Thursday, 3 April 2014

The Old Hamilton Flour Mill

The towering silos of the Hamilton Flour Mill had stood as Hamilton’s most prominent landmark for over 90 years in Hudson Street, Hamilton.

Just one month short of his 90th birthday, Charles McIntyre, the oldest mill owner in Australia, died. His life had been devoted to the Mill, and he had never married. Thus ended a lineage of four generations of millers extending over 170 years. [1]

These are remarkable records.

Hamilton Mill silos each holding 3000 tons of wheat (1982)
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Then in 1989, an earthquake struck at the core of the mill’s purpose, causing irreparable damage to this proud enterprise.

The McIntyres - a Family of Millers

Until a short time before his death in 1966, Charles McIntyre was a familiar figure walking down Bolton Street from The Hill, swinging his Gladstone bag, on his way to Hamilton.

 Robert McIntyre opens the McIntyre family milling history in Dumbartonshire, Scotland. By 1818, Robert is working at the Cardross Mill, situated on the banks of the River Clyde.

Cardross Mill, showing remains of water wheel
Photograph by Bill McIntyre, 2009, courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Robert and his wife Agnes had four children. It is the eldest, Alexander, who interests us initially. He learned the milling trade from his father. Yet something – circumstances, ambition – led Alexander to look beyond the village where he grew up. With his wife Margaret (Marshall) he moved to Ireland, where he took over the lease on a flour mill on Scardan More, in the County of Sligo. In Ireland, they had three children - Robert, Annabella and Alexander. Sons Robert and Alexander (known as Alex) learned the milling trade at Scardan Mill.

Ruins of the Scardan More Mill
Photograph by Alexander McIntyre, father of Charles, courtesy of the 
McIntyre family collection

When Alexander's lease in Sligo came to an end, it is believed he went on to the largest flour mill in England, the North Shore Milling Company in Liverpool. Sons Robert and Alex joined the mill, too.

When their parents died, both young men decided to emigrate to Australia. The brothers arrived in Sydney in 1874.

Alex and Robert started work in a Sydney flour mill. When Alex travelled to Inverell to check out a job possibility there, he was immediately employed to manage Colin Ross’s Mill. His resume must have impressed Mr Ross! Robert remained in Sydney with his wife and young son.

In the extensive wheat growing acres of New South Wales, wheat farmers had their grain carted to the nearest mill, and the flour brought back. Teams of horses, or sometimes bullocks (which were much slower) transported the bags of wheat.

Horse drawn wagons transporting 175 bags of wheat to the Quirindi Mill
14 July,1917
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Because of the great distances and slow travel, flour mills sprang up in many small towns across the north and west of New South Wales. Colin Ross established the first flour mill in Inverell in 1862, on the banks of the Macintyre River.

Inverell Flour Mill c1878
Photo from Macintyre Shire Council, courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Alex soon took on a leadership role in the small community. Even though he was a manager, he was an advocate for the mill workers. They worked six days a week in stifling, dusty conditions, confined indoors. Alex was very conscious of the fact that they needed some time with their families. As a result of a petition Alex organised, his boss Colin Ross and 26 other business owners agreed to the radical suggestion of closing their respective places of business on the first Wednesday in each month.

‘By granting our request, you will confer a favour on us, which we shall endeavour to repay, by renewed energies in your service,’ the petition concluded. [2]

Alex and Robert had been sponsored to come to Australia by their aunt Agnes (McIntyre) and her husband Charles Palmer. Charles had a daughter by a previous marriage, Helen Clough Palmer, and a relationship blossomed between Alex and Helen. They married in 1875.

On New Year’s day in 1877, Alex and the heavily pregnant Helen set out on their pony and trap to visit friends the Shelleys at Gum Flat, outside Inverell. When Helen went into labour during the day and gave birth to a baby boy, he was named Charles Shelley McIntyre.

It was Charles Shelley who would follow in the footsteps of his father, and become the owner of the Hamilton Flour Mill.

