WORKING IN A WOOLWASH

Sydney’s woolwashers, 1955
City of Botany Bay Library Services & Museum

Did you know Botany was once home to several woolscourers? According to this telephone book from 1955, all but two of Sydney’s woolwashers were based in Botany.

For those of you who have never encountered a woolwash, its a place where greasy bales of wool are scoured cleaned so that the wool can be processed into yarn. It was one of the many noxious trades that came to Botany in the late 19th Century. Others included fellmongers, who removed the wool from sheepskins, and various leather processing industries such as tanneries.

In the 1950s, Jack O’Brien, worked for a year or so at Wright & Bruce, the last scourer listed in this directory. Wool and leather processing plants “were a huge part of the Botany lifestyle during that era,” recalls Jack. “I spent the first part of my working life in tanneries, then a woolwash. This was not unusual in those days, when there were plenty of jobs available in these industries.  Many of my childhood friends and our previous generations followed this pattern.”

“Everyone seemed to know where to apply for labouring work.  Few of my contemporaries or their families had knowledge of the commercial or business world…For many years the importance [of noxious trades] to our commercial wellbeing cannot be questioned – and just as importantly, they should not be forgotten”

Thanks to Jack, who has meticulous written down his memories of Wright & Bruce, the world of woolscourers won’t be forgotten. His memories and photographs are reproduced below.

‘Woolwash’ was the general term applied to a wool scouring factory. Workers were proud to be called ‘woolies’. My time as a woolie was at the Wright & Bruce factory known as Lakeside. The factory was on the western side of Botany Road, between Lords Road and the Mill Pond Bridge – hence the name Lakeside.  The site is now a storage/distribution complex for a Volkswagen Motor Vehicle franchise.

The location of Wright and Bruce today and in the 1930s.
Courtesy of Google Maps and City of Botany Bay Library Services & Museum
Lord Street, which used to be home to many noxious industries can be seen running down the right hand side of the picture.The lake you can see in front of Wright & Bruce is now split in two by Southern Cross Drive.  City of Botany Bay Library Services & Museum

The primary operation of the woolwash, is the wool scouring process. This is followed by drying, then repacking into bales for transport to yarn and spinning mills. There are a few more operations I will come to later, but scouring is the key process.

On reflection, the Lakeside wool scouring operation was a massive challenge in logistics and material handling for that era – of course, none of this was even a remote thought in my mind at the time. The equipment we take for granted these days was virtually unknown.   The only similarity perhaps was in using primitive conveyor belt methods and a motor driven wool press.   Large quantities of wool however, still had to be manually moved to and from various locations by hard working woolies.   This work was very physical and quite demanding, but still attracted generations of unskilled workers to the industry and in the Botany area, £13 (or approximately $26) per week was a good wage!

Lakeside received ‘greasy’ or raw natural wool in bales direct from country wool growers, or their brokers.   As general background, one must recognise that not all wool is the same.   There are many wool classifications, such as long, short, fine, superfine etc., so it follows that wool must be processed in batches of the same type and classification.   This results in consistency for future end users.  

Woolgrowers (graziers) tend to specialize in a particular wool type as per their land suitability and breeding programme.   All this means is that all woolwash operations MUST BE CARRIED OUT IN BATCHES of the same wool type.

Some batches may be large and take a day or so to complete, whereas a smaller batch might only take a few hours.  I guess on average, probably two batches a day were processed through this systems. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the exact quantities involved, but I do remember many bales of greasy wool coming in that weighted 400lb. and over.   These needed two or three men to handle properly.   I suppose the average bale received in was about 250 – 300lbs.   At the end of the scouring process, the clean fluffy wool was packed into bales of about 180lbs., to give a fairly uniform bale height and ease of handling.

A TYPICAL WORKFLOW PATTERN WOULD BE ……………..

1. RECEIVING & STORAGE
Bales of greasy wool arrived by semi-trailer stacked on their side in three tiers..   They were simply rolled off the semi-trailer and finished in a haphazard jumble on the ground.   The trailer drove away and the ‘flying gang’ took over.   The Lakeside flying gang, had an eight or nine man team.   Five were from the ‘dag-house’ and a few others had a type of floating role, ie., they did not have a set work station to man.   Also, the ‘dag house’ could be shut down without affecting any continuous processing work so they would cover any absenteeism.

The first task for the flying gang was to stand the bales upright for checking against a manifest.  This was done with a man each side using a bale hook to lift the bale upright on its end.   As mentioned some bales needed three men to lift up.   After checking, each bale was given a simple internal brand to identify its correct batch.

‘The Flying Gang’ – Jack’s father Alec O’Brien, Bob Funnell & Jack Gobbe. Many workers preferred to work barefooted when handling wool.   A drawback here was to suffer when thorns or sharp grass seeds embedded in feet and hands.
Courtesy of Jack O’Brien

Bales were then taken to undercover storage areas, using two wheel upright barrows. This was hard work, as the bales were then stacked four tiers high on their side to conserve storage areas. One of the skills in stacking bales (especially during transport) is to tie the corners bricklayer fashion. The aim is to keep each tier fairly horizontal, as the next tier must be dragged or rolled into place across that tier. Luckily woolpacks were made from woven jute which helped to slide and spin a bale to its position. To assist vertical lifting, a mobile electric hoist was used.

