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Long before the words “reduce, re-use, recycle” had ever been spoken, a small company on Hobart’s eastern shore decided to make use of waste materials, provide a useable resource, and turn a small profit as well.
Of course, in the early days Hobart, like any other city, produced much in the way of organic waste, which if left to itself would cause a nuisance, as well as constituting a significant health hazard. These materials included items such as butcher’s waste, dead animals, offal, fish scraps, and of course the ubiquitous “night soil”, which was collected from houses and taken away by hardy workmen in those pre-plumbing days.
A. A. Guano Company
From at least 1885, the Anglo-Australian Guano Company produced bone dust out of butchers’ waste at their plant in Shag Bay, near Risdon, and sold it as a fertiliser. Shag Bay was better known as Bonemill Bay at that time.
The company also produced guano and sulphate of ammonia.1
The proprietor of the company was Mr. Chapman. The company’s offices were located at Salamanca Place, Hobart.
Complaints about the smell at Salamanca were heard at the Central Board of Health in 1886:
HOBART. February 18.
The weekly meeting of the Central Board of Health was held this afternoon. A letter was received from Dr. E. O. Giblin, Officer of Health, reporting upon a complaint made by Mr C. P. Sprent in reference to the A. A. Company’s guano stores, Salamanca Place. Dr. Giblin said that guano had been stored there many years without giving rise to complaint, and during the past three years bone dust had also been stored on the premises. About 18 months ago, Mr Chapman, proprietor of the stores, established a bone mill at Risdon, and used this store, firstly, as a depot to which butchers could bring bones, and secondly, for the storage of manufactured bone dust for distribution in the course of trade. Both processes were occasionally objectionable, most offensive and disgusting smells being given off. The bones often had putrid meat attached, and some delay had occasionally occurred in sending the bones to the Risdon Mill. The proprietor, however, had promised to forthwith register the premises under the Public Health Act, and to receive bones from the butchers twice a week, forwarding them also the same day to Risdon, and, moreover, use disinfectants. Dr. Giblin recommended that in addition to these precautions Mr Chapman be instructed to use tarred bags for bones and dust. The board decided to call upon the Local Board to take immediate steps under clauses 96, etc., of the act, to ensure the removal of the evils complained of.2
Tasmanian Fertiliser Company
The Tasmanian Fertiliser Company took over from the A. A. Guano Company around 1907.
In 1909 the manager of the Bonemill was George Byworth Russell.3 George was the first of several members of the Russell family associated with the site.
The Russell Brothers were manufacturers of fish manure. Their company joined forces with H. C. Buchanan and Co. (Hugh Campbell Buchanan) to form the Tasmanian Fertiliser Company.
They started off in a similar manner to their predecessor, treating items such as butchers’ refuse, but later expanded their scope by using other raw materials. They even commenced testing a treatment process for night soil. This scheme was not universally applauded at first; the rumour had got around that a treatment plant was to be established at Lindisfarne, close to residents’ houses.4
Mr. George Thomas Russell, the son of George Byworth Russell and the manager of the Risdon works in 1912, took exception to the printing of this information, and used the opportunity to explain the process the company was using, along with the fact that the plant was situated at Risdon, and not at Lindisfarne:
SUBURBAN SANITATION. THE SCHEME EXPLAINED.
Mr. G. T. Russell, manager of the Tasmanian Fertiliser Company, called at “The Daily Post” office yesterday and replied to the sub-leader which appeared in that morning’s issue under the heading of “Suburban Sanitation.” His company, he said, is conducting a new method of sewage disposal and he considered that the system had been misrepresented. “I think ‘The Daily Post’ is under a wrong impression with regard to this matter,” he said. “The facts are these: My company had the first machine of the Stamp and Powell sanitary process that was made in Australia. That was three years ago. Since then we have been doing our ordinary work in the treating of butchers’ refuse, etc., and at the same time making experimental trials with night soil. I have also studied the matter from all available sources. The article says the night soil is to be sent across the river and deposited in a sanitary depot to be established at Lindisfarne. That is not correct. It is at Risdon township, two miles from Lindisfarne, surrounded by hills and blue gum scrub. Then it is not to be deposited. It is to be mechanically treated, and it will not be smelt at 100 yards from the building. Rosny people will not know it is there. As to the abattoirs, we have been taking blood and stuff from them ever since they opened. Danger to health in this scheme is completely eliminated. The nightsoil is to be treated by a vacuum process which absolutely kills all germs injurious to human life, and there is no other process—except a chemical one—that can do that is far as we know. The stuff will be treated in a vacuum drier, and all vapors will be under control and placed at least six feet under the water. The residue will be a dry innocuous powder. This system is strongly supported by Dr. Purdy, and Dr. Armstrong, of Melbourne, said it would be a boon and a blessing if the scheme was carried out.”
