Wellington Mills

by Janice Calcei
Updated: 19 March 2022

Wellington Mills c. 1920

The Canning Jarrah Timber Company

In 1896 the Canning Jarrah Timber Company applied for and were successful in being granted a timber concession, by the Lands Department of Western Australia, to mill jarrah from the hills east of Dardanup on the Ferguson River. The company already had milling operations around Perth and ran a joinery shop and retail outlet in the city.

Jarrah had been harvested continuously after Europeans arrived at Bunbury and Australind though mostly in small quantities to build homes, sheds and bridges. The value of the timber for its strength, lack of deterioration in water, resistance to white ants and long life as a construction timber was well recognised across the country and in other parts of the world but larger commercial milling ventures had not been successful.

Two mill businesses had previously attempted to mill jarrah from the area, but failed due to the lack of transport infrastructure, particularly railways for haulage. Maurice Coleman Davies was granted a timber lease in 1875 and built a mill in about 1877 on Wellington Location No. 352, at the top of Pile Road. The cost of the transport itself and of contributing to road maintenance as demanded by the government, made the business unviable and led to the closure of the mill by 1883. Davies went on to great success milling karri near Augusta and establishing the town of Karridale. HIs 27 room timber home from this time was moved to Margaret River in 1950 and still stands.

Another attempt to mill jarrah commercially was made by the Bunbury Jarrah Timber Company, established in 1880. This company was granted a lease of 4000 acres across what is now the Upper Ferguson Road eastward from Wellington Location No. 280. This was a little to the south of where the town of Wellington Mills would eventually be established. This mill was opened on 28 January 1881. “The works were christened the Wellington Saw Mills by Miss Phoebe Hough, who, under the superintendence of the directors, and in the presence of the assembled spectators, sawed the first log of timber turned out of the mills.” (West Australian, 8 February 1881).

Again transport costs and disputes with the government about responsibility for road maintenance led to the demise of the business and it wound up in July 1883. The mill and equipment were sold and it seems continued for some years more before being destroyed by a fire. The remaining equipment was tendered for sale in 1889 (West Australian, 2 May 1889).

By 1896, a number of advances had been made to the Bunbury port and loading facilities as well as in transport across the State. A rail line between Bunbury and Boyanup was finally opened for rolling stock on 12 March 1891, thanks to the efforts of Western Australia’s first premier, John Forrest of Bunbury. It had been built in 1887 but only used for horse drawn wagons since then. The line was connected to the main southwest line from Perth on 22 August 1893 and extended to Donnybrook (originally Minninup) on 16 November 1893. Busselton connected to the Boyanup line on 20 November 1894, and the Bridgetown extension opened on 1 November 1898. (Boyanup Rail Precinct, Heritage Council of WA).

Another inhibiting factor to the timber industry had been the loading facilities at the port of Bunbury. On 4 March, 1896, C Y O’Connor, Engineer in Chief was consulted by the Bunbury Municipal Council regarding extensions to the Bunbury Harbour. Twenty one piles were delivered by Messrs Hastie and Buswell in August 1896 and work on extending the jetty began at the beginning of September. A breakwater was proposed in 1897 and both this and the jetty extension were completed in 1899 making Bunbury a significant port from this time.

Enter the Canning Jarrah Timber Company.

“Trade booming, Lionel White was sent to the Ferguson River district in 1896, to establish a mill on a large leasehold held close to Dardanup….The extent and standard of quality of the forest at Wellington fully warranted heavy expenditure, for in this area were some of the finest possible stands of jarrah, including more than one valley of giants.”

W C Thomas, Australian Timber Journal, 1938

In January 1898 the Canning Jarrah Timber Company was floated on the London Stock Exchange, to raise capital for its venture near Dardanup, and a spot mill established that same year to begin supplying timber for the town buildings, railway and building of the mill. Rail lines providing the much needed heavy haulage to get the timber from Dardanup to the port at Bunbury had been funded by the government. The company itself had to fund the rail from Dardanup to the mill site, as well as the rail formations into the bush landings where timber was felled.

