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Warrnambool History

The Mill site has been a vital part of Warrnambool for all but 22 years of the town’s history. Historians agree that Warrnambool’s date of white settlement is best set at 1847, when the first government land sales were held, although the place was known to overlanders, whalers and sealers before then

Warrnambool Woolen Mill Company Ltd

In 1869 the Warrnambool Meat Preserving Company began operations on the present mill site, but not for long. Six years on, in 1875, shareholders of the defunct Warrnambool Meat Preserving Company happily sold the land and buildings on the realigned Merri River to the directors of the recently floated Warrnambool Woolen Mill Company Ltd for £5,000.

The site was sold again in 1876 to grazier Robert Hood of Sherwood, on the Hopkins River, who was chairman of directors of the failed company, which couldn’t raise sufficient capital to provide plant and machinery to keep the works operating. The entrepreneurial Hood used the existing plant to turn his own wool into tweed.

But just as the mill was starting to show a profit, fire destroyed the building and plant on the night of 25 March 1882. So again, the mill was operational for six short years. Insurers only paid a fraction over 10% of the damage, Hood couldn’t raise sufficient capital to rebuild on his own, and so the site lay unused until 1910.

For most of the 20th century the story of the mill is a story of growth, beginning in 1908 when Marcus Saltau and Peter John McGennan convinced the Warrnambool Chamber of Commerce to invest in secondary industry with local capital. A public meeting in September 1908 agreed to raise £40,000, electing Saltau chairman of directors, a post he held for 34 years.

Wool Shed at the Warrnambool Woollen Mill

A year later, using mostly local money, the Warrnambool Woollen Mill Company dispatched its first manager, John E. Bennett, to buy plant and recruit 20 experienced staff from the Yorkshire woollen industry in December 1909. Another year more, the new mill was officially opened on 14 November 1910 by Marcus Saltau as company chairman and town mayor. Eighteen months on, in May 1912, the mill paid its first half-yearly dividend of 2 ½%. It was now working two shifts, with a year’s orders to fill.

In 1914 the mill ordered its own generator, providing the town with electricity and effectively doubling its plant size by October 1915, six months after Gallipoli. Thereafter, government orders for cloth and military supplies assured the mill’s success right through the First World War and on until 1923.

A plant upgrade in 1922 for machinery to make worsted fabric drained profits, which, with a fall in demand, led to a loss in 1925. Profits were restored by the 1930s, despite the Depression, mostly due to tight management and robust marketing.

Production boomed again during the Second World War, but soon foreign competition bit into profits, forcing the company to consolidate operations.

 

In 1955, the Warrnambool Woollen Mill Company trimmed for growth by closing the annexes in Port Fairy and Timor Street that opened during the war, and by forming a new company in partnership with the Wangaratta Woollen Mills Ltd.

Workers at the old Woollen Mill

The ‘50s and ‘60s were golden years for the mill. Security and growth gave the company confidence to trial Australia’s first electric blanket in 1958 and to instal Swiss Sulzer looms in 1965. Over time, the building facades took on the modern look that the mill presented till it closed.

Dunlop bought the mill in 1968, fending off a challenge from Onkaparinga in South Australia, and continued to expand by adding Wendouree Woollen Mill in the same year and Dreamspun Textiles a decade later, in 1979.

Soon after that purchase, however, the mill began its slippery slide into decline. Dunlop sold to its former rival bidder Onkaparinga Woollen Co. Ltd in 1982, which in turn was taken over by Macquarie Worsteds only a year later, in 1983. Operations remained stable for a decade until 1994, when the Macquarie Group signalled that its newly rationalised operations left no room for the Warrnambool investment.

The final operator of the mill was The Smith Family charity group, which ran the site by agreement with the Warrnambool City Council and a state government grant in that same year, 1994. The mill became more of a fabric recycler than a manufacturer, but eventually no amount of good will was going to save the 67 remaining staff, especially when electric blanket-maker Linda industries went into receivership, stripping the mill of forward contracts. In July 2000, The Smith Family Industries CEO Michael Travers broke the bad news personally. The mill was to be no more.

As so many times before, the mill site lives on in another incarnation, this time as a residential, commercial and cultural development. The site was sold to private operators in February 2003 and rezoned four months later to allow for the mixed development proposed in the winning tender.

In his 2001 report to Warrnambool City Council on the heritage value of the site, Gary Vines of Biosis Research observed: The Warrnambool Woollen Mill played a significant role in the social fabric of the city, being established as a community and economic endeavour and run for the benefit of local people, whether to generate employment, provide an outlet for local produce, or to bring profits and capital back to the region.

For all its triumphs and travails since 1869, the mill site has been consistent in that special tradition. And so it lives on today, some of its structures preserved and its community spirit intact.

Merri River


Workers group at factory entrance next to office - 1920

Workers at The Mill in 1920

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