blank [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

The Flax Industry

Economic lifeline or ecological disaster?

blank [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

The problems that we have created cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created them.
Albert Einstein

From 1907 until 1966 St Helena’s flax industry was the engine of its economy. Now there is nothing left.

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island Detail

The Flax Industry [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

The Flax Industry qualifies as one of St Helena’s Industries.

Go to: HistoryThe industry at workRemnants todayRead More

History

Prompted by the withdrawal of the Liberated African Station in 1874, and the resulting economic difficulties, New Zealand Flax phormium tenax was introduced to St Helena with the aim of growing and processing flax for export. W. Erridge established the first mill in Jamestown in 1874 in what is now the Leisure Park behind Donny’s at the sea front. Although 100 bales of flax were shipped overseas in July 1876 (from the ‘Colonial Fibre Company’), the flax industry did not take off at that time, as it was uneconomic to transport the flax from the country for processing.

The return of the Boer prisoners in 1902 and the disbandment of the St Helena Volunteers in 1906 left the island without a garrison for the first time since it was colonised. Economic hardship resulted and it was decided to give flax another try. The Government flax mill at Longwood was built in 1907, funded by a grant from the Imperial Government of £4,070, of which £500 was given as a free gift to growers to encourage planting. It was opened by Governor Gallwey on 5th December 1907. The St Helena Guardian described it as: “…a momentous occasion and one which we sincerely hope marks a new era in the commercial prosperity of our island.Governor Gallwey said “May the throb of the engine and the song of the stripping machine be long heard in the land.” But this attempt also failed.

Success came later with the demand for rope created by World War 1 (‘The Great War’), 1914-1918. This time the industry grew. Flax was cultivated across the island and many flax mills were constructed. They processed the flax into string or rope for local use and also for export. The following table gives flax production (tons) in 1919 and 1920:

 

1919

1920

Producer

Fibre

Tow

Fibre

Tow

Government Mill

41

27

91

54

Messrs Deason

190

45

151

214

Messrs Solomon

220

70

206

151

Total

451

142

448

419

During World War 2 the island’s economy again benefitted from increased demand for flax rope. Here are various 20th Century island views, each showing flax drying in the sun:

Flax drying [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Flax drying [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Flax drying [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Flax drying [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Flax prices continued to rise after the war, rising to their zenith in 1951. In this year the value of exports from St Helena actually exceeded that of imports, the only time in the history of St Helena where this has been the case. A major customer was the British Post Office, who used St Helena flax string for sealing their mailbags.

The flax industry did bring some prosperity to the island, but it did not provide for a stable economic base: the price fluctuation of the flax on world markets was too high. To bring some stability, it was agreed that the government would help. If the market price fell below a certain level, the millers would receive a subsidy. If it rose above a level, however, the government would charge export duty. But whoever set the levels was clearly clever - more duty was paid in than subsidy was paid out, so the government’s support was achieved with no effective cost.

At its peak flax covered over 12,000Km² of land and the industry directly employed 300 to 400 people, often working 50 hours each per week. Work in the fields and mill was hard, repetitive, noisy and dirty, and the machines used were not safe, even by contemporary industrial standards, and caused many injuries. Just three families owned the land and almost all the profits went to them.

The flax industry was featured in a set of 1960s commemorative stamps:

Flax on postage stamps [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Flax on postage stamps [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

However after World War 2 the industry fell into decline, partly because of competition from synthetic fibres, but partly because the delivered price of the island’s flax was, due to processing and shipping costs, substantially higher than world prices. Also, with growing social conscience, the wages paid to flax workers were raised, further increasing the costs of production. Mills elsewhere in the world had automated the process by 1930; however the Government of St Helena imposed financial penalties on any mill owner who employed labour-saving techniques. The machinery in use here in 1965 was the same as that designed in New Zealand in 1900.

The decision by the British Post Office in 1965 to switch to using synthetic fibres and the removal of the £5 per ton Government of St Helena subsidy dealt the final blow. Within the year the island’s flax mills closed, the last closing in 1966. The result was considerable unemployment. The island was also left covered with flax plants that no longer had any purpose. They remain an environmental issue to this day.

In March 1995 there was brief hope that St Helena Flax might, once again, provide income for the island. The island’s Agricultural Officer was contacted by Nick Thorpe saying that supplies of island flax had been requested by researchers in the UK, The Natural Fibres Organisation Research Institute. 200Kgs of flax was quickly harvested and shipped to the UK. But, sadly, it transpired that the research was focussed purely on finding new uses for UK grown products, and the St Helena flax was simply a sample with no intention of ever using it for any product. It seems the flax industry’s Lazarus-like revival was not to be.

