From the beginning of the Williams Valley’s European settlement the search for and cutting of timber have played a significant role. Convict timber getters were sent up the Paterson and Williams Rivers before the first land grants were made and cedar was cut and floated in rafts back to Newcastle for shipping to Sydney. It is unclear exactly how far up the valleys these first timber getters went.
By 1819 timber had been cut in such quantities that it was necessary to push further and further up the waterways. As William Wentworth described it:
The timber procured on the banks of this river [the Hunter River, called by him the Coal River] is chiefly cedar and rose wood. The cedar, however, is becoming scarce in consequence of the immense quantities that have been already cut down, and cannot be any longer obtained without going at least a hundred and fifty miles up the river. At this distance, however, it is still to be had in considerable abundance, and is easily floated down to the town in rafts.
The relative isolation of much of the valleys often led to disputes when timber was cut on land belonging to others. The government too wished to ensure it obtained a share of this valuable resource and declared that all timber on crown property could only be felled under licence. Timber was in high demand for houses and ships, and, after the 1860s, for sleepers and other railway associated construction; later again, telegraph poles added to the demand for timber. Local farmers naturally used the timber on their own properties and many found cedar so abundant that it was common to build barns and other functional buildings with this valuable and now scarce timber.
Much of this timber was cut, sawn and transported by hand with saw pits dug out close to where the timber was felled. The timber was then transported with bullock teams, a method long carried on even after the arrival of the internal combustion engine when bullocks would drag the felled logs down from the mountains to ‘dumps’ more accessible to trucks. Considerations of feed for the bullocks would also determine where timber was cut. Bullock teams continued until the arrival of caterpillar log haulers made it possible to drag timber from most locations.
The timber industry was not a safe place and industrial accidents were common. In 1929, Allan Croll, the son of James Croll owner of Croll’s Mill, was killed when a log coming out of a saw crushed his skull. While John Gam, the owner of Gam’s Mill, was himself killed in 1922 when he was run over by the wheel of a bullock dray. Another long-time timber worker could recall six mates killed in the forest over the years. As well as deaths, the loss of numerous fingers and other limbs was even more common.
In the second half of 19th century it was considered bad for the local economy if timber was taken out of the valleys and down to mills at Maitland. The alternative, it was argued, was to convert the many flour mills into saw mills. On the Paterson River, the first saw mill seems to have been that at Gostwyck in 1875. The Keppie Brother’s had a steam powered saw mill at Paterson in 1890, and a second, also at Paterson, of the Maunders Brothers is established in 1892.
Later mills in the Paterson Valley would specialise in the types of timber they cut. Thus Jordan’s Sawmill near Vacy of the 1920s produced house timbers. Partridge’s Sawmill, begun in the 1930s at Dun’s Creek Hill, cut timber for fish boxes and pallets. Another mill was owned by a mining company and cut pit props, slabs, wedges and sleepers for pit rails. This was the Hebburn Mining Co. Sawmill at Red Hill, Duns Creek.
On the Upper Allyn, the Hancock family had established a mill at Gresford in the 1880s and later this same family had a mill further up the Allyn opposite the site of the Pender & Foster Mill established in 1942. This mill closed in the 1960s but another Hancock family mill operated from the 1950s to the 1970s at Allynbrook, by which time power for the mill was derived from electricity rather than steam.
The Pender & Foster Mill on the Upper Allyn ran from the 1940s to 1970. While it was not unusual for a small community of workers’ cottages and their families to grow up around a saw mill, the Pender & Foster Mill had workers’ houses more substantial than was typical. The houses were built by the Edwards Brothers of Salisbury and boasted double brick fireplaces. The community also had its own hall, tennis court and school. When the Pender & Foster sawmill closed, the company began to rent these former workers’ cottages to whoever wished them; this included former timber workers but also an increasing number of holidayers and others looking for a bush retreat. By 1978, the sawmill company was ready to sell the cottages and a group of by then entrenched tenants formed a company called the ‘Upper Allyn Lister Village Pty Ltd’, consisting of a middle class group of a solicitor, pharmacist, manufacturer, academic and watchmaker who bought all 15 cottages for $60,000 and allocated shares per house with renting rights. This was a move illustrating the ‘tree-change’ mentality that was to grow in significance over the next generation, changing the face of the timber industry within the Williams and nearby river valleys as it did so.
