William's Top Matches
About William Clark Dalzell
Reminiscences of a Flax Miller
1890 - 1929
by William Dalzell
To start at the beginning, I had better say that I was born in Christchurch on the 18th February, 1877 - 86 years ago. My father, John Dalzell, was a farmer at Mount Grey Downs, North Canterbury, and I was the eldest in his family of nine children.
After I was born, Father left Mount Grey and leased land at Waikari and then at Mason’s Flat, finally moving to a residence at Hurunui. It was while we were living at Hurunui that I had my only schooling. I walked three miles to Medbury School each day and when we left Canterbury I had completed three Standards at the school.
After about three years at Hurunui, Father crossed to the North Island and I believe he obtained employment on the railway being constructed between Palmerston North and Napier. He wrote to my Mother at Hurunui instructing her to sell the stock on the farm, pack up and bring the family to the Manawatu. This she did, and in 1890 we moved into a house in Palmerston North.
Now this house was next to a residence belonging to a Mr Ted Jones, who was a flax miller down the Manawatu River. I became friendly with Mr Jones’ two sons and was allowed to go with them and their father to the flaxmill. While I was staying there I did some work at the mill, helping the boys, and Mr Jones must have taken a fancy to me, because he said, “Willie, I think I could find you a better job than this. I could give you a job catching on the flax machine.” Well, the work appealed to me, so I took the job and it was arranged that I should work ten hours a day and be paid eight shillings a week and found. I was thirteen years old at the time, and it was to be the beginning of thirty years of contact with flax mills in the North Island.
Mr Jones was in partnership with a Mr Rogers (I think his Christian name was George) and their Mill was situated about three miles down the Manawatu River from what was then known as Oroua Bridge, and is now called Rangiotu. There were several other mills in the area and I recall that Osborne and Geeson (partners) and Mr Russell had mills within a mile of Jones and Rogers. There was also a two-stipper mill further up the river.
After working at the mill for about twelve months, there was a slump in the market and Mr Jones and his partner went through the Bankruptcy Court. The firm went into liquidation and was able to pay only ten shillings in the pound.
Having bought a broken-down race horse for a modest sum a little while before, I packed my belongings and set off for Palmerston North. During the ride on my shoeless horse I met with a rather unusual experience, for the horse slipped and took a “header” into some swampy water alongside the road. After we had pulled ourselves out of the cold water and shaken the weeds off as best we could, we proceeded without further mishap. As it was nightfall, I was very pleased when we arrived home, tired, cold and hungry.
After a few days at home with my parents and brothers and sisters (during which time I sold my old pal, the horse) another young fellow and myself decided to wander down the Manawatu River in search of work. As previously mentioned there were several flax mills in operation on the banks of the river, and one mill we came to had a vacancy for one person. Because of my previous milling experience the job was offered to me, but I decided not to accept it if my mate couldn’t get a position as well.
So we tramped on further, past Waldon’s Mill, Saunder’s Mill (at Moutoa) and the Piaka Mill, until we arrived at the settlement of Foxton. Here we stayed at a boarding house run by a Mrs “Darky” Allan, who obtained her nick-name because of her marriage to a very dark-skinned man. He, however, had died earlier in their married life.
The following day I went down to the Foxton Wharf and met a lot of young fellows who were fishing there. When they found I was a “new chum” to the area they told me to go into town and buy a fishing line, hooks and bait. So I bought the equipment and on my way back to the wharf purchased some bait from Easton’s Butchery. (These Eastons were parents of Fred Easton, who many years later made his fortune in flax around the Moutoa area, near Shannon).
I returned to the wharf and was hopefully waiting for a bite, when along came a young fellow that I knew by the name of Jim. It turned out that he had been sent by Mr Jack Jones (a brother of my ex-employer) to offer me a job at his flax mill at Poroutawhao. Jones had heard from his brother in Palmerston North that I had wondered down the river seeking a job, and had sent a horse and saddle with Jim so that I could travel to the Mill.
Well fortunately, my mate had found a job in Foxton, so I abandoned my fishing and rode with Jim down to Poroutawhao, which is three or four miles north of Levin. I got a job in the paddocks at first, and then a better job in the flax mill itself. At this time I was fourteen years old and the year was 1891. My wages were fifteen shillings per week and I worked the 58 hours week, which is 10 hours a day.
After working for Jack Jones for about eight or nine months I again found myself out of work, for this firm also went into liquidation and creditors were paid seven shillings and sixpence in the pound. At this period the millers were having a lean time on account of the low price for hemp.
