Monday, 27 June 2011

Flax

St. Helena, Peakdale, Footpaths through the Flax, May 2010

Among the many hundreds of plants first seen by Europeans on James Cook’s 1768 to 1771 Endeavour Voyage was one described, but not named, by Joseph Banks in his March 1770 “Account of New Zealand”:
“But of all the plants we have seen among these people that which is the most excellent in its kind, and which really excels most if not all that are put to the same uses in other Countries, is the plant which serves them instead of Hemp and flax.  Of this there are two sorts: the leaves of both much resemble those of flags: the flowers are smaller and grow many more together, in one sort they are Yellowish in the other of a deep red.  Of the leaves of these plants with very little preparation all their common wearing apparel are made and all strings, lines, and cordage for every purpose, and that of a strength so much superior to hemp as scarce to bear a comparison with it.”
Not long after returning to England Banks had his portrait painted by Benjamin West which shows him standing by a pillar wearing a Maori flax cloak.  At his feet are an adze and a book containing plant specimens.

1773 mezzotint by JR Smith from the original 1771 Portrait by Benjamin West
British Museum.  Registration Number 1841.0809.1507


In October 1774 during Cook’s 1772 to 1775 Resolution voyage a landing was made on Norfolk Island.  William Wales, the ship’s astronomer, noted that: “Near the shore the ground is covered so thick with the New Zealand Flax Plant that it is scarce possible to get through it.
The expedition’s botanists, father and son team Johann and Georg Forster collected specimens of the flax plant on Norfolk Island and in 1775 formally named it Phormium tenax, in allusion to baskets which the Maoris made from the leaves–phormium from the Greek phormos, a basket, and the Latin tenax, strong.  It should be noted that botanically New Zealand Flax is separated by an enormous distance from European Flax, Linum usatissimum, the only similarity being in supplying a fibre suitable for textile manufacture.  Its presence was, however, directly responsible for the island’s inclusion as an auxiliary settlement in the British Government’s plan for the colonisation of New South Wales.

Cook had been impressed by the potential of Norfolk Island to provide timber and fibre for the Royal Navy.  The timber of the “pines” was “exactly of the same nature as the Quebeck pines” and the trees were huge and straight.  They seemed ideal for masts and spars.  Cook already knew how highly the Maoris in New Zealand valued the flax as a fibre plant and thought it would be invaluable for making ropes and sails.  Accordingly, of all the islands discovered on the voyage, tiny Norfolk stood out for its potential value to Britain, largely because of its flax.  Because of Cook’s enthusiasm for the potential value of the flax, the British Government’s 1787 instructions to Arthur Phillip, commodore of the "First Fleet" and first Governor of New South Wales, described the flax “not only as a means of acquiring Clothing for the Convicts and other persons who may become settlers, but from its superior excellence for a variety of maritime purposes and as it may ultimately may become an Article of Export.”  Phillip was instructed: “you are, as soon as circumstances will admit of it, to send a small Establishment [to Norfolk Island] to secure the same to us, and prevent its being occupied by the subjects of any other European Power.”  On March 6th 1788 a party of 15 convicts and seven free men arrived to take control of Norfolk Island and prepare for its commercial development, though in the event it became more of a penal settlement than a source of fibre.
Flax, Tree Ferns and a solitary Norflolk Island Pine.
Diana's Peak National Park, May 2010

In June 1776, immediately prior to his third, and final, voyage, Cook wrote to his friend Commodore Wilson at Great Ayton.  “I am sorry I cannot furnish you with some New Zealand flax seed, having not one grain of it left.  Indeed, I brought hardly one grain of it home with me, but left the most of what I had at the Cape, to try to cultivate it there; for of all that was brought home in my former voyage, I have not heard of a single grain vegetating.  It is much to be feared, that this fine plant will never be raised in England.”
 In New Zealand Europeans were quick to appreciate the commercial possibilities of phormium fibre and between the 1820’s and the 1860’s a considerable trade in hand-dressed fibre was carried on between Maori and European.  In the 1860’s the invention of the flax stripper led to the development of the flax milling industry and by 1870 there were 161 flax mills nationwide, with 1,766 workers.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries British imperial administrators saw flax as a possible cash crop for various outposts of the empire and they tried to establish flax industries on islands such as Tristan da Cunha and the Isle of Man.  On Tristan da Cunha, where other materials were in short supply, the flax was used for roofing – it bleached in the weather to give the stone cottages a fine blonde thatch.

