Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

History Revisited - looking back on the industrial age

I wonder how many Armidale residents know of Armidale’s industrial past? Yes, the city does have one!

You find hints of it today in street names such as Brewery Lane (Simpson’s Brewey) or Tancredi Steet (B A Moses’ tannery), in the brick pits and in some of the buildings.

Most of the city’s early workshops and manufacturing operations relied on local markets and used local raw material. They serviced the building industry (brickworks and sawmills), transport (blacksmiths, leatherwork, coach or buggy building) and supplied consumer products (meat, beer, flour, cordials, butter, soap or boots and shoes).

Operations were generally small, although some grew to be substantial businesses. In 1882, Barnet Moses’ Armidale tannery and boot factory had 100 employees, was exporting to Britain and producing up to 1,500 pairs of boots and 500 sides of leather a month.

The civic minded Moses built houses for his workers and contributed to various local causes. He also experienced the region’s first serious industrial action outside the railways when his workers struck because Moses had reduced wages to counter cheap Sydney product coming in via the new railway.

The city’s industries rose and fell with changes in management, transport, technology, local supplies and Government regulation.

Armidale’s civic leaders spoke proudly, but mistakenly of the Tablelands’ future as a premier wheat producing area. By the 1890s, Armidale’s five flour mills had shrunk to two in the face of competition from other areas, including cheap flour coming in by rail from South Australia. Tamworth’s experience was very different. There with greater supply, scale and entrepreneurial flair, Fielders grew to become one the largest miller and baker in Australia.

Flour milling was not the only Armidale industry affected by the railway. Brewing stopped. “Golden Bar” and “Champion Cleaner and Pumice Sand” soap produced by Mallaby’s New England Soap Works vanished from the shelves.

The combination of the railways with changing technology and increasing economies of scale affected local industry across the broader New England. However, the immediate impact appears to have been greatest in Armidale, in part because the city lacked the local entrepreneurial culture to be found elsewhere and in Tamworth in particular.

The coming of the railways was only the first in a series of rolling changes affecting New England industrial activity, culminating in the economic and structural changes of the 1980s and 1990s. In 1981, for example, abattoir closures led to the loss of some 800 direct Tablelands’ jobs, a loss that passed without ripple in the metro press.

Some new industries did open, but the net effect was a further hollowing out of the Northern NSW economy.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 6 February 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013

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