The Ipswich Woollen Mills
The Ipswich Woollen Mills Ipswich Historical Society

FLASHBACK: Stories bringing the woollen mills to life

HOT, exhausting and underpaid- these are some of the words one researcher used to describe working conditions for women at Ipswich's historic woollen mills.

The woollen mills have been a feature of Janis Hanley's life for the past few months.

She has spoken to numerous Ipswich women who slogged it out in the industry that made Ipswich one of the most revered in the Commonwealth.

 

PhD candidate Janis Hanley has been researching the Ipswich woollen mills and speaking with locals who worked at what was one of the city's biggest employers.
PhD candidate Janis Hanley has been researching the Ipswich woollen mills and speaking with locals who worked at what was one of the city's biggest employers. Helen Spelitis

The PhD candidate at Griffith University has been studying the mills' history and collecting first hand accounts of what life was like for the women who worked there.

Ms Hanley's passion is cultural heritage and how it shapes a community's identity.

She said while not all stories were positive, the mills were an intrinsic part of the city's history and their story was not over yet.

During the early to mid-1900s Ipswich was powerhouse in the wool industry and unrivalled across the state.

In 1861, the Ipswich Cotton Company was established at East Ipswich by Cribb, Walker and Brown. Then the Queensland Woollen Manufacturing Company at North Ipswich was established in 1875 followed by the establishment of the Redbank Woollen Mill in 1934.

In 1890, the timber factory at North Ipswich was replaced with a brick building designed by prominent Ipswich architect George Brockwell Gill.

By the end of the 19th century Ipswich was experiencing a boom in industry, employment and wealth.

Throughout both World War I and II, the mills played a key role providing clothing for the general population and the army.

The industry eventually collapsed when the Federal Government lowered tariffs and the Australian market became flooded with cheaper textiles.

 

The Ipswich Woollen Mills
The Ipswich Woollen Mills Ipswich Historical Society

"Ipswich's mills were the only woollen mills in Queensland which is really interesting because for a long time Queensland was the biggest producer of wool," Ms Hanley said.

"Queensland grew the most wool, although most of it was exported.

"The focus of my research is talking to former workers and about the conditions they worked under in the mills.

"They weren't particularly good and they weren't very well paid.

"It was largely a female workforce because at the time you paid women less.

"Back then it was kind of mandated they were paid less."

With humidifiers running in the factory, conditions were hot, the machines were loud causing hearing loss and many of the workers were children, starting at age 14.

She said what had stuck with her the most, was how women in their late 40s and 50s managed to juggle work and family.

"There was no childcare back then," she said.

"There's one story where the kids would play in the park next to the mill and if the foreman was in a good mood, he would let the kids come in.

"That stuck with me. It made me realise the changes that have happened for women over that time. We haven't achieved equal pay but we've certainly come a long way, in terms of conditions starting to meet family needs."

 

The Ipswich Woollen Mills
The Ipswich Woollen Mills Ipswich Historical Society

For Ms Hanley, history is a story that has multiple sides and she wants to tell the workers' story.

"The history of the mills themselves, that history gets written," Mr Hanley said.

"What doesn't get written, is the stories of the every day people that enabled that work to happen.

"It was high quality work they produced, given the equipment they had."

Ms Hanley has seen the woollen mills as they are today and said their history of the woollen mills was still being written.

"If our heritage is around us and we understand our stories, if it's part of everyday life, it really enriches our lives," she said.

"It's about having that heritage embedded in the local culture so people can enjoy it and build an identity around it

"This isn't just about Ipswich's identity and history - it's about Queensland's story.

 

The Ipswich Woollen Mills
The Ipswich Woollen Mills Ipswich Historical Society

"The closure of the mills presented a loss of jobs which impacted the community culturally."

"The important thing about heritage is that it remains in use and a big site like that, it would be good if the public had access to it and could come to know more about the mills."

For years there has been discussion about the revival Ipswich's North Ipswich woollen mill which is now covered in graffiti and street art.

The heritage-listed building is owned by Ipswich City Council and tenders have previously been released to restore the building to its original architectural form and an eventual re-use.

Exactly what the mills will be transformed into is still up for discussion.

On Sunday Ms Hanley will talk about her research at the Cooneana Heritage Society, Redbank Plains. The session starts at 10.30am, admission is $7 for non-members.

If you have a story to share with Ms Hanley, contact her janis.hanley@griffithuni.edu.au.

 

Peggy Windle worked at the woollen mills in her youth.
Peggy Windle worked at the woollen mills in her youth. Helen Spelitis

She was a battler, a spinner and orphan

This article was originally published in the QT, March 2017

PEGGY Windle spent her childhood at work among the smell of freshly sheared wool, making the clothes that kept soldiers warm.

She doesn't know where she was born or who her parents were, only that Ipswich has always been home.

When Ms Windle was a baby she was adopted by an Ipswich couple who ran an optometry business opposite the Ipswich Post Office on Brisbane St.

Ms Windle spent many of her earlier years there until she moved to Cairns with her adopted mother after her adopted father suddenly died.

After about seven years, Ms Windle's adopted mother became sick and they moved back to Ipswich. She died not long after and Ms Windle was orphaned again.

At 12 years old, Ms Windle was granted special permission to leave school and go to work at the North Ipswich Woollen Mills because there was no one left to take care of her. She started out in the spinning room, along with many other women employed at the Queensland Woollen Manufacturing Company during the World War II.

Ms Windle moved in with relatives at East Ipswich and walked to work every day until her boss Mr Morgan found out.

"It was during the war years... and sometimes I was doing night shift," Ms Windle, now 96, said.

"Mr Morgan told me I couldn't be walking that far 'in these times' and sent me to get a bike from a man he knew."

That wasn't the only time Mr Morgan helped young Ms Windle during her time working at the mills.

On pay day, the relatives Ms Windle was living with began collecting her wages.

Mr Morgan found out and intervened, telling Ms Windle he would keep her wages safe instead.

Ms Windle's relatives left town and she was left alone for the third time.

"When Mr Morgan found out, he said 'Peg you're coming to live with us'," Ms Windle said.

"I worked there for about 10 years and loved it.

"Mr Morgan got me moved from the spinning room to the weaving room while I was there. He was a great friend of mum's."

 

 

The Ipswich Woollen Mills
The Ipswich Woollen Mills Ipswich Historical Society

How the wool was transformed

SPINNING wool was hard work.

Machines were mostly operated by women who walked miles everyday inside the factory, as they chased the mills across the floor.

The Queensland Woollen Manufacturing Company at North Ipswich was known for producing high quality products from flannels to blankets and rugs, and clothing.

Wool processing consisted of various stages beginning with sorting and grading, scouring, drying and dying, carding, combing, spinning, weaving, brushing, and sewing.

Each stage took place in a separate area of the mill, with each process flowing onto the next in a hierarchical structure.

In the two smaller south rooms the wool was sorted and graded to determine how it would be processed.

The scouring vats were located in the south-west room, and here the wool was cleaned of impurities and steam dried and dyed if required.

The remainder of the process was carried out in the main area of the mill. The mill contained 10 carding machines; these large machines broke up the wool and removed impurities. The combing process further organised the woollen fibres. The largest machines in the mill were the spinning mules on which the wool was spun. The wool was then woven into fabrics on the weaving looms. The woven fabric then went through shaving machines to give the cloth a fine finish. Finally, the fabric would be sewn into various products.

Extracts from the Queensland Heritage Register



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