On February 28, 1899, George Fee, a farmer in Dardanup, records in his diary; “The construction of the Canning Jarrah Timber Company’s railway line to the Ferguson was commenced today.” The Bunbury Herald recorded the progress of the line and reported completion on Tuesday 13 June 1899: “The railway construction by the Canning Jarrah Timber Company from Dardanup to the spot mill is now completed….The company is now able to get the machinery for their big mill on the ground and when this has been erected, a large number of men will be employed.”

c. 1900 – Navvy gang building rail in Western Australia (possibly a Millars’ publication but source unknown)

“Within months, eight bush lines totaling 30 kilometres had spread throughout the adjoining forest. The area is very rugged, so zig-zags , sharp curves and steep grades were common. The lines were mainly north around Mt Lennard and the Collie River, but also south east toward the Preston River”. (National Trust, Railway Heritage Survey)

The construction of what came to be known as ‘The Big Mill’ was delayed a number of times because of a price war in the timber industry. From 1898 the timber industry had expanded rapidly thanks to high levels of investment from London. This soon led to price-cutting from companies to remain competitive, and reduced returns. Millars Karri and Jarrah Forests Ltd emerged as the strongest of the milling companies and attempted to form a trust to end price cutting and maintain prices. Other companies refused and Millars threatened to further undercut pricing. In August 1899, a few months after completing the rail line to Wellington, the Canning Jarrah Timber Company decided to shut the mill at Wellington until prices improved. The big mill had not been completed, so it was probably the spot mill that was closed (Calcei, 2008, p 9). “The Canning Jarrah Timber Company has now ceased operations at all their mills which means throwing out of employment of about 400 men. Their Wellington mill on the Ferguson was shut down some weeks ago…” (Bunbury Herald, 31 August 1899). By mid-May 1900 with the worst of the slump in prices having passed, the mill at Wellington was reopened. “The new mill – the plant for which has been lying at Perth for nearly six months – is to be forwarded to the Ferguson , and will be erected with all despatch.” (Bunbury Herald, 15 May 1900).

The mill buildings were captured in these photographs less than a year later in March 1901 so it seems all went to plan.

Millars Karri and Jarrah Co (1902) Ltd

As a result of the price war in the timber industry, a merger was proposed by Millars Karri and Jarrah Forests Ltd. After two years of preparation, on August 12, 1902, nine London companies (including the Canning Jarrah Timber Ltd) united to form Millars Karri and Jarrah Co. (1902) Ltd. This company was often afterwards referred to as the Millars Combine and in 1912 became the Millars Timber and Trading Company Ltd.

Fire of 1904

In the years that followed, the mill processed enormous amounts of timber. However, disaster struck in October 1904 when a fire destroyed the No. 1 Mill. “A disastrous fire occurred at Wellington Mills on Saturday evening last, when No. 1 mill was completely demolished and No. 2 mill only saved by the strenuous efforts of the men employed on the concession…No. 1 mill was one of the best in the possession of the Timber Combine, its daily output being 58 loads. It is estimated that as result of the fire 150 men will be thrown out of employment for about six months…” (Gilchrist, 1962)

1907 Worker’s Strike

Another setback occurred for the company when a timber worker’s strike was called in 1907. Referred to as “The Timber Trouble”, the dispute became bitter, setting up a three way battle between the government, Millars and the timber workers. On March 18, 1907, citing the need to increase dividends to shareholders, the Combine posted a notice of reduction of hours to eight hours a day but also reduced wages. The company wanted workers to accept 7 shillings 6 pence a day. The workers demanded 8 shillings for an eight hour day. At first the company appeared to encourage the strike, hoping the economic losses might force the government to drop freight charges which had recently risen. The strike continued through April and May. Bunbury’s economy suffered as the town had come to depend on the industry. There were negotiations to set up a butter factory to revive the dairy industry and diversify employment. The Bunbury community was sympathetic to the workers and set up a relief fund to support them. Workers considered leaving for work in other states where better rates were being offered. The strike ended on 21 June when the company offered 7 shillings 9 pence a day to be increased to 8 shillings in 1908 with rent-free accommodation for men on the lowest rate and an undertaking that mill store prices would be no higher than ten per cent above those ruling in Perth. (Calder, 1980, pp 85-88)

Single men making tea and camper at their huts in Wellington Mills, c.1910. Image: Richard Scott Brown

Mill’s Heyday

Wellington Mills’ population reached its peak during the years before and during World War I. Unlike many other mills in Western Australia, Wellington was able to remain in operation during the war providing much needed work and a stimulus to the local economy. It would seem these years were among the busiest and most productive for the town. In 1917 there were 117 children at the school and a similar number the following year, the highest recorded in its history. (Calcei, 2008, p. 13)

Wellington Mills Bush Sports Meeting, Sunday 7 December 1913 – Image: W Owen

The great day dawned fine and sunny, and more than 200 left the mill by the special train to the bush, picking up further passengers along the line at the 9-mile from Worsley and the Preston line, while the genial Paddy King journeyed over from Collie to attend the revels. Over 400 people were on the ground when the bell rang: for the first heat of the Woodline Chop.

