John Henry MACHIN , 19272005 (aged 78 years)

John Henry /MACHIN/
Given names
John Henry

Reminisces by John Machin:

"My grandfather, Henry Machin, was one of six brothers who came out from Lincolnshire, England. He started the Bulga mill as an axe-handle operation, producing axe handles out of water gum. That was a small mill, employing very few men. He built the main mill and worked it until the later part of the second world war. That mill would have employed 25 to 30 men, as well as a bush gang of about 10 men. A lot of wood was cut for basic things like bridge building, crossarms for telephone poles and railway rolling stock. In those days, everything being with axe and crosscut [saw] the productivity wasn't nearly as high as it is now.

During the second world war they built a second mill on the same site, which was always known as the softwood mill. Enormous demands were placed on sawmillers with the war- ammunition boxes, coffins, rifle butts. Unfortunately, they had to slaughter the coach wood on the Bulga plateau for the production of rifle butts and mosquito bombers. This was the path finding aircraft that used to go and drop the flares over a target - high flying, very fast, plywood plane.

My grandfather was a very individualistic man. He was Mayor of Wingham and President of the Shire. He showed a great interest in that as well as milling. He was quite a character, a bon vivant. He liked to mix with a few cronies at the local. He'd come up to the Bulga feeling very cheerful. He always coasted down into the mill in neutral. He parked in a garage which had a greasing pit underneath. The planks had to be put in there for the car to go in. On one occasion someone didn't put the planks in and the Morris fell exactly into the greasing pit! It fitted in very snugly.

My father was a self taught man. He had an innovative bent for designing new and better equipment. He would have loved to be in this era with so much sophisticated machinery. We had the first crawler tractor on the north coast. We built the first mobile crane on the north coast. We were one of the first to build a four wheeled log trailer.

Timbers Of The Manning Valley

There are three levels of timber here. The lowland timbers, back from the coast a bit, the ironbark, the spotted gum, the grey gum,very heavy hard timbers. The slow growing hard timbers are on the poor soil between Taree and Nabiac. Ironbark was enormously prized in the early days because of its desirability as a girder and for bridge building and railway sleepers. Spotted gum because of its strength, for bullock wagons. Still near the coast at Coopernook and north, you get fast growing blackbutt. Coopemook State Forest would be one of our oldest managed state forests. It is still a magnificent forest and will be in perpetuity.

For ideal milling timbers you've got to get up a bit, to the likes of the Bulga plateau and the edge of the escarpment where you get tallow wood in big girths. The Comboyne had magnificent tallow woods. You get much bigger girth timber up there, bigger blackbutt, bluegum, silver top, stringybark, brushbox. Then you get the rainforest, quite a lot of furniture timber there.

In the last thirty years, they've chased the timber into higher altitudes, like the Nowendoc plateau, the Barrington Tops. Around 3,000 feet you get into a different species of eucalypt, the white stringybark, the brown stringybark, viminalis.

Own Working Life and Changes in Sawmilling

In 1948 I started in the milling business. I never had any desire to do anything else. Of course, it was a different game then. It's hard work now, but it was very, very hard work then. Machinery has improved, techniques have improved. I started stacking timber and doing all the sorts of work in the mill at Elands. It was all steam.

There have been many changes in milling techniques. One of the things in my times which has been outstanding is the use of mobile cranes. Prior to that all mills had to be built off the ground. The only way you could load a lorry was by the use of gravity. The lorry would come in at a lower height and the timber would be hand stacked onto it. You needed an enormous winch to get your timber up into the mill or you built your mill on the side of a hill so you could roll logs into it. The mobile crane meant that mills could be built on a different site altogether. This Wingham mill was one of the first to take advantage of this. Then fork lifts helped by lifting logs into the sawmill, more efficiently and quickly. That change came in the late 1940s.

In the late 1950s the chain saw made bush work ever so much easier. It also cut down on the work force.

In the 1970s general engineering improved a heck of a lot for the internal mill machinery. Hydraulics came of age. Until the 1970s all you'd have was burst pipes and drips and leaks of oil. Now days, hydraulics is a beautiful method of control, coupled with electricity and the use of air. Air equipment in the last thirty years has improved out of sight, but the basic means of cutting up a log has remained much the same.

The saw tooth in my 35 years has not changed. The metals have got a little bit better. The advent of the Goldsmith automatic saw sharpener was a very big step for automatically sharpening circular saws. There are 54 teeth in the saw. That meant 54 grinding movements by hand, 108 filing movements and 54 setting movements. It was done by eye and experience in the past.

Some Questions Answered

Why have there been no strikes by timber workers in this area?

The Timber Workers Union has never been a militant union. Also, with mills being in small towns, management knows the men and their families personally. There has been a fairly close relationship between management and workers. That's been the largest single factor.

Which times have been the hardest?

The early 1960s, the famous Menzies credit squeeze, was a tough one. 1982 to 1983 have been similar. The middle 1970s were difficult. Recently, a lot of sawmills have operated at a loss, a lot have closed down. In my mill here costs have increased by 125 OOOdollars from January 1982 to January 1983. It resulted in us operating at a loss. However, because of the stability of the mining demand for timber we haven't had to put a man off. We've had a long liaison with North Broken Hill, the lead zinc miner, not BHP itself. We've been supplying them with mining timbers since 1955. That takes about 60 per cent of our timber. The rest goes into housing and some industrial work.

Will the localjorests here in the Manning continue to support a local maling industry?

I think the timber industry will survive. The number of mills in my time has declined dramatically. The timber is growing. There is a big resource coming on which hasn't been recognised from the derelict dairy farms. In another 10 to 20 years it will be marketable. There was too much steep land cleared in the early days. That will go back to timber and help the industry in future years."