The Establishment of the Local Timber Industry
In the early 1860s the construction of the railway through the district provided new opportunities for local employment. Initially this was related to the construction of the railway itself, which provided employment not only for permanent gangs, but also for local farmers and labourers who secured short-term contracts for carrying, excavating, fencing or supplying timber. Following the completion of this line the industry continued to -develop with the hardwoods being cut out for railway sleepers, telegraph poles and building timber, and the softer woods for the ever expanding market provided by the fireplaces and stoves of Sydney (1).
There is little documentary evidence which refers to this important local industry, but an oral history programme suggests that it was the major employer of local men during the second half of the nineteenth century (2). These were employed as timber cutters, carters and saw millers, and in the hey-dey of the wood trade some 200-300 men are believed to have gained their livelihood in the area ranging from Kingswood to Rooty Hill (44). As an indication of the scale of the operation in the period around the turn of the century it has been noted that in July 1900 1,352 tons of firewood was sent from St Marys by rail (3).
Towards the end of the nineteenth century the areas closest to the village were gradually cleared of their timber and the distances traveled by the wood-carters increased accordingly, but the -Industry continued to survive until the Second World War.
After the timber was cut it was carted to the sawmills near St Marys Railway Station, sawn and then loaded directly into railway trucks. From St Marys it was then taken by rail to be auctioned at the Alexandria Goods Sheds.
In 1890 three steam sawmills were in operation at St Marys (4) and by 1895 a fourth had been opened by a Mr. Anderton (5). Various families were associated with the industry, but perhaps the most important were Turner & Garner and William Fleming. On his death in 1897 the latter was described as having carried on a timber business at St Marys for “many years”. He had had extensive contracts with the Postal and Telegraph Departments as well as with the Roads and Bridges Department, and “hundreds” of local men had been employed by him (6).
The number of tills fluctuated according to the season and market, and in 1901 George Turner, junior, was apparently the only saw mill operator working in St Marys (7). In 1910 there were three mills being operated by Mrs. Turner, George W. McCrea and Frederick Andrews and in 1930 two yards were being operated by Frederick Andrews and Mrs. G.H. Luke (8).
According to local sources there were five sites which were occupied by sawmills at various times, three on the northern embankment of the railway and two on the southern embankment (9) . The occupation of each of these has not been traced.
The Role of the Timber industry as a Local Source of Employment
As outlined above the timber industry was the major source of employment in the late nineteenth century, providing work for hundreds of local men. However, it was highly susceptible to fluctuating market prices and weather conditions and did not always provide a steady source of income.
During periods of heavy rain the rough dirt roads leading to the timbered areas rapidly became impassible for the heavily laden timber waggons, and the timber carters regularly had to cease operations while the roads dried out (10). However, when wet weather was protracted and widespread the high prices offered for timber encouraged the carters to at least attempt to bring wood into the mills. For example, in July 1898 the incessant wet weather right through the country had caused the price of wood to rise and despite the bad roads teamsters daily brought loads to the station yards, where the mill hands were “pretty busy”. The high prices at this time were in contrast to the “real starvation prices lately obtained” and were obviously welcomed by the carters who had previously had barely enough to subsist on (11).
The other problem which progressively eroded the local timber industry was the dwindling supply of timber (12). While this was denied to be a major problem in 1906 (13) and while the industry obviously survived until well into the twentieth century, the hey-day of the industry was over, by about 1900.
- Fox & Associates, Penrith Heritage Study 28-29
- Mr Bert Evans, St Marys Historical Society In 1897 the wood trade was described as the mainstay of a great many people’ in the St Marys district. Nepean Times, 26 June 1897
- Penrith City Library, Local Collection Vertical File St Marys, Notes prepared by Mr Evans Stapleton, E., South Creek St Marys, From Village to City : 8
- Nepean Times, 11 August 1900 : St Marys Railway Returns for the month ending 30 July
- Sydney Mail : p 251
- Nepean Times, 26 October 1895
- Nepean Times November 1897 : Fleming’s obituary
- Sands Country Commercial Directory, 1901
- Sands Directory, 1910 and 1930
- Mr Bert Evans and Mr Len Stapleton, St Marys Historical Society
- Nepean Times, 5 February 1898 At the end of January continued wet weather was interfering with the work of the woodcarters, the roads to Mamre and Tottenham being “very heavy”. Not much wood was being cut at the local mills.
Nepean Times, 5 August 1899 – “The continued wet weather is also responsible for a number of those engaged in the wood trade being compelled to have a spell owing to the terrible bad roads”
- Nepean Times, 9 July, 1898
- Nepean Times, 29 January 1898 – “Business connected with the wood trade has been very slack here lately, the mills, so we are informed, only working half-time. The prices are good but the supplies very moderate. it is a pity for our local men that there is not sufficient timber for them to cart to the mills”.
Freame, W., Sweet St Marys : 8 – The wood industry presents year by year increased difficulties in the matter of long distances, over which the timber must be hauled to the sawmills at the railway”