Living with a colourful history

The historic flour mill at Jembaicumbene was built by Charles Dransfield in 1859 and opened on 25th January 1860 as The Jembaicumbene Steam Flour Mills. In 1853 Dransfield had married into the Roberts family at Exeter Farm, where he lived with various other relatives. The eastern end of Exeter Farm was known as the Old Dairy Flat Station, on which was the earliest dairy and dairyman's residence in the district, dating from the mid 1830s. Dransfield and his new wife inherited this site, on a rise above the thriving village of Jembaicumbene and a part of a 640 acre portion purchased as freehold by William Roberts in the 1830s, and built a charming Victorian Gothic extension to the dairy with simple accommodation for staff and themselves. While the beautiful Jembaicumbene valley, with its broad river flats, had produced the districts best wheat crops between the 1830s and 1850s, the discovery of gold in 1851 saw a flood of prospectors arrive from across the continent. Some of the most lucrative alluvial finds were discovered on Dransfield's land and, with his neighbours, he became wealthy through issuing mining leases near the Jembaicumbene Creek. By the mid 1850s Jembaicumbene had a burgeoning population of many thousands and numerous hotels and stores. To cater for this influx Dransfield conceived an ambitious new business centred around a gigantic modern steam engine. The plan represented one of the biggest financial investments of any business in the district. In mid June 1859, Dransfield advertised that "miners should not dig in the old Dairy Flat paddock as building will shortly commence". The fully equipped four story stone and brick mill was completed and open for business a remarkable six months later, a feat of organisation which could not be replicated today.

Built to the highest quality, the mill was designed by the Sydney architect-surveyor C E Langley of George Street. Langley had until 1843 been in a civil engineering partnership with the Colonial Architect Mortimer Lewis, and had completed numerous prestigious residential and commercial works in Sydney. The 20hp state-of-the-art engine was ordered from P N Russell & Company in Sydney, who undertook all the engineering works for the mill, also supplying the milling equipment, chaff cutters, lift and the galvanised sheet tiles for the roof, imported from England. Russell's were one of Australia's oldest engineering foundries, established in the 1830s over the Tank Stream in Macquarie Place. By the mid 1850s Peter Nichol Russell was producing cast iron markers for the Government, verandah posts and architectural items, mining equipment and steam engine parts. The company became one of the most innovative and productive of the Industrial Revolution in Australia, but controversially closed suddenly in 1875 with a lock-out over staff hours and pay. Housed in a special building built with granite cut from the property and bricks made in his own pit, Dransfield's engine powered the magnificent four storied flour mill in which he could grind grain, bake bread, dry hops for beer and breed pigeons for sports and food. He extended the drive shafts of the engine to operate a saw mill cutting firewood and building timber, and a gold stamping battery which crushed granite to extract gold.

The mill site, on a prominent rise above the ford of the creek, uses as its mill pond a deep pit built several years earlier. The pit, with piled and staked banks, is flooded by several springs which have obscured until recently the horizontal shaft radiating out and under the mill building, and discovered during recent excavations.

The purpose of the shaft has become evident as excavations have proceeded and historical research is uncovered. In early February 1892, four local boys were swimming in what newspapers described as "William's abandoned, water-filled mine shaft near the Mill" when one, Mr Trussell's son, became stuck in the shaft and was drowning. One boy,Patrick O'Neil dived in and was able to rescue him. He was unconscious when carried to the nearby residence but had been restored to animation by the time Dr Llewellyn arrived. O'Neil was consequently awarded a Royal Humane Society Certificate of Merit for bravery at a large community presentation ceremony on the stage of the Literary Institute. At this event suggestions were first put forward for the construction of a public swimming pool in Braidwood and for lessons to teach children to swim.

Behind the mill was an enormous in-ground water tank, using the northern stone wall of the mill as one side, which extends six foot underground, and the remaining three walls of the tank were built of stove bricks. The water reservoir had a row of long wooden poles set down the middle which supported iron frames holding a sealed wooden cover. Inside the engine house, access to the reservoir was via a wooden trapdoor with brick surrounds down which buckets could be let on ropes. Adjacent to the reservoir and under the engine house was a large stone lined well. Fresh water could thereby be kept in reserve for the 6,000 gallon boiler mounted behind the chimneys, and all of these containers could be emptied into the well and tunnel for cleaning and maintenance. Additional water was pumped to and from the mill pond via a long water race joining Jembaicumbene Creek. Victorian pipework has also been discovered connecting this elaborate water system to the nearby homestead and stables.