Just as timber made its way down the Paterson and Allyn River valleys to Paterson and its river port, so too did timber come down the Williams River to Dungog and then onto Clarence Town and its port, to continue on to Newcastle and beyond. This was to be the case until the railway came to Dungog in 1911, resulting in Clarence Town losing much of this trade as timber began to be transported by rail instead.
The early shipbuilding industry at Clarence Town created its own demand for timber. However, it was the deep river port itself that generated a direct timber export trade to New Zealand. The Williams River at Clarence Town was deep enough to allow ocean-going ships to come up and at least partially load with timber. The ships would then make their way down to Newcastle where they would finish loading before making for New Zealand. This export trade lasted from at least the 1880s until the coming of the railway to Dungog in 1911. A number of Clarence Town based sawmills contributed to this trade, though much of the timber came down to Clarence Town from further up the Williams River valley and other areas.
As on the Allyn and Paterson Rivers, the forestry industry on the Williams River used bullocks to carry the hand-felled and sawn timbers to and from the increasing number of mills which became established on the Williams. The first of these was Kermode’s Sawmill and Flour Mill at Dungog built in 1861. At some point this mill must have closed because when the Walker Flour Mill at Dungog had a saw mill added to its operations in 1891, it does not appear to have had any competitor. This Walker Mill closed in 1916, and in the same year a fire destroyed the mill owned by the Croll family on the Myall Lakes. James Croll, son of Alexander Croll who had founded the business in 1872, decided to re-establish his operations near the new railway station in Dungog. The Croll family would have been very familiar with the timber industry of the Williams Valley, as the Bulahdelah-Stroud-Dungog route had long been significant to the coastal mills.
With mills constantly opening and closing, many of the mills established were done so with recycled materials from other mills. Thus the Hancock Mill on the Upper Allyn used a boiler that came from a Maitland mill, while Croll’s Mill purchased the machinery of Heath & Son when it closed its Fosterton mill in 1932.
Changes in the timber industry did not go unnoticed, and when in 1911, a special consignment of cedar logs was transported through Dungog, the event was considered noteworthy for a number of reasons. The Dungog Chronicle report describes the bullock teams by this time as in themselves unusual; this load of July 1911 would have been one of the last to make its way down to Clarence Town before the railway opened the following month; and finally, the report describes the cedar timber (on its way to ex-champion sculler George Town’s boat building works on the Parramatta River), to be ‘about the last there is of any dimensions in the district’. Though in 1947, the ‘last’ of the giant cedar trees, with a girth of 11m, was removed.
Around this time two other sawmills are reported in the Williams Valley, one at Hutchinson’s Crossing near Dusodie and another at Main Creek. Soon after this, construction on the Chichester Dam created a boom in the timber industry and Croll’s as well as other mills grew. Croll’s Mill in particular continued to prosper, surviving a major fire in 1947, and in 1962, when the mill converted from steam to electricity, it employed 44 men and 5 girls, and paid out £50,000 a year in wages. Croll’s also had bush mills (temporary or movable mills near a source of timber), such at one in 1957 that was some 17 miles from Dungog.
On the whole, the timber harvesting conducted by these many mills was overseen by the NSW government via departments sporting a variety of names over the years, but generally referred to as ‘Forestry’. Much timber was obtained by negotiation with individual farmers and property owners, including people bringing their own logs to the mills to be sawn. But for timber on Crown land, the mills would be licensed to cut specific sections. Forestry inspectors, such as Dave Skimmings on the Williams River side of Dungog Shire, would choose the trees to be felled and measure and stamp each log with an estimate of its size in super feet. This was usually done in the forest itself, but sometimes at a measuring station, such as one in Gloucester, or at a mill. It was on the basis of the estimated size of a log in super feet, with deductions for possible faults, that the timber cutter and also sometimes the drivers would be paid by the mill. Most timber cutters were contracted by the mills, while some drivers were paid wages, as were mill workers.
During the Second World War, with petrol scarce, charcoal was extensively used to create charcoal gas to run cars and trucks. Many of the saw mills, themselves still running on wood-fired steam engines, set up charcoal kilns and converted their excess wood into this temporary fuel for cars both locally and in Maitland and Newcastle.