The industry at work

Flax grows best on higher ground, the area surrounding Diana’s Peak being particularly heavily planted. The flax was cut, by hand, tied into 56lb bundles and then delivered down to the nearest flax mill, originally always by donkey. Later lorries were used in more accessible areas but donkeys continued to be used in the more difficult parts.

Flax on donkeys [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

Flax on donkeys [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

The first processing stage was the ‘Stripper’. The operator, standing on the platform, fed a few leaves at a time into the small stripper mouth. Two different sized wheels removed the green leaf covering, which was used elsewhere as fertiliser and animal feed. Beneath the stripper sat the catcher who caught the stripped leaf and passed it on to one of four shakers. The shakers tried to remove as many bits from the fibre as possible. The remaining fibre was washed to remove the natural acid. The flax was then loaded onto bullock carts and taken up to the drying fields.

Flax washing [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

Flax on bullock cart [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

There it was spread out on the ground to dry in the sun. Large areas of land were devoted to drying flax. In good weather fibre would take about two weeks to dry and bleach during which time it would be frequently turned.

Flax spread out for drying [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

Flax drying [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

The dried flax was lifted and shaken to remove dust, and then taken back to the mill where it was processed further through a ‘scutcher’ machine, which separated the long (1.5-1.8 metre) high quality fibres from the waste ‘tow’.

Flax dusted off [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

‘Scutcher’ [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

It was then mostly bundled for export as a raw material. The bundled flax was transported to a warehouse in Jamestown to await the next ship. Some raw flax was set aside to be made into rope.

Flax bundled for export [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

Flax being exported [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

Rope Making

To make rope the flax was first amalgamated into great lengths. These lengths were then stretched out in the land surrounding the mill. The fibres were twised into rope by an ingenious bobbin that was simply drawn along the stretched out fibres.

Stretching out for rope maxing [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

Rope-twisting bobbin [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

The resulting rope was then wound into coils, originally by hand but by 1962 using a winding machine.

Winding machine [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

Finished rope [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]{a}

Government departments used to require their rope to be died green, presumably to mark it such that illegal use of government rope for private purposes could be more easily detected.

You can also hear the sound of the flax-stripper at work{a} - a sound which, apparently, “was a feature of the week day waking hours of the island. Wherever you went you could hear the distant mewling of the flax strippers like Scottish bagpipes in the hills.{1}

Click on the icon to hear this audio file: 

(right-click to download) 

Click here to listen [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry] (106.8Kb)

Here are a few more photos:

Bamboo Hedge Flax mill (date unknown) [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Bamboo Hedge Flax mill (date unknown)

Sandy Bay Flax Mill, 1910 [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Sandy Bay Flax Mill, 1910

Stripping, 1910 [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Stripping, 1910

Drying, 1939 [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Drying, 1939

Transport by Bullock Cart, 1939 [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Transport by Bullock Cart, 1939

Transport by Bullock Cart, 1939 [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Transport by Bullock Cart, 1939

Donkey transport, 1939 [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Donkey transport, 1939

Cutting [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Cutting{a}

Delivering [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Delivering{a}

Arrival at Bamboo Hedge Mill [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Arrival at Bamboo Hedge Mill{a}

Washing [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Washing{a}

Pulped flax [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Pulped flax{a}

Laying out to dry [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Laying out to dry{a}

Drying, Sandy Bay [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Drying, Sandy Bay{a}

Rope Making [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Rope Making{a}

Rope Making [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Rope Making{a}

Flax plantations and mills, 1874-1966 [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Flax plantations and mills, 1874-1966{b}

Remnants today

There have been no attempts to revive the flax industry since its demise in 1966. It has been suggested that the recent interest in natural products could generate a new market for flax-based string, but the costs of production on St Helena combined with the cost of shipping overseas are thought likely to make St Helena Flax String uneconomic. A small quantity of flax-based products is produced by SHAPE{2} and available in island shops (including the moonbeamsforall.com • Moonbeams Shop • opens in a new window or tab [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]Moonbeams Shop).

Across the countryside many of the flax mills are now derelict or have been reused for other purposes.