Alex and Helen McIntyre with Charles and Alice (1879)
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Now the 3rd generation of this milling family, Alex McIntyre developed a reputation for successfully transforming flour mill operations with new machinery and processes. This skill must have been highly valued, as technology was changing rapidly. From Inverell, he and his family moved to Orange in 1878, where he managed the Great Western Steam Flour Mill and updated its machinery. He was awarded a gold medal for excellence in flour production at the Chicago Exhibition.

Two years later, he tackled a similar challenge at Robert Neilson’s flour mill, in Coonabarabran. After a devastating arson attack on the mill, Alex returned to Inverell where he bought a half share in the former Colin Ross Mill with John Pawley.

The partners transformed the old stone grinding process to a new patent steel roller system. At the leading edge in implementing new technology, theirs was the first flour mill north of Sydney to install this process.

The Inverell Mill c1890
Thomas Taylor’s name is on the signage as McIntyre and Pawley were mortgagors to Taylor. Note the bullock teams in front of the mill
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Alex continued his broader community interests. He had been the leader of a group of citizens lobbying for the extension of the railway line from Moree to Inverell. When this was finally achieved in 1901, Alex received much of the credit. The new line opened up rich wheat land to many more outlets for its products.

Helen’s sudden death at 41, leaving five children between the ages of 3 and 14, must have devastated Alex. A man in those circumstances had limited options – employ a housekeeper/nurse, persuade an unmarried relative to come and take care of his children and run his house, or find another wife.

Alexander, born 1880 and son of Alex and Helen, wrote these poignant lines as an adult:

‘After making two homes in one year, our poor mother passed away on 21 July, 1891. From then on, our lives were not very happy. (Sister) Alice was too young (to run the house), so Dad advertised for a housekeeper and got the only one available – a widow with two young sons. It did not work out very satisfactory so Dad had a look around for another wife...’ [3]

At the age of 47, Alexander married Agnes Brown, then 27. Together they started a second family. In all, they would have 8 children. Each of the five sons would enter the flour milling trade.

In the meantime, schoolboy Charles was demonstrating academic and sporting prowess, winning medals in football.

Quirindi was the next step for Alex McIntryre. There, in 1896, he joined Peter McIntosh, a general storekeeper, to establish a modern patent roller mill from scratch. The firm was McIntyre and McIntosh.

Quirindi Flour Mill
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

When McIntosh disposed of his share to McIntyre in 1904, the way opened for Alex to take his sons Alexander, Robert and John into the business, renaming it McIntyre and Sons. Retirement beckoned at Terrigal. In 1909, he and Agnes travelled to Britain to retrace the McIntyre family history. They visited Scardan More, Sligo, and Cardross. Alex died in 1922. He had been ‘a martyr to insomnia’ for about 30 years, but had otherwise enjoyed good health until a stroke led to his death. [4]

The Quirindi mill shut down in 1929 when the bank foreclosed – wheat seasons were failing, and the looming Great Depression began to hit prices. Machinery that could be salvaged from Quirindi went to Hamilton with Charles McIntyre, where he had been in partnership with Peter McIntosh since 1899.

In 1924, Charles has also been involved in building another flour mill in Coonabarabran, with his brother Colin. In a terrible re-enactment of the 1900 fire at the Neilson Mill in Coonabarabran, but much worse, the mill was entirely destroyed by fire in 1929. With no water supply, and no fire brigade, buckets were hopelessly inadequate.

Coonabarabran Flour Mills Advertisement
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Having had three flour mills in operation over the past 30 years, the McIntyre family now had just one – at Hamilton, Newcastle. With the Quirindi mill foreclosed, and the Coonabarabran mill burned down, 1929 was not a good year for the McIntyres.

The Hamilton Story

In 1899, Newcastle was a large and flourishing coal mining and shipping centre – but it had no flour mill.

