Early dairying in the Southern Highlands developed into a thriving industry in the 1870s, the main driving force being astute Sydney businessman Thomas Sutcliffe Mort.
Mort was an auctioneer, wool merchant and industrialist who invested in a wide range of industries and technology including refrigerated transport and marine engineering. He became a wealthy man held in high esteem. His properties included the Bodalla estate at Tuross River on the NSW South Coast, acquired in 1860.
As told in the previous article, he sought to supply Sydney with fresh, unadulterated milk from a country district in order to overcome a high infant mortality rate, mainly caused by the consumption of contaminated milk. The lack of refrigeration, delays in distribution, and watering down of milk were contributory factors. Mort’s object was largely philanthropic, as he could have had a greater return by devoting his capital and freezing invention solely to meat preserving.
The Southern Highlands, with its fine pastures and direct rail link to the city, was chosen by Mort as the most suitable country area to supply milk for city tables. He visited in 1875 and met with local dairy farmers, whose main income was from butter making. He was prepared to accept up to 20,000 quarts of fresh milk a day and would establish a centrally located depot at the rail line, where their milk could be delivered.
Mort explained that farmers would cool their milk with equipment he supplied and load it into specially constructed railway vans packed with ice to keep the milk cooled on the trip to Sydney. He proposed to pay 4 pence a gallon during summer and 6 pence in winter, providing farmers with a better return than butter making. In Sydney, Mort’s milk would retail at 4 pence a quart, half the price charged by city milk vendors.
The local farmers rallied to his support, promising him milk from several large herds including one of 500 cows, and his representatives later secured more guarantees. To facilitate the project, organisational changes were made to Mort’s ice and refrigeration business and on July 1, 1875 the NSW Fresh Food & Ice Company (FF&I) was formed. Soon after a cold store plant with rail connection was opened at Darling Harbour along with an associated beef slaughtering works at Bowenfels near Lithgow.
On October 11, 1876 local farmers supplied their first milk. The Scrutineer reported that 47 gallons were delivered at Bowral by Messrs Bridge, Woodhouse, Loseby and Roberts; and about 82 gallons at Moss Vale by Messrs Atkinson, Nicholson and Woodhouse. The milk was consigned on FF&I’s railway trucks in the suppliers’ own large, metal cans. “Others have agreed to supply milk and, if the affair is found to work well, no doubt 600 gallons per day will be delivered at both stations.”
Two years’ later, in May 1878, Thomas Sutcliffe Mort died at his Bodalla estate. Born in 1816 in Lancashire, England, he had arrived in Sydney in 1838 where, as a clerk, he gained experience in local and international commerce, and then set up as an auctioneer. He soon prospered in general and wool sales, opening a dry dock in 1855 at Waterview Bay (Balmain). At the Bodalla estate he had provided milking sheds and cheese and butter making equipment for selected tenants who manufactured dairy products of steadily improving quality for the Sydney market.
The dairying industry initiated by Mort in the Southern Highlands continued to prosper as the main supplier of fresh country milk for Sydney. Due to increasing demand for all dairy products in Sydney, FF&I decided to build the first butter factory in NSW at Mittagong, equipping it with the newly invented Danish cream separator, which reduced farm labour and improved cream quantity and quality.
With a rail siding, depot and cooling room, the factory opened in 1882, located on the Oaklands Estate north of Mittagong station. Arrangements were made with farmers at Robertson and along the route to Mittagong to supply their milk to the depot. Cream was separated and churned into butter, which was then packaged and sent to Sydney.
Farmers in the vicinity of Bowral and Moss Vale stations continued to supply FF&I with fresh milk for railing to Sydney, but major difficulties lay ahead.
- Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton. Part 2 of a 4-part series. To be continued.