of wattle bark.Shipping records also show that the schooner St Heliers sailed from Twofold Bay, reaching London in November 1843, laden with a local cargo that included extract of wattle bark.

An export in wattle bark had also commenced from Pambula as early as 1845, when the 46-ton schooner Gipsy departed with a cargo of, among other things, three tons of bark.

1895 Illawarra Steam Navigation Co receipt for forty bags of bark from Edward Kennedy.
By 1871, the Town & Country Journal was reporting that "…nearly all the free selectors in the district are mimosa bark gatherers & hundreds of tons are shipped annually by the traders Numba & Gypsy to Sydney. The free selectors find this a payable employment, & the large quantities of bark in the neighbourhood enable Mr. Ellis & a few other shippers to supply a great portion of that which is used in the neighbourhoods of the metropolis." 

1910 account for sales of wattle bark from Goldsborough, Mort & Co., to W. Keorber.
Those who were not fortunate enough to have access to the valuable bark on their own properties were forced to pay land owners for the opportunity to strip the wattle.

The bark mill near Eden’s main wharf, C. 1930. The Eden Magnet announced in 1929 that the site had been applied for by James Hardie & Co.
Wattle bark stripping was not the only form of the industry in the area. Throughout the district, a number a tannin extraction plants also operated, included those at Whipstick, Bermagui & Eden, while as late as the 1950s a wattle bark grinding mill continued to operate between the wharf & Lookout in Eden.

Tannin extraction plants:
The small centre of Whipstick, between Lochiel & Wyndham was home to a wattle bark extraction works. Sydney drug company Elliott Brothers operated the plant between about 1922 & 1927. In 1923, it was reported that "Quite a number of local men are finding employment at the Whipstick Mines & Wattle Bark Extract Works, making preparations for the arrival of machinery."

With such a ready supply of the wattle bark needed, it is no surprise that tanneries also cropped up in the district.

Panbula Tannery:

During the early 1850s, local resident John James Grealy was operating his Panbula Tannery where, in May 1854, his three year old son John Valentine Grealy was tragically drowned in a vat. A year & a half later, the proprietor advertised his business for sale, referring to it as "…a rare chance…"

Local carrier Harry Grant pictured near Eden wharf with load of wattle bark, 1937. That year the Pambula Voice commented that "Compared with practically all other primary products, this commodity occupies an envious position, in that the demand is active & prices are satisfactory…"
Baddeley’s tannery:
After purchasing the Post Office Stores in 1865, Charles Henry Baddeley moved from Bombala to set up his tannery in Monaro Street, Pambula, the following year. Originally operated with his cousin William, the pair dissolved partnership in 1875, & Charles Henry continued the enterprise on his own account, employing his son Charles Arthur as manager of the business.

Hides were purchased from as far away as Bombala, Delegate, Bibbenluke & other Monaro centres as well as locally and in one year, the amount spent on hide purchases amounted to ₤15,000, a huge sum in that era.

Baddeley’s tannery continued to operate until about 1926, making it one of Pambula's earliest & longest running enterprises.

Saw milling:
Virtually as soon as European settlement began moving into the area, timber mills were established.

And the demand was clear – sawn timber was essential for weatherboards for housing, for boat building, furniture, packing of goods, mining props & rails, horse drawn vehicles & handles for tools, to name but a few.

Harrison’s sawmill at Tanja.
Pit saws were operating across the region by the 1850s, & by the 1860s, Bate’s Steam Saw Mill was in operation along the Merimbula Road. In 1882, the Bega Gazette noted "We are informed that a steam saw mill is about to be started at Wolumla by Messrs Smith Brothers & J. P. O’Neill. We wish them all success, believing as we do that Bega & neighbourhood could utilise the sawn timber of three or four mills for a long time to come. It is next to impossible to get buildings erected owing to the timber famine, the one sawmill now in operation being quite inadequate to meet the demand."

Tom Hite & family at their water powered saw mill on the Wallagaraugh River. In summer, when water was scarce, a boiler was used to generate steam power.
Smith Brothers & White were operating a saw mill at Boggy Creek in the early 1880s, whilst the Nethercote Sawmills were in business by the 1890s. By this time, there were at least ten steam-powered mills dotted around the district. 

Hamilton & Son had their Pambula Sawmill working by 1914, while similar mills were also operating at Lochiel & Millingandi around the same time.

In 1931, it was reported that "Timber from the Wallagaragh Sawmills is being brought by lorries for shipment from Eden to Melbourne..." & in 1939, it was noted that "Raynor’s, sawmillers have been & still are busy hauling logs from Mount Darragh to their mill in Bombala. Timber-getting operations have opened up a good deal of country, which makes things a good deal easier for those who are wrestling a living from the land." The Eden Sawmills were also well & truly in operation by the mid-1940s.

