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History of Canvas in Australia

The history of specialised textiles in the southern hemisphere naturally begins with the history of canvas production in the region. And this production was massively influenced by some significant historical events. There were the gold rushes, of course, and the two world wars. Without these momentous periods of change and disruption, the specialised textiles industry as we know it would have probably been something else altogether.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back a bit further… way, way back.

The earliest signs of cotton production are thought to pre-date recorded history. Consider this extract from an address to the Tenth Canvas Convention in Adelaide in 1950 by Sir Robert Webster, managing director of Bradford Cotton Mills: “Records unearthed in the ruins of Mohenjo-daro in the Industry Valley in India in 1926, indicate that cotton cultivation and manufacture existed as early as 3000 BC. The law books of manufacturing contain matter written as far back as 800 to 700 BC referring to cotton growing and processing.”

It seems likely that the cotton plant was also indigenous to both North and South America with Columbus reporting seeing it in the Bahamas in 1492.

Canvas evolved as “a coarse cloth of hemp or flax used for sails and tents” (Oxford English Dictionary definition), though it could also be woven from jute, ramie or wool/hair.

Australia’s earliest uses of canvas were all about imports from the motherland, Great Britain. The Industrial Revolution included major upheavals in the textiles industry, which leapt ahead with James Hargreaves’ invention of the Spinning Jenny in 1767, Richard Arkwright’s water frame in 1769 and Samuel Compton’s combination of the two into the spinning mule a decade later, plus the power loom from Edmund Cartwright in 1784.

Subsequently, the great (or “dark and satanic”, according to William Blake) cotton mills began springing up during the so-called Age of Elegance. Manchester (and the rest of the county of Lancashire) was the hub of the industry and soon began exporting to the fledgling colony on the other side of the world. In particular, Australia’s gold rushes (from around 1850 onwards) saw a dramatic upsurge in the demand for canvas for tents and wagons etc.

From 1800 to 1900, Australian canvas manufacturers were almost entirely dependent upon this UK supply. The Great or First World War (1914 to 1918) resulted in Australia also accessing its raw materials from other sources – such as Japan and even the US.

Up to and, indeed, beyond 1940 heavier textiles were sourced from such UK suppliers as Henry Hauston, Cox Brothers, Stanley Cotton Mills, William Ritchie and Sons, and Francis Webster. While local individuals and companies acting as agents for overseas weaving mills included the likes of W Watson, Alexander Paterson, George Fethers and Company and Birkmyre Australia.

There were also middlemen involved such as the Flinders Lane Warehouses and Indent Agents in Melbourne. These warehouses were used by Australian manufacturers for back-up supplies if they ran short, though their importance declined after World War II.

In the first half of the twentieth century, the speciality cloths, both imported and home-grown had myriad uses in Australia. A mixture of jute and flax was used for water and verandah bags, while canvas was also needed for such diverse uses as agricultural binder canvases, tram blinds, sandshoes, cricket pads and conveyor belts.

Following World War I, however, the Australian Government stepped in, reacting to a widespread belief that Australia should become self-sufficient and no longer so dependent upon overseas suppliers of basic materials.

Accordingly, the Government put in place tariff protections and other support systems. It was this that aided
the likes of Bradford Cotton Mills to become established as a spinner and weaver of, initially, garments and then industrial textiles. Davies Coop and Actil were helped in a similar fashion in South Australia.

It was World War II that really cemented this change – with the UK barely able to keep up with domestic demand and experiencing substantial losses of exports due to U-boat attacks. Unsurprisingly, as an enemy combatant, Japan also ceased to be a supplier and Australia simply had focus its efforts inwards.

Flax began to be grown in Victoria and mills were set up with Commonwealth assistance. This was the beginning of the home-grown manufacturing of industrial textiles.

By 1940 there were nine government backed flax mills in Australia’s southern states, as far afield as Hamilton, Ballarat, Colac and Lismore. The recovered flax fibre was then sent to James Miller and Company in Warrigal, which had received further government assistance to set up a spinning plant, producing thread and yarn. At the same time, Davies Coop and Company had established a flax weaving shed in the inner Melbourne suburb of Collingwood, producing materials for fire hoses and canvas for the Victorian Railways.

Apart from production of raw materials though, there were companies already established who became integral to the burgeoning industry.

One such was John Robertson, alias Lewis C Grutzner, which was established in Melbourne’s Lonsdale Street in the early 1900s before moving to Richmond and developing as a dyeing and business (it also did dry cleaning). In the early 1930s, waterproofing was added to the repertoire with the acquisition of a Burnley Street waterproofing factory. Early customers included the motor trimming accessories firm R S Johnson, William Morgan, Camile de Stoop and a raft of names still familiar today, such as Gairs, Radins and Birkmyre.

The advent of World War II saw demand soar and Grutzner took on three Italian prisoners of war to help keep up production. One of Grutzner’s most notable innovations followed the bombing of Darwin, when the Army was forced to rethink its practice of having white (and, thus, highly visible) tents.

Grutzner suggested a treatment of potassium permanganate (aka Condy’s crystals) solution, which gave the canvas a dull brown colour.