Poroutawhao was an old Maori settlement and I recall that in 1891-92 there was another flax mill there, a distance from Jones’ Mill.
So I returned home, but soon got another job, this time cutting cocksfoot grass on the Fitzherbert Flats, east of the Manawatu River near Palmerston North. I was earning one pound per week.
After a short time there I heard that a job was offering on Randolph and Walker’s farm, near Longburn. Because of my experience on father’s farms (and although I was only fifteen years old) I got the job, which paid fifteen shillings a week and found.
I worked on this farm for several months, and then received a letter from my younger brother Tom, who was working at a flax mill in Otaki. He advised me to go to the mill, where a job paying twenty-five shillings a week was offering. So I moved to Otaki and got the job, the year being 1893.
I worked at this Mill for about ten months, until a big flood occurred and swept away all of the mill - except for the engine. So my brother and I found ourselves out of a job once more.
However, at this time my father was working at Te Horo (between Otaki and Waikanae) and for three years he, my brother and I, made good money there on Gear’s sheep and cattle station, for we got a contract to keep drains clear. After the contract ran out Father got a small farm at Te Horo and we worked that for a further two years.
About 1899 my brother Tom and myself decided to try our luck on the harvest fields of Canterbury, so we travelled by rail and boat to Lyttelton and then to Christchurch. We decided to ship down as far as Le Bon’s Bay, where the cocksfoot grass season harvest was just about to start. On arrival there we both secured a job with a farmer in a fairly large holding and worked for three months. Having made good money we packed up and went as far south as Timaru, where we secured further good positions and worked in the wheat and oats harvest. After the harvest was over we received our pay and decided to travel on and have a look at Dunedin, where we stayed for over a week. The town and the people treated us so well that we decided if ever we wanted somewhere to go for a holiday we would choose Dunedin. We came home feeling very satisfied with our experiences in the South Island.
Upon returning to the Manawatu it was my desire to better my position as quickly as possible, so I returned to the flax industry and applied for a job at a mill in Waikanae. The owner, a Mr Bob Stansell, took me on for a trial, but because of my previous experience I soon got the position of stripper keeper, a job which paid pounds 4-10-0 per week.
It was while I was working at the Waikanae Mill that I experienced an unusual accident, which has left its visible effect upon me until the day I die. In 1901, when I was twenty-four years old, the Boer War was in progress and because of my considerable ability with a rifle a military man made arrangements for me to go to Wellington and have a medical examination. If fit, I could enlist for South Africa. Well, the night before I was to leave for Wellington I was working at the Mill on a summer night-shift, which ran from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. When I switched on the second stripping machine (which was to run from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.) I noticed it sounded a bit unusual. So I stopped it two or three times, but there was still no change in the sound. I mentioned it to the boss and suggested that the cast-iron drum on the machine might be cracked. But he thought this was unlikely and told me that the man on the day-shift had also stopped a few times, but could find nothing wrong.
I continued to operate the stripping machine for some time, but I wasn’t satisfied with it. So I picked up a spanner, threw back the cover and tapped the drum, which was revolving about 2500 times per minute. I glanced at a clock on the wall and saw that the time was seventeen minutes to nine o’clock. That was the last thing I remembered, for the next moment the drum burst and pieces of iron exploded around me. One piece struck the top of my forehead above my left eye, fractured my skull and rendered me unconscious. Another piece went through the high roof of the mill, and the rollers of the machine were hurled against my chest. It was later found that the drum had indeed been cracked.
A week or so later I regained consciousness and the first thing I saw was a white ceiling above me, so I knew I wasn’t in my whare at Waikanae. A nurse told me that I was in Wellington Hospital and I learned that I had been carried there unconscious in the very train which was to have taken me to Wellington for my Army check-up. So I never managed to get to South Africa after all.
I later found out what had happened to me after the accident. The nearest Doctor to the Mill was one who lived at Otaki and he travelled down to Waikanae in his horse and trap. The Palmerston North to Wellington train stopped at Waikanae about twenty minutes past eight, on the morning following the accident, and the Doctor looked me over before I was placed in the Guard'’ Van. Apparently there wasn’t much hope held for my life at the time and the OTAKI MAIL newspaper published the following paragraph:
SAD - We hear that young Dalzell, who met with an accident at the Waikanae flaxmill on Thursday last, is now lying in Wellington Hospital. He is so seriously injured by a fracture of the skull that it is feared he will not recover.
However, those Doctors must have under-estimated me, for after about six weeks in hospital I was able to return home. I received a compensation of 60 pounds, but in 1901 there was no free hospital treatment and my medical bills came to about 58 pounds.