Peter McIntosh, the shrewd Quirindi storekeeper and mill partner of Alex McIntyre, took note of this. The only land he was able to acquire close to a railway siding was a section of poor scrubby land at Hamilton. With the coming of rail, such access was essential to bring in wheat supplies and transport the finished product out. McIntosh took Charles, Alex’s oldest son and already an experienced miller, into partnership. Milling began in 1900.

The McIntosh McIntyre Flour Mills, Hamilton NSW c1900
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

The business was a great success, and quickly expanded its production capacity.

In 1904, Peter McIntosh retired from the partnership. He died in 1935. Charles appointed two new partners, William Cann, the leading baker in Newcastle, and J R Hall, a prominent warehouseman. The business became a private company named C S McIntyre Pty Limited.

Charles Shelley McIntyre 1877 – 1966
'My handsome, dashing Uncle Charlie,' writes his niece, Mrs Sheila Gow
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

A second silo with new machinery and wooden elevators was built in 1936, as the government moved away from transporting bagged wheat to a system of bulk transport.

Letterhead (1937)
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

In 1956 another silo was built to increase the mill’s storage capacity – concrete this time, taking just 4 days.

By 1961, 200 tons of flour left the Hamilton Mill every week for domestic and overseas consumption.

An article in the Newcastle Herald in September 1961 ‘Hudson Street and our Daily Bread’  [5]  takes us deep into the workings of the flour mill, the writer marvelling at the vastness of the plant, the rushing roar of its massive rollers in the main mill, and the intricacies of its processes. The enterprise then employed 40 workers over three shifts, 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. The laboratory was the nerve centre of the mill, where technicians conducted the multitude of tests necessary to ensure a quality product. For example, the wet gluten test was applied to wheat samples coming in from the north west of NSW to determine its moisture content. That tells how often the wheat needed to be turned and how long it could be stored. The silos could hold 200,000 bushels of wheat.

The stretching properties or elasticity of the flour were tested – poor elasticity meant a lumpy loaf. In the miniature bakery, the crust and crumb colour of the loaf were assessed.

A bleaching machine like a small fat robot with a flame in its mouth made the flour perfectly white. A giant sifter shook the flour vigorously, passing it through tight silk feeders stretched across a drum.  

In the processing stage, the flour travelled along two miles of square wooden pipes from ceiling to floor throughout the building.

Wooden elevators
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

The Newcastle Herald journalist marvelled:

‘One cannot but remark on the spotless condition of the mill. The black wooden floors gleam like ice, dust is almost non-existent’. [6]

From the packing room, the flour is despatched to bakers, shops and homes.

Selection of flour bags
Self raising with blue print, plain flour with red, bakers flour with green.
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

In the course of the inspection, the journalist recorded meeting ‘a man with a trolley’. A packer, his name was Alf Farrow, and he had worked at the mill for 30 years.

Over 40 years later, in 2014, when I am looking over the buildings with photographer Matthew Ward, we meet a man in SNP Security called Jeff Farrow. He remembers the mill, and the pigeons and rats attracted to the wealth of grain stored on site. As a primary school kid, with his gang of mates, he climbed the narrow ladders to the top of the silo, and dived into the wheat- ‘swimming!’ It would have horrified the millers even then - and struck terror into the hearts of any parent or employer discovering such an escapade today.

Charles McIntyre died in 1966. Prior to his death, the mill had been extensively remodelled, and was said to be one of the most up to date mills in Australia.

In 1982 the mill was sold to Allied Mills, who later sold to Fielders Pty Ltd.

C S McIntyre Pty Ltd Flour Mills was sold to Allied Mills
on 30 November 1982
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

On 12 December, 1989 an article appeared in the Newcastle Morning Herald headlined:


Seventeen days later, an earthquake of 5.6 on the Richter scale hit Newcastle. Thirteen people died in all, and the flour mill suffered irreparable damage.

