21 December, 2010

Sun and Willows

Sunnyside Wool Scouring Company, Breakwater.
The history of the site on which the Sunnyside Wool Scour stands at Breakwater is in many ways synonymous with the industrial history of Geelong and the Barwon River. As early as 1840, wool was being exported from Geelong to London. As a result, the factories required to process the wool and hides began to appear on the banks of the Barwon.
 Purchased initially in 1853 by John Ford Strachan, the site on which Sunnyside stands was sold by 1862 to Thomas Marshall who in turn sold it to Edmund Haworth in 1866. All these names were significant to the development of the wool trade in Geelong during the 1850s and are still recognisable today.
Notably, the nearby suburb of Marshall (formerly Marshalltown) was named after Thomas' sons Thomas and Foster Marshall. Thomas was a fellmonger and wool trader who had emigrated from England in 1840. He and his family lived in a house nearby called "Breakwater".
Many of the local street names still attest to the industrial origins of the area around Breakwater and to the breakwater itself - Breakwater Road, Tanner Street, Leather Street, Tanner Court, Currier Lane, Industrial Place and Fellmongers Road in Breakwater as well as Woolscour Lane and Tannery Road, Marshall to name a few.

Sunnyside Wool Scouring Company, Breakwater.
It is known that wool scouring took place on the site at least as early as 1867 and probably dated back to the 1850s during the period of Marshall's ownership. After purchasing the property, Edmund Haworth conducted both scouring and fellmongering operations on the site. Its location on the river was of course, integral to both processes. Water from the Barwon was used to wash the scoured wool which in the early days was done by hand on the riverbank using what was known as the pot-stick method. This procedure was later replaced by steam-driven machinery. In addition, waste products from both the scouring and fellmongering activities were discharged in to the river and washed downstream. It was important that waste only entered the river below the breakwater as this would have protected the town's water supply. In fact the purity or lack there of, of the river's water supply was an issue which preoccupied residents, industries, local councils and the government alike for decades.

Chimney built by John Haworth at Sunnyside Wool Scour

The brick chimney which can be seen from various points on the river was erected by John Haworth, the son of Edmund who took over ownership of the property from his father in 1899. His initials can be seen built into the brickwork of the chimney.
For several years, John leased the property and in the early 1900s an unsuccessful attempt was made to establish a woollen mill on the premises by Dr Charles Edward Barnard which had closed by 1903 due to poor management by the Sellenger brothers Charles and William, the latter of whom was employed as manager. The next occupant was William Goode & Co probably trading under the name of Breakwater Woollen Mill, followed by the adaption of the buildings in about 1907 to carry on a leatherworks. This company was known as the Commonwealth Tannery Co. and was run by Robert J Kennedy who first leased and then purchased the property outright in 1909. He in turn sold out in 1913 to Henry O'Beirne who once again set up a fellmongery and wool washing works on the site. The years of the First World War saw a boom in wool prices with the quality of Geelong wool considered second to none. However, a slump in the English market following the war meant O'Beirne temporarily closed the works and finally went out of business in 1932. The property was then leased to the Melbourne company Oanah Wool Pty Ltd which may never have operated from the site and then by 1934 to the Dominican Wool Co. who purchased it.
In 1938, local brothers Harold and James Fowler took over ownership and called their company "Sunnyside Scouring Co." They conducted a number building works and made improvements and modernisations to the equipment including the addition of a large, galvanised iron shed surrounding the older bluestone building constructed by Haworth. In 1948, following a dispute with his brother, Harold sold out to James and moved next door to establish his own works, probably on the site once owned by his grandfather Daniel Fowler Snr.
The company suffered a setback when on 2nd June, 1953 it was reported in the Melbourne Argus that a fire almost completely gutted the premises, however Sunnyside continued trading and eventually James passed the property to his son James Leo upon his death in 1969. James Leo then ran it until his retirement in the 1970s when he closed down the works but retained the buildings to store scoured and baled wool for sale when prices were at a premium. James Leo died in 1987. The property was purchased finally by Owen Callan and son Graham, local wool dealers who ran their business from the site.
 Despite varying fortunes over the years, some structures dating back to the earliest days, including sections of the bluestone and timber building erected by Edmund Haworth in 1867, remain. As time passed, a variety of other buildings were added, many of which are still standing, others having been removed to serve the current needs of the owners. Whilst its use has varied over time, the property has remained in almost continuous operation since the 1850s. Today it is the only remnant of the wool processing works which have been conducted at the Breakwater since the mid-19th century.
Willow trees and chimney of the scouring works of
Old Dan Fowler Snr next door to Sunnyside Scouring Co.
There is also a personal aspect to the story of Sunnyside, which I was unaware of until I began to research the company, but soon came to suspect. In 1932 my great-aunt - Bernice Stafford - married one of the many Breakwater Fowlers and they lived at Marshall. Her husband Frank was the grandson of Daniel Fowler Snr, the same Daniel who was grandfather to James and Harold, one-time owners of Sunnyside, making them first cousins. Daniel, was a noted resident and himself a fellmonger and scourer at Breakwater as far back as the 1870s, having arrived from Kilkenny in 1861. He owned various properties in Breakwater and across Geelong and the Bellarine Peninsula and in 1881 purchased the property adjoining what would become the Sunnyside Scouring Co. to be established by his grandsons.
This property was razed by fire in 1897, but business went on and Daniel retained ownership of the property until his death in 1930 at the ripe old age of 95. From this time until 1947 it was administered as part of his estate by several of his sons at which point it was sold to his grandson Harold who had dissolved the partnership with his brother James in Sunnyside next door. Harold called old Dan's property the Willows for the trees which grew along the bank of the Barwon at the back of his land. He finally closed it as a scouring works in 1960, however it re-opened for a time when a tenant used it, much like Sunnyside, for wool storage and sorting. Unlike Sunnyside, the building was demolished c1987-8 with the exception of its chimney which was left standing as a memorial to Dan Snr by his family.
The Sunnyside Scouring Co. and the Willows are only two examples of the thriving 19th century wool industry which lined the banks of the Barwon below the breakwater. Beyond Fowler's were a string of allotments all housing businesses devoted to the wool and skin trades including other fellmongeries, scours, tanneries and a glue factory. Earlier business interests of the Fowlers were also established here where they conducted the usual trades of fellmongering, wool washing and tanning.
Those who owned and worked these businesses were the original inhabitants of the towns of Breakwater and Marshall and many of their names and occupations are embedded in the fabric of these suburbs and of Geelong. For those who know what to look for, the last vestiges of this bygone era can be seen on the banks of the Barwon River to the present day.


