The days have long gone since the sounds of flaxstripping machines filled the air, and gangs of men wielding razor sharp hooks cut flax in the Manawatu swamps, and wagon loads of flax fibre trundled towards the waiting railway wagons at Foxton and Shannon.
Today, it is hard to realise that a major industry once existed in the Manawatu which employed hundreds of workers in flaxmills scattered throughout the flaxbearing swamps. Occasionally one comes across the remnants of an old mill or even the mention of a name helps to revive the memories of the handful of old "flaxies" still living in the area.
Such a name is Miranui, once the largest and most well equipped of all the flaxmills ever built for the production of New Zealand flax. To say that you worked at Miranui - or the big mill as the "flaxies" called it - was to be envied by all other flax workers. It was the ultimate in flaxmill design, and as such, bore its name proudly for nearly 30 years.
Apart from outlining the long neglected history of the mill, this booklet also provides, through the many photographs included, a rare opportunity to study the flaxmilling process step by step.
It is not the intention of this booklet to provide a detailed account of the mill, and I am aware that some details which perhaps should have been included, have been omitted. However, I feel it is a true account of the mill and I hope it will convey a nostalgic impression of the mill's era. I am indebted to all those who supplied photographs and gave information about Miranui and so made this booklet possible.
B. Ayson, Shannon 1977
Once a familiar landmark in the Manawatu district, the Miranui flaxmill was regarded as the largest ever built for the production of fibre from New Zealand flax (phormium tenax). Miranui (Maori for "the big mill" and known as such by the "flaxies") operated from 1907 to 1933 and was the first mill in New Zealand designed specifically for large scale flax fibre production.
Owned and operated by the A and L Seifert Flaxdressing Company, the mill was designed to produce 2500 tons of quality fibre from 22,000 tons of flax leaf annually. During the mill's years of production more than one million pound's worth of fibre was produced for world-wide marketing under the "Nui" brand.
The mill was built on a 300 acre site two and a half miles north of Shannon on the Shannon-Tokomaru main road (now Highway 57), at Makerua. The buildings were situated on terrace land on the eastern side of the road overlooking the Makerua Swamp (now the Opiki Plains). In those days the Makerua Swamp which covered 22,000 acres was known as the "great swamp" and was recognised for its high flax yield. During the height of the flax industry in 1916-17 there were 19 mills in the swamp, operating 42 flax-stripping machines and employing more than 700 workers. The mills dressed about 8500 tons of fibre, providing about 250,000 pound's worth of exports each year for many years.
"Flaxies" of many nationalities were drawn to Miranui by the prospects of good working conditions and steady employment, and numbers increased from 150 employed at the start of production to more than 300 during the mid-1920s. The "flaxies" enjoyed excellent facilities at the mill including accommodation in comfortable bunkhouses for 15s 6d a week plus meals. There was a dining room which could seat 130 people, a reading room and a billiards room with two tables. A store provided the workers with a wide range of goods.
Miranui operated seven stripping machines in the main building and two in a smaller building called the Weka mill. These machines removed the outer tissue of the flax leaf exposing the strong coarse fibre which was used for making ropes and cordage. The stripping shed was 205 ft long and 74 ft wide and was the largest building on the site.
In the centre of the shed was the power house containing two huge Tangye suction gas engines made in Birmingham, England, the larger of which developed 124hp and the smaller 115hp.
In front of the stripping shed were the yards where 400 tons of flax could be stored after being transported from the swamp. The yards were floored with wooden planks secured to concrete pillars to raise the flax above the ground level to protect it against flood waters. The scutching shed stood on a hill behind the stripping shed, and was surrounded by fields where the fibre was taken to dry and bleach in the sun. The building had 8000 sq ft of floor space and contained the scutching machines and the presses for baling the fibre. The scutching machines flailed the stripped fibre with beaters to remove any outer tissue still remaining, and the power to drive these machines was supplied by two gas engines each of which developed 90 horse power.
The mill obtained its water supply mainly from two large artificial reservoirs, the larger holding 750,000 gallons, and there was also a plentiful supply of artesian water.
A unique feature of the mill was the 3ft gauge tramway which ran from the mill three and a half miles into the swamp. A small five ton steam locomotive was bought from Bagnall and Co of England in 1907 to haul the specially built flax wagons. Unfortunately even this tiny machine proved too heavy for the tracks across the swamps and it was sold to work later on bush tramways on the Waitakere coast near Auckland and near Raetihi in the central North Island. Teams of horses therefore took over on the flax tramway from 1910.
