Eucalyptus oil distilling a major local industry by 1890s

The leaves and nuts of the local Eucalyptus Smithii species.

The leaves and nuts of the local Eucalyptus Smithii species.

Part One of a two-part series

EUCALYPTUS oil was one of the unexpected discoveries made by colonial settlers in NSW. Distilling plants were set up and by the 1890s enterprising businessmen in the Berrima District were participants in this 'dinkum oil' industry.

Within a few weeks of the First Fleet arriving in 1788, settlers discovered the wonders of the eucalyptus tree, first found growing on the shores of Port Jackson. Surgeon-General John White noted that the distilled oil was more efficacious than that of English peppermint, being less pungent and more aromatic.

The eucalypt belongs to the Myrtaceae family. The genus was named Eucalyptus by the Frenchman L'Heretier in 1788.

The word came from the Greek eu 'well' and kalypto 'I cover' and refers to the cap that covers the flower buds until the buds mature and force the cap open.

The properties of the oil were already well known and put to use by local Aboriginal communities at the time.

Eucalyptus oil was amongst the first natural raw products exported from the colony.

Identified early on in the Southern Highlands was a scarce species, Eucalyptus Smithii, which rendered a higher yield of oil than many other species.

Found at Hill Top and through to Wingello, it is a tall tree, up to 45 metres in height, with a 150cm diameter. One of the earliest mentions of the local industry was in the Scrutineer on 26 August 1892: "Eucalyptus oil-making appears to be all the rage now.

We have no less than three factories at Wingello, viz, Mr R Curry, Langshaw and Bond, and Mr J Simmonds, and the oil manufactured is first class.

"In visiting Mr Curry's establishment the other day we were informed by that gentleman that he intends sending a sample of his oil to the Chicago Exhibition. Mr Curry is exporting half a ton of oil to England next week."

In November that year the paper reported that the cultivation of the eucalyptus had been declared a purpose for which to reserve land under the 90th section of the Crown Lands Act of 1883. As well, in a report from Wingello the sad news was conveyed that Thomas Barrett, employed cutting leaves for the eucalyptus factory, met with a very nasty accident.

Instead of cutting the leaves he cut off the end of his finger. The paper "hoped that in a few days he would be OK again".

A eucalyptus oil still at Wingello, c1900, operated with bush resourcefulness. Photo: BDH&FHS

A eucalyptus oil still at Wingello, c1900, operated with bush resourcefulness. Photo: BDH&FHS

The Bowral Free Press reported on 15 March 1893 that Frank Hook lost his Eucalyptus factory in the flood at Mittagong. Over 40 pounds worth went. A fishing party afterwards found two tins of oil about three miles down the creek only slightly damaged, which were returned to the owner.

At Hill Top, Daniel Chalker established a distillery in the 1890s using Smithii leaves from trees that still grow today on land he originally owned. Daniel gained a prominent mention in the first edition of A Research on the Eucalypts and their Essential Oils, a 1902 publication by the Technological Museum of NSW.

ONLY eucalyptus leaves and terminal branchlets were required by the distiller, so large trees were naturally a disadvantage, the material having to be collected either by lopping off the branches or by felling the trees.

Lopping was dangerous and more easy collection of the leaves was obtained from the 'coppice' growth which springs rapidly and abundantly from the short remaining stems of felled trees.

The leaves and bark were carted by wagon to the distilleries where the freshly cut material was dumped into vertical iron digesters set into the ground below wagon level for easy filling. After steam had distilled the volatile oil the spent leaves and stick were hoisted out by derrick and dumped on the fire. The rising column of pungent smoke was a constant landmark.

Back in the 1880s this work was often carried out by indigenous workers and by former miners as the goldfields rush petered out.

The old distilleries were somehow kept going by pieces of wire, bits of tin, lumps of clay and the resourcefulness of the true bushman whose ramshackle buildings were made of hand-hewn posts and roofed with branches of nearby trees.

The business was at the mercy of international markets. The Scrutineer of 12 April 1893 noted: "For the sake of our local eucalyptus factories we regret the late news from the London market that eucalyptus oil has dropped to 9 pence per lb and that a further decline is expected."

This proved to be a temporary setback as the industry was soon flourishing again.

To be continued

This article compiled by PHILIP MORTON is sourced from the archives of Berrima District Historical & Family History Society, Bowral Rd, Mittagong.

Phone 4872 2169.