Extracted and edited from The Historical Records of Australia [published by the Library Committee of the Commonwealth Government] by Geoff Gohl and republished with his permission.
Contrary to popular belief, the first usable fibre produced in the Colony of New South Wales was flax rather than wool.
Captain Arthur Phillip was given two commissions, the second of which instructed him as follows:
“It cannot be expedient that all the convicts which accompany you should be employed in attending only to the object of provisions, and, as it has been represented to us that advantages may be derived from the flax plant which is found in the islands not far distant from the intended settlement, not only as a means of acquiring clothing for the convicts and other persons who may become settlers, but from its superior excellence for a variety of maritime purposes, and it may ultimately become an article of export. It is therefore our will and pleasure that you particularly attend to its cultivation, and that you send home by every opportunity which may offer samples of this article, in order that a judgement may be formed whether it may be necessary to instruct you further on this matter.”
Lieutenant Philip Gidley King, a First Fleet officer, was therefore appointed as Superintendent and Commander of Norfolk Island and his instructions from Phillip were:
“After having taken the necessary measures for securing yourselves, and for the preservation of stores and provisions, you are immediately to proceed to the cultivation of the flax plant, which you will find growing spontaneously on the island as likewise the cultivation of cotton and corn.”
One of the 22 people King sailed with was a seaman named Robert Morley, a weaver by trade. Back in Sydney town Governor Phillip pursued a similar endeavour and reported on
November 16th, 1788 to the Under Secretary for the Colonies, Evan Nepean, as follows:
“A small quantity of flax is enclosed with these despatches, but we lack any person who understands the preparing and manufacture of flax. If properly dressed, I think it would be superior to any that Europe grows. Of the cotton seed brought from Europe, very little vegetated.”
To proceed with the processing and spinning of the flax produced, the following urgent request was sent to the Secretary of State for the Colonies:
“I am much in want of proper materials, as well as people, for the purpose of carrying on the manufactory. I hope your Excellency will provide me with the following articles – Looms, spinning wheels, weavers’ brushes, oil and different sets of stays from 15 to 24 score. Should your Excellency find a stay maker amongst the convicts, he is much wanted here. The sample of cloth marked A, I have tried to bleach, but as time will not permit, it will only serve for your Excellency to form an idea of what may be made of it. PS we need cat gut and wire to complete the spinning wheels.”
It became clear that there was an urgent need for cloth as the commissary was responsible for clothing all the convicts and settlers in the new Colony — many of whom were by now in rags. Next month we will look at the establishment of the wool industry.