23 December, 2010

Value adding

From a single fellmongery and tannery business on the banks of the Barwon in 1841, these and the related trades of scouring and boiling down had grown considerably by the 1860s to become the mainstay of Geelong's wool industry. This was despite their reputation for pollution and noxious odours which had seen them contained to the area below the breakwater. Naturally therefore, when Geelong's industrial base began to move beyond primary production, the milling of wool was one of the earliest trades to develop.
Godfrey Hirst Carpets, site of the Victorian Woollen Mill and
the Barwon Woollen Mill, later Excelsior Mills No1 and No2.
The first woollen mill in Geelong, established with the aid of a government grant was up and running by 1867 under the name of the Victorian Woollen and Cloth Manufacturing Co. on what is today the site of Godfrey Hirst Carpets at the corner of Swanston Street and Barwon Terrace near the Barwon River.
By 1870 a second woollen mill the "Albion" was up and running upstream of the Moorabool Street Bridge and by 1874 a third - the Barwon Woollen Mill, located to the rear of the Victorian Woollen Mill next to the river - was under construction. The successful tender for the latter building was that of Tippett and Barker of Ballarat, which may yet again prove to have connections to my family history as my paternal grandmother is descended from the same family as many of the Ballarat Tippetts.
By 1892 the Barwon Woollen Mill was in financial trouble and was sold to Godfrey Hirst who renamed it the Excelsior Woollen Mill No1. Likewise, and suffering from a decline in sales as a result of cheap imported fabric and inferior immitations, the Victorian Woollen and Cloth Manufacturing Co. was put up for sale. This too was purchased by Hirst and named Excelsior No2. The two ran jointly until 1912 when Excelsior 1 was destroyed by fire. It was later rebuilt as a single storey, brick structure.
Valley Worsted Mill with Godfrey Hirst in the background.
A relative latecomer, by 1925, the last and largest of the woollen mills to be built in South Geelong was under construction at the corner of Swanston Street and on the opposite side of Barwon Terrace to Godfrey Hirst. This was the Valley Worsted Mill which in its day was the largest and most modern mill in the country.
These early companies were the forerunners of a thriving textile industry which developed in Geelong and which eventually took over from the tanneries, scours and fellmongeries as the major business of the town.
Despite some periods of revival - for instance during the First World War - the latter would never again attain the same level of productivity as they did prior to the 1890s. It was now cheaper to export the raw skins than to have them processed here.
Likewise, the textile industry continued to suffer as we have already seen from international competition, this time in the form of cheap artificial fibres developed in Britain and Germany. However, inspite of this, productivity continued to increase and by 1935 eight mills were processing wool in Geelong which also became a centre for research and training in the industry.
In addition to the wool school at the Gordon Institute, a Wool College was established in 1943 offering diploma courses in textiles and textile chemistry whilst Geelong was chosen as the site for CSIRO's textile research division in 1946. Victorian wool was renowned for being the best in the Commonwealth and Geelong was seen as the headquarters of the Victorian wool industry.
Clock at Valley Worsted Mill.
Of the mills which lined the Barwon and were so important in their day, the Excelsior Mills remain in operation today as Godfrey Hirst Carpet, producing quality products for the domestic and international markets as they have done since the 1960s when they ceased production of a variety of other textiles to concentrate on carpet-making.
Valley Worsted operated for 50 years before merging with the company of John Foster and Son (Aust) Pty Ltd to become John Foster Valley Ltd. Such was the secrecy surrounding the merger negotiations that the mill became known as "The Mill of Secrecy" and a book with this title, outlining the history of the mill was published in 2009.
Most recently, the entire site has been put up either for lease or sale and at last report had been conditionally purchased for $6.4 million by a microbrewing company - Little World Beverages - from Fremantle who intend to make the site the base for their east coast brewing enterprise.

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