Another pioneer was Charles Hesse Senior, credited with the invention and development of the ‘automatic’ sun blind awning system. Hesse had his first patent granted in 1931, but struggled to make a commercial success of the invention during the Depression. He took his idea to England and Europe, but before he could capitalise on the significant interest he received there war broke out and he returned home to Footscray to put the factory on war production, delivering roller blackout blinds for hospitals and other municipal facilities. The family-owned business went on to have a long history, with a patent attorney once telling Hesse’s sons that out of all the patents he’d dealt with Hesse Senior’s awning patent was one of only two to stand the test of time (sadly, history doesn’t tell us what the other one was).

In 1999, Graeme Gair put together his draft review papers in a commendable attempt to begin a detailed history of the canvas industry in Australia. In the papers he calls for further information on other pioneering companies, such as Millers, which he believed had a spinning mill in Warrigal, Victoria and a head office in Brunswick in the 1930s and 40s. Kinnears was another early supplier, as was Donaghys Industries, an early rope supplier moving to woven synthetic canvases in later years.

Gair goes into great detail in his papers when covering the defence contracts during World War II, listing reams of suppliers of canvas ware, as well as orders for tents, flys, water buckets, wagon covers, camp beds, canvas baths and ambulance stretchers etc.

One of the major players at the time was the aforementioned Davies Coop, which began as a manufacturer of knitted underwear. In 1930, it bought a spinning plant in Lancashire, so it could produce its own yarn. The success of this venture led to another spinning plant and a Victorian weaving mill, with further plants built in South Australia and New South Wales at the beginning of World War II, with weaving specifically designed for the canvas and duck (from Dutch doek, linen canvas) trade.

With Government assistance, Davies Coop was well-placed to cater to the war’s demand for defence contract canvas, while also supplying ducks to the rubber industry for making tyres and conveyor belts etc.

The rope and cordage manufacturer James Miller sponsored the fledgling Victorian flax growing industry and installed spinning equipment, working in conjunction with Davies Coop’s weaving mill.

An even earlier pioneer in the industry was Birkmyre, which can trace its roots back to 1736 and the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie. It was originally known as the Gourock Rope Work Company Limited (later Bridon).

Its Australian history stretches back almost as far, with Birkmyre products apparently used as sails and rigging on Captain Cook’s Endeavour. An Australian branch of the firm was opened in Sydney shortly after Federation in 1902, with Melbourne and Brisbane branches following not long after. So popular were its products that ‘Birkmyre’ became a synonym for proofed canvas, in the way that ‘Hoover’ did for vacuum.

Birkmyre didn’t begin manufacturing in Australia though until 1940, again as a response to the war effort, with making-up factories established in both Sydney and Melbourne.

At the same time a number of smaller family companies were growing and flourishing – again, some of which still thrive. Adelaide had Flavel and Son, Sydney had the likes of Smith Copeland, E H Brett and Son, and Goodearls, Melbourne had Gairs, Evan Evans, and A Champion and Sons, while Relyan and Lanhams was one of the most notable firms in Brisbane.

Bradford Cotton Mills also benefited from government assistance during the industry’s early years. From 1925, Bradford established a mill in the Melbourne suburb of Footscray where it could handle spinning, weaving and finishing. By the time of the Depression, Bradford was offering cotton duck to the canvas industry in both loomstate and proofed finish, with defence contracts kicking in by 1940 leading to an increase in the weaving capacity and expansion of proofing at the Footscray facility.

Another significant individual in the early years of the Australian industry was Thomas Evans, who arrived in Melbourne in 1852 and quickly saw a great future as a supplier of canvas products to the hordes streaming into the area with gold dust in their eyes and fever in their veins. By 1853, the 25-year-old had established his business in Great Bourke Street, and it prospered after his death, even though his descendants showed little interest. Another family – the Doughtons – took on the company and helped it thrive. The third in the line of Doughtons, Thomas Evans Doughton was considered largely responsible for the formation of the first Victorian Canvas Goods Association.

Maybe it has something to do with that particular Welsh name, because another early success story belonged to Evan Evans, who established his canvas business in Sydney Road, Melbourne in 1877. This firm also saw business boom during World War I, building several new facilities and beginning to waterproof cloth, using paraff in wax as the main waterproofing agent. Expansion continued during the 1920s and 30s, with another surge in production occurring during World War II. The two wars combined saw this one company produce over 600,000 canvas items for the Armed Forces.

About 20 years after Evans, apprentice sail-maker John Gair struck out on his own, opening a general canvas company in Bourke Street, Melbourne in 1900, buying the business from John Buckham for the princely sum of £60 (including a £5 deposit).

Like many others, Gair’s thrived during both world wars, but also during the Boer War (1899 to 1902), producing tents, tarpaulins, water bags and horse rugs for the Army. During World War II, it was unable to use the new factory and bulk store it had completed in 1938, but still did well producing everything from one-man tents to large hospital marquees.

On the marine front, sail-maker Frank Radin transferred his family firm from Tasmania to Melbourne in 1922 in order to continue working on the Holymans fleet, which had also moved there. Radins quickly began providing sails for yachts and Victorian fishing vessels, before expanding into all types of canvas goods production at the end of World War II.

In part two of our history of canvas in Australia we’ll be covering some of the pioneering companies in other Australian states. And looking at how the industry progressed post World War II, with the advent of synthetic materials.