Tom Hite’s sawmill beside the Wallagaraugh River was powered by waterwheel. The mill supplied timber to the nearby Yambulla mines as well as various local settlements.

Following the timber…
It was not unusual for the mill to follow the timber supply – in fact it was often more economical to relocate the mill than to transport the timber long distances, often across rough terrain.

Steam engine on its way to provide power for a local saw mill. It is pictured between Tathra & Bega after arriving on one of the ships that served the port.

 In 1883, Smith Brothers & White of the Wolumla Steam Saw Mill announced that they had "removed their sawmill to Boggy Creek, near Panbula. They are now prepared to receive orders for Blackbutt, Woolibutt, Stringybark & other timbers, & wish to particularly call the attention of wheelwrights & others to the very superior class of Box timber now within their reach…Smith Brothers & White are now located in a forest of the best timber in the Eden Bega district & they defy competition…"

In November 1900, it was reported that "…O. L. Harrison, of the Enterprise Sawmills near South Pambula contemplates removing his plant shortly to a site to the top of the hill between Jigamy & Bellbird on the Eden Road."

Safety in the mills:
Prior to about the 1940’s, few safety measures were taken in sawmills, & not surprisingly accidents were a relatively common occurrence – in fact the missing limbs that many millers suffered were sometimes referred to as a trademark of their industry.

Bullock team at a saw mill. Bullock & horse teams were a vital cog in the wheel that drove the local timber industry, & even after the commencement of motorisation, they retained their importance. Trucks with single axle trailers were difficult to manoeuvre & jolted the driver as they hit every pot hole in the road; some trailers had no brakes; & on bends, took up the entire road, so passing other vehicles remained a serious problem.

 In 1893, the Pambula Voice reported on a fatal accident, when proprietor Mr. Thomas White was killed at his sawmill near Wolumla.

Gordon’s sawmill at Lochiel was the scene of another accident in 1905, when it was reported that "…a boiler burst at both ends, scattering timber in all directions & shifting the bench several feet. A man named Newlyn had his arm broken, & scalded on the hip, though not seriously. No other persons were near at the time. Steam having run down, they were waiting for it to get up."

In 1896, what was described as "…an appalling accident…" occurred at Raynor’s sawmills at Myrtle Creek that became headline news across the country. The Brisbane Courier noted that "The boiler of the plant exploded, killing the proprietor, Mr. Raynor, on the spot, & seriously injuring his son. The boiler was lifted seventy yards away, & parts of the building & machinery were scattered to a great distance." The Sydney Morning Herald similarly reported that "…The boiler was blown fully 70 yards away. Parts of the machinery & of the building were scattered a great distance…" while the West Australian noted that "The explosion of a boiler at the Myrtle Creek Saw Mills, Pambula, New South Wales, on Thursday, resulted in Mr. Raynor, the proprietor of the mills, having the back of his skull smashed in."

Harrison’s sawmill at Tanja.

Sleeper cutting:
With the development of the rail system throughout Australia & beyond, demand for hardwood sleepers continued to gain momentum, & not surprisingly with the supply of timber throughout the local region, sleeper cutting soon became an important facet of the district’s timber industry.

The Allanwood loading sleepers at Quarantine Bay. The wharf was built by Augustus Becus in 1908.
Hardwood sleepers were cut for the burgeoning railway networks not only within Australia but also New Zealand, India, China, South Africa & Europe. Sleeper cutting had commenced in the region by the turn of the century, & over the years, boats hauled hundreds of thousands away from the port of Eden, providing a vital source of income for the many employed in the industry locally.

Yellow Point, Broadwater:
Pambula was another regular port of call for shipping vessels, with small jetties constructed at Yellow Point (Broadwater) & Green Point (Millingandi). By 1905, it was reported that "A firm of railway sleeper-getters has commenced operations in the vicinity of Pambula…", & by the end of the same year, it was noted that "Some 3,000 sleepers have been shipped at Eden this month." In 1907, the timber steamer Commonwealth, chartered by Mr. W. A. Robertson, shipped 3,000 sleepers from Pambula to Sydney, from which point they were transhipped to New Zealand.

The Tuncurry in Broadwater Lake. Pilot Arthur Hardaker was employed by Allen Taylor to navigate the sleeper boats from the Pambula Bar up river to Yellow Point, where bullock teams dumped the sleepers at the water’s edge.

