Thursday, January 26, 2012

Australia Day 2012 - Wealth for Toiling in the Tobacco Fields

This year, my first year of trying to complete challenges and memes set by the Geneablogging community, I decided to take part in the "Australia Day Theme" for 2012 of "Work for Toil", set by Shelley from "Twigs of Yore"
The outline was simple (or so I thought) and excited me to do some research 
Australia Day 2012: Wealth for Toil

To participate, choose someone who lived in Australia (preferably one of your ancestors) and tell us how they toiled. Your post should include:
  1. What was their occupation? 
  2. What information do you have about the individual’s work, or about the occupation in general?
  3. The story of the person, focussing on their occupation; or
    The story of the occupation, using the person as an example.
Here is my contribution:

It was a difficult decision trying to pick an interesting ancestor who "toiled" for his daily bread, if not "wealth". However I noticed a pattern in my maternal line, in that many people, through many generations followed in their parents footsteps and worked in the one industry, so I decided to look at the industry rather than the individual.

Tobacco is a dirty topic in these modern times and I will not debate the rights and wrongs of this difficult to research topic. However without the Tobacco Industry in New South Wales, at least three or more generations of my direct ancestors, (I am unsure of the work my mother's many cousins undertook) their spouses and siblings, children and grandchildren;  in fact nearly all the men, and in one case I found, an aunt from my Roberts family line, worked in the Tobacco Industry in NSW; from the mid 1800 until the early 1970’s. So for about 120 years the Tobacco industry employed and sustained my family.

A Tobacco Twist
My Great, Great Grandfather, John Thomas Roberts (1845-1921), the son of two transported convicts, John Roberts (1817-1849) and Sophia Lawrence(1815-1903 nee Chapman), along with his brother-in-law John Clifton (1845-1912), husband of John Thomas’ sister Mary Ann Roberts (1849-1917), who were all born in Maitland NSW, worked as Tobacco Twisters in the Hunter Valley. John Roberts himself, who was assigned to John Stephen Ferriter in 1837, worked on his property "Drayton" near Singleton in the Hunter Valley; perhaps the crop grown on Ferriter's property was Tobacco, thus the beginning of a family tradition.

A description of processing Tobacco leaf appears in the "Illustrated Sydney News" published on September 16, 1864 under the title "Colonial Industries - Dixon's Tobacco Manufactory" The article has this to say:

"... leaves being separated are dampened with water to render them pliable for working; they are then left in this state till the moisture has permeated every leaf, which is then said to to be cured. The manipulators.... [then] receives it, and it passes through these hands:-  The first, the stripper who opens the leaves completely picking off the detached small pieces; the Strandmaker next receiving it, rolling the leaf round and round, and working the small pieces or fillers inside. The scrapper, forms it into a rope about eighteen inches long, and passes it onto the twister, who cutting of the fags, tucks in the end very carefully and the [completed] fig makes its appearance..."

Maitland, in the Hunter Valley, seemed to be one of the ideal places for the growing of Tobacco. The site, Tobacco in Australia quotes that "Tobacco growing commenced during Australia's early years of settlement. Governor Macquarie experimented with plantings at Emu Plains in New South Wales in 1818, and by the 1820's tobacco was cultivated by farmers in the Hunter Valley. During the 1850's growing extended to Victoria and Queensland."

The history of Tobacco growing in New South Wales is sketchy and hard to come by, however the W.D & H.O Wills website has this to say:

By 1840, about 160 hectares of tobacco were under cultivation within 160 kilometres of Sydney; mainly in the Hunter Valley. Manufacturing activity goes as far back as the 1820s and, by 1901 Australian manufactured tobacco products supplied 40 per cent of the local market.
Domestic manufacturing boomed during the early 20th century, expanding to supply more than 90 per cent of the Australian market by the 1920s”

One reason for the burgeoning of the Tobacco industry in Australia during the 1860's was the advent of the American Civil War. Naval blockades by the Union forces, prevented much "Virginia leaf" being exported. Previous to that event, much of the tobacco used as snuff, chewed or smoked in Australia had been imported, with the local industry supplying only a small quantity of the colony's needs.

In searching Trove (Australian newspapers online from the National Library of Australia), there are many articles detailing how much tobacco, by tonnage, was shipped from the Hunter Valley to other destinations, and a great debate went on for many years regarding the duties attached to the export of tobacco to other states. Other debates raged over the quality of Australian grown Tobacco over imported Virginian tobacco, but very little is said of the industry and how it worked. 

A couple of examples I did come across include the following "snippets" from articles found in the Sydney Morning Herald

Sydney Morning Herald, 21 September 1860

Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 21 March 1845, p. 2
Note: The Maitland Mercury of July 29, 1843 mentions a visit made by the editors of the Mercury to Mr. Walthall's Tobacco Manufactory. It employed 35 (of whom 14 were children 8-14 years old) and produced 1800 to 2000 lbs of tobacco per week.

In searching my family database by looking at occupations from birth, death and marriage certificates, as well as checking occupations from the Australian Electoral rolls, I found nearly 50 Tobacco workers in my family, and this was nowhere near a comprehensive search!

When my direct and extended family moved to Sydney around 1890, the families settled in Surry Hills until my Great Grandfather moved to Long Bay in 1911, (renamed Malabar in 1933)

From the very beginning, most of the family living in Sydney worked for various Tobacco companies, then on its completion, almost exclusively for W.D & H.O. Wills in Kensington. By then the work would have changed from being agricultural or small scale skill based manufacturing, to a large workforce using mechanised, production line type manufacturing. An example from the Australian Electoral Rolls during the 1930’s shows the occupation of two of my great uncles and an aunt as being a Tobacco Worker. 

