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W. J. Clarke and his thirteen threshing mills

Interview with Don Clarke

Part 1

Dorothy - 6/03/03

Bill Clarke - 'the man with the most wheels in New Zealand'
That's how he was often introduced to people. W. J. Clarke - better known as Bill Clarke - farmed at Seadown near Timaru and was an outstanding innovator in the threshing mill industry in the early twentieth century at a time when South Canterbury was a major grain growing area. His favourite engines were Burrells and at one time he owned twelve. At the height of his career he had thirteen threshing mills working in the season and employed about 150 men, including cooks. His achievements are to be honoured at the W J Clarke Memorial Rally at the Richard Pearse Airport in Timaru on March 29 and 30. It is hoped that a new world record will be set with thirteen threshing mills operating at once.

His parents came to New Zealand from Northern Ireland and lived at Weston, near Oamaru in North Otago. A few years later they moved to Seadown near Timaru in South Canterbury. They had five sons 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, owner of the Mt Cook station and Member of Parliament for the district. He remembered Mr Burnett telling him that war was coming. Bill's next move was to go farming himself in the Levels valley.

He married Annie Wooffenden and they had seven sons and one daughter.

Bill and Annie Clarke and family
Bill and Annie Clarke at their Golden Wedding with five of their family
From left
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 traction engine, a Burrell, which was the beginning of a fleet of engines. It had a problem with a leaking tube, but a man with a tube expander fixed it for one shilling and the business had begun. Bill settled at Seadown, bought a mill and began threshing.

He bought a second engine, a compound Burrell, and started in the haulage business. That engine is still going. Haulage by horse continued until about 1920 but Bill saw that haulage by machine was the way for the future.

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 his brother-in-law to bike to Christchurch too to look at the mill and then bought it.

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 getting one engine on a truck across the combined rail and road bridge across the Rakaia River because of its height, and his son Don remembers the first time he saw anyone give a bribe for service. Bill slipped the man on duty two pounds (a sizable sum in those days) and the transport went ahead without problems.

He bought only two new engines for his business. They came from England. 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 Fowler machine. His threshing mills were made by Clayton and Shuttleworth. They told him that among their customers around the world they didn't know of 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 was grown in Canterbury, so the business expanded until he had thirteen engines and employed up to 150 men. The mills threshed oats and barley as well as wheat.

Running an enterprise of this size required a lot of organisation, so it 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 from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. and before he went to bed he knew exactly what was the 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, and transported on the coal boat, the Canopus, from Westport. Fifteen twelve-ton trucks would come to the Seadown railway station and another load to Pleasant Point station.

The workforce
Seasonal workers
The threshing mills worked for four months a year - from January to April - and the chaff cutters for nine months. Engines pulling the chaff cutters tended to get bogged if they worked through till June. The mills worked 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 shearers. Don remembers seeing some biking along the shingle roads with all their gear to work as shearers in the Mackenzie country.

Permanent staff
The blacksmith, Bill Hay, had a permanent job with his forge at the Seadown headquarters. The engineer, Robert Parr, worked almost fulltime, metalling up the bearings and repairing all the drums and concaves. To repair broken parts which could cause serious delays Bill bought his own welding plant, the first in South Canterbury.

These men made the engines ready for the annual visit of the inspectors who checked the machinery.

Tom Searles worked as a carpenter repairing the inside of the wooden mills and stayed for seventeen years. As they were stored under cover when not working they lasted well. Don describes them as "Rolls Royce mills". They were wonderfully crafted and still worked well when fifty years old. The holes for the bolts were burnt out with a poker and the bolts greased in to prevent rust.

Men turned up for jobs as the season began.
Tradition has it that when the men smelt the Westport coal burning they would start turning up for jobs. They came from all walks of life. Most were locals from Timaru and the surrounding districts, but others came from as far away as the North Island, Southland and Canada. One of the cooks 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 for most of their working lives. Often the engine drivers brought half their team with them.

The jobs in the crew
There were usually eleven men in a crew - two forking off the dray, one feeding the mill, three in the bag hole, the engine driver, the cook, the tankye and one straw walloper.

The engine driver was the boss, with the role of foreman, and needed to be 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 cook. He had to back up the water cart to fill the engine.

The tankye delivering water to the operating mill
The tankye at work
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 exhausting work tossing the wheat up to the top of the mill all day. The average load lifted was two sheaves at once.The work was constant as there were four horse-drawn drays bringing in the wheat to ensure a constant supply for the mill. Labourers employed by the farmer stooked the wheat. When the mill came to thresh it they kept the dray loaded.

The men were a mixed crew, many of them itinerants, and Bill Clarke had no choice but to rule them with an iron hand. He got the reputation of being tough, but fair. His word was his bond. The return of the same men year 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 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 least ten cooks employed in the milling season. Although there were not always the same men employed Don recalls that there always seemed to be the same pattern - a very good cook, eight good or average cooks and one poor cook.

Keeping the supplies of food available for the mills required good organisation. Twice a week the cook received a whole sheep, a topside of beef, six pounds of sausages, six loaves of bread, and six pounds of separator butter bought from the farmers' wives. Rice could be bought at 2d a pound and sago and sugar at 3d a pound. Bill usually bought three 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 used each year. Eggs were not a constant price and during the low price season they were tapped to test for cracks, and the sound ones were smeared with Ovaline or preserved in kerosene tins with Nortons Egg Preserver. These were excellent for cooking. A barrel of water and an old fashioned meat safe were supplied. During the day the men drank water with raw oatmeal in it.

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 the cooking. They also prepared sandwiches to give the swaggers who so often called at the farmhouse kitchen door in those years, and even more during the Depression. There were two farmhouses and Annie and Rene cooked in one house and did the lunches. The housekeeper lived in the other house and did the dinners for everyone working on the home farm.

Jean with the men at lunchtime at the mill
Jean with the men at lunchtime at the mill
On one occasion Don's girlfriend, Jean, was visiting. Bill Clarke didn't think that a good looking nurse from Dunedin, even though she grew up in the local area, would be a capable cook, but she filled the four gallon 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 scones, took a bite, and smiled in approval. Jean had passed the test!

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 her cooking skills have been well used.

Don and Jean Clarke in 1999
Don and Jean Clarke in 1999

Weight gains
Scales to weigh the bags were part of the mills' equipment. In wet weather the men would take the opportunity to weigh themselves, and despite the hard toil most of them gained in weight because of the nourishing and regular meals that were supplied.

For more about Bill Clarke and his machines read Part 2.

Photos for this article were supplied by Bill Clarke's son Don.

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