The company seems to have done quite well in its first few years, and even shipped its product to other states.5
The Clarence councillors visited the site and a good description of the plant was penned in the papers in August 1912:
The party now forsook the land for the water, the motor launch Blanche Abel taking them for a run up towards the northern extremity of the municipality. Running past the string of houses which stretch round the shore to Limekiln Bay, or Geilston Bay, and across the mouth of that bay, the Blanche Abel put into the long, narrow, deep, and step-sided inlet of Shag Bay, beyond which rise the frowning rocks of Bedlam Walls. On the northern side of the bay the Hobart Marine Board have already commenced their assault on Bedlam Walls for the purpose of obtaining the stone for their reclamation works. Their plan of working is simplicity itself. Two wooden structures project out the few feet from the rock, which is necessary to get deep water, and on each of those is a line of rails and a truck The stone is quarried straight out of the steep hillside, run a few feet on the truck, and dumped into the punts, one of which was lying near by full of stone.
The goal of the trip was however at the head of Shag Bay where on the water’s edge, shut in by steep, barren, and rocky hills, stand Mr. Russell’s manure works. The party was shown by Mr. Russell, sen., and Mr. Russell, jun., over the works, which are an object lesson in the utilisation of waste products. At one end is treated the sanitary refuse from New Town, Queenborough, and Glenorchy. The receptacles when landed from the boat are conveyed on an endless chain carrier to a platform where the contents are tipped into a machine shaped like a huge boiler, and continually revolving, in which they are steam-dried. They are contained between the outer cover and an inside steam-jacket, and kept revolving and steaming about 12 hours. Certainly there is nothing offensive about the resultant product, which is put through a disintegrator before being bagged. About 530 tons are dealt with in a year in this way, and the manure finds a ready sale at about £2 10s. per ton. Mr. Russell said it seemed to him a pity that the refuse of Hobart, to the value of some £7,000 or £8,000 per year should all be allowed to run into the Derwent, and that some scheme could not be devised to make use of it.
At the other end is another steaming machine, similar to the one mentioned above, in which a big variety of other articles, bones, the blood and other offal of the abattoirs, fish and fish-bones, garbage of one kind and another, dead dogs and all manner of rubbish, is turned into manure. Mr. Russell said these machines were the first of their kind to be used in the Commonwealth, and gave excellent results. Not only manure is produced from them, but tallow of a rich, yellowish tinge. While all the other products of the works find a ready market in Tasmania the tallow goes further afield, being exported through Melbourne to Odessa, in Russia. What the Russians do with it can only be conjectured, but from their well-known proclivities in the way of tallow, it may be suspected that they eat it. It is a far cry from Shag Bay to Odessa, but thither the tallow goes.
Piled upon the little wharf in front of the building is a most miscellaneous collection of articles waiting to be turned into manure, piles and piles of bones and bullocks’ heads, heaps of odoriferous fish and the backbones of barracouta, and other things into which the non-professional visitor feels no desire to pry. Old tins and the like seem to come in quantity from somewhere.
Altogether these works are very compact and complete, and they are set in a nice retired spot, well away from everybody, except (just at present) the Marine Board men at Bedlam Walls, who are said to hold their noses when the wind blows from the head of the bay. If the man who makes two blades of grass grow where one grew before is a benefactor, so perhaps are those who turn in an innocuous and valuable material what would otherwise be a nuisance and a danger. It is alchemy of a more successful, if more prosaic, kind than that of the old alchemists.6
The Weekly Courier, September 12, 1912, published a series of pictures headed How to Turn Waste Matter to Profit. Tasmanian Fertiliser Company’s Plant at Shag Bay, near Hobart.