Ashmole and Ashmole offer the following in regard to flax on St. Helena:
It was introduced in the first half of the 19th century, probably by an American whaler or by a ship returning from delivering convict to Australia.  It was already growing wild in December 1852 when Fred Moss wrote to the St. Helena Advocate suggesting that it could be developed into an industry.  They also give 1860 as the date for the introduction of the Norfolk Island Pine

Peakdale, Phormium Tenax, May 2010

On St. Helena Benjamin Grant wrote in 1883:
New Zealand Flax grows luxuriantly in almost all parts of the Island.  Ten years ago a Company called the Foreign Fibre Company, was formed for the purpose of preparing the fibre of this useful plant.  Machines were sent from England, a Factory established on the Jamestown Lines for that purpose and the Company purchased in the Island a fine large estate of 156 acres called “Woody Ridge,” under 60 acres of Flax and 15 acres of Aloe, for £1,200 sterling.  But after five years incessant work the Company ceased its operations, thus many men and boys were thrown out of employment. Mr. W. Erridge (of the Firm of W. Erridge, & Co. of this Island) then hired the Factory and commenced operations again, but after twelve months he too closed the Works, alleging as a reason for so doing that preparing the fibre did not pay.  So at the present day the Foreign Fibre Company’s Works are closed, which is a great pity, as there are thousands of tons of Flax encumbering several plantations.

Grant’s book “A few notes on St. Helena” is “Respectfully inscribed” to Governor Janisch who Trevor Hearl described as someone “who worked hard to counter the colony's economic decline, and encouraged the development of the first flax industry in 1874.”

Jackson gives some more detail:
Early in1874 The Colonial & Foreign Fibre Company was formed to cultivate flax on the island and a flax works with a steam flax machine was erected in Jamestown close to the sea.  In July 1876 the first shipment of flax from The Company left the island.  The consignment was 100 bales, each weighing 4 cwt.  In February 1881 the company closed being unprofitable.  “The flax was brought in its raw state by donkeys to the flax works and had the works been built near where the flax grew, the experiment might have succeeded, for the flax is undoubtedly of good strength, but the difficulty was the water power required.”


In December 1907 a flax processing mill was set up by the Government at Longwood under the supervision of a New Zealand expert, Mr. Fulton, and in a few years the product became the only staple industry on the island.

The Marlborough Express published the following article on his visit in early 1908.
New Zealand Flax in St. Helena.  Interview with Mr. Fulton.130 Fleet Street, London, Feb. 14.
"As a matter of fact." said Mr C. J. Fulton, chief fibre expert of the New Zealand Department of Agriculture, Wellington, when he called upon me the day before yesterday, (writes a London correspondent), "I have been lent by the Government of New Zealand to the Imperial Government in order that I may do what can be done to establish on a practical and profitable footing in the island of St. Helena, a flax industry.  That is to say, I had first to satisfy myself that the soil and other conditions were suitable to the growth of phormium tenax, and if so to show the islanders how to work the fibre."
"But it was stated lately that the experiment had been made, and had failed?"
"Ah, but that failure was inevitable," answered Mr Fulton, "because the promoters used quite the wrong sort of machinery.  Certainly they did fail, and lost some £30,000 over the attempt.  But nowadays anyone would know that an attempt on that basis was bound and doomed to fail. What I am now doing is on very different lines."
"You have been visiting St. Helena, have you not?"
"Oh, yes," replied Mr Fulton.  “I left New Zealand in March last, and, of course, had to travel by a very roundabout route, as St. Helena is quite off the beaten track, or at any rate away from any regular steamship route.  But I got there at last, and spent five months in the island.  I had brought with me the flax-dressing machinery which is peculiar to New Zealand, and having made a full inspection of the place and its capabilities I came on to England to obtain the rest of the requisite appliances, and then returned to St. Helena, where I erected a mill and superintended its working for some time."
"But was the raw material available?  Does the phormium grow already in St. Helena?"
“Certainly," replied Mr Fulton. The so-called New Zealand flax has grown there for more than half a century—perhaps 54 or 55 years.  It was introduced and cultivated for hedges and for shelter in the more exposed portions of the island.  At the present time there is- only a comparatively small lot there, but the soil is very suitable for its propagation, and it will now be cultivated in large fields.  Even now, however, the big flax hedges greatly need thinning, and so a considerable quantity will be available-quite enough to go a small way while the method of working is being practiced.  Then the hedges will be thinned out not only by cutting but also by transplantation of the roots.  There will be fields of the flax instead of merely hedges.  At present the new industry gives employment to thirty men, viz, sixteen at the mill, and the others at conveying the material to the mill with bullocks and donkeys.  The formal opening of the new mill took place on the 5th December.  It was regarded as quite an historic event, and the whole population turned out to witness and celebrate it.  They might well deem the occasion an important one, for the flax industry is really the only chance for them—that is, to grow the flax and mill it.”
“So what did you think of the island itself?”
"It is exceedingly picturesque in the interior, at any rate.  There are plenty of trees and the soil is fertile.  Thus in the best parts two crops of potatoes can be grown in each year.  But they are quite unsaleable owing to the absence of a market and only those needed for domestic consumption can be used.  It is the same with the cattle; there are some fair herds, but there, is no market, and so it does not pay to breed them as their produce is unsaleable."
"How did you find the people themselves?"
"Most hospitable and kind and well conducted.  They gave me an awfully good time.  There is only one actually rich man in the whole island, a merchant named Thorpe.  Everyone else is in a small way.  By the bye, there is a cable staff of 35 in St. Helena.  The means of communication are very defective.  Only two steamers call there now and then.  There is no good harbour, only a roadstead."
"When do you return to New Zealand?"
"I was due there next month," said Mr Fulton. "But my Government I cabled to me to stay longer and visit the United States of America.  I am also going to all the principal centres of the textile industry in the United Kingdom, including Belfast, Dundee, Edinburgh, Liverpool, etc."

