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The Flax Industry

phormium tenax, economic lifeline or ecological disaster?

The problems that we have created cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created them.{e}

For 60 years our flax industry was the engine of our economy

The Flax Industry


The first to propose exploiting the New Zealand Flax phormium tenax already growing wild on St Helena{3} was Mr Frederick Moss, who expounded his views in favour of the plan in a letter to local newspaper The Advocate on 2nd December 1852.

Jamestown flax mill, 1870s
Jamestown flax mill, 1870s

Prompted by the withdrawal of the ‘Liberated African’ Station in 1874, and the resulting economic difficulties, flax processing was introduced to St Helena with the aim of providing exports. 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 110 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 to Jamestown for processing from their plantation at Woody Ridge, six miles away. The mill closed in March 1881. In that time around £6,000-worth of flax had been produced, 63% of it in 1879/1880, so clearly production costs must have been high if the process was uneconomic.

The return of the Boer PoWs 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 initially also failed to rescue St Helena’s economy, partly due to technical problems with the machinery and also because, coincident with the mill’s opening, the world price of flax fell dramatically making export only marginally profitable.

Production (tons)
by producer
Government Mill41279154
Messrs Deason19045151214

Things marginally improved in 1912 and in July 1913 Solomons opened the island’s second mill in the Sandy Bay District, but real success didn’t come until the demand for rope created by World War 1, 1914-1918. This time the industry grew. Flax was cultivated across the island (although often replacing agricultural land with flax, contributing to food shortages during World War 1) and many flax mills were constructed, starting with one owned by the Deason Brothers in July 1916 and followed by a second Solomon’s mill at Broad Bottom. In The ‘Blue Book’ for 1915 Governor Cordeaux, contemplating the eventual withdrawal of the additional funding due to World War 1, wrote:

Fortunately the island has now a well-established and steadily growing industry to fall back upon, which will avert anything approaching a repetition of the serious unemployment problems which followed on the withdrawal of the permanent garrison in 1906. It may be confidently expected that the reaction, when it does come, will be nothing worse than a return to the moderate but steadily rising standard of prosperity which the Colony had reached during the years immediately preceding the outbreak of war.

Another mill, owned by Thorpes, was added in 1923. In 1926 there were six mills operating (Government; Solomon x 2; Deason; Thorpe) employing around 500 people (from a population of 3,728) with around 2,000 acres growing flax, from a total accessible land area of around 10,000 acres. In 1927 the ‘area under flax’ was estimated at 2,000 acres.

The mills also processed the flax into string or rope for local use and also for export, a process started by a Captain Mainwaring in 1921. 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:

Actual processed flax
Actual processed flax{2}

The Government of St Helena funded the ‘refurbishment’ - in most cases this was a complete re-build - of all the island’s flax mills in 1949, work continuing until March 1950. 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 12Km² of land, including many areas formerly occupied by Endemic Species - the economy mattered more than the environment. Flax and its related products made up 99% of the island’s total exports. 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. In 1927 Canon Walcott, writing in the Diocesan Magazine, proposed that the long hours and poor working conditions might be the cause of the high rates of heart disease amongst the workers, a claim supported by contemporary medical journals but with no action taken at the time. According to The ‘Blue Book’ for 1959 Flax workers are usually employed between 7am and 5pm and work a five-and-a-half-day week. Except for public holidays no paid holidays are granted. Wages are quoted at 45s/week (£2.25). Just three families owned the land and almost all the industry’s profits went to them.

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

Flax on postage stamps

Flax on postage stamps

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 ‘Blue Book’ for 1964/5 simply records The flax industry, which has never really been a flourishing one but which provided employment where otherwise there would have been none, virtually came to an end in December 1965. The last mill closed down on the 14th September 1966, , the others having closed earlier in that year. The result was considerable unemployment. The island was also left covered with flax plants that no longer had any purpose; around 30% of the cultivated land area. They remain an environmental issue to this day.