2. SORTING AND STORING BULK ‘GREASY’ WOOL
Sorting the raw wool is the first continuous bulk process. This is a sort of fine tuning to remove most of the visible impurities still present in the fleece, ie., clumps of grass seeds and sheep dung (dags) etc.   Bales are brought from the storage area to the sorting tables, broken down by hand and the wool then starts its journey in bulk form  – think of bulk wheat rather than bagged wheat.  

I think there were eight men sorting (maybe twelve).  They worked in pairs by lifting a segment of wool from the bale onto a slotted table about waist high which was adjacent to a hessian conveyor belt. Using their judgment and dexterous hand movements, they pushed suitable wool onto the conveyor after removing any clumps of impurities. A series of conveyor belts carried the now sorted wool to a bulk storage area, closer to the scouring machines.

A little side process took place with the dusty, burred and sheep poo impurities removed at the sorting tables.  These were roughly baled up by type and redirected to the dag house.   There the impurities were removed in a type of tumbling machine.   Recovered wool was returned quickly to the sorting tables to blend back into their original batch. Usually only a small percentage of each batch had to be reworked – probably only ten or so bales a day, but there always seemed to be a backlog of work due to this slow process.  Thinking back, the wool industry must have been one of the earliest reclaimers and recyclers.

The bulk storage areas were extensive, about 20m x 10m floor area, with high side walls that could be stacked up to the roof line amongst the rafters.  Although large areas, these three sided rooms were not unlimited and still had to be managed carefully in conjunction with the sorting and scouring programme.  Two men looked after this area.   Their job was to keep each batch intact in one of the four or five storage areas adjacent to the scouring machines.

This particular job was thought to be a bit cushy as they had a number of conveyors and swivel shutes to help locate the wool to a specific area, where gravity did the rest. In fairness, however, the job was not always so easy.   Logistics would often interfere and hard work was needed to either stack the wool higher or clear out the end of a batch being currently scoured. Another option was to use very large hessian ‘curtains’ to divide off one of the storage areas to accommodate a smaller batch.   The men working here would boast they had very high jobs at Wright & Bruce.

Greasy wool contains that natural ‘lanoline’ substance, which gives wool one of its unique characteristics, but also means it compacts fairly solidly, and thus is hard to handle manually.  Consequently a build up solid lanoline film took place in all contact areas, especially the floors.

3. THE SCOURING OPERATION

Finally we come to the all important scouring work.  There were three scouring lines, not surprisingly known as No.1, No.2 and No.3 scourers.  Each line consisted of two very large cast iron troughs  – ‘MADE IN ENGLAND’ cast into the side.  Each trough was about 1m wide approximately 10-12m long and about 0.8m high.  The troughs ran slightly uphill from the feed hopper end to the finish or squeegee roller end.   Each line was positioned at chest height above a drain system set in the concrete floor.
 (NB above dimensions are subject to my memory)

Above the troughs was a monstrous conglomeration of drive belts and mechanical devices which served to drag wool through the water filled troughs.  Set low in each trough were perforated stainless still sieve plates which allowed the wool to progress but let mud filter through the sieve holes.

 The woolscouring section at Floodvale, 1938
Courtesty of Chris & Rob Hanna

Dragging the wool through were banks of stainless steel prongs, moving in a flattish oval motion.  I think there were three or four prong banks in each trough.  Wool was basically dragged through while suspended in hot water and cleaning agents. A simple comparison would be to think of using a huge open  top washing machine.

Each scouring line had a two man team of scourer (top dog) and their hopper feeder (labourer).   A head scourer (real top dog) was in charge of the other six and the overall scouring operation.   As previously stated, the scouring process was most critical to the success of the total operation.   The efficiency of continuous scouring was all important.   Hopper feeders had to keep them fully loaded, which was very hard work to the inexperienced.   This job would make or break newcomers until they learnt how to ‘arm wool’ and build the physical strength needed to survive.   Scourers started at 6.30 a.m. to prepare the equipment.   The troughs had to be filled with clean water, steam heated and cleaning chemicals organized.   Soda ash was the main cleaning agent.

At 7.00 a.m. the machine were started and the relentless hopper feeding was underway.   The cast iron hoppers were about 1m x 1m x 2m high, with a half cut out front.   An internal floor conveyor pushed wool towards a vertical spiked conveyor, which carried it into the first scouring trough.   The feeding principle was that the weight of say 1.5 cubic metres (full hopper) of wool would force the maximum amount onto the spikes and, therefore, maximize the wool feeding into the trough.   If the hopper was running low, not much wool would be forced into the trough and the scourers would get angry with their feeder and push them to the limit.  This usually happened when a new or inexperienced feeder was confronted with a difficult wool batch, or a ‘long haul’ to the bulk storage bin.

Some batches were light and fluffy, thus easier to handle larger amounts of wool.   Alternatively short heavy wool types were much more difficult to handle the same amount of wool to keep the hopper full.   Each feeder had a ‘wool barrow’ to help bring wool from the bulk bin to the hopper.