I believe that a stiff felt hat, belonging to my brother, which I was wearing at the time of the accident saved my life. It was thick enough to deflect the piece of iron from burying itself in my head. The metal caught me only a glancing blow and smashed a small hole in my skull.
I was able to return to work in the Mill before very long, but this time I worked on the day-shift. About a week after my return another drum in the mill shattered in a similar way. But this time the flying pieces of iron shot downward (away from me) and the man who was catching the flax as it came out of the machine was in danger of being injured. Fortunately he was all right, but a piece of flying metal took the skin off the outside of his little finger. If he had been over a little further he might have lost his hand. The engine driver stopped the machinery and I remember sitting down and realising how close I had been to injury. I think ideas of leaving the flax milling industry ran through my head, but they didn’t come to anything.
Anyway, the firms manufacturing the iron drums were notified about the breakages and they introduced a cast-steel drum, which was unbreakable. After that there were no further accidents. I understand that there had been another accident similar to mine in the Manawatu, but the man involved had not been seriously injured.
Actually the cracked drums were caused by the mill workers putting through twenty to twenty-three hundredweight of flax per hour, when the machines and drums could safely take only twelve to fifteen hundredweight per hour. The new cast-steel drums, however, were capable of taking three to four tons of flax each hour without any trouble.
But that wasn’t the end of my “hole in the head” story. After my return to work at the mills my skull seemed to be mending up all right. I was fairly active most of the time, winning two or three bike races in the district and also an obstacle race at Levin. But in 1906 I became stripper keeper at a mill in Koputaroa and I began to get very severe headaches and giddy turns. So I sought medical advice in Wellington and Palmerston North, and the late Doctor Martin (Palmerston North) advised me to have my skull x-rayed. This I did and I was afterwards notified that it would be necessary to have an operation to my skull, as the bone around the dege of the fracture was growing inward, instead of straight across. This bone was apparently pressing on my brain and causing severe headaches.
Well, at that time such an operation was a very tricky business indeed, for the medical knowledge of 1907 was much inferior to that of today. I got the advice of two or three Doctors in Wellington concerning the operation, and they weren’t very certain about the prospects of success. But Doctor Martin said he would do it, so I agreed to be operated upon and went into a private hospital in Palmerston North.
When I came out of the Hospital I was amazed at the size of the hole in my skull, for to prevent the bone from growing inward Martin had cut away all the bone from around the small fracture. I thought the bone might grow across again and fill in the crater, but it never did and today I have a hole in my skull about two inches long and about one inch wide. It’s over fifty years since I had that operation and I’ve never had any trouble with the injury since. Doctor Martin was later killed in action during the 1914-18 War.
As I mentioned before, the accident occurred at the Waikanae Flax Mill, where I was employed from 1900. My mother, Mrs Jessie Dalzell, was also in Waikanae around this time and for two years she ran a boarding house in connection with the flax mill. In 1904 this Mill had to close down, owing to a shortage of flax, and Mother moved to a home in Shannon.
I also had to find another job, but soon became stripper keeper at Lind and O’Connor’s Mill at Shannon. Here I worked for two years, but this mill also had to close down when the Seifert Brothers started their big eight-stripper mill.
So in 1906 I moved down to Koputaroa, between Shannon and Levin, and became stripper keeper at a Mill owned by some Company. The manager was a Mr Joe Dunn. I worked on here for over two years, but then a big slump hit the market and nearly all the mills in the district were forced to close up. (In a short time, however, most of them had started milling again when the market for hemp improved).
I had saved up some money and was considering going into a business of some kind, when a Hotel proposition was put to me. I decided to take on this class of business, so I secured a five year lease of the “Post Office Hotel” in Foxton. This was about 1909. I ran this Hotel for about eighteen months, when a party was offered me a good-will price for the remainder of the lease and I decided to accept.
Then, about 1910, I was offered a Flax Mill in the Waikato by Mr Charles Loughnan (of Palmerston North) and a syndicate. After looking over the plant I decided to take the mill on a contract basis. The mill was situated at Te Rapa and after running for nine months I had cut out all the available flax, so the owners closed the plant down.
There was nothing else doing in the flax milling business in the Waikato at the time, so I decided to go into a private business again. This time I decided upon a little store, with dwelling attached, in Hamilton and ran the “West End Cash Store” for eighteen months.