Wellington Bush Sports Meeting, Westralian Worker, Friday 12 December 1913

The life of the mill was not a long one but typical of many early milling towns in Western Australia. By 1919, the effects of World War I, the milling out of the bush, a loss of workers who had volunteered to fight, a lack of shipping, as well as a depressed timber market, caused Millars to close the big mill in September 1919. Although there was a brief revival in milling activity in the 1920s, timber production would never reach the levels achieved prior to the war.

Six smaller mills, one situated in the town, continued to mill timber from 1919 to 1928, when the last mill in the town closed down. An era of sleeper cutting followed, ensuring the timber industry continued in some form in the 1920s and 1930s but Wellington Mills would never again be the centre of a milling operation of any size. (Calcei, 2008, p. 14).

Though its population diminished in numbers in subsequent years, the community remained a strong one, retaining a school, a shop and a post office until the early 1970s.

The Fire of 1950

By 1950 there was still a Millars presence in town with some of the mill buildings and residences remaining. Over the years, others had been purchased, dismantled and moved to farms or nearby towns.

Bob Ferres had served as the mill caretaker for many years prior and he and his wife Mary lived in what was once the company’s guest house at the west end of town. A steam engine, the Samson No. 2, was kept at the town and used occasionally to transport timber still stored on site to storage yards at Dardanup.

Two school buildings were being used and next to them stood the empty headmaster’s house. A local, Mrs Isabella Weetman, was the teacher at the school. There were just 18 students compared to 117 at the peak of the town’s population. The Post Office housed the telephone exchange and also served as a shop.

On April 14, 1950, the town would be changed forever by a devastating fire which had begun in Roelands the day before and was swept towards Dardanup by a northerly wind. Men from Wellington and Ferguson had gone to fight the fire on the afternoon and evening of 13 April but by Friday the fire was travelling so fast, they were advised they should look to their own properties. Women and children in the district were evacuated by friends, relatives and firefighters. Students stayed at the school on the morning with the fire approaching. As the morning wore on, they remained even though they were being affected by smoke and could hardly hear for the approaching roar. They used buckets of water to put out embers. A fire crew from Donnybrook stopped at the school intending to evacuate the children, but by the time they were loaded and heading east out of town, the fire had caught up to them and was raging all around with debris swirling and winds at gale force. They drove back to the Post Office and tried as best they could to take shelter in the building. Elsewhere residents were racing to escape the fire or save their homes.

Although it lasted less than thirty minutes, the effect on Wellington Mills was devastating. The school buildings were destroyed along with most of the other wooden structures. Miraculously the Billiards Hall stood unharmed in the centre of the destruction. It would become the school by the middle of the next week.

The fire burnt out two connecting bridges on the Upper Ferguson Road. Telephone connections were lost with the outside world as the poles had burnt down and took several weeks to rebuild and reconnect. The Ferguson Church, one of the oldest in the State, was destroyed.

There had been about seventeen buildings in the town before the fire. Afterwards, only six remained. In 2021, only three original timber structures are still standing: The Old Mill Manager’s House, the Old Post Office and a timber cottage just out of town, the Weetman Residence.

References:

Newspapers:

  • Timber Topics – Wellington Mills Bush Sports Meeting, Westralian Worker (Perth, WA : 1900 – 1951), Friday 12 December 1913, page 1

Image Source:

  • Wellington Mills Townscape: taken by Lionel White, mill manager around time this was taken in 1920.
  • Wellington Mills Sports Day: Photo credit: Photo marked as taken by W. Owen, possibly William Lamden Owen, Resident Magistrate, Bunbury 1904-1920
  • Workers outside single men’s huts: Photo taken by Richard Scott Brown who worked as a blacksmith and then as an engine driver at Wellington Mills, c. 1898-1916.