  1. Great article. Given your research on this, have you ever come across any information on the Henry B Smith scouring works at Geelong in late 1920' - early 1930's? (This was before he moved to the Mill at Williamstown). He was a relation and I am carrying out research into the history of his company. Thanks.

  2. Interesting article. I grew up in Breakwater and remember the Fowlers very well and used to play on the wool bales in the big shed as a kid. Leo Fowler was a good friend of my fathers and I went to Leo's funeral in Portarlington in the 70's.
    His son was Bad who I remember and his father was Joe
    There used to be the remains of a lot of tanneries along the river then and a lot of people we knew were still involved in the industry in the sixties

  3. Thanks heaps for your research and making it available. Having grown up not far from these areas and now living in breakwater it’s good to have this information available. About 10 years ago as an apprentice I did some contract work in a tannery down gravel pits Rd. The first thing I recall is the smell which took a few days to adjust to. Also was how labour intensive the tanning process still looked. The condition of the building was so run down and old. I remember thinking these two guys working here break there backs in this place (then the boss left and one yell “hey mate you coming for a kick of the footy”). So we kicked the footy for a few hours, I also recall the water running through the building which was pumped from the Barwon and the traps at the back of the building to catch all the skin and fat from the sheep skins as they rolled around these large wheels that pass through running water. The smell hit you hard the first time I walked in the door.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Glad the info is of interest. It's great to hear people's personal experiences of the places I write about!

  4. Hi Jo, I am researching my Beilby family and have a couple of documents suggesting they founded/owned or were involved in a woollen mill (not sure which type)....Arthur and Robert Beilby, not Brothers, probably cousins??? Wondering if you might know anything?

    1. Hi,
      Whilst the Beilby name sounds familiar, I can't place it. If any publication mentioned them it would be William Smith's "Sand, Fireworks and Boxthorn: the history of Breakwater and area (2009). I have had a look through the book and didn't see any Beilbys mentioned, but it isn't indexed so it is possible I missed something.
      I'm not sure where you are, but if you live locally, the Geelong Historical Records Centre at the library would have a copy of the book (ISBN 978 0 646 50890 0). Sorry I can't help more, but if I find anything, I'll let you know.

    2. Many thanks Jo, I'll see if I can track the book down. Cheers.

    3. edmund frank haworth , married sarah at staffordshire potteries and had 3 sons - richard daniel h bapt 12/8/1838, john bapt 5/1/1840, and frank bapt 30/5/1841 - all born at chorlton on matlock-manchester
      convicted lancaster assizes as edmund haworth (25 yo) on 24 mar 1842 - 10 yrs forgery of 86 pd bill of exchange ex london 28/6/1842 on the emily(1) arrived hobart 24/11/1842(derwent)
      conditional pardon 30/4/1850
      application to marry (which did not proceed) in 1850 to sarah seabrook (b 1831) who was a sister of an ancestor of mine namely george smith seabrook (b 1838 hobart)