One of the most serious effects created by concentrating the island’s resources on the flax industry was the neglect of other forms of agriculture, thus almost eliminating any hope for the island obtaining food self-sufficiency.{d}

A musical, ‘Fibre’, about the flax industry and the daily life of the workers{4}, produced by children from the island’s schools, was performed for Prince Andrew (even though not one of them would have been born when the flax industry collapsed!)

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

The process

There is a complete description of the flax process in the 1962 Film, the relevant section of which you can see (right{c}). The details below are illustrated by stills from that film{c}.

Flax harvesting and processing

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{5}.

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.


You can hear (right) the sound of the flax-stripper at work in Fairyland Mill - 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.{g}

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.

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.

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’.

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.

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 twisted into rope by an ingenious bobbin that was simply drawn along the stretched out fibres.

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

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.

Other images

Here are a few more photos of work in progress:

… and some of the mills:

You can read a detailed account of the flax industry{d}.

Remnants today

There has been only one attempt to revive the flax industry since its demise in 1966. In the mid-1980s a local business was created making cement roofing tiles, using flax fibre processed at the Fairyland flax mill to give strength. Sadly the business did not succeed, builders preferring to use imported products instead. The flax processing is described in the video clip (right){h}.

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 S.H.A.P.E., mostly for tourists.

Across the countryside many of the flax mills are now derelict or have been reused for other purposes. The flax mill at Longwood was reconstructed as the Harford Community Centre, opened by Governor Harford on 3rd August 1957. The Sandy Bay mill at Bamboo Hedge now houses the Solomons piggery. Both the original and rebuilt Woody Ridge mills, and also the Broad Bottom mill are used as farm buildings. Captain Mainwaring’s rope works in Longwood was recently in use as a barn to hold animal feed.

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 viewed by special arrangement only. The Pipe Building was until 2022 being used to house the bones of the ‘Liberated Africans’ removed from Ruperts 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).

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.

Read More

Below: Article: Working with Flax RememberedArticle: Green roofs? Tristanians show it’s a matter of flax

Article: Working with Flax Remembered

Published in The Sentinel, 26th May 2016{6}

Sentinel, 20160526

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 12Km² and three families owned the land. The industry experienced a boom during World War 1. 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, Hutts 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 ‘scutcher’ 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 Rickmers{7}. 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.

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

By Simon Pipe, 30th November 2012{6}


The developer SHELCO 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.


{a} Paul McCartney, Hobart, Australia{8}{b} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{c} Copyright © 1962 Film Unit, used with permission{d} Ken Denholm{e} Albert Einstein{f} Radio St Helena/Museum of St Helena, digitised by Burgh House Media Productions{g} Charles Frater, one of the makers of the 1962 film{h} Film of St Helena in the 1980s (1984?). Produced by the Photographic Society of St Helena; supplied by the Museum of St Helena.


{1} We assume this relates to the former use as a flax mill. Certainly the current resident is unlikely to smoke! [Image, right]

Current resident at Woody Ridge Mill
Current resident at Woody Ridge Mill

{2} As shown by Robert Peters during his History Tour, collected during his time working in one of the island’s flax mills.{3} It is thought that the Captain of an American whaler introduced New Zealand Flax to St Helena in the 1850s, and planted it at Walbro Estate. It is not known why he did this.{4} The songs were: Time Will Not Wait; The Winding Road; Work Day; Orders, Orders; Complaints; Another Layer; Scotching; Strip and Wash; Together; The Chopper; Four Footed Beasts; Baling; Stand You Down and No Choice, following the work day for workers in the flax mills.{5} The first lorry to work in the flax industry was a Chevrolet owned by one Major Jecks, c.1930. Sadly we don’t have a picture for our page Classic Cars.{6} @@RepDis@@{7} Building on the Grand Parade; originally the ‘Lower Tavern’, and later the ‘Scott’s Hotel’. It was given its current name at the end of the 19th Century after the Madeline Rickmers caught fire in James Bay in 1896. It is locally pronounced as ‘Rick-a-mers’.{8} Paul’s father was the island’s doctor in the 1960s and Paul accompanied him here. Paul visited St Helena in June 2018 and kindly gave us permission to use these family photographs.