Along with these pictures was an article lauding the Hobart venture and questioning why Launceston could not do something similar:
UTILISING WASTE PRODUCTS. A LESSON FOR LAUNCESTON. By NOTUS.
In the illustrated section will be found a number of interesting views of the Tasmanian Fertiliser Company’s plant at Shag Bay, near Hobart. The plant is employed in the utilisation of the waste animal products of the city and suburbs. The company about five years ago took over the business of the late A. A. Guano Co., and conducted it for a year; they then joined hands with Messrs. Russell Bros., fish manure manufacturers, and decided to install an up-to-date plant for the treatment of the waste above mentioned. After twelve months’ careful study and several trips to the mainland, the authorities of the company decided to erect a Stamp and Powell patent combined cooker, tallow-extractor, and vacuum drier, securing the first machine made in the Commonwealth. The plant was used in the treatment of fish-scrap, condemned fish, sharks, butchers’ refuse, fallen animals, blood, offal, etc., with complete success.
About 18 months ago the manager was commissioned to enquire into the use and treatment of sanitary matter. The outcome was that on New Years’ Day the company entered into a contract with Messrs. Stamp and Powell for the supply of a large machine for the purpose named. The machine, which is Victorian made from end to end, arrived in due course, and was erected. Contracts were entered into with the councils of New Town, Glenorchy, and Hobart (including Sandy Bay), for the removal of and treatment of their sanitary services. The plant is one that treats the waste material in a manner that is at once hygienic and safe, turning it into a commercial product that which under other conditions would be a constant danger to present and future generations. The method of treatment does away with noxious fumes, and leaves the residue in a state that can be sown through an ordinary manure drill, and without any smell–so much so that a bagful weighing one hundredweight was left in the waiting shed of one of our steamers for nearly a week without anyone suspecting its presence.
This manure is meeting with a keen demand from local and interstate gardeners and farmers. The fertiliser is completely free from all danger of infectious germs, all such being killed, even though the material might come from the Infectious Diseases Hospital. The result is obtained without the aid of chemical disinfectants. The empty pans are thoroughly cleansed and tarred every time they enter the factory, so that all danger of infection from that source is eliminated. This method of treating the waste products is meeting with the entire approval of the various board of health officials in Tasmania and sister states. Some of the advantages of this system of disposing of sanitary matter are as follows:–
- The treatment of such matter close to the source of supply, thus often saving long cartage.
- The saving of all difficulty of finding disposal sites and the consequent deterioration of properties in the neighbourhood.
- The elimination of all danger from disease germs.
- Turning to commercial use and profit that which at present is a constant danger to human life. Dr. Poore, an eminent London authority, says: “England uses her manure to destroy her fisheries, poison her molluscs, block her ports, foul her foreshores, and imports fertilisers from foreign lands to make good the loss.” The same words apply to Tasmania and other parts of Australia with equal force.
- The freedom of contamination of the water supplies.
There are many other advantages that recur to one’s mind, but space forbids my enumerating them. All information with reference to these machines and the process may be obtained from the manager, on the works; or the Tasmanian Fertiliser Co., Hobart.7
1914: Pipe failure
In January 1914, 5480 ft. of one-inch galvanised piping was laid across the Derwent, with a view to bringing water from Glenorchy to the Shag Bay factory to assist in the process. For the previous 30 years, water had been drawn from a well 150ft. above the high water mark.
When the scheme was completed, the caretaker at the Glenorchy waterworks stated that the meter registered 150 gallons of water in a few minutes on his side of the river; however, no water was coming out at the eastern side. The valves were inspected, and a suction pump was tried, but the problem persisted. The failure of the supply was later found to be due to leakage, and not to water pressure or to the entry of salt water into the pipes. A legal dispute arose between John Paterson, the engineer contracted to install the pipes (who owned the Risdon Road bonemill on the opposite side of the Derwent8), and the Tasmanian Fertiliser Company. Paterson held that the contract was simply for laying the pipes, whereas the Company held that the contract was for the reliable supply of water. The judge decided in favour of Paterson.9
On the 28th of January 1915 at around 4.30 p.m., tragedy struck the fertiliser factory in the form of a devastating explosion. George Byworth Russell, and his son William, who was a bargeman for the company, were both killed.
