Years ago, around 1980, another box of papers landed in my lap, though not nearly as juicy as my grandmother’s (see blog “How a Church Was Built at Lue in 1934). This was a box of oddments – lots of used one-penny stamps, addressed envelopes with their stamps torn off (some with letters), odd brochures, a few postcards. It was obvious that this box had been saved by my great grandfather William Batten who lived at Glenangle, Lue and died there in 1921. The box was probably kicked around for decades by his son John who inherited Glenangle, and then by my father who was the next inheritor. After my father died I imagine my mother found a small section of our garage to offload them. By that time, I was well into family history research and valued them enough not to throw them out.
Here is one of the letters, about a wool press: Dear Sir, wrote C Davis, in copper-plate handwriting, from Tryalion on 12 December 1901, please find enclosed my cheque for six pounds fifteen shillings being the amount due to you for the wool press. The press works very well but the ropes is no good. They broke with the first bale and I tried them again but every time I tried them they broke and I was only pulling 50 fleeces in. Hoping this will find you and all the family well as it leaves all here. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Yours faithfully C Davis Senior.
John Lloyd’s experience of the wool press was better. He wrote from Combermelon in January 1890 that the press gave “every satisfaction” and that two men could press nine or ten bales a day comfortably. Among the papers there was also an account statement from Loneragans, general merchants at Mudgee, who ordered and sold six Batten wool presses. So, according to the papers, there was William Batten between 1889 and 1918, making and selling wool presses as a side-business to farming. That titillating bit of history set me on the track of the Australian wool industry.
We all learnt in primary school that John Macarthur established the wool industry in Australia and from then on Australia rode on the merino sheep’s back. You can get an idea of the rapid growth of the industry from these figures: In 1813 there were six and a half thousand sheep here and eight years later one hundred and twenty thousand; in 1835 Australia exported 2 million kilograms of wool, four years later it had risen to 4.5 million; by 1870 Australia was the world’s number one wool producer and supplier. And wool was our most important export.
Is it any surprise then that many Australians, especially those newly arrived, saw opportunity in sheep farming? Little labour (most of the year) and big returns. In the early days no one fenced their farms but instead shepherded the flocks to graze, made sure they had shade and water and then brought them back and penned them at night. When it came to shearing, the sheep were first washed in a stream and then shorn with blade shears. The wool was packed by spreading the fleeces in an alternate top to tail method and then trampled or pressed by hand with a spade or lever or screw, into “long bales” nine feet by four. The sagging bales were then tied on to bullock wagons and started their slow dusty trip to the coast.
That brings me to the wool press. The cost of transport was high for Australian farmers. From the farm to the coast. Then from the coast to the wool factories in England. Wool is light but bulky, so space was more important than weight. The more wool you could press into a bale, the cheaper the transport. Not only that, the more efficient the wool press, the cheaper and faster the bales were turned out. A Trove search from 1870 to 1920 shows that the wool press, which produced “short bales”, was an item of interest in every newspaper, city and country. There you find Donald’s and Denny’s, Burnell’s and Ferrier’s; the Warrigal, the Kooba, the Mason and the Marvel. The biggest name in the wool press business was Christian Koerstz who produced “Station” “Selector” “Squattor” “Bosker” “Conqueror” “Little Wonder” and “Improved Langley” with prices in 1910 ranging from £12.10s to £35. Readers could even find detailed instructions with a diagram, explaining how to make their own wool press with materials costing around £2.
You won’t be surprised to learn that by the turn of the twentieth century, every farm, as well as having a plough, harrow, cultivator, chaff-cutter and sulky, also had a wool press. Or was in the market for one. Those with an inventive mind were working out how to improve them, often taking out patents.
If you have never seen a wool press it is probably time to visit Kandos Museum and see an old Koerstz one. However, here’s an overview of how they worked. Most wool presses consisted of two boxes, one holding the jute bag. Both were filled with wool. Then one was set on the other and the wool on the top was compressed into the wool on the bottom. The bale was fastened, removed, branded and moved to the storage area. It all sounds very simple until you read about the intricate design features and numerous methods for operating the press, moving the top box, compressing the wool, fastening the bale and removing it.
William Batten’s press didn’t die with him. I discovered this letter to the Mudgee Guardian by his eleven-year-old grandson Harry in 1922: Dear Editor – Since I wrote the last letter to you three more little lambs have been given to me. Their names are Michael, Nancy and Molly. I have also named the other two that had no names so now they are all named. I take a great deal of interest in sheep and look forward for shearing time. I made a little wool press and now I am making a full-sized one.
In his notebook Harry listed four wool presses that he made and sold, by the age of 16, to George McAndrew, Mr J O’Brien Cooyal, C Davis Lue and G Brown Rylstone.
So that’s the wool press – an unpretentious machine, a bit top heavy, like an awkward giant really, but it produced the wool cheques for Australian farmers. And it inspired generations of innovators.
For more information about the wool press in Kandos Museum: https://webarchive.nla.gov.au/awa/20180504061855/http://rkdhistory.blogspot.com.au/search/label/Kandos%20wool%20press
Featured image is Donald’s Patent No 4 Wool Press from the collection of National Wool Museum 26 Moorabool Street Geelong (on Museums Victoria website)