While Croll’s and its successors, Allen Taylor and Boral, were the largest sawmills in the Dungog district, there were many smaller mills. Prominent among these was Gam’s Mill at Main Creek, which began in 1909 and operated until the 1970s. Mills at Bandon Grove, Salisbury, Dusodie, Fosterton, Dingadee, Hilldale and Underbank are also recorded, some of these perhaps operating for only a short time or servicing purely local needs. In addition, many farms used tractor engines and other means to operate their own small mills, while a saw mill was also set up during the construction of the Chichester Dam in the 1920s.
Always a tough industry to work in, the development of steam engines, electricity, trucks and caterpillar haulers all had an obvious impact on the manner of extracting timber and transporting it to railheads. But it was not until the 1950s, and the arrival of the chainsaw that the actual felling of the tree changed greatly. With portable single and double chainsaws the entire process of forestry could then be said to have become mechanised.
Regardless of the tools used, the best wood was Tallowood and Blue Gum, with the plentiful Brushbox usually left until Forestry instructed this to be taken also. Brushbox was not favoured as, unless very mature, it had too many faults – up to a third could be lost to these – and it would warp easily. Brushbox was, however, used for dressed flooring, though not for house frames. Much wood was also used for sleepers and these were a specialty, with the sleepers until quite late hand-cut on site, then taken by bullock to the road for a truck pick up. It was considered that a sleeper would last longer if cut by broad axe, as a chain saw would tear the fibres.
Sydney Opera House
In the early 1970s, Croll’s Mill at Dungog supplied the laminated Brushbox flooring for the Sydney Opera House. This also allowed the business to regularly advertise its ‘Glulam Special Opera House Offcuts’. In 1969, the business had been bought by Allen Taylor & Co. though continuing to operate as Croll’s Mill. In 1987, this Dungog sawmill closed, though by this time the Maxwells Creek Mill of Allen Taylor & Co., just outside of Dungog, was operating as a boarding mill. It was the closure of this mill in 2010 that left the Williams Valley and Dungog Shire district without a timber processing operation for the first time in nearly 150 years.
The cause of the disappearance of the sawmills of the Williams Valley lies with technology and other factors. Pit props for mines have ceased to be cut as open-cut mining and hydraulics have eliminated the demand, while railway sleepers are now made of concrete. A more social factor which has impacted on the timber industry in the three valleys was the creation of National Parks in the surrounding hills, closing off many areas to timber cutting. This was not a change that occurred without protest, and the impending declaration of the Barrington Tops National Park in the late 1960s was strongly opposed by mill owners Pender & Foster on the Allyn River, for example. The reduction in timber felling, combined with changes in agricultural land use, has meant that many more trees have begun to grow on the once cleared hills and even on the river flats, resulting in an increase in native animals, most noticeably birds.
WWII charcoal kilns
Giant tree stumps
Laminated timber arches – Maxwells and Tall Timbers
Former mill sites
- Hunter, Wade’s Corn Flour Mill, p.9.↵
- Wentworth, Statistical, Historical and Political Description, p.28.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.41.↵
- Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, p. 9.↵
- Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, p. 10.↵
- Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, p.33.↵
- Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, p.18.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.60.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.70.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.74.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.89.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.41-43.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.44-45.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.47-48.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.51.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.54-56.↵
- Wilson, From Company Town to Company Town, p.3.↵
- Wilson, From Company Town to Company Town, p.4.↵
- See Industry.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.92-93.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.66-67.↵
- Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, p.24.↵
- Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, pp.20-21 & p.25.↵
- Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, p.22.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.49 & p.79.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.69.↵
- Hartley, Barrington Tops, p.11 & Dungog Chronicle, 16/9/1947.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.72-73.↵
- Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, p.26.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.71-72 & Hunter, Croll’s Mill Dungog, 1917-1969, p.45.↵
- Dungog Chronicle, 7/3/1957.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.48 & Allan Nash, interviewed 8/3/2012.↵
- Allan Nash, interviewed 8/3/2012.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, p.46 & Allan Nash, interviewed 8/3/2012.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.74-76.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.77-81.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.81-82.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.86-87.↵
- Allan Nash, interviewed 8/3/2012.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.89-90.↵
- Dungog Chronicle, 27/7/1972, p.1. For an example of an offcuts ad see, Dungog Chronicle, 18/7/1972, p.6.↵
- McDonald & Henderson, Timbergetters, Sawmills and Sawmillers, pp.70-73.↵
- Hartley, Barrington Tops, pp.51-52.↵