Flax machinery by Booth MacDonald, Christchurch, Fairyland Flax Mill, May 2010

In July 1913 Solomon’s opened a flax mill at Bamboo Hedge and by the end of 1917 one hundred and seventy five men and forty-two women were employed in the flax industry.  The flax industry had experienced a boom during the 1914 - 1918 Great War, everyone who was able began to plant and grow flax and grants of small plots of crown land were made for the further planting of this commodity, but after 1921 it had a setback from competition with low-priced sisal fibre from Africa and Java.  By 1923 there were six mills working, that of the Government, two Solomon’s mills at Sandy Bay and Broad Bottom Gut, two of Deason’s at Hutts Gate and Woody Ridge and a new one erected below Francis Plain by Thorpes.  In 1925 Solomon & Company had enough faith in the industry to set up a stripper mill on a site only about 200 yards along the Levelwood road from the old residence of Rock Rose which had become a ruin.  Unfortunately this new mill was often hampered by a shortage of water and did not operate in the early 1930's but was back in production by 1935.  In July 1932 all nine of the island’s flax mills were closed due to a fall in the price of hemp causing serious unemployment and privation, but following a Government subsidy of £3.15s a ton on manufactured fibre, re-opened in November of the same year.
Flax Mill, Bamboo Hedge, Date unknown

Gosse records that in 1938 3,253 acres of flax were under cultivation.  Three families owned the land and almost all the industry’s profits went to them.  The flax industry eventually employed 300 to 400 people who worked 50 hours per week for low wages.  Work in the fields and mill was hard, repetitive, noisy and dirty and workers were often injured in the machines used to process the fibre.   Gosse describes the Ridge, the highest part of the island as “still clothed by the primeval forest of the island, at least by what little of it has been spared by the greedy goats and more recently by the even greedier growers of New Zealand flax.  On both the steep sides of the Ridge the ruthless and rapacious flax growers have hacked down and grubbed up wild olive, tree ferns, cabbage trees, lobelia and everything else which God planted there, in order to grow their flax which would grow just as well in many other parts of the island.”

Flax Fibre drying at Fairyland, Gosse 1938

 Fairyland Flax Mill with Bamboo Hedge in the distance, May 2010


Twenty years later, concern was being expressed in the House of Commons.  Having returned from a visit to St. Helena in the summer of 1958 Cledwyn Hughes spoke in a debate held on the 8th December and described the Island’s economic position with particular reference to the flax industry.

