Wool-Washing and Cannery Industries

Wool washing pond at the Winbourne Estate, Mulgoa
Penrith City Library Photographic Collection

The Historical Tradition
Wool-washing, or scouring was an important part of the wool processing industry. Scouring cleaned the wool and clean wool was far preferable to greasy raw fleece for both export and home manufacture. The removal of the grease also reduced the weight of the bales. It was an integral part of the industry from its earliest times.

Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century there was considerable debate regarding the effectiveness of sheep washing as opposed to wool scouring for cleaning fleeces. Sheep washing was the sole method used during the early days of the colony and in more rural areas it continued to dominate until the 1880s (1). Wool scouring became more common as far flung properties found it difficult to find sufficient water to cleanse the sheep and dust free paddocks in which to dry them.
The earliest reference to a wool scour appears to be from the 1840s; the process became more common during the 1860s and by the 1890s appears to have completely replaced sheep washing (2).

The traditional method of scouring was by mechanical movement (usually treading) of the fleece in running water, together with the addition of some detergent. The commonest of the latter was fullers earth. Alternatives were “lees” (or urine) and soft soap (3).

Scouring took two forms; station based manual scouring and large scale centralized mechanical scouring. Mechanical scouring became common during the 1870s. By the 1920s what little scouring was still being carried out in rural areas was done almost without exception by town based mechanical scours (4).

Mechanical scours depended on the wool being passed by mechanised rakes through a series of tanks or bowls containing washing or rinsing liquids. Manual scouring divided itself into two broad groups pot stick scouring and box washing. The former was carried out in cauldrons and the latter, which had several variations, was generally river based (5).

There was considerable experimentation during the nineteenth century with and with hot scouring.

Mechanical scouring was largely town based in operation and worked by a system whereby the wool was passed by mechanical rakes through a series of tanks or bowls which contained washing and rinsing liquids (6). This required sheds, yards, a water supply and power source.

Manual scouring took two forms. Pot stick scouring involved the fleeces being washed in a cauldron with hot water and soap before being rinsed, drained and dried in the sun. The most common relics of this method are the large cauldrons (7).

An improvement on this method was the hand box method. This consisted of a series of square boxes arranged in a row with drainage boards between each one. Inside each box was a perforated basket which allowed free circulation of water on all sides. Water was fed into the box from overhead tanks, was heated by steam injection and then soap was added. The wool then went to the rinsing boxes and was then dried by a centrifuge spin dryer before being spread on sheets in the sun (8).

Two variations on this method were the river-based tank and box scouring and dam-based tank and box scouring both of which used additional structures and/or equipment.

The Extended Data Base
The National Trust has classified the wool washing site at Winterbourne House at Walcha and one scour has been identified and excavated at Mt Wood station at Tibooburra. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has, provisionally, identified a wool washing site at Willandra National Park.

Wool-Washing Establishment in St Marys

Wool Teams, Great Western Highway, Penrith
Penrith City Library Photographic Collection ©

One of the only other industries known to have been started in St Marys was a wool-washing establishment which opened in about 1882. However, this closed within only a few months because of the effects of a severe drought (9).

The location of this factory has not been identified.

Historical Information Relating to the Development & Layout of the Site
The only reference which has been found for this site is a brief article in the Nepean Times which reports on its closure in May 1882. At this time the factory had only been in operation for a few months (10).

Physical Evidence
No physical evidence has been found for these works. On the basis of the lack of information about the location or operation of the works it the potential.No standing structures are known to remain from these works and the potential archaeological resource cannot be determined until the exact location of the site is established.

Pulp and Canning Factories

Balgay Fruit Cannery, St Marys
Penrith City Library Photographic Collection ©

The Historical Tradition
Few studies of canning factories are available however, certain features are apparent that appear common to most. If meat products were being canned during the nineteenth century the factory would have paddocks nearby to keep the animals which were then sent to a slaughterhouse. The latter required a water source to cleanse the site of blood. In at least one case offal was put into pits to be processed as fertilizer and bones were used in the production of soup.

The carcasses went through a number of processes Such as roasting, scalding or corning in various parts of the cannery designed for these purposes. Any debris was sent to boiling vats which could then produce tallow. The canned products went through the various boiling and sealing processes and were then sent to a testing room and from there to the market.

