1812 First water mill in Sydney

Barcom Glen - site of Thomas West's water mill Image c.1870

Thomas West, who arrived on the Earl Cornwallis in 1801, received a conditional pardon because of “his general good conduct and character for Sobriety and industry and also in consideration of his having erected a Water Mill for grinding of grain at Barcom Glen within one mile of the town of Sydney, being the first Water Mill ever erected in the immediate vicinity of the Town”. (Caledonian Mercury 7 November 1814)

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1929 tells us more about the first water mill.  It relates that West’s 80-acre estate was located near Sydney’s Surry Hills, extending from the northern side of what is now Oxford Street to Rushcutter Bay. The mill was constructed in the days before steam, although several windmills were already operating in the colony. It was powered by a stream that ran through what was then called the Valley of La Crosia.

West excavated a large reservoir which, in addition to providing a head of water for his mill, supplied the early citizens of Sydney with fresh water that was carried away in casks and sold to the public.

The Herald’s account of the opening of the mill reads, in part:

The opening of the mill by Governor Macquarie was an event of some consequence at the time. It was the occasion of a public ceremony, and the Governor was accompanied to the spot by a number of the military and official men of the time, as well as the leading inhabitants.

The event was considered of sufficient importance for the Govenor [sic] to record in his diary now in the Mitchell Library. He wrote:-“Wednesday, 14th January. 1812. Mrs. Macquarie and myself, attended by Secretary Campbell, went out to Thomas West’s water mill (the first ever erected, and now the only one in the colony) to set agoing and grind the first wheat. The mill, having only been completed within these few days, after great labour and industrious exertions on the part of the projector and proprietor. Mrs. Macquarie, being the patroness of this, most useful undertaking, made Mr. West a present of five pounds worth of wheat this morning, to be the first wheat ground by the new mill.”

The style of advertising then in vogue reads quaintly now. In the “Sydney Gazette” of the time the following appeared:-“Thomas West takes the liberty, most respectfully, to inform the bakers at Sydney and the public in general that with great labour and mighty expense he has been able to erect and complete the first water mill that has ever been built or attempted to he built at Sydney. The mill is turned by a wheel of eighteen feet diameter, and fortunately commanding a good head of water is capable of grinding upwards of four and a half bushels of wheat within an hour. Mr. West begs to assure the public that as it must be his wish to bring grist to his mill, so shall he endeavour to deserve it by unremitting attention to their commands. To secure public favour he means to grind wheat at the rate of fifteen pence per bushel, being three pence under the price at the wind mills; whilst another manifest advantage is held out to his customers, in the well known fact that water mills grind much finer and better for the bakers than the wind mills.”

The Sydney Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences has some of Thomas West’s millstones in its collection. It seems that although West’s mill was the first water mill in Sydney it was preceded by two unsuccessful mills at Parramatta. Australia’s climate meant that the water supply to West’s mill was unreliable and it closed in the 1830s.

West must have continued with other ventures, as in 1845 a bailiff’s advertisement appeared offering all the equipment of his starch factory to be sold to recover unpaid rent.

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