Boats transporting sleepers from Broadwater’s Yellow Pointincluded Tuncurry, Seagull, Ident, Wanderer, Astral, Swan & Our Jack, (pictured, left). In January 1921, four steamerscame into Pambula River to collect sleepers stacked at Yellow Point.
In 1915, it was reported that "Messrs. Armstrong & Fraser are daily carting big supplies of sleepers from Jingera, near Wyndham, to the dumping ground at Hardaker’s Point on Pambula Lake...", while in 1917, the Pambula Voice noted that "Thousands of sleepers are at present stacked at Merimbula & Yellow Point (Broadwater Lake) awaiting boats to convey them to Sydney." 

Bill Walker & bullock team with load of sleepers at the intersection Cattle Bay Road & the Princes Highway, Eden, 1919.

Merimbula was another port of call for the sleeper ships, one being the area of Spencer Park, & another the Merimbula Wharf. In 1908, though, it was noted that "Three thousand railway sleepers have been lying on Merimbula Wharf awaiting shipment for about three months. Dissatisfaction is expressed that the industry is hampered by the inability to dispatch." In 1913, it was reported that "Messrs. English & Kelly shipped 2,000 sleepers from Merimbula to Sydney on Wednesday per SS Wanderer. The following year, it was noted that "The steamer Wanderer came in on Saturday & took 1934 sleepers." In 1915, in the Imlay Shire Council report, it was noted that "…Mr. Bent of Merimbula made a complaint about a quantity of sleepers stacked on the foreshores of the lake, thereby interfering with the channel way…"

Local sleeper cutter Paul Herrmann had sleepers sent to an exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London.
A dangerous job…
Not surprisingly, working with such potentially dangerous tools, injury was not an uncommon part of the sleeper cutter’s life.

Sleeper cutters at work. Injury was perhaps par for the course in the industry, with local newspapers often carrying tales. In 1914, it was reported that "Mr. Arthur Burton is still suffering from a severe cut on the ankle caused by the broadaxe. It will be some time yet before he can get to work again."
In 1907, sleeper cutter Albert Newton "…was engaged at work near Merimbula, when his axe slipped, nearly severing his right foot. Newton remained in the bush for over an hour whilst a mate went for assistance. Constable Pye rendered first aid, subsequently conveying the patient to Pambula Hospital."

In 1913, it was reported that "Mr. Jas. Becus, who went to the Tanja forests last week, with the object of inspecting the forests at that place for sleeper-cutting, had the misfortune to meet with a painful accident there on Sunday by falling on the blade of a very sharp axe & split his arm open, necessitating on his arrival at Bega hospital the insertion of 15 stitches." The following year at Nethercote "Mr. E. Becus who has been sleeper cutting here for some time, had a nasty accident last week, a big limb falling on him & cutting his shoulder."

Sleeper cutters with their tools of the trade – despite the low wages, it was a skilled job, requiring physical strength & stamina. And injuries were not uncommon – during 1937 it was reported from Eden that "Mr. Ben Watts Jnr, a sleeper cutter, was struck by a falling limb, which gashed his face & right arm. He was admitted to Pambula Hospital for treatment. Though now discharged, it will be some time before he can take up work."

"A sleeper cutter with his right leg broken in two places crawled two miles through thick scrub for help. He is Richard O’Neill, 30, of Eden, who was working alone on the bush at Timbillica when a tree fell on him. After a long struggle, he freed himself & crawled two miles to the nearest house where the owner sent him by lorry to Bega Hospital." (Army News (Darwin, NT), 1 February, 1944)

Newspaper excerpts:
Being such a vital local industry, it's unsurprising that the sleeper cutting industry occupied a important place within the media, as excerpts from various newspapers show.

"On Tuesday 1,500 sleepers were shipped from Merimbula to Eden where 25,000 are being collected for shipment to Port Pirie (SA)." (Pambula Voice, June 11, 1915)

The Miller brothers’ camp in Wapengo State Forest, C. 1930’s. Because sleeper cutters needed to move frequently to follow the timber, they generally lived in very basic accommodation.
"Eden – The sleeper boat John Craig has been here several days loading sleepers for Port Pirie. This is the largest boat that has called here for sleepers & will load about 16,000." (Pambula Voice, June 18, 1915)

"Eden: A diver has been working alongside the wharf here for some days, removing sleepers that had been lost while being shipped, & which were a menace to shipping." (Pambula Voice, June 16, 1916)