History of the Mill
The history of Miranui is linked with the history of the New Zealand flax trade and the influence this industry had on the prosperity and development of the Manawatu district.
In pre-European times the Maori made considerable use of flax, using the undressed leaves to make baskets, mats, fishing nets and many other items of everyday use. They obtained the fibre by scraping the leaf with the sharp edge of a mussel shell called the kuku. The operation of scraping is called "haro" and the fibre is "muka." The Maori recognised about 60 varieties of flax, and the general name for it was "harekeke" or "korari."
Captain Cook was greatly impressed with the Maori's use of the plant and on his return to England introduced it to Europe. The early flax traders arrived and employed Maori tribes to strip the flax in exchange for guns, blankets and trinkets, the price of a musket being a ton of dressed flax - still more flax was required to obtain the powder and ammunition.
A regular export trade to Australia and England began about 1830, and with the invention of a mechanical stripper to dress the flax, small onestripper mills were erected throughout the country. In 1831 the price of flax on the English market was from 18 pound to 25 pound a ton, and in one year alone 1062 tons were exported.
The flax industry faced stiff competition from other fibres such as jute and manilla, and the availability of these fibres greatly influenced the price of the New Zealand product. The first big boom the New Zealand industry enjoyed was in 1869-70 when fibre fetched prices of up to 40 pounds a ton, but a drop to 20 pounds a ton in 1873 put many flaxmillers out of business.
The boom which preceded the building of Miranui began in 1898, was caused by the shortage of manilla from the Philippine Islands and lasted for ten years. During this period there were vast improvements made in the design of mill buildings and machinery. A compulsory grading system was introduced to ensure that the finest quality of fibre was maintained and associations were formed to look after the interests of mill owners and the flaxworkers. In 1906 there were 240 flaxmills in New Zealand with more than 4000 workers producing about 557,000 pounds' worth of exports.
The first Manawatu flaxmills were built during the first flax boom and by 1889 there were 50 mills in the district, most of them in the Foxton area. Low prices forced most of these mills to close and by 1895 there were only six left. In later years the Manawatu district produced nearly 80 per cent of the country's exported fibre.
When the second boom arrived in 1898, the Makerua swamp regarded up to this time as worthless, came under the scrutiny of speculative landbuyers. The swamp was covered with small flax plants growing about 30 inches high, a veritable carpet of potential wealth.
The flax growing area extended from about two miles north of Shannon on the western side of the North Island Main Trunk line west to the Manawatu River. The boundary of the flax swamp followed the river as far north as Linton some 12 miles from Shannon and to a point several miles from Foxton. In all, the flax covered an area of some 14,500 acres out of the 22,000 acre swamp. The swamp itself was part of the 215,000 acres of land granted by the New Zealand Government to the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company on completion of their railway line from Wellington to Longburn in 1886.
By 1902 10,000 acres of the swampland around Linton and Tokomaru in the north and along the Manawatu river had been sold. The remaining 12,000 acres near Shannon was regarded as worthless and unsuitable for further -development as it was considered too low for natural drainage to be effective while pumping would have been uneconomic.
In 1902 Dr W. A. Chapple, a medical practitioner of Wellington, paid 1000 pounds to the company for an option over the last unsold block of the swamp. He formed the Makerua Estate Company with Messrs John Plimmer and Sydney Kirkaldie, also of Wellington, and Alfred Seifert, a young flaxmiller of Paiaka on the Manawatu River between Foxton and Shannon. The company bought 12,343 acres of potentially flaxbearing land at two pounds 10s an acre, a total cost of 30,857 pounds 10s. The company courageously set about draining the land in spite of opinions of the exports who said it could not be done, and after thousands of pounds had been spent their efforts were rewarded.
The draining had a beneficial effect on the spindly flax plants and soon acres of flax growing eight feet high and over covered the "worthless" land. The land was divided into blocks and sold to flaxmillers at a handsome profit.
In 1906 Alfred Seifert, who had observed the operations of large textile mills overseas, conceived the idea of building a flaxmill on a larger scale than had ever been attempted before. His brother Louis, also a Manawatu flaxmiller, was also interested in the project and together they formed the A. and L. Seifert Flaxdressing Co. This company bought the last big
flax block in the Makerua swamp from the Makerua Estate Co, the Miranui block of 4200 acres, for 13 pounds 10s an acre, a total price of 56,700 pounds.
Alfred was only 29 years of age when he became the managing director of the company. The other directors were Messrs Louis Seifert, Hope Gibbons (chairman of directors), Maurice Cohen, H. F. Gibbons, J. P. Innes and C. J. Monro. Alfred was assisted with the plans of the mill by the consulting engineer Mr J. A. Merrett, and the company's architect was Mr L. G. West.
