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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.