Lake Macquarie History

The Women’s Cooperative Silk Growing and Industrial Association

by Christine Yeats

photo: wyee. location of silk farm

On July 1893 “about 50 Ladies and gentlemen” met at Government House in Sydney at the invitation of Lady Duff, wife of the New South Wales Governor, to consider the development of silk-growing in this colony “as a proper and profitable employment for women”. Those attending the meeting included members of the recently formed Women’s Cooperative Silk Growing and Industrial Association (the Association).Mrs Mary Sangar Evans nee Creed, who played a pivotal role in the formation and activities of the Association, addressed the meeting. She began by highlighting the dire distress of married and single women, suffering from the affects of unemployment. She went on to propose that “the silk industry offered an exceptionally good field for women, and the colony and climate were marvellously adapted for its successful development”.To support the proposed initiative examples of silk from New Italy (located on the Richmond River near Woodburn in New South Wales) were on display, “forming a stronger argument for the scheme than any words”.

There had been earlier attempts to establish a silk industry in New South Wales and elsewhere in the Australian colonies in the nineteenth century. These included the efforts of James Beuzeville at Eastwood in the 1840s, Sarah Florentina Neill and Jessie Grover at Mount Alexander in Victoria in the 1870s, sericulturalists Charles Brady, Walter Scott Campbell and Reginald Champ and the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children in the 1870s. While some achieved a measure of success, for example New Italy, silk farming had not succeeded. Despite the apparent suitability of the Australian environmental conditions for the development of sericulture, “attempts to establish a silk industry in Australia were made in the mid to late 1800s [but] failed due to lack of funds, poor mulberry stock, unsuitable land, disease and lack of knowledge”.

photo: title deed for silk farm

With financial support from the State Government and shareholders the Association purchased a 46 acre property at Wyee, which they called Wirawidar meaning Woman’s Land. The offer of a one year lease of a mulberry plantation on the Australian Agricultural Company’s estate at Booral, near Stroud had been rejected because “we should not be justified in expending there the money which would be barely sufficient to make a start on land of our own”. The Booral property subsequently became the site of the Government Silk Farm managed by Charles Brady.

Taking possession of the property in February 1894 the Association’s Wyee venture began with high hopes. Strawberries and peas were to be grown while the mulberry trees were established. There were bees and poultry and they had plans in place for the year’s yield. By 1896 however the farm had all but failed. The annual report referred to the exceptionally dry seasons, blight, insects, pests of different kinds, the Government’s promised grant being withheld and the failure of many shareholders to keep up their promised monthly payments. Things were no better in 1899 and on 12 February 1900 at the special meeting of shareholders it was agreed to voluntarily wind up the association.

The Women’s Cooperative Silk Growing and Industrial Association is barely remembered today. However, it remains a testament to the ideals of a group of women who were committed to improving women’s place in society by providing financial independence.

References

  1. Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1892, p7
  2. Mary Sangar Evans and Miss G M Bogle share the distinction of being the first woman in “the Southern Hemisphere” to matriculate, when they passed the examination in 1872. However, being women they were not permitted to enrol at the University of Melbourne (Express and Telegraph, (20 December, 1871, p3). Mary married clergyman Jonathan Evan in 1872 and she and her husband settled in Sydney in 1887. An active member of the Women’s Suffrage League and the Women’s Literary Society. Mary Sangar Evans had long advocated the rights of women.
  3. Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 1893, p7
  4. Northern Star (Lismore, NSW : 1876-1954), Wednesday 2 August 1893, p7
  5. J. G. Dingle, et al: Silk Production in Australia: A report for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (Barton, ACT: Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, 2005) p iv.
  6. The Women’s Cooperative Silk Growing and Industrial Association of New South Wales, (Sydney: William Brooks 1894) p19
  7. Australian Star, 13 June 1896, p9
  8. Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February 1900, p10

About the Author

Christine Yeats is currently the Senior Vice President of the RAHS and Convenor of its Events. For many years she was the Manager,Public Access at State Records NSW. Christine’s research interest is nineteenth century NSW colonial history. She has contributed to numerous publications and spoken at many national and international conferences, seminar and workshops.


This article appeared in the March 2017 edition of HISTORY magazine and has been reproduced with permission from the author.