Flax mill at Fairyland [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Flax mill at Fairyland

Flax mill at Broad Bottom [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]
Flax mill at Broad Bottom

For many years there have been plans to create a flax museum, to be situated in the old Pipe Building behind the prison in Narrabacks, Jamestown. Much of the old machinery has been collected and some has been restored or re-created. But there is as yet no published date for its opening; the collection can currently be viered by special arrangement only. The Pipe Building is currently being used to house the bones of slaves removed from Rupert’s in 2008 during airport works.

But by far the biggest legacy of the flax industry is the flax itself, which still covers large areas of the island. The photograph shows flax covering a hillside at The Peaks (the end of the ridge is Halley’s Mount).

Fairyland growing at The Peaks [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Flax clearing, especially in The Peaks area is undertaken in an attempt to restore land for the re-growth of the island’s many endemic plants, many of which were pushed out to make way for flax at the beginning of the 20th Century and are now endangered.

Flax clearing at The Peaks [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Flax growing in Sandy Bay, with flowers in the foreground [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Read More

Go to: Article: “Working with Flax Remembered”Article: “Green roofs? Tristanians show it’s a matter of flax”

Article: “Working with Flax Remembered

By Ferdie Gunnell, published in the St Helena Sentinel 26th May 2016{c}

Sentinel, 20160526 [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

In Abundance Still but not Commercially Friendly Now

New Zealand flax was probably introduced to St Helena around 1853. Early in 1874 the Colonial and Foreign Fibre Company formed to cultivate flax 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 was exported. The consignment of 100 bales each weighed 4cwt. But in February 1881 the Company closed due to the business being unprofitable.

Economic hardship in the island prompted another try at flax in 1907. A flax processing mill was set up by the government under supervision of a New Zealand expert, Mr Fulton and in a few years the product became the only staple industry on the island. The flax industry had failed previously. According to Fulton the wrong equipment was used; he would do it on different lines. Fulton brought in flax dressing machinery which is peculiar to New Zealand flax and erected a mill which opened formally on 5th December.

Flax was thinned out and transplanted by the roots. At its peak flax covered over 12,000Km² and three families owned the land. The industry experienced a boom during World War 1 (‘The Great War’). Everyone who was able began to plant and grow flax, and grants of small plots of Crown land were made available for further planting of the commodity. But after 1921 there was a setback from competition with low-priced Sisal fibre from Africa and Java.

In flax history mills were owned by the Government, Solomon’s, Deason’s and Thorpe’s.

Their locations include Woody ridge, Hutt’s Gate, Bamboo Hedge, Broad Bottom, Scots, Fairy Land and Rockrose. In July 1932 mills 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 of manufactured fibre they re-opened in November of the same year.

The industry employed 300-400 people. They worked 50 hours a week for low wages. Work in the fields was hard with repetitive noise and dirty, and workers were often injured in the machines used to process fibre.

Wilson Scipio 75 worked at Solomon’s Broad Bottom mill. He well remembers his experiences and related some to The Sentinel.

I started work at Broad Bottom at 14 and a half.” Wilson said he was 11 when his father died as a result of a tree rolling on him in the forest. Life wasn’t easy afterwards. Wilson and his two sisters were mostly brought up by their grandparents. His mom who turned 97 in April this year had to work in the flax fields.

The school leaving age was 15 but in those days an exemption could be applied if circumstances warranted. Wilson had to leave school to “help out”. His first job was spreading flax on the field.

Wages were very small. He started with £1/1s a week working Mondays to Fridays. The men were paid £1/13s 6d. After six months he got a “man’s pay” when he replaced a stripper.

They were difficult times. Footwear was very expensive so many flax workers wrapped their feet in gunny sack, which didn’t last for long because they got wet. Often the tops of toes were kicked off. Wilson carried a pin (for picking out prickles) and a piece of white rag for bandage.

During the rainy season a ‘shawl bag’ was worn across the shoulders and around the waist. These were partly dried by the fire grate at night for the next day. Wilson believes some elderly people these days who worked the flax fields suffer leg problems because of getting wet, getting dry, getting wet.

A number of processes were involved with turning flax into fibre. Green leaves were cut by hand, bundled and transported by donkeys from the field to mills. They were weighed and fed through a stripper to separate the fibre from ‘green-bark’ which was used as animal food. The raw fibre was washed and taken by bullock dray to separate fields where it dried and bleached in the sun. The dry fibre was taken back to the mill and beaten in a machine called a scuther to separate the long (1.5-1.8 metre) high quality fibres from the waste ‘tow’. The fibre was then pressed, bailed and transported by dray to a warehouse in Jamestown for shipping. Solomon’s stored their fibre in the Rickmer’s. Although now used as a display table one of Solomon’s drays can be seen in the Star in Jamestown.