Then the late Mr Charles Loughnan and his partners (Mr Keiller and Mr R.S. Abraham) offered me another Flax Mill at Koputaroa, between Shannon and Levin. I came down to Palmerston North and had a talk with them, and my brother Tomme and I decided to run the Mill for them on a contract basis. This would be about 1912. After running for a year and making good money (there was a keen demand for New Zealand hemp and we had plenty of flax) my brother Tom left to manage a flax mill at Makerua (north of Shannon), which Mr Loughnan had an interest in. I remained manager at the Koputaroa Mill and about 1913 I purchased Mr R.S. Abraham’s share in the Mill.
We continued to run the mill until 1915, when a satisfactory offer was received from a Company. Loughnan, Keiller and myself considered there would be a slump in the marked during and after the 1914-18 War, so we decided to sell.
This Mill was situated about half a mile from the previous Koputaroa Mill I had worked in, and during my management 1912-15 there were three other flax mills in the area.
I might mention that my brother, Tom Dalzell, remained manager at the Makerua Mill for sixteen years and I think he acquired some interest in it. It must have been about 1929 when that Mill was sold to a Foxton firm.
While I was managing at Koputaroa I purchased another flax mill at Puketapu, near Napier, and placed a manager on it. I had this mill for about nine months, but it ran out of flax and I lost 70 pounds on it. However, I managed to sell the mill engine for a fairly good price.
A rather amusing (and painful) accident happened to me at this time. I was going to catch the train at Koputaroa Station in order to travel to my mill near Napier, and I went down to the station in a cart pulled by a horse. The Station at Koputaroa was not on the same side of the railway tracks as the road, so I had to cross the lines in order to get my train. I noticed a ballast train on the line a little distance away, but I thought it had stopped. I began to cross the line, carrying my baggage, when suddenly the ballast train came “out of the blue” and the engine hit me on the right hip. Fortunately the train wasn’t going very fast, but the blow took skin off me. I grabbed hold of some part of the engine and the man who had driven me down in the horse and cart yelled out to the engine driver to stop. The driver immediately put on the Westinhouse brake, and the force shot me down in front of the engine and I was knocked unconscious by the cow-catcher.
When I “came to” I was lying in the Goods Shed, surrounded by twenty or thirty chaps. Word had immediately been sent to the nearest Doctor (who lived in Levin) that a man had been run down by the ballast train, so the Doctor got into his car (a rare means of transport in those days) and headed for Koputaroa. However, his car broke down about a mile and a half south of the Station, and he had to get some gangers working on the railway to run him into Koputaroa by “jigger”. But when he arrived at the Goods Shed he found he had left his bag in his car!! Luckily, he didn’t need any equipment, for I only had a bit of skin off me and a few bruises. But it was a great joke at the time.
The following morning, however, it was a different story, for I was sore from the soles of my feet to the top of my head. I only turned over about twice in the day, but when I did it was murder!! But I soon got right again.
Well, after the Koputaroa Mill was sold in 1915 I got in touch with another friend of mine (Mr Broad, of Palmerston North) and he notified me of a mill and about 375 acres of good flax that was for sale at Te Puke, in the Bay of Plenty. I decided to buy the plant and the price was around 8000 pounds.
In July, 1915, my brother Ken and myself packed all the necessary things in my big car and we set off for Te Puke, travelling via Napier and Rotorua. It was a rather rough trip, for being winter the weather conditions were bad. Parts of the roads were simply mud and slush and there was no metal. However, we arrived at our destination on the third day and found the country at the back of Te Puke flooded. Final arrangements for taking over the mill were made and it was soon in operation. The mill was situated on the Kaituna River and flax was brought up by barge and launch.
I ran the plant for two years and did very well out of it, for instead of there being a slump in the market there was a boom. When I first took over the mill hemp was fetching about 20 pounds per ton, and a short time after I was getting 40 pound per ton. In 1917 I was offered a good price for freehold, which I accepted, and the mill was sold to Broad and Ingram. I thought at the time that if the war ended early there would be a drop in the price of hemp, but that did not eventuate and hemp kept at a high price until about 1922 or 1923.
In the settlement I left 1497 pounds in the business, to be paid back in three years. Unfortunately for me, an Act came into force in 1918 which meant that I could not demand back the Principal as long as the mill owners kept paying me the interest on it. This situation continued for a number of years, until I was advised that the owners were obliged to go into liquidation, on account of the weak state of the market. The Court agreed to accept the owners Statement and creditors were paid a half penny in the pound. It was a rather disagreeable state of affairs, but we had no other option but to agree. So ended my interest in the Te Puke Mill.
During the winter of 1917 my family and I returned to the Manawatu and I decided to buy a six acre farm, with a good home on it, at Manakau, between Otaki and Levin. There was also a General Store and Town Hall on the property, and I purchased the place from Mr Dick Bevan.