St Helena, he stated, is not a self-supporting community, and so far as can be seen it will not be self-supporting in the foreseeable future.  Flax growing and agriculture are two main industries of the island and both are at present in a serious condition.  The hemp produced there is not of the best quality, and both its price and the demand for it have fallen progressively since 1951.  The price of hemp was at its peak in May, 1951, when it sold at £180 a ton.  In June of this year the price had fallen to as low as £55 a ton.  Four out of the five flax mills on the island are closed, which means that about 230 men and women have been thrown out of work.  There are no alternative sources of employment on the island, and these people cannot, therefore, be absorbed in any other sort of work.  In addition to that, the work is arduous and ill-paid. The basic wage is £1 13s. 0d. a week. I should like it borne in mind by the House that the cost of living on the island is relatively high.   This is what the Social Welfare Officer for St. Helena has to say in his report for 1957.  "I have found a strong feeling of resentment tempered only by the fear of unemployment among flax workers who regard their basic wage of £1 13s. 6d. a week as totally inadequate."  The Minister will probably know that the future of the flax industry in St. Helena is obscure.  One of the obvious tragedies of the island at present is that its staple industry should be in this condition.  I must mention that the Government of St. Helena have on their Statute Book a minimum wage ordinance.  They have had it on the Statute Book for many years, but I was amazed to find that it had never been implemented.  One must bear in mind that fortunes have been made out of the island's flax industry in the past, but wages have been kept as low as possible.


I found that the workers in the industry—I spoke to many of them when I was there—have been afraid to complain about their conditions of work and wages because of the fear of victimisation and unemployment.  The basic wage paid by the Government of St. Helena to their own workers is only £2 5s. a week.  Such a wage does not enable people to attain anything approaching a decent standard of living in this British Colony.  As I have said, the cost of living in the island is high and prices are comparable with United Kingdom prices.  I would ask the House to mark that the requirements of the people of St. Helena are similar to our requirements.  Here we have a British people—their only language is English—who have an attitude to life similar in general to ours and their demands are similar to our demands.  How can Her Majesty's Government or the St. Helena Government justify this gross neglect of their own employees?  In simple terms it means that the ordinary people of St. Helena—by that I mean about 95 per cent of the population—do not know what it is from one year's end to another to eat meat, butter, eggs and cheese or to have milk.  None of the basic requirements of life is available to them, and that is a shame and disgrace.  Why are these facts not given in the official Report published by the Colonial Office about this island so that the House and the people of this country may know the true position there?

Rock Rose Flax Mill, May 2010


The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr. Julian Amery replied:


Since the turn of the last century our problem has been how to put the economy of the island and of its nearly 5,000 people on to a new foundation.  As the hon. Member said, St. Helena has few resources for which there is any world demand.  One crop alone, phormium tenax, a flax indigenous to New Zealand, has proved itself as a serious export.  But the world market for this and similar fibres is, and has for some time been, seriously depressed. The industry which until recently employed 200 people is at present employing only 120.  The Hon. Member spoke of the fear of unemployment and of the grievance felt by some working in the flax industry at the level of their wages.  I understand that; but there is always a danger that any further depression in prices or any rise in production costs would lead to the flax mills closing down completely.  This would cause very serious hardship to the island, and more especially to the employees and their families in the industry.

This in fact is precisely what happened.  Flax mills continued to operate intermittently until the entire industry ended in 1966 when the last Mill on the island closed.

Woody Ridge Flax Mill, May 2010

Broadbottom Flax Mill, May 2010

The commonly held belief is that the demise of the industry was precipitated when an official in the British Post Office, which was a major buyer, decided to use synthetic string thus killing off St. Helena’s flax industry and even with government subsidies, St Helena flax could not compete in the world market.

A more plausible explanation is that this outcome was exactly as was foreseen.  In the mid-1960s some of the flax mills were government-owned and others were private and in 1965, after a government review of wages, a decision was made to nearly double the wages in the government mills.  Wages were felt to be too low for workers to live on adequately.  The private mills were not able to match these wage increases and closed.  Meanwhile, world prices for hemp continued to fall, so the higher production costs of the government-owned mills meant that they were operating at a large loss and within a few months they too closed.


The Endeavour Voyage of Sir Joseph Banks:
The discovery of Flax on Norfolk Island:
Benjamin Grant:
Parliamentary Debate on St. Helena:
Interview with Mr. Fulton:



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