Wilson remembers some of the product being turned into rope and string. He worked all the processes during his six years. He recalls tears when it was too hard for a boy still growing, and strict foremen who would stand you down a quarter day if you arrived even a minute later than 7:30am. He lived close by at Head O’Wain but remembers women who walked to Broad Bottom from Ladder Hill and back at night. Wilson’s experiences told were at Solomon’s flax mills, they would have been similar at the others.

For almost 60 years flax was the main stay of St Helena’s economy and there were good times, particularly during the wars when armies probably needed rope. However the predominant buyer of St Helena string was the British Post Office. It is believed their decision to use nylon twine and rubber bands to bundle its letters brought about the demise of St Helena’s only export product of note.

Along the journey flax mills closed and reopened depending on profitability. All were finally closed in 1966 and there have been no attempts to revive the flax industry. There has been interest in flax-based string but the cost of production on St Helena and shipping overseas are thought likely to make the market uneconomic. SHAPE produces a small quantity of flax products for sale.

New Zealand Flax was once the main stay of St Helena‘s economy. Today it is considered locally an invasive species.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Article: “Green roofs? Tristanians show it’s a matter of flax

By Simon Pipe, published in the St Helena Independent 30th November 2012{3}

SHELCO Logo [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

The developer SHELCO{4} says it wants to use ‘living roofs’ on its luxury Wirebird Hills eco resort on St Helena, but there’s another green possibility that may be more apt. It might even mean that people needn’t import expensive roofing materials in future - because there’s a freely available alternative that grows over much of the island.

The idea comes from Tristan da Cunha, where pensioners have been building a stone cottage in the traditional island way. The Thatched Tristan House Project began in January 2009 with the idea of creating a cottage that could serve as a museum of island life - and pass on the old techniques to young Tristanians.

The original settlers on Tristan lived in robust stone houses, designed by two Devon stonemasons, John Nankivel and Samuel Burnell, who arrived as part of the first British garrison in 1816 and stayed on. The building method they devised, using a volcanic tuff known as ‘soft stone’, remained in use for 150 years or so - and today’s island pensioners are just old enough to know how it was done.

In January 2009, they quarried and cut stone into huge blocks to form the gable ends, and then added front and back walls, with windows only at the front of the building. A severe storm blew down one of the big walls, but the men stuck with it. And early in November 2012, no fewer than 40 islanders gathered to give the cottage a roof - of thatched flax.

That’s the same New Zealand flax that grows in unwelcome abundance on St Helena.

Phormium tenax was introduced to Tristan da Cunha in the 19th Century and provided thatching material. As Saints will know, it’s a highly invasive species, and the Tristan Conservation department has had its work cut out trying to eradicate it from the outer islands and outside the Settlement Plain on the main island.

On 7th November, the old hands showed the younger men how to tie the flax into bundles and then place them at the bottom of the wooden roof frame, bunching the bundles closely together to form a thick blanket.

Six rows of flax were strapped in place, front and back, with ‘nelly yarn’; and by the day’s end, the job was done. A fire was lit inside, and the Tristan flag was raised on the roof. The finished result was a curious mix of chunky Devon-style stonework and tropical-looking green roof, as though the cottage was wearing an over-sized grass skirt. No doubt it will look different as it ages.

A house finished with a flax roof might look a bit odd on St Helena, but it would at least avoid the need to import expensive materials from abroad. Perhaps St. Paul’s Cathedral would look even more splendid topped with flax, instead of corrugated metal.

And it might offer one important advantage over having living plants growing over the heads of guests at Wirebird Hills: There’d be no need for some hapless groundsman to shin up a ladder and mow the roof.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]

Laugh at funny flax humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:The Flax Industry]


Credits:

{a} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{3}.{5}

{b} Ken Denholm

{c} This article is reproduced{3} with permission from South Atlantic Media Services Ltd (SAMS)



Footnotes:

{1} Charles Frater, one of the makers of the 1962 film.

{2} St Helena Active Participation in Enterprise, a local social enterprise providing work and training for the disabled

{3} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged

{4} St Helena Leisure COrporation.

{5} The 1962 Film Unit consisted of Charles Frater, Bob Johnston and Esdon Frost who came to the island and made a half hour film called “Island of Saint Helena”, many sound recordings and photographic stills. The full film is available on YouTube™ www.youtube.com/watch?v=YngeIbFUEVw.



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