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The early history of sawmilling in Victoria is difficult to define. Demand for timber was based purely on the establishment of settlement, thus the presence of mills within the state rose and fell accordingly. The rate of timber harvested from the forests also waxed and waned according to factors such as economic development, access to markets, timber supply, quality, and the vagaries of nature. In general the area of sawmilling focus would change very decade, as different areas became settled.

Prior to 1950 few saw-millers spent their working life in one area; rather they became a nomadic group moving from area to area. This is particularly noted within the Mt Disappointment area, as mills shifted with the timber supply and men who worked in local mills moved as far away as Western Australia when operations wound down.

The operation of the early mills was a simple process, success or failure depended on how efficiently logs and sawn timber were transported. Before the connection of roads and modern day trucks, tramways were a relatively inexpensive way of moving logs and timber. Gravity was employed to make use of the hilly terrain, where loaded trucks of logs were sent careering downhill on rails with a brakeman aboard the load. Winches, were employed where loads had to be hauled up steep inclines, horses were used to haul logs through the forest and eventually the use of the steam locomotive revolutionized the process, allowing larger logs and bigger loads to be carried from bush to mill and to the local railhead.


The Paling Splitter

The skill of the paling splitter: “He must be a good judge of standing timber, or the felling of “duffers”, will waste many precious hours. He must know how to handle his wood, so as to get the best possible result for the least labour, and above all he must be an earnest big hearted “grafter”. There is a certain knack about splitting of which the proficient paling splitter is extremely proud.”

Most splitters lived nearby to the forest but spent their working week living in a rough hut in the bush, usually with a mate as splitters rarely worked alone. This was due to the fear of meeting with a serious accident which were common place in the forest. Usually one man did the splitting while the other sawed and billeted the timber. Both worked on the actual felling of the tree. Once the tree was on the ground it was sawn into lengths, the billeter using maul and wedges split the logs into billets each containing eight palings. Using a razor edged knife fixed at right angles to the handle the splitter halved the billets driving the knife in with a “babby” (splitters name for a mallet), these billets were halved again until eight palings were run out, placed together in their former order and made ready for the buyer.


By 1875 the saw-millers presence was to take effect. This was also the beginning of a tirade of letters appearing in newspapers as the saw millers began to push into forest areas previously the exclusive domain of the splitters. Mickey Free of Trentham wrote,” There is at present a rather unpleasant feeling existing between the saw mill owners and a few men who earn their living by splitting in the forest. The saw-mill clique are attempting to expel the splitters: they say the splitters are destroying the timber”

It wasn’t long after this that the problems appeared in the Plenty Ranges catchment area; initially in 1875 there was a push to remove the splitters in particular but also the saw millers from the Plenty Ranges, citing the protection of the watershed. The Water Authority sought to declare the Plenty Ranges Reserve, thereby removing everyone from the forest and, “The splitters are hunted over the ranges into more difficult and inhospitable regions, and the latest restriction of sending the splitters more than two miles north of the crest of the hill outside the drainage area is an additional aggravation of our grievances, as this belt of country contains the best of the timber suitable for sawmills and splitting purposes”.

The debate raged on, by 1876 there was a call for a new management system for all the forests which had been managed under a State Forest Board which was not particularly successful and was, “ineffective at checking waste, preventing disputes or providing for a future supply of timber. The serviceable trees are rapidly disappearing from the older forests and there are but few growing to fill their places. Little has been done with the exception of furnishing annual reports and looking after a few licence fees”.


Robert Affleck Robertson made a foray into the Mt Disappointment forest, firstly with his purchase of the small Derril Mill, then the construction of the Comet and Planet Mills, both much larger operations with connecting tramlines to Wandong. By this time there were 500 splitters and 50 horse teams working in the forest. The splitters were pressured to move on but they put up a gallant fight to remain in the forest.

The Age Friday 15 February 1895
Sir- You allowed the saw miller to have his say kindly extend a like privilege to the splitter, who has no tramway to carry your correspondent into the heart of the ranges and regale him with kangaroo tail soup and roast opossum. The split timber trade before the closing of the Plenty ranges reserve employed 500 men and 50 horse teams and it was then understood that no person would be allowed to remove from or fall timber on the watershed; but with the following results: The Comet Sawmill proprietary have had the monopoly of the timber for the past seven years or more, while the local splitter had to find other employment or starve. They have been cutting timber on the watershed for years with impunity, and yet a splitter dare not fell a tree for fear of being summoned and fined. This is not fair play or British justice either. If the watershed is to be thrown open let it be done so without any of the “stringent conditions” as suggested by your correspondent R.A. Robertson, as it simply means the shutting out of the splitter and the pollution of the watershed just the same, for even with the cable, as suggested you must bring the logs to a terminus, cut roads and work horses and jinkers to get them there: the thin edge of the wedge to a further monopoly. The splitter and the carter had to purchase their plants, make roads at their expense, and the Board of Lands and Works did not consider us as they shut us out. I am not actuated by malice to the Comet Mills propriety in writing this but as a native of the place where my father split palings some 35 years ago (20 years before the above company started here), the splitter ought to be considered with equal justice. Some 12 -18 months ago the Comet Mill propriety were served by the forest ranger with eight summons for working their fellers without licences and when the magistrate was on the bench and the cases were called a wire was received from the Crown Land department, I presume commanding the withdrawal of the whole of them: and yet about the same time a splitter named Patten was fined, with costs and expenses, 40s for the same offence.”
Yours Splitter Wallan Wallan

Letters continued to be published until the Age finally ended the discussion after proof in the form of the following letter, provided by one of Robertson’s employees, that the Robertson led sawmilling operation was in no way to blame for the splitters demise.