Hamilton flour mill after the 1989 earthquake  and two demolition attempts, 
showing leaning silos
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

The four adjoining silos proved resistant to demolition. A newspaper article by Frances O’Shea [7] describes how two separate blasts on 7 and 9 August 1990 failed to collapse the silos. A new mail exchange was to be built for Australia Post on the site once it was cleared. Eventually, the demolition effort succeeded.

A New Era - The Grainery Mill

The Grainery Mill (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

When I first walked into the entry foyer of the expansive offices now inhabiting The Store of the old flour mill, I was astonished. This sturdy, industrial brick building has been transformed into a commercial office space which is both bold and understated. Warm sandstone clinker bricks and a generous staircase with stainless steel balustrade captures the eye. Soaring yet somehow intimate spaces emanate calm. It is a space of contradictions that works.

The Grainery Mill (2014)
A new entrance integrates the formerly separate buildings
of The Mill and The Store
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Stephen Lambourne is a senior partner of the accounting firm Lambourne Partners. Well over a decade ago, he was tasked with finding a new, permanent home for the company, which was based in The Junction. The search continued for years, he explained. Then one day, Stephen took a phone call from their agent.

‘I think we’ve found your offices’, the agent said.

As the men entered the foyer of the transformed building, the realization was instantaneous for Stephen. He knew he had found what he’d been looking for.

‘It was the ambience, the calm’, he told me.

The Grainery Mill Staircase in Foyer (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Thirteen years later, Lambourne Partners own both floors of The Store, with the ground floor tenanted to various businesses. It has proven to be not only a beautiful building, but a practical one that is a perfect fit with its purpose.

First floor corridor, The Store, Lambourne Partners
Photograph by Matthew Ward

‘The only thing’, Stephen says, ‘is that the mortar between these original clinker sandstone bricks is crumbling. On windy days, the dust settles on my desk’.

It doesn’t seem to bother him, really.

The Grainery Mill (2014)
Lambourne Partners on the left, and SNP Security  on the right
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Across the car park, in what was the mill administration office, is Sunbow Roofing.

Original Hamilton Flour Mill Office (n.d)
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

Sunbow Roofing (2014)
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Owner Mark Humphries loves the old building and has kept it largely intact. The quaint Pay Office where mill workers used to queue for their wages is still in place.

The original mill pay office is now part of Sunbow Roofing
 Photograph by Matthew Ward

Original McIntyre Pty Ltd safe in Sunbow Roofing offices
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Further west, where the wheat silos once stood in what was called The Paddock, is Wormald Security.

Wormald Security occupies the site of the former
Australia Post mail exchange.
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Who was responsible for transforming The Mill and The Store into purposeful, contemporary spaces, confidently blending old and new?

Hamilton solicitor Peter Bale had purchased these buildings after the earthquake. Meantime, brothers Peter and Michael Shepherd, who owned Cooks Hill Constructions, were looking for an opportunity to develop a heritage building in Newcastle. They were disappointed when they missed out on purchasing the iconic David Cohen bond warehouse in the city.

Through a mutual friend, Peter and Michael heard that Peter Bale was looking to sell the building that had been The Store. The building was derelict, infested with pigeons, with rubbish everywhere. Most of the mill equipment had been removed, but some remained bolted to floors or walls.

In essence, the building comprised four brick walls criss-crossed with massive hardwood timber beams. The potential of the space was immediately obvious to the brothers, who were drawn to its natural materials and its simple grandeur. They bought the heritage listed building. This would be their project.

The adjacent building that had been The Mill was bought by SNP Security.

Architect Ian Easton was engaged by Cooks Hill Constructions to design the redevelopment of The Store, while later, Suters Architects – Newcastle designed The Mill for SNP Security.

A transformative feature of the design initiated by Cooks Hill Constructions and Ian Easton is the colonnaded glass, concrete and steel foyer that links the two buildings and provides a common entrance.

In The Store, grime has been sand blasted from hardwood beams that now positively gleam. Even in their strength and solidity, they hold these vast spaces with a sense of lightness.

