Journal of the Nelson and Marlborough Historical Societies, Volume 2, Issue 1, 1987
A Specialist War-Time Industry: The development of the linen flax industry in Marlborough
Investigations into the possibility of a linen flax industry in New Zealand started as early as 1936. Britain's need for the fibre increased, when Russia banned exports of linen flax after 1938, because of their own industrial policy. After the German invasion of Poland and the Netherlands, the supply of fibre became critical. Britain manufactured linen flax into aircraft fabric, canvas goods, thread for boot manufacture, parachutes and firehoses.
Linen flax is sometimes confused with the linseed crop. Linen flax, linum usitatissimum, is the same species as the crop linseed. The varieties grown for flax have been selected for fibre and the linseed varieties for oil production.
Anticipating the possibility of a N.Z. linen flax industry, seed was obtained for processing or for seed production. In 1938 a Linen Flax Research Committee was formed, by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Donaghy's Rope and Twine Co. Ltd, with the government, erected a small processing mill at Andrews Twine Works, Waikuku, near Rangiora.
The first season, 1939–40, saw 200 acres being planted at Rangiora and 100 acres in the Marlborough area. Sown in September/October, the crop matured for fibre production page 43in 70 to 90 days. The Marlborough crop was a superior one. It was sold to Chaytors of Marshlands, who had set up their own design of retting tanks and other equipment.
In the 1940–41 season, 13,000 acres were sown in the South Island. The Blenheim plant was built in Alabama Road, with six four-ton retting tanks and, in 1941–42, the Seddon plant was set up, with four four-ton retting tanks. Seventeen plants were built in the South Island, with housing for large number of staff.
Mr J.W. Hadfield investigated the industry in Great Britain, to consider the machinery necessary in New Zealand. Machines for the pulling of linen flax were constructed in New Zealand by Andrews and Beaven. Locomotive boilers were supplied by N.Z. Railways and scrutchers [sic: scutchers] by the Addington Workshops.
Mr D.R. Wilkie, Instructor in Agriculture, Blenheim, sought the full cooperation of the farming community. A planting of over 1,000 acres was planned for the 1940–41 season in Marlborough. Every farmer who had a few spare acres, was encouraged to grow the crop and it was quite profitable for them. It yielded approximately two to three tons to the acre and the contract price was, initially, six pounds per ton. The farmers were not called on for any outlay on the crop, although they had debits of twenty five shillings per acre for seed and one pound per acre for pulling. Their main obligations were to prepare the land and to sow the crop.
At harvest time, pulling machines were available and were operated by contract gangs, at a cost of one pound per acre. The farmers stooked the crop.
The fibre was carted to the factories at no cost to the farmer. The contract gangs that carted the fibre in the Seddon area, used a Massey 101 tractor. One man and two boys were paid twelve shillings and sixpence an hour at first and, later, the rate was raised to fifteen shillings.
The carting of linen flax was not without mishap. The loads of flax could be stacked very page 44high, because it stuck together very firmly. A tall load would just fit under the overhead structure of the Awatere road/rail bridge. The load would act like a sail and several trucks tipped over on the road, or when the load was pulled off at the factory.
The dried crop had to be de-seeded, to remove the bolls, and this was done by mechanical combs. The fibre was immersed in warm water, to hurry the breakdown of the pith and wood, so that the fibre could be separated. This process was called retting. The flax was then dried, before being put through a scrutcher [sic: scutcher] and crimper, which left the pure, high quality fibre.
As the industry was for war-time supply, the factories had a sentry, to stop unauthorised persons entering. The fast development of the New Zealand industry was prompted by the war-time needs of Britain for the linen flax fibre. From 1941 to 1948, 10,274 tons of fibre were exported from the seventeen South island factories.
Marlborough's linen flax industry declined, after the end of the war, almost as quickly as it had come into being.
The buildings of Blenheim's Alabama Road factory are now a Ministry of Works depot. The concrete structure of the Seddon factory can be seen from the main road, looking down to the terrace country on the right, when entering Seddon.
N.Z. Department of Agriculture. Bulletin 277, Crop production. 1953.
Connell, R.P. Agriculture. Whitcombe & Tombs, 1950?
Hadfield, J.W. Linen flax fibre production in New Zealand. Linen Flax Corporation of N.Z. and the N.Z. Departments of Agriculture, Industries and Commerce and Scientific and Industrial Research, 1953.
Marlborough Express 11 June 1940.
Mr F.J. McKenzie, Seddon and Mr J. McCloy of Blenheim.