To the Editor of the Age 26 Mar 1895
Sir- Great efforts which are now being made by The Age and the Saw Millers Association to develop export timber trade have directed attention to the enormous quantity of valuable timber annually wasted in our forests by the splitters. Mr R. a Robertson as president of the association, at the recent deputation to the Minister of Lands, expressed in a very forcible manner his views on the matter. “Splitters letter in your issue of Saturday dealing with Mr Robertson’s remarks has not only directed some attention on account of those stupid misrepresentations it contains, but has also raised as strong feeling of indignation amongst the employees of the A.S.T.C. With your permission I beg to avail myself of this opportunity of expressing my views concerning Splitters communication, especially as he has invited the other side to reply. Your correspondent is in error when he alleges Mr Robertson has men employed splitting staves at the present time. It is a fact that the company, being desirous of trying an experiment in the seasoning of mountain ash staves in order to ascertain the suitability of the timber for the construction of wine casks, determined on having a limited number of staves split and seasoned at their works at Wandong. Consequently a few local splitters were employed to do the work, and I have excellent grounds for assorting that the company have not utilised for splitting purposes more than three trees since they have been carrying on operations in this forest. Would Splitter be surprised to hear that the particular tree Mr. Bent referred to was not on the work of Mr Robertson’s men but the Minister of Lands had his attention drawn toward it on the occasion of a visit to Healesville district? Mr. Robertson is not using his men to despoil the trees of the forest, and even if a demand for split staves sprung up, the company undertook to supply consumers, the splitters engaged would work under proper supervision, and any portions of the trees unsuitable for splitting would be converted into sawn timber at the mills, instead of being allowed to decay in the forest, as has been the case in the past in the Plenty Ranges. Some of the figures which your correspondent quotes must have been supplied by himself, for they have a strong tendency of the big Gooseberry element about them. The men are not charged 6s. 6d for a 50lb of flour, nor 6d. for a 4lb loaf. The former is supplied at 3s. 9d of the best quality, and the later is charged 4d. Your correspondent cannot be unaware of the fact that the shareholders of the company could not reasonably be expected to sink huge sums into the development of this concern without expecting some return. Mr Robertson came to this district about 10 years ago. During that time he has constructed, at enormous expense about 30 miles of tramway, for which he had to use wooden rails- a terrible item in the way of expenditure- until the government came to the rescue and granted the use of the iron rails. He provides employment 150 men, with their wives and families, represent 500 or 600 souls. About £ 100,000 has been paid away in wages. For a considerable number of years it is no exaggeration to say that the shareholders have not received a penny out of the concern, and when you come to consider this aspect of the operation from a calm and critical standpoint, the prices charged at the store cannot be regarded as unreasonable. It is likely that after constructing a rail line to the mill Mr. Robertson could afford to allow the merchandising of this village community to be carried on by outsiders. Splitters action in referring to the store prices, and the way the company treat their men, is only another instance out of thousands illustrating the hopeless narrow mindless and want of patriotism of some people when they embark on a controversy. Your correspondent to my mind only recognises the necessity of making statements which ought to have been seriously altered, or still better omitted. It is generally believed in this district that the individuals who are supposed to be the instigators of these spiteful attacks on the firm have received many favours from Mr. Robertson in years gone by, and are at the present moment heavily indebted to him for goods received. When Mr. Best recently visited the Comet Sawmill a careful inspection of the books thoroughly convinced him that the men were being generously treated and the cheerful surroundings of the place drew forth warm expression of satisfaction from the Minister. Splitters statement about 16s a week being charged for food at the boarding house is another misstatement. Some time back when Mr. Robertson owing to the depression in the timber trade, proposed to reduce the wages, the negotiation between himself and the men terminated in an understanding being arrived at, that the wages would not be reduced provided the men got through a little extra work and if the wages had been reduced the price of board would have been bought down to 13d. The houses erected for his men at Wandong and at the sawmill are comfortable and healthy, and the rent charged, considering the expense incurred in the erection of the same, is most reasonable. It is a deliberate falsehood to say the men live in and are charged rent for huts. If four roomed cottages, comfortably lined and papered, and provided with brick chimney and colonial ovens are to be designated at huts, then your correspondent must be above the level of the ordinary splitter.
W Linehan. Bump Sawmill Wandong. –(This explanation seems so conclusive that further correspondence on the subject is unnecessary- Ed. The Age).

From the above letter is seems the Robertson employees had great loyalty, to their employer. Despite the letters and no doubt angry interactions in the forest between the splitters and saw-millers the splitters did disappear from the forest. Saw mills sprung up within Mt Disappointment almost exclusively owned by the Robertson consortium.

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