Sleepers stacked up the hill on the left near Eden wharf. In 1898, local store keeper S. Solomon called for tenders "…for the supply & delivery at Eden of 5,000 sawn sleepers 9 foot by 10 inch by 5 inch…" in box or woolybutt…"
"According to official figures, people are leaving the Imlay Shire in hundreds. In the last 12 years, the population decreased 1,132 & last year it lost 330. The decline in mining & sleeper cutting industries no doubt accounts for most of them leaving." (Pambula Voice, August 17, 1923)

A horse team pulling a log underneath the wagon, a method frequently used by South Coast timber carriers.
"Sleepers for China - Eden, Wednesday - The local timber industry has expanded considerably lately, & there are now more than 100 sleeper-cutters operating in the bush around Twofold Bay. Last week the Japanese steamer Asama Maru loaded at Eden jetty about 11,000 hardwood sleepers for China. These were part of a preliminary order placed locally by R. J. White & Co. for 20,000 sleepers 8 ft 8 in by 6 in & 8 ft 9 in by 5 in. There are sufficient cutters here to furnish supplies as rapidly as required." (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October, 1931)

"Sleepers for China - About 70 timber-workers are engaged in cutting sleepers to fill White & Company’s initial order for 20,000 hardwood sleepers for shipment to China. Two sizes of sleepers are being taken, the 8 ft by 8 in by 6 in, & the 8 ft by 9 in by 5 in. The prices given for these sleepers delivered at Eden wharf dump are 3/3 & 3/2 respectively. These prices are locally considered very low. Cutters say they can only clear from 1/6 to 1/10 per sleeper, & that their earning range from ₤2/10/- to ₤3 a week." (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 August, 1931)

"Nethercote - Mr W. Seymour's sleeper truck has been working overtime of late in order to cope with the large number of sleepers being cut here. About 15 cutters are working in the vicinity." (Eden Magnet, March 23, 1935)

A horse team loaded with sleepers outside the Hotel Australasia, Eden, 1908.

"The Eden district timber hewing industry gives promise of being in the ascendant for the next few years, the "Magnet" reports. Timber agencies have secured large contracts. The SS James Cook loaded over 6,000 for South Australia & the SS Waitaki was to load 7,000 for New Zealand last weekend." (Pambula Voice, March 5, 1937)

"Sleeper trade – Although the hardwood forests in this district were, according to some people, "cut out" years ago, thousands of sleepers continue to pour into the various depots. A big steamer was expected at Eden this week to load 40,000 on account of Allan Taylor & Co, & the other two agencies – White & Co, & Pike & Co – continue to handle large quantities" (Pambula Voice, December 3, 1937)

The Bellinger loading sleepers at Quarantine Bay. In 1935 the Eden Magnet reported "News very welcome to sleeper cutters was received in Eden on Thursday that R. J. White & Co. had been successful in securing another large order for sleepers for export to China, & that cutters could begin at once."
"Railway sleepers - Eden, Sunday - A record shipment of railway sleepers from Eden was made when the Union Steam Ship Company’s steamer, Kiwitea, completed the loading of 41,000, comprising consignments by Allen Taylor & Company & E. D. Pike & Company, for New Zealand." (Sydney Morning Herald, 13 December, 1937)

"Eden – Over 20,000 sleepers have left Eden by the last two steamers. The SS Oorama lifted 7,172 last week for South Australia." (Pambula Voice, June 30, 1938)
Baden "Paddy" Egan & his horse team with load of sleepers on Fisheries Beach, Eden. Horses as well as bullocks were used to pull loads of timber, the choice usually depending on the type of country through which the timber was being carried.
 "Eden – The SS Kalingo recently loaded 25,000 sleepers for New Zealand for Pike & Co & Kakapo is loading 25,000 for White & Co." (Pambula Voice, October 20, 1938)

"Eden news – The Union Co’s steamer Katetu arrived on Saturday evening & commenced loading a cargo of about 25,000 sleepers for New Zealand." (Pambula Voice, March 16, 1939)

"Big sleeper pass – The pass of sleepers at Eden last week, 34,000, was one of the largest known locally." (Pambula Voice, June 8, 1939)

