Victoria Sugar Mill

1882 - 1887

Victoria Mill circa 1883.
 (picture courtesy of John Oxley Library, Brandon Collection no. 6298-0001-0054r. )

Having recovered from the rust outbreak of the mid 1870’s, and improved efficiency through better milling techniques, the Mackay district was well placed to share in the investment boom which saw new sugar mills erected along the entire Queensland coast from Cooktown south to the border, wherever there was suitable land.

In the Mackay district as many as nine mills were erected in one year, 1883, the climax – and practically the end- of private investment in new sugar mills in Queensland. The impact of the heavily subsidized beet sugar in Europe on world sugar prices meant that most of the new mills came into production s returns from the sale of sugar took a disastrous slide. As beet production exceeded cane sugar for the first time, the world price for raw sugar fell from £20/1/0 in 1883 to £15/10/0 in 1884.

The first of these mills constructed after 1880 was the Richmond Mill. The second local venture was more ambitious, and for some years more successful. The Mackay Sugar Company built the Victoria Mill on the Savannah Plains north of Eton and west of Jack’s Barrie Plantation. The name of the Company reflected the influence of the Mackay sugar experts but the name of the mill reflected the origin of most of its capital. The company was registered in Melbourne on 18 March 1881, its capital twenty shares of £500 each. Alexander Richard Mackenzie, co-inventor of the ejector vacuum pan and manager of the plantation held one share as did John Frederick McLaren, William George Kemp and George Smith, Charles Nesbitt and Frederick Armstrong. The remaining 14 shares were held by thirteen Melbourne Businessmen. Work was, by this time, already well advanced on the plantation on Lagoon Creek while the plant was on the ground by the time the company was floated.

McOnie of Glasgow supplied the mill and gearing, supplemented by clarifiers, battery, subsiders and Cornish boiler with Galloway tubes built at Robertson’s foundry. The capacity of the plant was 800 to 1000 tons per season but the design provided for expansion. As the Company preferred to operate a central mill crushing cane for neighbouring growers, it was not planned to create an extensive plantation. The first sample of sugar, produced in January 1882, caused the Mercury to comment favourably on the enterprise of Smith, McKenzie and Kemp (to whom it attributed ownership of the mill) in turning a swamp into a going concern in two years.

There was little cane grown locally for the mill to crush, and twenty new shares were issued in March 1882 to enable the mill to be improved. Large areas of ground were broken up using a specially imported Fowler steam plough, forming a substantial plantation. Alfred Smith, manager by 1883 and eventually owner of the mill, soon found the area had its problems. Frosts had been heavy and carriers were continually demanding higher rates. Little thought had been given to improving the roads over which the cane was carted. Within two years, Smith had turned what had threatened to be a white elephant into an efficiently managed active mill supplied by numerous local farmers

The erection of the North Eton Central Mill in 1888 forced three mills to close, Victoria, Barrie and Marian. With double crushing and a railway, North Eton was able to offer Marian growers thirteen shillings a ton for cane delivered at Eton compared with ten shillings at the Marian mill. Rather than modernise, Marian closed. At Barrie, David Jack’s trouble repaying his loan from the A.J.S. bank dated from 1883, and Thomas Baker, a southern investor, joined Jack in partnership. In July 1884, with no profits appearing, the bank stepped in, appointing R.D. Dunne as manager. Unable to find a buyer, the bank advanced money for modernisation ad while Dolly Dunne soon had the plantation in first class order, the bank saw the advantages of a good income by selling cane to north Eton and closed the mill in 1889. Victoria joined Barrie the same year in selling its crop to the Central Mill and never rushed again.

The Mackay Meat and Dairy Export Company was formed in late 1896 to convert the old Victoria Mill into a meat extract establishment, with plans to erect a dairy factory in the district later.

Alfred Smith, the former manager of Victoria Mill, bought the property in 1890, ordered new machinery, and arranged to buy ten thousand tons of cane from farmers served by the railway. In 1891 he offered to make contracts to buy cane for several years and began settling farmers on the estate, but in July, when the mill was ready to crush, work halted on the new double crushing plant and Smith left urgently for Melbourne. The Bank of Australia had refused to continue financing the property and work never resumed. The brand new crushing plant with an annual capacity of 2000 tons of sugar was never used, and, with the four square miles of land and three miles of tramway, was vainly offered for sale. CSR bought the cane growing on Allandale and Victoria that year, and laid temporary tramways to cart it to Homebush.

Aided by Government loan, the new company began converting the old mill in 1897. H. Braby, former engineer at River Estate, came to Mackay in 1898 to supervise removal of the unwanted rollers, which had been sold to the Seaforth Mill on the Lower Burdekin at a bargain price.

In 1897, a boiler in Racecourse Mill was bought from the Mackay Meat and Dairy Export Company, which had acquired the Victoria Mill near Eton which had been rebuilt and closed without a crushing.

The Meatworks started work, making a readily saleable fertilizer as well as the meat extract it exported and even bought ten thoroughbred pigs to encourage pig rearing. After the close of the 1899 season, work began installing a meat preserving plant and tinning operations began early in 1900. Without a railway inland, the Company was unable to tap a big enough supply of beasts and after the 1902 drought, found itself unable to pay the required loan interest and redemption. When the Meat and Dairy Encouragement Board found the Company unable even to keep the building in repair or pay the insurance premium, it took possession on 15 December 1903, placing a caretaker in charge. No buyers were found until 1910/11 when the buildings and plant realised £130 and the residence brought £175 the following year, leaving three quarters of the £600 loan unrecoverable

The former Savannah Plains are now known by locals as Victoria Plains after the former Sugar Mill.

About 1964, Ray Blackburn acquired the site of the old Victoria Mill as a new cane assignment. He used one of the old wells used to supply the Victoria Mill as his source of water. All that survives today is an old concrete block on his farm.

References -

Kerr, John. (1988). A Century of Sugar. Mackay, QLD:  Mackay Sugar Co-operative Association Limited. p.57. 

Kerr, John. (1980).  Pioneer Pageant. Mackay, QLD: Pioneer Shire Council. p.133. 

Rolleston, Frank. (1987). The Defiance – The story of North Eton Co-operative Sugar Milling Association Limited, 1888-1987. North Eton, QLD: North Eton Co-operative Milling Association Limited.   p.3.

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Glen Hall

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