Despite the discovery of rust in the district's wheat in the 1860s, Dransfield, in partnership with a local speculator, William Bennison, expanded his milling business in 1864 by renting the steam flour mill at Braidwood Farm, and then again in 1867 by renting the three storied stone commercial premises of Henry Jacobs in Mackellar Street, Braidwood, from Robert Maddrell. Dransfield and Bennison converted this to another steam powered flour mill, installing a new 17' boiler in March 1867. Both gentlemen worked as JPs, magistrates and acted on numerous community committees including that formed in the early 1880s to encourage the railroad to Braidwood. Their circle of friends included many Braidwood contemporaries; John Bunn, Joseph Larmer, Police Superintendent John Orridge, Hugh Gordon, the Badgeries, Roberts and Hassalls. With this expansion, in 1867 a new miller is recorded as arriving to run the mill at Jembaicumbene by the name of Claus Edwart Suhr, born in Sleswick Germany, aged 26, and married in that year to a young Irish girl Honora Burke, a servant from Araluen. It appears that about that time the third floor of the mill was altered to include miller's accommodation with several rooms and a fireplace, probably to house the newly married miller and his 22 year old wife. Among the many small historical evidences of this period are a pencilled shopping list on the wall adjacent to the mill keeper's cooking range on the third floor. Milling activity continued at Jembaicumbene in Dransfield's mill until 1885 when the severe drought, lasting from about 1882 for nearly eight years, caused severe shortages of wheat. Wheat shortages, drought and floods were a regular feature of Braidwood life during the 25 years of milling at Jembaicumbene, but the worst events occurred in the 1840s and 1880s, each time resulting in a nation-wide financial depression. In a good year the two mills each turned over more than £1,000 a week, an enormous sum for the era, but by 1885 the worsening drought and a looming financial depression forced the closure of all the milling businesses for good. In Braidwood, all three main hotels, prosperous enterprises, were sold for a fraction of their values. Many local families lost their farms and foreclosures were common. William Bennison came close to bankruptcy, moving to Wagga in 1887 and dying there shortly after leaving numerous debts despite his efforts to pay all his Braidwood creditors. Charles Dransfield was forced to close his mill and lease out his 2,560 acres to Roland Hassall, who operated a money-lending business. It appears that he escaped bankruptcy but he must have come very close, and his disappointment at leaving his magnificent mill complex would have been overwhelming. Charles Dransfield moved to Sydney with his wife and four children in 1885, dying there in January 1888 from typhoid fever. His wife survived until 1901. On his death the property was managed by the pastoral firm of Hassall Royds & Roberts for Maria Dransfield, and they combined it with their adjoining 9,500 acres to run sheep, with Roland Hassall managing the operation. Out of Dransfield's control, the mill equipment was sold and brutally stripped from the building. The steam engine was disassembled, and probably sold to the Jembaicumbene Dredging Company who took over the alluvial gold leases at the creek in 1899 using new technology imported from New Zealand. The remains of their three storied steam powered dredge, over 150 feet long, survives in the wetland. The mill's engine house and numerous other outbuildings were demolished and the bricks and stone used by Mr R.G. Hassall jnr. to extend Dransfield's small cottage and dairy into a larger home which he established as his own. All of the materials from the mill outbuildings and timber internal equipment were recycled into various structures around the property. After Maria Dransfield's death, at the winding up of her estate in 1905, the property was purchased by the family pastoral company, but when this was dissolved in 1920 an auction was held to disperse the various assets and the property was sold to 29 year old Charles Royds, much to the chagrin of Mr Hassall who had anticipated buying the freehold himself. Royds converted the 1840s timber wagon house into a shearing shed, and later moved this activity into the mill itself. A busy and productive man, Royds ran an auction business in Braidwood and was involved in local community events and sporting groups. However on 29th January 1934 he died with Mr Ernest Keyte in a tragic mining accident a mile from the house. Royds had for several weeks been in the course of excavating an old mine shaft with Mr Keyte on the edge of the Major's Creek Road at Honeysuckle Creek. Waiting for the dray carrying excavated wash away to return, they were standing under the open bank when it fell on them. The property was taken over by his son David on his return from the Second War. In the 1950s and 1960s, David Royds expanded the shearing facilities around the mill site. The Royds family, through three generations, focused on high quality wool production at Caloola, planting exceptional pastures which saw some of the most productive wool results in the Braidwood district. During David Royd's life he was able to claim successful production of a full bale of wool for every day of the year, an astonishing record that remains unbroken to this day. David's work was continued by his son Stephen who oversaw the gradual change from sheep to cattle, with similarly excellent results. The buildings themselves have remained effectively unchanged over much of the past century and today the mill retains many of its original components stored on upper floors and sufficient internal fabric to fully interpret how the original machinery was fitted. Excavations in February 2009 have uncovered the footprints of the engine house, with its stone engine pit into which a 14' flywheel was fitted, the foundations of the 6,000 gallon boiler, the base of the 55' chimney and furnace, the stone footings of a pump house, a large stone well, and the remains of the extraordinary 66' x 44' sunken water reservoir which was built under the north side of the mill. This had a suspended cover with iron frame and brick access hatches, supported by huge wooden posts in the centre. A brick hatch with trapdoor gave access to the flooded mine shaft below as a convenient source of water for the bakery operated at the end of the engine house. The engineer's cast iron bell was recovered from rubble in the engine pit. As it approaches its 150th anniversary Dransfield's mill is undergoing conservation and restoration which will see the ground floor open in 2010 as an art gallery, with two artist's residences and studios on the upper floors. The mill pond, used as a tip since the 1930s, has been excavated and cleaned, revealing its interesting origins, and the 1940s and 1950s extensions added for shearing have been removed so that the mill will soon appear just as it did in the 1860s. Other buildings on the site, including the 1840s wagon barn, the 1840s stables and the old dairy with its residential additions are undergoing sensitive restoration and conservation. A 1940s shearer's quarters, relocated from the Cowra Detention Camp in 1946, will eventually be refurbished and converted to holiday accommodation.

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