Speaking from sorry experience, No.2 scouring line hopper was a real bitch to keep full.   Thankfully a new feeder would often be helped by his mates from the other lines.   This would be short lived if they felt you were not having a go, or worse still if you would never be able to handle the hard work.   Toilet breaks had to be taken without stopping the feeding.

At 10.00 a.m. a ten minute tea break, then at 12.00 noon a merciful stop for the hopper feeders.   At this time the troughs were drained and cleaned of the muddy sediment which accumulated at the lower end.   Actually this cleaning was done by the hopper feeders at  five to twelve.  The scourers then followed the starting procedure ready for the afternoons work.   Cleaning was repeated again at the end of the days scouring.

The scouring area had a real team mentality; a great camaraderie existed, all due to the perceived status of that section.

Naturally enough, a hopper feeding job was given to the younger workers and wool sorting the domain of the older workers  with the various jobs in between given by the capability and seniority of those employed.

4. THE DRYING PROCESS AND PACKING LOFT.

Next cames the Drying Process, which was a continuous link between scouring and pre packing storage.

Jack O’Brien (left ) & co-worker Peter  at the drying hoppers
Courtesy of Jack O’Brien

The beautiful mostly snow white wool came pouring out of each second trough via a pair of copper squeegee rollers, like the old fashioned laundry wringers.   Still damp and heavy with moisture, the wool continuously built up into mounds on the floor. This wool then had to be manually moved from the floor (3 lines) into another hopper feeding a very large drying oven. (There might have been two driers, but let us say one).   The drier was ‘in line’ with the scouring troughs and through conveyors were steeply elevated.   The wool traveled upwards and moved into another building about 20m away.   This area was known as the packing loft.

Feeding the drying hoppers was a two man team who worked non stop to clear wool off the floor, lift and carry great armloads of damp heavy wool a few meters to the drying oven hopper.  This work was physically demanding due to the need to keep the process from bottlenecking, very much a young fit mans domain.

Clean wool from the drying oven tumbled from a conveyor belt to the floor of the packing loft. There it was bulk stored, but in a far different environment to its greasy unscoured state, ie., when scoured. The clean wool was treated more regally with polished wooden floors and clean timber walls in the storage bays.  Again the batch system had to be carefully maintained and managed.

The ‘loft’ was a high ceilinged first floor location, divided into sections of about four or five on each side.   Floor area was about 25 metres by 15 metres with an open trap door in the middle. This allowed wool to be directed to the ground floor packing press.

A two man team worked the loft, essentially to clear the incoming dried wool into storage.   Once again a continuous process, so this work was full on and physical.  The area was warmed from the newly dried wool, so was cosy in winter and oppressively hot in summer.  Clean dry wool was easier to handle, but high volumes still had to be carried to the required area, then thrown high into stacks.

5. WOOL PACKING
Wool packers were considered the elite of the industry.  They were paid under a piece-work award agreement, which is where an output can be measured and a rate of pay for each piece is agreed.  This invariably gave them high wages in return for the effort they applied to their work.  As time was obviously a factor,  packers usually worked a five or six hour day for high wage rewards.   If you made it as a packer, you stayed until they carried you out.

If you think about it, the packing and therefore, clearing of the finished wool had to be done quickly and efficiently to avoid a storage bottleneck.  That was the key to the packer’s status in the industry.   (Conversely during any industrial disputes, hardly any progess would be achieved without some leverage by the packers in support of their fellow workers).

The packers were a three man team working as a clever mechanism, which compacted the clean fluffy and springy wool into a fairly uniform bale size of about 180lbs. The harder the packers worked, the greater their output and pay.

The packing method was simple, as well as clever. Two solid timber boxes – one fixed solid to the floor and both hinged together on one side – both gravity fed with wool by a hessian chute from the loft trapdoor – loosely compressed by tramping down by the packers – hinged box lifted in line with fixed one and then all fully compressed by a motorised press.   An acquired skill was to judge the amount of wool packed to achieve a constant finished bale of about 160 to 180lbs.   Each finished bale was then branded by hand stencil and stored ready for final dispatch.

There were two other workers in the packing areas. One of those did the stencil branding, then wheeled the bale away.  The other was another piece-worker, on whom the packers totally depended.  His job was to hand sew about a dozen or so reinforcing stitches in the four top corners of each new woolpack before being used in the wool press.  This was necessary for the wool pack to withstand the pressure exerted by compressed wool. It also helped the bale corners to keep a nice square shape.   For want of a better name, I’ll call this work pack sewing.  The pack sewer used a long curved needle to push heavy  hemp string through the pack.   He used a thick leather palm guard to push the needle through, ie., a bit like a thimble.   It sounds easy, but this was actually hard to sew 600 or 700 woolpack corners every day.

We have now completed the journey from incoming greasy wool to the finished scoured product, ready for many uses and undoubtedly one of world’s best natural fibres.

“A race to the very spartan communal shower room where skylarking and personal banter was the usual way to finish a day’s work.”

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