"Sleeper industry – Interesting figures – Supplied by Messrs R. J. White & Co’s representative, Mr. J. A. Ireland – a statement of sleepers export from far south coastal ports by that firm from 1 July 1935 to 30 June 1936. Ulladulla – 375 6 ft 6 in; 4,521 7 ft; 135 10 X 5; total 5,031 sleepers. Also 30 turpentine piles. Tathra – 14,589 6 ft 6 in; 3,950 7 ft; 7,429 10 X 5; 34 9 X 4 ½; total 26,002 sleepers. Also 7 octagon poles. From Merimbula – 10, 487 7 ft; 55 6 ft; total 10, 537. From Eden – 28, 088 7 ft; 15, 286 6 ft 6 in; 2,594 10 X 5; total 40, 968. From Bermagui – 144 6 ft 6 in. From Bawley Point – 648 7 ft. Total shipments 83, 330. Shipments in the same period of last year 157, 406." (Eden Magnet, July 11, 1936)
 Recreational wood chopping:
Wood chops have been popular both with competitors & patrons since the inaugural Pambula Show in 1902. The timber industry, particularly sleeper cutting being an important local industry when the show started out, wood chops were originally as much an attempt to improve skills as the show pavilion was an effort to increase yields. Now with the Australian sleeping cutting industry defunct, it has become a competitive sport, maintaining important skills from yesteryear.

Wood chopping was feature of the Pambula Show from the very beginning. Here Steward George McGrath (centre) oversees preparations for an event on the original show ground, C. 1968.
The chip mill: 
In 1971, the first chip ship departed the Harris Daishowa chip mill in Eden bound for Japan with the load of the local product. The Voice newspaper reported "...The arrival of the Japanese bulk carrier Nasho Maru at Eden on Tuesday, December 22, ushered in a completely new era in Australian development & marked the start of a huge new export industry. This was the first load of woodchips to leave Australia & will be processed by the Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Co. in Japan. A total of 22,143 tons of chips were pneumatically loaded into the ship’s six cargo holds during the 10 days the Nasho Maru was berthed at the woodchip mooring offshore from the chipmill...It was the largest ship ever to load a cargo at Eden…It carried away the first ever load of woodchips from the Australian mainland. Apart from these, this first visit marked the beginning of a growing friendship between Australia & more particularly Eden & Japan & this alone was something worth fostering...."

Constructing the chip chute at the HDA mill, Eden, C. 1969. L-R: Percy Rugg, Jimmy Spears, Vic Hart & Allan "Bubby" George.
As early as the 1930’s, interest was being shown in Eden’s forests for wood pulping potential. In 1933, the Magnet reported that "In reply to his enquiries as to the possibilities of a paper pulping industry being established at Eden, Mr. Perkins MP has received from the Minister in control of Development a letter reading as follows: My dear Minister for the Interior,…relative to enquiries made by the residents of Eden as to the possibilities of manufacturing paper pulp in the locality, I desire to inform you that no official information is available concerning the prospects of commercially establishing the paper pulping industry in the Eden district….It is understood that certain inquiries have been initiated by Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd & that the results of these inquiries are so far favourable. Sir Herbert Gepp is acting in co-operation with expert officers of Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd…I have asked Sir Herbert Gepp whether Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd would be willing to furnish a statement, through him…"

Production commences at the Eden chipmill, C. 1970.
© Angela George.


  1. Thanks, for providing the great information on history of our south east Timber Industry. I am very much interested to know about that.

  2. Excellent information on timber industry and shipping. I am a forester and interested in the link between shipping and the timber industry. A small group of us have established a Flickr site Great Lakes and Manning River Shipping (easy to find under google as glmrs). Many of the vessels you feature were built at Tuncurry or Forster or on the Manning River. We would be very interested in putting these images on the Flickr site with some history of both the ship and the timber industry that supplied both the raw materials for the ships and wood to markets in Sydney and NEW ZEALAND. Appreciate hearing from you (

  3. Most impressed with the level of detail. Particularly interested in the photos of ships featured and the connections to the timber industry. Myself and two others run a Flickr site (glmrsnsw finds same on Google) that features the vessels that were built or traded in the Great Lakes/Manning River area. Main focus is on the fabulous wooden ships and the other two members are descendants of shipbuilder. I am a forester and my interest includes the timber used in these vessels and the timber cargoes carried. Would reaslly like to be able to include the relevant images on our Flickr site - with some history of the ship. If you have a look you'll be able to see what we have done. I can be contacted on or 0458 634 624.

  4. Love the pictures of the steamers and the stories of connection to timber industry. Would greatly appreciate copies of images of these vessels (all built in Great Lakes Region of NSW) to put on Flickr site
    Appreciate call me Chris Borough on 65558024

  5. Could the date of January 1921 for the two steamers Our Jack and Uralla be correct? The Uralla built by Denis Sullivan in 1908 was wrecked in 1912. Could you let me know

  6. Hi Chris, thanks for your messages. Unfortunately, I can't give permission to reproduce the images, as they were all provided to me by other individuals and organisations. The date January 1921 refers to an excerpt from a local newspaper regarding steamers coming into Pambula River to collect sleepers, not the date of the photograph of Our Jack and Uralla. Cheers and thanks again :)