FATAL EXPLOSION AT RISDON. TWO MEN KILLED. BONEMILL BURNED DOWN.
A boiler explosion with fatal results to two men, occurred yesterday afternoon at the Tasmanian Fertiliser Company’s bonemill at Risdon, the victims being George B. Russell, aged 70 years, and his son, William F. Russell, aged 35 years. Frederick W, Jordan, engineer, was slightly injured. A very large amount of damage was done by the explosion, and it was followed by an outbreak of fire, which destroyed the building, which was of wood.
Above: Workers at the Bedlam Walls Quarry, Shag Bay, cutting stone for upgrade of Hobart wharf. Tasmanian Mail, September 11, 1913, page 23.
At about 4.30 p.m. a number of men were employed at the Marine Board’s quarry on the northern side, of Shag Bay, Risdon, when suddenly, a tremendous explosion was heard from the opposite side of the bay, and on looking towards the bonemill they saw dense clouds of steam and pieces of debris flying through the air, followed by flames from the end of the building. Led by Foreman John Colledge, they hurried off to the scene of the accident in their launch, and on arrival were met by a man named Jordan, who informed them that the boiler had burst, and that two men were lying underneath the timber that had been blown down. Colledge, assisted by the quarry-men, got the two men from under the debris and found that they were George Russell, the works manager, and his son William, who was dead when found. The old man was badly cut about and had his head crushed. When discovered there were two casks of tallow lying upon his body. Colledge lost no time in getting Mr. Russell and his son’s body on board the launch and conveyed them to Hobart. He informed Sergeant Ward of the water police who took them of the General Hospital. Here the older man was attended by Dr. Goddard, but died shortly after admission.
On receiving the information at 5.30 p.m. Sergeant Ward hired a motor-launch and went to the scene of the accident. Arriving there at 7 o’clock, he found the whole of the mill and wharves on fire, and burning fiercely. None of the mill hands were about, but he questioned the crew of the ketch Good Intent, which was discharging manure about 30 yards from where the boiler burst. A deck hand named George Walker said that when he and his mates heard the explosion they ran down into the cabin to escape the falling debris, of which there was a considerable quantity. They afterwards went to the mill, and met Alfred Jordan, the enginedriver, running out, with his head all cut and scalded. The quarrymen then came over and they brought out the injured driver. They found Mr. George Russell lying about 6ft. away from the burst boiler, underneath two kegs of tallow and on returning after placing him in the launch they found the dead body of the son.
Sergeant Ward could not get near the boiler owing to the fire, which by now had got a big hold and was blazing fiercely, blue and green flames arising from the bags of bone-dust, of which there was something like 900 tons in the building. The boiler was split in half, and one end had been blown out and the dome had been blown off.
The mill, which belongs to the Tasmanian Fertiliser Company, was a large two-storey wood and iron structure, built on a steep hillside near the water’s edge. It was on the southern shore of Shag Bay, near the head of the inlet, and contained a large quantity of machinery, the boiler which burst being situated at one end. At the time of the accident there, were about 15 hands working at the mill, but when the explosion actually occurred all except the two Russells and Jordan were busy unloading a barge at the wharf, and so escaped injury.
The fire subsequently raged for several hours, subsiding only when the whole building was razed to the ground, and everything, including the bone-dust, burned.
The deceased were both married men with families. Mr. George Russell, the father, leaves a wife and six children–four sons and two daughters–most of whom are grown up. His son, Mr. William Russell, leaves a wife, and one child about three months old.
