13 August, 2016

Button hill: the women of the Barwon Paper Mill

In 1876, the Barwon Paper Mill commenced construction on the banks of the Barwon River at Buckley Falls. Much has been written about the mill and its history and I looked at it briefly in the post From rags to riches or just milling around. One aspect of the mill and its history however, has always interested me: Button Hill and the women whose labour gave the rising ground to the north east of the mill its name.
View of the paper mill and the Barwon from the edge of Button Hill
As I recounted briefly in the earlier post, the 40 different types of paper produced at the mill were made not from wood fibres as is most commonly the case today, but rather from a vast array of fibrous products. These included straw, grass, bags, rope, yarn, recycled paper, books, woolpacks, sailcloth, reeds and especially rags with different fibre types being used for different paper products. Before they could be used for paper however, the rags and other cloth products underwent several stages of processing and it was the early stages of this process which were deemed "women's work".
Firstly, the rags had to be cleaned and this process began with the removal by hand of any attachments such as buttons, fastenings and ribs from women's stays after which the rags were sorted. This work was undertaken by girls and women known as "ragpickers". It was by all accounts, not a pleasant job. An article in the Geelong Advertiser (25th August, 1880) described the work as "anything but clean and in no way agreeable".
Over the years, there were various reports of inquiries into the treatment of and conditions endured by ragpickers. A 1914 inquiry heard that rags for the mill were sourced from a variety of places and came in a variety of qualities. The majority of rags, claimed the mill's representative, came from clean sources; off cuts from drapers, tailors, white workers and shirt factories, however this was a limited supply which was also sought after by "flock-makers" who used the rags to make "flocking" for stuffing saddles, mattresses and other products. This meant that the mill had also to use dirty rags and it was the sorting and cutting of these rags prior to cleaning which concerned the commissioners investigating conditions in 1914 (Geelong Advertiser, 11th February, 1914).
A woman working in the rag sorting room at the Barwon Paper Mill, 1876-1923.
Image taken from the JH Harvey collection, Sate Library of Victoria
Once the rags had been stripped by the ragpickers, they were sorted and sent to a second room where they were chopped into tiny pieces by the "devil" a machine whose main feature was a wheel fitted with knives which rotated at a speed of around 200 rpm. This was a filthy procedure which generated significant amounts of dust, and whilst respirators were made available for the women who worked at this job, they did not use them. Nor it seems did they even wear head coverings. Despite this, the company claimed there was no adverse effect on the women's health (Geelong Advertiser, 3rd March, 1890).
As might be expected with this type of machine in an era before occupational health and safety was a serious concern, there were accidents. And some of them were serious. On 26th September, 1907 the Geelong Advertiser carried an article describing an incident in which "A young woman named Ada Bailey, aged 23...was the victim of a shocking accident". Whilst using the "teasing machine" her hand was caught by a piece of rope and dragged "into the knives". Her hand was severed at the wrist before the machine could be stopped and she was taken to Geelong Hospital suffering from shock and blood loss.
The "devil" or chopper at the Barwon Paper Mill (1876-1938), image from the
JH Harvey collection, State Library of Victoria
After chopping, the pieces of rag were placed in a "willey" or willow machine - similar I believe to those used in woollen mills - which shook and beat the small pieces of rag, "teasing" them to remove dust and separate the cloth fibres from each other.
Small particles of dust in the air were carried upwards through a flue and vented through the roof. The remainder of the debris was shaken free by placing the rags in a rotating, conical "duster" which shook any remaining dust onto a wire grating where it was collected in bags and burnt. The separated fibres were then sent to boilers for further cleaning.
And the remuneration for this dirty, unpleasant work? In 1909 when the wages at Victorian paper mills were debated in parliament, it was claimed that one third of men were earning 30s per week or less. Women of all ages it was stated however, earnt no more than 13s 9d per week.
Whilst the pay scales of the employees were decidedly unequal, the numbers of men and women working in the mill were roughly the same with women and girls again part of the paper-making process in the final stages of the process where they worked in the folding room, sorting the cut paper and checking it for quality.
Checking paper quality at the Barwon Paper Mill, (1876-1938), image
from the 
JH Harvey collection, State Library of Victoria
In order to find out more about the rag-picking process and with the permission of the mill owner, I took a walk out onto Button Hill to have a look. As I alluded to above, the hill derived its name from the buttons and other fastenings removed by the ragpickers. These presumably worthless items were discarded on the hill beside the mill which came to be known as Button Hill.
Looking south west from Button Hill towards the mill complex, August, 2016
Today the area is a large, overgrown, grassy paddock with little indication of its former purpose, however with some careful observation, we were able to locate a number of buttons, fastenings, metal objects and some scraps of material - all presumably discarded during the cleaning process.
Selection of buttons, fastenings and scraps on Button Hill, August, 2016
I don't believe that a detailed archaeological study of the site has ever been undertaken, but it would be interesting to know what these seemingly very ordinary buttons can tell us about the types of rags used. A couple of the buttons I found were stamped "EXCELSIOR" and "BEST SOLID EYELET". As far as I can tell, these were most likely buttons from men's pants. All the buttons were quite small and plain which is not surprising as I expect that any item of known value would have been removed prior to the clothing being consigned to the rag bag. Everything possible was recycled. Nothing was wasted.
Most of the buttons we found were metal, some were magnetic although most were not and may have been brass. There was one ceramic button, similar to those used on men's work shirts and a portion of a mother of pearl shell button. A third button may have been made from shell or a type of stone. All of these materials were commonly used in buttons during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There was also what appeared to be part of a shirt stud, commonly used on men's shirts instead of buttons as well as scraps of metal, leather and hessian.
The one thing I could not find whilst researching the role of women at the Barwon Paper Mill however, was a single account of the mill given by the women who worked there. There were numerous descriptions of what the women did and the conditions under which they worked, but I still do not know who they were.


  1. What an interesting post, thanks, Jo

  2. Really interesting read we stood in this room today. The mill has always fascinated me. Thanks for sharing Jo