In January 1907 newspaper reports stated that the construction of the largest flaxmill in the colony would begin at Makerua. Eleven months later on Saturday November 16, 1907, more than 150 people gathered at the mill to witness the official opening ceremony performed by the Hon R. McNab, Minister of Lands and Agriculture.
At a luncheon held in the spacious dining room, Mr Hope Gibbons presided over the speeches given by a number of the visitors. He also read a telegram from the Premier Sir Joseph Ward who expressed his regret at being unable to attend, but who wished the company every success in its enterprise. Later in the day the visitors and press members were given a conducted tour of the mill and the flax fields.
Soon after beginning operations the company was faced with a fall in the price of flax fibre, and higher running costs. But gradually the price improved and production was increased from under 1000 tons of fibre produced in the first years to over 2000 tons by 1911. In 1908 a mortgage of 45,000 pounds was raised from the AMP Society, being the amount owed to the Makerua Estate Co for the purchase of the Miranui land. This debt was paid by 1919.
Frequent battles were waged against floodwaters which spilled from the Manawatu River into the swamp and over the years systematic draining of the land continued, coupled with flood control work. A fire in 1912 caused 350 pounds' worth of damage to the scutching shed and another in January 1914 destroyed a bunkhouse.
The outbreak of war in 1914 caused a major disruption to the mill. The stripping machines were shut down for three months after war was declared and the wages and salaries of mill workers were reduced as the price of fibre dropped to only 18 pounds a ton. However the low price was only short-lived and the following year the price rose to 28 pounds a ton and the year after that the company's annual report noted that the quantity of fibre milled was a record since the company started.
The summer of 1917 was the driest experienced for many years and the company lost twenty-two and a half acres of flax in a fire which swept through parts of the swamp. Neighbouring mills also lost heavily and it was estimated that some 500 acres of flax were burned that summer.
A critical period began in 1918 when a mysterious disease appeared, which started to attack and kill the flax. The disease first was noted in the north-west of the flax area on the Tane mill land sited near the present Opiki hall.
Almost immediately 200 acres of Miranui flax was similarly stricken, the cause being a virus, which became known as the yellow leaf disease. The virus damaged the roots and the crown of the plant, cutting off the supply of nutrient to the leaves causing them to turn yellow and become shorter and narrower. Adjacent mills were also affected with some of the smaller ones being forced to close due to the shortage of healthy leaf.
The worried mill owners engaged a government scientist Dr L. Cockayne, to investigate the disease in an effort to stop it spreading any further. But no cure was found, although various views were expressed regarding its cause. The most widely held opinion was that the gradual draining of the swamp had precipitated it. Meanwhile the yellow leaf disease continued unchecked and half the flaxcrop in the swamp was either destroyed or damaged.
By 1921 Miranui has lost 35 per cent of it flax and in December of that year the two-stripper Weka mill, also owned by the company, was closed down due to the shortage of leaf. A cut in wages was made the following year, as although the quality of fibre produced at Miranui remained high, production continued to fall.
With the closure of the Weka mill the seven strippers at Miranui continued in operation until 1922 when these were reduced to four, then to two in 1923, when only 1000 tons of fibre, less than half the normal production, was achieved. Grave fears were expressed that even these might have to stop production and the future looked black for the company.
"Our only hope is an abnormally high price for fibre" stated a dismal annual report to the directors. The yellow leaf disease had proved so disastrous that the leaf dropped from an average yield of 30 tons an acre for three to four year old crops to seven or eight tons an acre for crops five or six years old.
The company even postponed a decision to install electric power at the mill, due to the cost of conversion, even though it would result in a 13s a ton saving in production. The power was supplied by the new hydro-electric dam at Mangahao a few miles to the south, and was available from September 1924. The company finally made the change to electricity in 1926.
In 1919 experiments had been carried out at the mill by a chemist Professor Easterfield, on the prospects of manufacturing industrial alcohol by fermenting the juices of the flax leaf. Although the project never went beyond the experimental stages, tests indicated that 198.4 gallons of 95 per cent alcohol were daily flowing down the Miranui drains - equal to an annual rate of 50,000 gallons. It was reasoned that if the company could obtain 1s 6d a gallon for the liquid it could be worth 3750 pounds a year. Alfred Seifert went to the United States of America to purchase the necessary equipment but instead ordered a methylated spirit plant which was installed and operating in the mill by 1920. A small amount of paper was also manufactured from the flax waste.
