Traction engines and threshing mills an important part of a bygone
Bill Clarke - 'the man with the most wheels in New Zealand'
That's how Bill Clarke was often introduced to people. He was well
in South Canterbury in the first half of the twentieth century, but
people would think of him without thinking of traction engines, for
had up to thirteen engines and mills operating in the area.
His parents, William and Sarah, came to New Zealand from Northern
in 1875 and lived at Weston, near Oamaru in North Otago. A few years
they moved to Seadown near Timaru in South Canterbury. They had five
and four daughters.
Bill began in business with six horses and a plough doing contract
ploughing around the district. He did some work for T.D. Burnett,
the Mt Cook station and Member of Parliament for the district. He
remembered Mr Burnett telling him that war was coming. Bill's next
to go farming himself in the Levels valley.
He married Annie Wooffenden and they had seven sons and one
Bill and Annie Clarke and family
Photo at right - Bill and Annie Clarke at their Golden Wedding with five of their
Front row: Rene, Bill Clarke, Annie Clarke;
Back row: Frank, Kenny, Harold, Don
The traction engine business begins.
Bill's lifelong interest soon came to the fore. He bought an old
engine, a Burrell, which was the beginning of a fleet of engines. It
problem with a leaking tube, but a man with a tube expander fixed it
one shilling and the business had begun. Bill settled at Seadown,
mill and began threshing.
He bought a second engine, a compound Burrell, and started in the
business. That engine is still going. Haulage by horse continued
about 1920 but Bill saw that haulage by machine was the way for the
No amount of effort too much
On one occasion he biked to Christchurch via Geraldine, crossing 102
streams, to look at a mill. He biked back to South Canterbury, got
brother-in-law to bike to Christchurch too to look at the mill and
The fleet of engines grows.
The fleet of engines was increased by purchases from as far away as
Rangiora in the north and Gore in the south. There was a problem
one engine on a truck across the combined rail and road bridge across
Rakaia River because of its height, and his son Don remembers the
time he saw anyone give a bribe for service. Bill slipped the man on
two pounds (a sizable sum in those days) and the transport went ahead
He bought only two new engines for his business. They came from
One which was unloaded off the boat in Timaru is thought to have cost
£800.00, while the new threshing mill which was purchased with it cost
£600.00. All other mills were purchased secondhand. In his fleet of
engines he had twelve Burrells and one Fowler, but did not like the
machine. His threshing mills were made by Clayton and Shuttleworth.
told him that among their customers around the world they didn't know
any other contractor who had so many mills at that time.
A growing business
When Bill Clarke set up his threshing business a great deal of wheat
grown in Canterbury, so the business expanded until he had thirteen
and employed up to 150 men. The mills threshed oats and barley as
Running an enterprise of this size required a lot of organisation, so
was fortunate that Bill had a great capacity for work and an excellent
memory. One of Bill's sons, Frank, recalls that he worked every day
a.m. until 11 p.m. and before he went to bed he knew exactly what was
financial position at the end of that day.
Coal for the mills
The engines ran on coal bought through the Westport Coal Co in Timaru,
transported on the coal boat, the Canopus, from Westport. Fifteen
twelve-ton trucks would come to the Seadown railway station and
load to Pleasant Point station.
The threshing mills worked for four months a year - from January to
and the chaff cutters for nine months. Engines pulling the chaff
tended to get bogged if they worked through till June. The mills
1000 to 1200 hours a year. The men who worked them were all temporary
employees. The rest of the year they got casual work, often as
Don remembers seeing some biking along the shingle roads with all
gear to work as shearers in the Mackenzie country.
The blacksmith, Bill Hay, had a permanent job with his forge at the
headquarters. The engineer, Robert Parr, worked almost fulltime,
up the bearings and repairing all the drums and concaves. To repair
parts which could cause serious delays Bill bought his own welding
the first in South Canterbury.
These men made the engines ready for the annual visit of the
checked the machinery.