After beautifying my Manakau property with hedges and carrying out various other improvements, I could not resist the temptation of returning to the flax milling industry. So in 1917 I purchased the cutting rights and mill plant, as a running concern, of the “Kuku” Mill, at Manakau. I bought it through Mr Alec Ross from the Foxton Cordage Company and it cost me 2000 pounds. The mill was situated on the banks of the Waikawa River and was previously owned by Swainson and Bevan, at which time it had been situated further down the river.
I held the cutting rights for flax between Paekakariki and Horowhenua Lake (Levin), but such tempting offers were coming through from the Merchants, William Wood and Company of Christchurch, that the one mill could not cope with the demand for hemp. So late 1917 Mr Charlie Loughnan and I leased another mill from a Mr Saunders at Moutoa, near Shannon. Berquist was placed as manager. We had just caught up to our liabilities, and prospects were looking good, when this mill was set alight by a spark from the steam engine and burned down. This was in February, 1918. So ended the Moutoa venture, but I still continued to make good money at the “Kuku” Mill.
In 1920 there was another fire connected with my flax business. A very large and well-built hemp shed, which was on the Main Road a little to the north of Manakau, was completely destroyed by fire. It had formerly been used by Swainson and Bevan for storage purposes and was in an excellent state of preservation. At the time of the blaze the shed was full of fibre, and although it was insured for about 100 pounds there was still a considerable loss. It is through that the fire was started deliberately by a vandal, who at that time burned down two or three buildings around Manakau (including the Anglican Church).
After the Moutoa venture ended I decided to purchase another milling property at Tahuna, on the Piako River, between Morrinsville and Thames. I purchased it for 8000 pounds from an Auckland Company and early in 1919 Mr K. Stansell was places as manager. I used to travel up to Tahuna from Manakau every five or six weeks.
There were about 100 acres of freehold land that the mill itself was situated on, I had the cutting rights for some 642 acres of Maori land and further down the Piako River I leased some 490 acres of Government owned flax. So the plant looked a very good proposition, but unfortunately the market for hemp began to weaken and the price gradually fell. Although I managed to buy up all the Maori flax land (at about 5 pound an acre) there was a fire in the Government leasehold about 1927, which destroyed some twelve months cutting. This necessitated obtaining flax from further afield, and the transporting costs were raised by twenty-five per cent.
In 1929 a slump occurred in the flax market and I was forced to close up the Tahuna Mill for good. I later heard that a young chap from Sydney had taken over the plant after I had left. Apparently he had been privately financed and bought the mill speculating that the market for hemp would improve. But he had never been in the flax business and failed to gain the confidence of the men he employed. After working the mill for about eighteen months he walked out, having lost 8000 pounds.
After closing the Tahuna Mill I continued with the “Kuku” Mill at Manakau for a little while, but because of a shortage of flax and the poor price for hemp, I was compelled to close down this mill too. In 1929 I sold the “Kuku” machinery to a Masterton miller, who had a considerable amount of cheap flax.
And so ended my thirty years of association with the flax milling industry. I had started as a mill worker, at the age of thirteen, in 1890 and in the following ten years worked in six mills; then I managed two mills under contract; and finally ran four plants of my own for close on fifteen years. It was a wonderful industry.
At times there were as many as twenty-six mills in the Manawatu district and in the years 1910-1928 they were putting away about 3000 tons of leaf per week and employing nearly 600 men. The majority of the mills had only one or two flax strippers, but Seirferts Mill had eight machines.
Prior to 1910 there were a great many mills around the Manawatu working on a very small profit. In most of them wages were very low and sleeping and boarding conditions were very bad. But as time went on conditions improved considerably, wages were higher and sleeping and cooking conditions were fairly good.
After leaving the Mills my daughter and I ran the silent pictures in the Manakau Town Hall for two years, but with the installation of “talkies” at Otaki and Levin we were forced to close down.
I continued to run my property at Manakau until 1945, in which year my wife and I retired into a cottage at Levin. Here I will probably spend the rest of my days.
At eighty-six I must be one of the oldest flax millers still living. All my old employers, my partners and contemporary millers have passed on, and I am very fortunate to have lived to such an advanced age.
The previous information was given by William Dalzell, 551 Oxford Street, Levin to I.R. Matheson on 11th and 12th of September 1963.
William Dalzell's Timeline
February 18, 1877
Christchurch, Christchurch City, Canterbury, New Zealand
December 28, 1903
June 26, 1968
May 15, 1974
Hamilton, Hamilton City, Waikato, New Zealand