Highlands History: Eucalyptus oil industry

THE GOOD OIL: Sir Joseph Bosisto pictured in a 1952 SM Herald feature on eucalyptus oil. Photo: BDH&FHS
THE GOOD OIL: Sir Joseph Bosisto pictured in a 1952 SM Herald feature on eucalyptus oil. Photo: BDH&FHS

Part two of a two-part series

COLONIAL settlers in 1788 were amazed by the efficacious properties of oil distilled from the leaves of the native Eucalyptus tree.

A distilling industry developed.

It was found that a rare, high-yielding species Eucalyptus Smithii grew abundantly in the Southern Highlands.

By the early 1890s first-class oil was being produced locally in numerous distilleries at Hill Top, Mittagong and Wingello.

The Scrutineer of 23 May 1894 reported that: "Mr Langshaw's eucalyptus factory at Wingello, which has been idle during the past two months, will commence operations this week, when a large quantity of eucalyptus oil will be manufactured for the colonial and foreign markets.

This enterprising gentleman intends to start manufacturing perfumes in conjunction with his eucalyptus works.

He has got all the necessary plants to start the perfumery growing in his garden."

Under the heading 'A New Industry' the Bowral Free Press of 26 November 1898 informed readers that: "The Australian Eucalyptus Oil Company is under the management of Mr Easson, brother to the chief at Joadja.

He is a resident of Bowral, but the works are at Moss Vale, a large estate having been secured there for the gathering of leaves; some six men are now engaged in felling and collecting, and the works are capable of indefinite extension, as the world better appreciates the properties of Australian eucalyptus."

The paper also outlined the distilling process and the product. Extracts follow here:

"The leaf and fine twigs of the eucalyptus yield a volatile oil, which has a good commercial value both in a crude and refined state.

Each variety of gum tree has an oil distinctive to itself, but the difference is chiefly perceptible in a laboratory, so slight is it.

The usual procedure in an oil distillery is to fell the trees both small and great, and collect the tender twigs and leaves.

These are chopped fine and placed with water in a closed boiler.

The steam and vapour come away and are condensed in a coiled copper tube immersed in cold water.

This first distillate is allowed to settle in a vessel with numerous taps, so all the floating oil is drawn off, whilst the mixed residue of water and oil is collected in other vessels until enough is accumulated for redistillation.

The crude oil is purchased by the wholesale druggists and through them finds its way in a refined state into all the chemist shops.

It is purchased wholesale on analysis."

STILLS IN ACTION: A direct firing, 3-tank eucalyptus oil distillery plant at Wingello, c1910. Photo: BDH&FHS

STILLS IN ACTION: A direct firing, 3-tank eucalyptus oil distillery plant at Wingello, c1910. Photo: BDH&FHS

In April 1899 the Goulburn Evening Penny Post advised that, amongst the visitors to Goulburn at that time was Mr R T Baker, Curator of Sydney Technological Museum.

He had been visiting the eucalyptus oil stills of Wingello and Bundanoon. In conjunction with Mr H G Smith, the museum's chemist, Baker had done much to bring before the world the value of eucalyptus oil bearing trees of NSW.

The above report makes it clear that the Southern Highlands ranked highly in regard to eucalyptus oil production.

From it we also learn that a still had opened at Bundanoon.

Over following years more were set up, including one at Bowral in 1903.

BY the 1920s, eucalyptus oil was a major Australian export.

Back in 1852 Joseph Bosisto, an emigrant pharmacist from England, had been encouraged by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, the famous government botanist of Victoria, to begin commercial production of the oil.

He obtained high-quality oil from a mallee-type tree that only grew near Bendigo in Victoria and at West Wyalong in NSW.

The Bosisto Company continued to expand, establishing a eucalyptus factory locally at Mandemar in 1925.

Other local manufacturers included William Quigg who distilled a special eucalyptus oil called Germinoll at his Paddy's River property, with sole manufacturing rights from Fauldings.

A factory operated at Macdonald's Flat in the Joadja Creek area and oil was produced on the Mereworth property near Berrima from 1935 for export to Japan.

Australia dominated the world eucalyptus oil market for 80 years from the 1860s to the mid-1940s.

It's market share then declined, and production in the local district ceased.

Australia wide, after World War II labour costs rose and the strong demand for wheat meant that drastic destruction of stands of high quality eucalyptus species occurred.

Wheat growing was viewed as more profitable than eucalyptus oil production.

Australian oil could not compete with Spanish eucalyptus oil on international markets.

Recently this downward trend has reversed, at least for medicinal purposes. Today, for air vaporisers, body and household cleaning, many people wouldn't be without a bottle of the 'dinkum oil'.

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

Phone 4872 2169.

Email bdhsarchives@gmail.com

Web: berrimadistricthistoricalsociety.org.au