Tom Searles worked as a carpenter repairing the inside of the wooden
and stayed for seventeen years. As they were stored under cover when
working they lasted well. Don describes them as "Rolls Royce mills".
were wonderfully crafted and still worked well when fifty years old.
holes for the bolts were burnt out with a poker and the bolts greased
Men turned up for jobs as the season began.
Tradition has it that when the men smelt the Westport coal burning
would start turning up for jobs. They came from all walks of life.
were locals from Timaru and the surrounding districts, but others came
as far away as the North Island, Southland and Canada. One of the
came from a restaurant in Wellington and went back when the threshing
season was over. Some of the men worked for Bill Clarke every summer
most of their working lives. Often the engine drivers brought half
team with them.
The jobs in the crew
There were usually eleven men in a crew - two forking off the dray,
feeding the mill, three in the bag hole, the engine driver, the cook,
tankye and one straw walloper.
The engine driver was the boss, with the role of foreman, and needed
very capable and a strong leader.
Men started as tankyes, which was a job with real responsibility. The
tankye had to find water for the engine and drinking water for the
He had to back up the water cart to fill the engine.
The tankye delivering water to the operating mill
The men weighed the bags to a standard weight of 180 to 200 lbs, and
stacked them with pride.
The men forking off the dray had to be extremely fit as it was
work tossing the wheat up to the top of the mill all day. The average
lifted was two sheaves at once.The work was constant as there were
horse-drawn drays bringing in the wheat to ensure a constant supply
mill. Labourers employed by the farmer stooked the wheat. When the
came to thresh it they kept the dray loaded.
The men were a mixed crew, many of them itinerants, and Bill Clarke
choice but to rule them with an iron hand. He got the reputation of
tough, but fair. His word was his bond. The return of the same men
after year is evidence that he was a fair boss. One driver, Bill Reid,
drove the same engine for thirty five years.
Bill Reid on his engine
Bill Clarke had his own way of coping with anyone he regarded as a bad
employee. He would put him to work under one of two very big, strong
engine drivers, men they would hesitate to challenge.
Feeding the men
Bill Clarke supplied a galley and a cook with each crew, unlike the
Southland threshers who expected the farmer to feed the crew.
The cooks were the mainstay on Bill's mills. There were usually at
ten cooks employed in the milling season. Although there were not
the same men employed Don recalls that there always seemed to be the
pattern - a very good cook, eight good or average cooks and one poor
Keeping the supplies of food available for the mills required good
organisation. Twice a week the cook received a whole sheep, a topside
beef, six pounds of sausages, six loaves of bread, and six pounds of
separator butter bought from the farmers' wives. Rice could be bought
2d a pound and sago and sugar at 3d a pound. Bill usually bought
tons at a time and went through six tons of sugar a season.
Large cheeses were supplied, cases of sultanas and large boxes of tea.
Worcester sauce was bought by the barrel, and two tons of jam were
each year. Eggs were not a constant price and during the low price
they were tapped to test for cracks, and the sound ones were smeared
Ovaline or preserved in kerosene tins with Nortons Egg Preserver.
were excellent for cooking. A barrel of water and an old fashioned
safe were supplied. During the day the men drank water with raw
Bill's wife Annie and daughter Rene always worked long hours in the
kitchen. If a cook disappeared, usually on a drinking bout, they did
cooking. They also prepared sandwiches to give the swaggers who so
called at the farmhouse kitchen door in those years, and even more
the Depression. There were two farmhouses and Annie and Rene cooked
one house and did the lunches. The housekeeper lived in the other
and did the dinners for everyone working on the home farm.
On one occasion Don's girlfriend, Jean, was visiting. Bill Clarke
think that a good looking nurse from Dunedin, even though she grew up
the local area, would be a capable cook, but she filled the four
kerosene tin which was used to carry the lunches with sandwiches and
scones, and they were sent out to the men. Bill took one of the
took a bite, and smiled in approval. Jean had passed the test!
Jean with the men at lunchtime at the mill
Jean married Don, who was a widower, cared for his three children, and
brought up six children of their own on a farm near Pleasant Point, so
cooking skills have been well used.