Homebush Sugar Mill

1883 - 1922

Homebush Mill c. early 1900's. 

The land on which the Homebush run was located was first selected by John Mackay in 1862.  Ownership was transferred to Edward Brooking Cornish in 1863 and then the 25 square mile Homebush run was transferred to John Walker in 1867.  Young and Gilchrist then acquired the run and combined it with the Cape Palmerston run into a single holding.  John Walker once again bought Homebush in 1879 but died in June of that year.  The Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) then bought the Homebush and neighbouring selections to cash in on the new sugar boom.  Up until 1880 the land had only been used for grazing.

The CSR company had been concerned with competition which its own white sugars were facing from Queensland sugar.  The company dominated the production of sugar in the northern New South Wales area and was looking to expand its operations.  The most attractive areas then were the Mackay and Herbert River areas.  

Edward Knox the CSR General Manager commissioned the company of Parbury, Lamb & Co. who in turn commissioned George Smith of Mackay through the agent  to investigate suitable areas  of land in which to invest.  Being unable to purchase a going concern from one of the existing mills in the area at a reasonable price it was decided to develop the area around Homebush which was conducive for a large scale operation.

Preparations commenced for the construction of the new 4000 ton capacity mill in July 1881. The mill machinery was ordered from Mirrlees, Tait and Watson of Glasgow.  The plant comprised of one six and one five foot diameter mill both of 32 inches in diameter.  Double crushing became the norm in the 1880's with the second mill squeezing extra juice out of the residue from the first mill.  The mill also included two triple effets from Fives, Lille Company to ensure that the milling power was matched by adequate evaporating power. The bagasse was conveyed by tramway trucks direct from the mills to the boiler, dispensing with the old labour intensive practice of spreading it out in the sun for drying.  The mill was designed to crush 45 to 50 thousand tons of cane per season and was housed in a building measuring 60 by 33 metres.  

Crushing began successfully on 3 September 1883.  Initially the mill operated a single shift like the CSR mills in New South Wales from 6.00 am to 5.30 pm.  The new mill was designed to work around the clock which meant not only increased throughput, but greater efficiency avoiding the daily lighting up and fewer problems in crystallization.  To make this possible, electric lighting was installed and an extensive two foot gauge tramway system was constructed to ensure sufficient cane was brought in each day to last through the night.

Knox had reservations with the use of Islanders as labour and was concerned with the strength and mortality rate of the South Sea Islanders.  It was imperative for the Company to find new sources of cheap labour.  Cingalese labourers were brought to Mackay by CSR in 1882 as well as some Chinese coolies however both proved unsatisfactory as a long term solution and 125 Javanese labourers were brought in to work for the plantation in 1886.  However the Dutch government prohibited the trade at the end of 1886.  Japanese labourers brought in the early 1890's proved more effective and many stayed on in the district.

In 1891 CSR decided to subdivide their land as a solution to the labour problem giving farmers the option to purchase the land.  The lessees were required to give the company an annual lien on the crop as a guarantee of payment of rent, to cultivate the land with cane, and, during the first year, to buy rations from the company store.  CSR then gave the farmer the right to purchase at anytime in the first three years, paying one fifth in cash and the rest over 4 years at five per cent interest.  The scheme was an outstanding success with many of the new farmers former employees of the company.

By 1895 there were 150 farmers supplying cane to the mill.

CSR were responsible in developing the P.O.C.S. formula or Pure Obtainable Cane Sugar formula which was later developed into the C.C.S. formula or Commercial Cane Sugar Content which is the basis now on which growers are paid for their cane rather than pure tonnage.  

The Homebush mill became the dominant mill of the district for nearly 40 years.

The 1918 cyclone severely damaged the mill with all buildings except two houses and the office losing some or all of their roof.  The stables and one barracks collapsed as did the loco running shed and an old barracks for coloured labourers which had been converted to a temporary sugar store due to shipping delays.  A third of the 3,900 tons of sugar in storage had been lost.  Repairs to the buildings were not all completed until December.

The CSR board in 1920 had decided to increase the capacity of its northern mills in response to increasing crops and sugar price.  The board were told however that Homebush had provided unsatisfactory results which in the last five years had produced 26,200 profit in two years but 15,300 loss in the other three years.  Crops had generally been of poor quality and supply to the factory was always short.  The Homebush mill at the time had a book value less then 100,000 and could be closed and machinery relocated to the more profitable mills.

Following legal problems in 1920 with the company avoiding coming under the provisions of the Cane Prices Board by negotiating with its growers and further litigation CSR advised the 1921 season would be its last.

The mill last crushed on 6 January 1922.  The final crop of 71,721 tons was the largest on record.  The Homebush farmers cane for the next season was to be crushed by the Farleigh mill.  Following the closure the mill building was sent to Sydney while a number of tanks were sent to the CSR's Yarraville Refinery in Melbourne.  The Fives Lille locomotive went to Macknade Mill.  Auction sales were held in May and June 1922 realizing the sale of other buildings and other assets.  The area of the former mill still houses a number of former mill houses in Stevens lane, however only a concrete slab marks the old mill site.

References -

Kerr, John. (1988). A Century of Sugar. Mackay, QLD:  Mackay Sugar Co-operative Association Limited. p. 10, 16, 17-32, 41, 56, 61-76, 105-118, 122-127, 205, 207. 

Kerr, John. (1980).  Pioneer Pageant. Mackay, QLD: Pioneer Shire Council. p. 17, 18, 73, 75-77, 100, 126-128, 130, 161, 165-166, 171.

Manning, K.W. (1983). In Their Own Hands. Farleigh, QLD: Farleigh Co-op Milling Association Ltd. p. 56, 71, 132, 170, 216, 230, 237, 240, 244-245, 246, 247-251, 258, 260.

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Glen Hall

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