Community Contributed

Charles James Pownall

Kete Horowhenua2020-03-23T16:52:50+00:00
Pioneer flaxmiller, C.J. Pownall, operated a mill in Foxton in 1869.
Date of birth1819
Date of death1888

The celebration of 100 years of flaxmilling in Foxton remembers the pioneer flaxmiller, C.J. Pownall, who operated his mill in 1869. Today, a mill still stands on the original site, New Zealand Woolpack and Textiles No. 2 Mill. Mr Pownall was born in London in 1819, but little is known of his early education or schooling. By the time he emigrated to New Zealand about 1863, he had spent some twenty years in the Irish linen flax industry managing a mill near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.

Early Experience

He took a position as Manager of Kopu flaxmill in Thames. Mr Pownall became interested in developing machinery that would produce a fibre of a quality similar to that provided by Maori hand dressing methods. The patient scraping and soaking of the flax by the Maoris provided a supple, creamy fibre very suitable for weaving.


Pownall took out his first patent in 1866 which was for a boiling and pressure process, but this proved unsuccessful. This was only the second patent taken out in New Zealand for flax dressing machinery. Later, he developed a percussion method of dressing flax which showed more promise. In July, 1969, he applied for the New Zealand patent for a method which imitated the Maori scraping method. It then became necessary to have the machinery made up and he returned to Britain in 1868 for this purpose. While in England, he persuaded Mr James Collins, a fibre broker, to return with him to New Zealand to manage the proposed new mill.

The First Mill

By late 1868, Mr Pownall was in Wellington seeking information and assistance for his venture. He selected the Manawatu after a visit during which he met Mr J.T. Stewart, District Engineer, who showed him the stands of flax near Foxton. He then arranged financial backing with the Honorable John Johnston, a member of the Legislative Council and founder of the firm Johnston and Co. This backing included a site which was a fifteen acre section, now partly subdivided and covering the present day Johnston and Francis Streets.

A photograph of the mill shows the building to have been near the middle of the section, with a tramline running into the mill from the riverside, and bleaching paddocks behind. Water was apparently pumped from the river by a Dutch windmill.

But before the mill was erected, there was a setback. The schooner “Nautilus”, carrying the machinery, became stranded on the bar at the river mouth. Salvage was, however successful, and the rescued equipment was ferried to Foxton, five miles up river. Operations began in August, 1869, and by March of the following year, the mill was described as “One of the best in the Colony, with its own wharf and tramways running to the different sheds and stores, and every contrivance at work to save manual labour”. (“Wellington Independent” Newspaper)

The high prices then obtainable for flax fibre on the London market encouraged others to enter the industry and these included J. Davies (Whirokino), T. Edwards, J. McKenzie and G.N. Wood (Moutoa).

The Machinery

Mr Pownall’s machinery is of particular interest as it involved two iron drums revolving together at high speeds. The flax leaf, half a blade at a time, was fed between these drums, and the leaf was stripped on both sides. An improved design in 1870 still used the two drums. These machines were unique in that there were no other machines patented in the 1860s and 70s which used the two drum method. It was not until the flaxmilling industry was well established in the twentieth century that other people experimented with two drum machines. The single revolving drum has been the basis of most machines since the 1860s, but Pownall’s experiments are an interesting part of the evolution of flaxmilling machinery in New Zealand.


Although the fibre produced by Pownall’s machines was of superior quality only a ton a week was produced at his mill. When prices fell in 1873, the mill came under financial pressure and was forced to close down late in 1873. In January the following year Pownall wrote that the fibre market “is now reduced to its present low ebb, making it the ruin of all concerned in its manufacture”.

Mr Collins later returned to England with his New Zealand wife and children and re-entered the fibre broking business. Mr Pownall and his family, however, went to Wellington, where he went into business as a moneylender and commission agent. His interest in the flax industry did not wane, however, and he continued to experiment with machinery. Prices remained low throughout the 1880s and Pownall died in 1888 without benefiting from the industry that had been his life’s interest.

Pownall was buried in Bolton Street Cemetery in Wellington. Early in 1969, the preparation for a new motorway through Wellington resulted in the disturbance of many graves in the cemetery. The Foxton Historical Society sought the permission of the descendants of Mr Pownall to have his remains re-interred at Foxton, where he had made such a contribution to the development of the district. This permission was granted and the re-interment took place at a private ceremony. A memorial to this previously forgotten pioneer was unveiled on Sunday, 26th October 1969, when the headstone of his original grave was erected over his new resting place. It has an inscription which commemorates the opening of the first flaxmill in Foxton, 1869.

Written by Mrs C.M. Thompson, Secretary of the Foxton Historical Society in 1969, for the booklet, “Flax Through the Century”.

Note: There are no flaxmills operating in Foxton now. The N.Z. Woolpack and Textiles Mill mentioned in this article is now a potato processing factory.