In a desperate effort to save the foundering industry a new method of cutting flax was tried. This was the sideleafing method, by which only the mature leaves of the flaxplant were cut, leaving the centre "sucker" leaf and the two supporting leaves on each side to
grow again. This resulted in an increase of 8s 6d a ton more in production costs, but it also gave a 90 per cent greater yield as each plant could be cut yearly instead of every four or five years by the "hook" method. The cutting was carried out with a sharp knife and required more men than the old method.
Much to the relief of all concerned the sideleafing method was held to be a success and heralded Miranui's most productive period. In the initial stages the overall production rate remained low, only 1511 tons being produced compared with the annual total of 2400 tons before the war. This reflected the decline in production rate throughout the country, which had fallen to 12,000 tons in 1924 compared to 24,000 tons during the boom years. But by 1925 the Miranui strippers were operating day and night and with the introduction of electric power the company reached its record output in 1926 of 25344 tons of leaf milled, which yielded 3118 tons of fibre.
To cope with the increased production an extra 100 men were employed, bringing the total number of workers to over 300. A camp called Central Camp was built in the swamp with a dining room to seat 50 and with sleeping quarters for 28. During this period money and men flowed freely through the district. Gambling was rife and the local hotels were always well patronised by the flaxies. The more energetic formed sports teams and the Miranui rugby team won a number of trophies in local competitions. The two-up school held at the mill every fortnight on pay day enjoyed a notorious popularity and gamblers came from miles around to try their luck.
There are still those in the district who remember the convoys of 50 or more workers riding their bicycles every morning from Shannon out to the mill. The festive occasion of the year was the Miranui Ball, which was held in the Druids Hall at Shannon. The hall was decorated with streamers of flax fibre, and with flax leaf and flax bales, and no doubt a merry time was had by all.
But unfortunately the sideleafing success was shortlived as it was found that the continuous cutting was adversely affecting the flax by making the leaves grow smaller. Reluctantly the method was stopped and production immediately plummeted to below 2000 tons. In 1923 when the yellow-leaf disease was at its height and fears for the mill's future were being expressed, the company grew oats, turnips and potatoes to see if the land was suitable for such crops. Estimates were also made as to the benefits of converting the land to dairying and raising cattle in the event of a total flax failure. Therefore with the final blow of the sideleafing failure the company reluctantly decided that flaxmilling was no longer profitable and their only alternative was to sell the mill and to farm the land.
In 1927, the mill, its equipment and 3105 acres of flaxland was sold for 46 pounds an acre to a new company, Miranui Ltd. The old company retained 1286 acres, consisting of 258 acres of highland and 1028 acres of swamp, only 242 acres of which were flaxbearing. Miranui Ltd continued flaxdressing on a reduced scale until the diminishing flax and the economic depression finally forced the company to stop operations in May 1933. The remaining 50 staff sought Government relief work.
Today there is little evidence of the once flourishing industry. The great swamps have been drained and converted into valuable farmland and most of the flax has disappeared. The last flaxmill in the Manawatu, at Foxton, closed in August 1974, ending an era which began with the first settlers. Most of the Miranui mill
was demolished when the land was taken over for farming. Only the remains of the scutching shed can be seen on the site today serving as a mute reminder of the past. However the name Miranui lives on, as the property which occupies the site has retained the name, which is displayed at the old entrance to the mill for all to see - a reminder of the days of "the big mill."
Alfred and Louis Seifert
A photo taken in 1916 of the Directors of the A and L Seifert FlaxdressingCompany which operated the "Miranui" Flaxmill from 1907 to 1927.
From left: Messrs Louis Seifert; H.F. Gibbons; Alfred Seifert (Managing Director) ; C.J. Monro; J.P. Innes; Maurice Cohen; Hope Gibbons (Chairman of Directors).
Photo: Palmerston North Public Library
John Herbert Seifert was born in 1831 at Gassnitz Sax Altenborg, Germany, and became a cabinet maker. He emigrated to New Zealand in the ship "Zealandia" in 1858, and continued his trade in New Zealand for a while before taking up farming on Kaiapoi Island, North Canterbury.
He married Miss Jane Brown who came to New Zealand in the ship "William Miles" in 1861. Later he moved to North Loburn, Canterbury, and first started in the flax industry at Mt Thomas with two of his sons. Soon afterwards the flax market declined and he went back to farming until he retired to live in Rangiora.