From the ground floor - timber beams break up the vaulting spaces
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Bricks inside and out have been re-pointed. Peter Shepherd says all the original brickwork has been retained.

External openings have been blocked in, adding colour and interest
to the richly textured expanse of brick
Photograph by Matthew Ward

Original grates allowed air to circulate
Photograph by Matthew Ward

A remnant of tracks from the system used to convey wheat from the store to the mill are a feature on the first floor of Lambourne Partners
Photograph by Matthew Ward

A heavy duty external switch mounted on a timber post in the
Lambourne Partners Conference Room
Photograph by Matthew Ward

A relic of flour mill equipment nestles under the stairs
of the entrance foyer
Photograph by Matthew Ward

In a natural extension of the work done on The Store, Cooks Hill Construction was engaged by SNP Security to do the fit out of The Mill building. A couple of weeks after the work was completed, Peter Shepherd took a phone call in the early hours of the morning. It was the fire brigade. The upper levels of the SNP building were alight. They were gutted.

Not long afterwards, there was a fire in The Store. Fortunately this time, the flames did not take hold.

Was there someone at large who resented the work that had been done to bring these heritage buildings back to life?

It is uncanny that fire played a part in the McIntyre milling history too. In 1900 and 1929, two Coonabarabran mills in which McIntyres were involved suffered attacks by fire. The second one completely destroyed the mill.

Our story comes full circle, back to the McIntyres. I have heard it said that we must change with the times, or the times will change us. Alex McIntyre emerges from this story as a man who preferred to influence history, rather than be shaped by it. He was at the forefront of technological change in flour milling processes, initiating change and adapting to it. He was willing to move his family to new towns, to take advantage of opportunities. Like his father before him, he trained his sons well.

After Charles died, the Hamilton flour mill had two owners in quick succession. Just before the earthquake, Goodman Fielders was planning to build a new silo, and had signed a major contract to supply Japan with noodle flour. History had other ideas, though, and the expansion of the mill was brought to an abrupt halt.

It took the vision of some very different entrepreneurs – designers, architects, builders – to realize the potential of the simple structures left behind after the mill ceased operating. Sensitive to the journey the buildings had made, these new professionals successfully reshaped them for a fresh and enduring purpose. In this adaptability to the changing times, the spirit of the McIntyre millers lives on.

This unframed photo of the Hamilton Mill c1900 was pinned to the wall
of C S McIntyre's office (1982)
Photograph courtesy of the McIntyre family collection

A framed print links past and present, at Lambourne Partners offices
Photograph by Matthew Ward

A related post about how the early businesses of Hudson Street worked together can be read  here.


Thank you to Mrs Marie McIntyre for providing digital copies of photographs from her book ‘The Miller’s Coat Tail’, and for the meticulously researched  family history presented in it. Thanks also to Stephen Lambourne for providing generous access to the Grainery Mill, and to Peter Shepherd, Mark Humphries and Jeff Farrow for their contributions.

All research materials compiled for ‘The Miller’s Coat Tail’ has been donated by Mrs Marie McIntyre to the University of Newcastle Archives.

If any reader would like to add to or amend any aspect of this story, please email

[1] The McIntyre family history in flour milling has been documented by Marie L McIntyre in her book: The Miller’s Coat Tail. The story of the McIntyre Family Flour Mills. Parramatta, 2010.
[2] The Miller’s Coat Tail. 15.
[3] The Miller’s Coat Tail. 28.
[4] The Miller’s Coat Tail. 45.
[5] The Miller’s Coat Tail reproduction in full of an article from The Newcastle Herald, September 1961. ‘Hudson Street and our Daily Bread’. 73.
[6] The Miller’s Coat Tail reproduction in full of an article from The Hamilton Leader, July 5, 1962. ‘Feature – McIntyre’s Hamilton Flour Mills’. 80.
[7] Newcastle Herald, 10 August 1990. Reproduced in full in ‘The Miller’s Coat Tail’. 88.

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