The containers for the finished product were also made on the site so a tinshop was located nearby, a cooperage (for barrels) and a carpentry shop (for cases) (11). The cans were all painted and labeled on site as well.

It is obvious that other specialised products such as fruit would have different requirements, however, it seems probable that most canning factories followed essentially the same lines.

Illustrations of the period show that the majority of the canning factories were large and substantial establishments with numerous buildings, large sheds, and stacks and occasionally tram lines.

The first process for extending the life of foodstuffs was preservation in brine. This was a method used particularly to preserve excess quantities of meat. The economic problems of the 1840s saw this method often replaced by boiling down works to create tallow and hides.

This was a particularly wasteful process and during the 1840s experiments were carried out to perfect the canning process (12). In 1847 the first meat canning factory in the colony was opened at Camperdown (13). A second was opened in the following year at Honeysuckle Point, Newcastle (14).

The gold rushes brought an end to this experiment but it was revitalised again in 1865. A number of processing plants were opened from this time up to the 1870s. Throughout the nineteenth century a number of improvements were made in the process and large companies were formed to provide the products.

Canning continued to be a major form of preservation during the nineteenth century because, although refrigeration for export was finally perfected in 1880, it took many years for the establishment of large scale processing establishments. Eventually refrigeration and the introduction of the American open top sanitary can during the early years of the twentieth century replaced canning as the dominant form of food preservation.

The Extended Data Base
A number of significant sites of this type have been classified and/or identified in New South Wales. The National Trust has classified the cannery site at Plumpton and the Ramornie beef extract works. Tit cans are a ubiquitous presence in most domestic assemblages.

Pulp and Cannery Factories in St Marys

In about 1903 two pulp and canning factories were started in Roper Street in nearby Colyton and in January 1904 these were turning out large quantities of pulp for Sydney firms and canned fruit for local consumption. Each factory was employing about 8 hands (15).

One of these factories had been established by Peter Methven as the Balgay Cannery and this continued to operate until the mid-1970s. In the early years all cans were made by hand on the premises and the fruit was locally grown produce. Later the range of fruit expanded to include peaches, pears, apricots, blackberries etc, and a variety of vegetables were also included.

Balgay canned fruit and vegetables eventually became well known throughout Australia and during the fruit season the factory was a major employer of local women. (16)

The pulp and canning factories referred to in this web page were located on the eastern edge of St Marys in the suburb of Colyton. Both were located on the eastern side of Roper Road between Hewitt and Creek Streets.

Historical Information Relating to the Development & Layout of the Site
From a report in the Nepean Times (17) it is known that two pulp and canning factories were established in Roper Road in about 1903. One of these, the Balgay Pulp and Canning factory, developed as an important local industry which continued to operate until the mid-1970s (18).

No detailed descriptions, photographs or plans have been located which would help to describe the layout or operation of the Balgay factory. However, as it continued to be operated as a family business until relatively recently it is possible that the history of the firm could be determined from family records and reminiscences.

Physical Evidence
As this site lies outside of the Study Area defined for this report no detailed site inspection was undertaken. However, it has been noted that a large floor slab remains on the site of the Balgay factory, and this suggests that further -archaeological evidence would be found as sub-surface features.

There are no standing structures related to the development of the pulp and canning factories. Significant archaeological evidence may remain on the site of the Balgay Factory, but this would require a detailed assessment. This site lies outside of the study are defined for this report.


  1. Pearson, M. “The Excavation of Mt Wood Woolscour” AJHA Vol.2., 38
  2. Ibid., 38
  3. Birmingham, J. et al. Australian Pioneer Technology., 142.
  4. Pearson, M. “The Excavation of Mt Wood Woolscour” AJHA Vol.2 38 – 39
  5. Ibid., 32
  6. Pearson, M. “The Excavation of the Mount Wood Woolscour” JAHA 2., 38
  7. Ibid., 39
  8. Ibid.
  9. Nepean Times, May 1882
  10. Nepean Times, May 1882
  11. Farrer, K. A Settlement Amply Supplied., 82
  12. Farrer, K. A Settlement Amply Supplied., 67
  13. Ibid., 70
  14. Birmingham, J. et al. Australian Pioneer Technology., 135
  15. Nepean Times, 9 January 1904
  16. Mrs E. Stapleton, St Marys Historical Society
  17. Nepean Times, 9 January 1904
  18. Mrs. E. Stapleton, St. Marys District Historical Society