Six of the Seifert brothers, Herman, George, Fred, Alfred, Louis and Walter, were all actively engaged in the flaxdressing industry. The seventh son, Robert, died in South America. In 1906 it was mentioned that an estimated 15 per cent of the total hemp output of New Zealand was produced under the Seiferts' name.
Alfred Seifert was born in North Loburn in 1877 and was the fourth son. He was educated at the public school and after a short time spent in farming, he joined his brothers in a flaxmill near Westport. In 1894 he joined his eldest brother, Mr Herman Seifert, in a flaxmill near Lake Wanaka. He moved to the North Island in 1898 and in May of that year joined his brothers George and Frederick Seifert in owning a mill by the Oroua bridge. The firm soon took over another mill on Aker's property.
The partnership was dissolved in 1899 and Alfred started a mill of his own on the Heaton Park estate. In the same year he married Miss Esther Blondell of Winton, Southland.
He became managing director of the A and L Seifert Flaxdressing Co ("Miranui") in 1906 and remained so until 1926 when the company was sold to Miranui Ltd. He carried out many experiments on the flax plants to improve their quality and yield.
In later years he was engaged in farming and potato growing and was chairman of the Potato Growers' Association for several years. Among the other offices he held was that of President of the New Zealand Flaxmillers' Association, he was a member of the Palmerston North City Council for two terms, chairman of the Makerua Drainage Board for some years and a member for 25 years. The Manawatu Oroua River Board also claimed his interest as did the Horowhenua Electric Power Board of which he was a member since its inception in 1923. He was one of the founders of the Manawatu Daily Times and held the position of chairman of directors.
He was an enthusiastic golf player and was chairman of the New Zealand Golf Council's Research Committee, a member of the Palmerston North Young Men's Literary and Debating Society and a former Palmerston North Rotary Club member.
He died at Palmerston North on August llth, 1945, aged 68, after a short illness. A flaxmill owner at 21, head of the largest flaxmill in New Zealand at 29, this was the calibre of the man who conceived "Miranui."
Louis Seifert was also born in North Loburn and entered the flaxmilling industry in the Rangitikei district. He operated two mills there until he sold them and went to England and America. On his return he bought a mill at Rangitane near the Oroua bridge and built two other mills after having acquired a considerable area of flaxbearing land. He employed 60 men at these mills.
He became a director of the A & L Seifert Flaxdressing company and when his brother Alfred was away on business he took over the running of the mill. He also set up an experimental flax cultivation scheme in Queensland, Australia.
He died in 1953 after a lingering illness.
Photos from the book:
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - front cover li>
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - cover li>
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - page 1 li>
- Sketch Map showing places mentioned in the Introduction li>
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - page 2 li>
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - page 3 li>
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - page 4 li>
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - page 5 li>
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - page 6 li>
- Seifert Directors 1916.jpg li>
- Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - page 7 li>
- Miranui flaxmill from the main entrance about 1910 li>
- Miranui flaxmill construction li>
- Miranui's five ton Bagnall locomotive.jpg li>
- Miranui Mill managers about 1911 li>
- Miranui Mill workers about 1911 li>
- Dining Room at Miranui Mill li>
- Miranui dining room at official opening 1907 li>
- View of Miranui bunkhouses and dining room looking westward li>
- Acres of flax growing in the Makerua Swamp li>
- Flax Cutters, 'Miranui' Mill, Shannon li>
- Locomotive with full load of flax pauses on bridge over Tokomaru River li>
- Engine crossing stream Makerua Swamp li>
- Unloading flax at Miranui li>
- Horse drawn 'Flax Tram' loaded ready for the mill, c.1920's li>
- Stripping Shed at Miranui shortly after opening in 1907 li>
- Miranui - rear view of stripping shed in early days li>
- Miranui - rear view of stripping shed in the 1920s li>
- A worker with the “Tangye” suction gas engines at Miranui li>
- Flaxies at Miranui about 1916 li>
- Stripping Machine at Miranui li>
- Washed flax fibre li>
- Flax hanks laid out to dry li>
- Flax bleaching at Miranui li>
- Making a stack of bleached flax fibre li>
- Paddocks of Flax Fibre, 'Miranui' mill li>
- Fibre caught in floodwaters at Miranui li>
- Men working in the scutching shed at Miranui li>
- Automatic scutching machine li>
- Wooden screw press for scutched flax fibre li>
- Engine room at Miranui li>
- Fibre bleaching Miranui li>
- Wagon-load of flax fibre li>
- Unloading Miranui flax at Shannon Railway Station li>
- Flax workers at 'Weka Mill', Shannon, c.1914 li>
Miranui mill entrance in 1977