Two of my Tobacco working Great Uncles,
Tommy and Harry (Henry) Roberts, c. 1930
Australian Electoral Rolls, 1903-1954 
New South Wales > 1930 > South Sydney > Maroubra
Roberts, Elizabeth Olive, Austral Street, Long Bay, Maroubra - home duties
Roberts, Myrtle Elizabeth, Austral Street, Long Bay, Maroubra - tobacco worker

Australian Electoral Rolls, 1903-1954 
New South Wales > 1933 > South Sydney > Maroubra
Roberts, Elizabeth Olive, Austral Street, Long Bay, Maroubra - home duties
Roberts, Thomas Herbert, Austral Street, Long Bay, Maroubra - tobacco worker

Australian Electoral Rolls, 1903-1954 
New South Wales > 1936 > Cook > La Perouse 
Roberts, Elizabeth Olive, Austral Street, Malabar - home duties
Roberts, Henry Francis, Austral Street, Malabar - tobacco worker

Note:– Elizabeth Olive was their mother.

W.D. & H.O. Wills first built their factory “Raleigh Park” at Todman Avenue in Kensington in 1911, beginning operation in 1913. The picture collection of the State Library of NSW and the Randwick City Library Service, Photo Gallery, apart from showing the manufacturing process, includes images showing the many social activities that were provided for employees. Clubs included, Lawn bowls, Basketball [Netball] team, a Cricket team, a large general recreation area, a first aid dispensary and rest area, and a large canteen. It seemed that they were very good to their employees, and a good company to work for, which perhaps accounted for the loyalty shown by family towards this company. My search terms included "Raleigh Park" and "W.D. & H.O Wills", however these images have a copyright attached, and as such I am unable to include them here. I have also found out that British American Tobacco (who took over WD & HO Wills) has an archivist, whom I have been told would be able to help trace the working lives of my family members, though I am still waiting for a reply to my weekly messages - 'tis the holiday season after all!

Women at Work. W.D. & H.O. Wills, Kensington NSW
Another Tobacco worker was my mother’s Great Grand Uncle, John Grey Clifton. Below is a Funeral Notice placed in The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 19, January 1895 - p. 16

The archives relating to the NSW Tobacco Operative's Trade Association mentioned in the notice above, are held at the University of Melbourne, but the 68 boxes held, have restricted access. So quite a bit of research needs to be done if I want to delve further into the working lives of my ancestors.

Not many of my ancestors smoked; I have vague memories of jokes being made at Christmas and family gatherings about cigarettes "... wouldn't touch the things - they're made from sweepings off the floor, you know..."; and I guess with so much involvement they would know.

Walter John Clifton
Even the  more notorious members of the family worked in this trade. My mother's first cousin twice removed, Walter John Clifton's Police report notes his occupation as a Cigar maker.

New South Wales Police Gaol Records
No. 10586
Name: Walter Clifton alias Walter J. Clifton
Date and When Portrait was taken: 4-3-1908
Native Place: West Maitland
Year of Birth: 16 June 1868
Trade or occupation: Cigar maker

Water P.C. (Police Court) - 5/6/93 Riotous behavior  45/- or 7 days Impris. served
Central P.C. - 8/2/94  Assault   24 hours impris. served
Central P.C. - 6/11/00  Drunk and disorderly 1 pound or 7 days impris.

So for better or worse; the good and the bad, tobacco has been a mainstay and the life blood of my family for a very long time, and Tobacco is not such a dirty word after all.

Australian Electoral Rolls from
British American Tobacco
Illustrated Sydney News
Maitland Mercury
Personal papers and photographs held by myself
Sydney Morning Herald


  1. I was very intrigued by your article and enjoyed it's well researched content very much, I know the time and effort it takes to research such things and full marks for this one well done!!

  2. A very interesting post. Thanks for writing it. I have one family member who grew tobacco in Victoria not that long ago. When I went to school, there were children whose parents had tobacco farms on the Mole River west of Tenterfield.

  3. This is an interesting article on a topic about which I knew virtually nothing. I note that not many of your ancestors smoked. Is there any evidence of health problems just from *working* with tobacco?

    1. Hi Judy,

      I don't remember any of them smoking, but I don't think it would have been for "Health reasons". I haven't looked into the hazards of working in a Cigarette factory. If they didn't smoke, it would have been for financial reasons probably or they just thought it was dirty stuff. My Granddad smoked rollies, after he came home from WW1 and lived to be 85. Interesting thing to look into though!

  4. Your reference to snuff reminded me that I read this article recently: The Fine Art of Taking Snuff.

  5. Very interesting post Linda. I particularly like all the pieces of information you have put together from your research.

  6. Dear Linda - This is a great interesting and so much work. Well done you!

  7. Hi Linda, I'm so glad you went ahead. This is a great compilation of material and I'm sure that other people with tobacco industry ancestors will find it very useful. Thanks for joining in!

  8. This is so interesting Linda. I knew nothing about the tobacco industry really before this.

    1. I very much appreciate your
      Interesting blog . I had two cousins who left Richmond, VA to start up tobacco manufacturing in Sidney NSW & Brisbane Queensland in the 1850's. Their name was Walthall. As far as I know they remained there and reared families. Cousin Peter Walthall & wife came to VA in the states to our reunion . Keep up the good work, Linda!