The Clydevale flax mill

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Who knows what this tower was. Pierced in a few places and with cast iron and wrought iron pipes through its walls, it was not a water storage tank - they are inside over the retting rooms.

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Comments (1)

Bruce Comfort on June 19, 2012

During World War II, when Eastern Europe was invaded, an important source of linen fibre for the production of textiles and cordage for the UK was denied the British Government. The British Ministry of Supply, searching for alternative sources, asked New Zealand to produce linen flax - and defined the amount it could use as the production of some 15,000 acres.

Investigations into the possibility of growing linen flax in New Zealand had been made by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research at Lincoln Agricultural College in 1936 and field trials had followed with a small experimental factory set up there.

However, up till 1940 no fibre had been produced commercially. To grow 15,000 acres was a formidable task.

The growing and processing of this linen flax was essentially a NZ Government undertaking. Private farmers who co-operated were initially guaranteed a basic payment per acre sown, as a protection against loss. The Government built a number of mills (the number reported seems to vary from between ten and seventeen ) to process the crop.

All the necessary machinery was manufactured and installed by the New Zealand Railways Department which was the most capable and best tooled up Department of the Crown at the time.

In 1940 – 41, 12,000 acres were grown, and, in the following season, 22,000 acres. In earlier years about 30 per cent of the acreage grown proved to be too short for fibre and was harvested for seed only.  

In the next two seasons the need for fibre was less urgent, and the area planted fell to about 10,000 acres.

The industry was plagued by cumbersome management arrangements, which impaired its efficiency and raised its costs. Apparently the control of the industry was vested in an interdepartmental committee on which were represented a surprisingly large number of State Departments.

Although on the face of it, the controlling powers of this Committee appeared adequate, they were not and all recommendations had to be approved by a Cabinet Minister. Seriously overburdened with far too many administrative details these men were set up to fail and on many occasions repairs or alterations were found necessary but were difficult to put in train.

Purchases and changes could not be undertaken until the managers of the factories concerned and the director of the whole industry had received the sympathetic approval of the “controlling” committee and the final approval of the Minister, who was often absent from the country on matters of national importance.

It would have only been Kiwi ingenuity and a disdain for bureaucracy that enabled shipments to depart for the UK.

The linen flax fibre was used for a variety of wartime textile products - the most famous being the fabric covering of the wings and fuselage of a number of the seminal British fighter aircraft and bombers.

Flax grown in New Zealand and fibre sent to the UK for spinning and weaving filled an urgent wartime need.

Plans to continue the production of linen flax after the end of the war came to nothing as we couldn't compete on a commercial basis once other traditional countries got back up to speed.

Note that the flax plant Linum usitatissimum comes in two varieties one used for seed and then oil - the other for fibre. The last New Zealand factory was at Geraldine in South Canterbury.

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Photo details

  • Uploaded on June 19, 2012
  • Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works
    by Bruce Comfort
    • Camera: SAMSUNG ES65, ES67 / VLUU ES65, ES67 / SAMSUNG SL50
    • Taken on 2012/06/13 14:04:26
    • Exposure: 0.003s (1/350)
    • Focal Length: 4.90mm
    • F/Stop: f/3.500
    • ISO Speed: ISO100
    • Exposure Bias: 0.00 EV
    • No flash