The building is known to be insured with the South British Insurance Company, but the amount has not been ascertained. The boiler which exploded was a second-hand one, and was put in about twelve months ago. The damage is very extensive, and must run into thousands of pounds.10
The noise caused consternation in Lindisfarne and the opposite side of the Derwent. The weatherboard building which was lost had been nearly 200 ft. in length. One side of the building had been blown 20 ft. away onto a nearby hill. The fire, as well as consuming what was left of the building and contents, also claimed the nearby wharves. Frederick Jordan was lucky to escape with his life, as he was within six feet of the boiler at the time it exploded.11
Mr. Russell, senior, was the founder of the fertiliser works about 35 years back. Only 18 months ago he floated the business into a company. The boiler, the explosion of which is believed to have caused the disaster, was installed a year ago.12
The inquiry started on Tuesday 9 Feb13. Frederick Jordan reported to the inquiry on 10 Feb:
William Russell was employed unloading the barge, but a few minutes before the explosion witness saw him talking to his father in the boiler house. Witness had been on the side of the boiler shortly before to see if things were alright, and when he came down he saw George Russell closing the furnace door. As he stepped away a flash of flame came from the furnace door, and he thought the hind leg, which was underneath the boiler, had gone. George Russell was standing close to the tallow shed, and William Russell was standing near. Witness turned to run away, and afterwards he remembered no more. When he came to he found himself among the debris. The boiler was housed in a wooden shed. … The boiler was about 6ft. in diameter, and 10ft. long. … He knew that the salt water was getting in, but every precaution was taken to keep it out.14
The inquest concluded on 13 Feb 1915, with the verdict: “No one guilty of negligence.”15 The coroner, Mr. W. O. Wise, was satisfied that the company’s regimen of regular cleaning had been adequate.
… in the present instance two theories had been adduced. One was Mr. Jordan’s that some explosive had got into the firebox, but he (the Coroner) could not agree with that, because the firebox had not been blown out. Mr. Reynolds’s theory was that the explosion was caused through accumulation of sediment upon the floor of the boiler, thus causing it to become overheated, and that was the theory that he (the Coroner) inclined to.
Co-operative Fertilisers Ltd., Porter Bay
In 1918, Mr. George T. Russell, son of George B. and brother of William F. Russell, who both lost their lives in the explosion, formed a new company named Co-operative Fertilisers Ltd. He applied to set up his glue and manure manufacturing works at Porter Bay, just north of Shag Bay.
The company was set up to assist fruit growers at Wattle Grove. Shares were offered in June 1918. The city council was on-side as the scheme would again assist in disposal of waste products.16
Unfortunately, the plant at Porter Bay fared only a little better than its predecessor in Shag Bay. On 20 April 1919 a fire totally destroyed the works.
FERTILISER WORKS DESTROYED HOBART. Sunday. The fertiliser works, situated at Risdon, belonging to the Co-operative Fertilisers Company, Limited, were totally destroyed by fire at an early hour this morning. The foreman, who resides near the works, was awakened shortly after 1 o’clock and immediately discovered the works in flames. He was powerless to do anything, and only managed, after a struggle, to save his own house. The works contained a quantity of tallow ready for shipment, also fish and other manures. The damage is estimated at from £2000 to £2800. The building, machinery, and stock were insured. The company was composed principally of fruit and hop growers.17
Mr. Russell was the manager and lived very close to the works at Porter Bay. The fire started in the middle of the night and he was woken by the noise and flames. He was unable to save the factory, and only with difficulty was he able to save his own house.18
The company unsurprisingly went into liquidation shortly afterwards in 1922.19 This, however, was not the end for Mr. Russell. He became managing director of Shark Fisheries Ltd., which planned in 1928 to set up factories throughout Australia, commencing in N.S.W.20 The N.S.W. plant was in fact built, and he supplied Tasmanian fruit growers with 200 tons per annum in 1929.21
However, there is no further evidence of any fertiliser works being set up in the Risdon area.
7 Weekly Courier, 12 September 1912, page 35.
13 See the 9 Feb report in The Tasmanian Mail, 11 Jeb 1915, page 22.
John and Maria Grist live in the beautiful island state of Tasmania, just to the south of Australia. They have a wide variety of interests: Tasmanian shells, Mt Wellington history, Tasmanian industrial archaeology, pinhole cameras, fractal images, and more. They both enjoy the outdoors, and have built up a sea shell collection over many years. They have always been interested in locating forgotten historical sites around the state. Their book can be purchased directly from www.mtwellingtonhistory.com or at book shops around Tasmania.
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