Susan Fereday, 'Ritchie's Mill, Launceston', undated (ALMFA, SLT)

Flourmills were erected within the first decade of European settlement, and more were built as settlers moved into new areas. These early mills were poorly constructed due to inexperience and the limitations of available materials. By the 1830s the arrival of competent millwrights and the opening of foundries led to the establishment of larger mills, or the rebuilding of older ones. By the late 1830s several steam mills were being erected and, equally importantly, steam engines were installed in the older mills to supplement wind or water power, especially mills on the Hobart Town Rivulet. However, Tasmania was the only colony where traditional water-powered mills continued to operate into the twentieth century, most adopting turbines to counter limited water availability.

By the 1820s flour was being exported to the mainland colonies, as well as to Mauritius and even Britain. The 1840s Depression led to bankruptcies among millers and mill owners, but the situation improved in the 1850s with many making huge profits supplying the Victorian goldfields. The development of wheat-growing and flour manufacturing in Victoria and South Australia largely contributed to a decline in Tasmania. The peak number of operating mills was reached in 1860, a gradual reduction then occurring in all districts apart from the north-west coast. Some smaller mills remained viable in country areas, but the trend was towards larger capacity mills sited near ports or railways to facilitate bulk handling of imported wheat.

The situation, particularly for northern mills, improved later in the century with the mining boom, but simultaneously the introduction of rollers to replace millstones, which required considerable capital and therefore larger throughput, led to pressure on the smaller country mills. From 1890 there was a sharp decline in the number of mills, exacerbated by Federation which allowed other states' flour to be imported without protective tariffs. By 1930 most milling was being carried out by the all-electric mills of Gibson's in Hobart, and Monds & Affleck and Ritchie's in Launceston. Two new mills opened in Hobart and Devonport in the 1960s, but now there is only one operating mill, the Tasmanian Flour Mills in Launceston.

Further reading: J Cassidy & K Preston, Thematic study of the Tasmanian flour milling industry, Launceston, 2000.

Jill Cassidy