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The Woodmen

Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 8 months, 2 weeks ago

Time Travellers in Essendon, Flemington and the Keilor Plains 

Articles

 

 

 

THE WOODMEN

 

by Marilyn Kenny

 

The recent revamp and extension of the Essendon Station north eastern car park has removed almost every trace of the infrastructure that previously occupied the site. Almost everything, except a small set of steps on the Mount Alexander Road side, which now lead nowhere, but which in the past gave access to the wood yards, the site’s previous occupants.

 

Steps to the woodyard, a remnant of the past. From Mt Alexander Road,

looking west into the car park.   Photo: Marilyn Kenny, 2019.

 

Wood yards used to be ubiquitous, or looking back so it seems. Large railway sidings filled with mountains of wood of all shapes and sizes and black, lumpy heaps in a faded red half shed. Smaller allotments with advertising hoardings hiding their innards but smelling of wood sap and coal dust. They seemed to exist out of time and place. Until the coming of natural gas our population was dependent for heating and cooking on solid fuels, and so it had ever been. Households needed fuel merchants to source, process, and usually deliver the product of choice. Wood and coal were as vital a utility as water, and a dependable fuel merchant as important as a bank manager, though without the same status.

 

The large yard at Essendon Station was established by 1901 when Duncan McLennan and Matthew Harris were listed in the directory as being off Railway Place. Both these men  were established wood merchants, who also operated out of the North Melbourne railway yards, though both lived locally in Grice and Spencer Streets, respectively. Firewood Allotments were leased via a tendering process and in 1900 seemed to attract rentals of 12/- a month.

 

George Stuckey 1838-1909.  Image courtesy of

Terry Francis, Find a Grave

 

In 1910 George Stuckey and Co started a business in the yard that continued until at least 1969. George Stuckey, aged 17, seeking gold, had migrated with other family members from Devon in 1854. The family found and lost a fortune on the Creswick fields. Subsequently George married and settled at Walhalla, being connected with the Long Tunnel Mine. It is reputed that he supplied the wood for the mine props and engine. The need for fuel resulted in the surrounding hills being completely denuded of timber. Seven Stuckey children survived to adulthood, four sons and three daughters. Returning to Melbourne Stuckey established himself as a Melbourne wood merchant in 1878. He was the founder of the Melbourne and Suburban Firewood Merchants' Association, and President for the first years of its inception. The Stuckey name would have been very well known to the Essendon populace prior to 1910 even though the family was North Melbourne based.

 

George Stuckey, Essendon Captain, 1899.

Melbourne Punch, 1 June 1899, p 20.

 

George Stuckey (1871- 1932) was a Captain of the Essendon Football team, leading them to the Premiership in 1897, the inaugural VFL season. Stuckey was also a first class cricketer for the East Melbourne Club and 1897 Stawell Gift winner.

 

Harry Stuckey, 1903.  The Herald 24 Jan 1913, p 3.

 

Harry (John Henry b 1869) Stuckey was a left-handed batsman in Pennant Cricket for North Melbourne and East Melbourne. He scored 28 centuries in his career over 12,000 runs and was a key member of Victoria's Sheffield Shield winning teams. Harry was also a member of the 1897 Kangaroo team, the first foreign baseball team to play in America. 

 

Photo from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 

Bill Stuckey (William Winter b 1874) was also a sportsman, a cricketer with North Melbourne and player with the Carlton Football Club (Captain 1899-1901).

 

Those not interested in sport may have heard of George’s triplet sons, born in 1907, and for whom he had to pay a £6 fine in 1908 for refusing to have them vaccinated. They were reputedly known in the family as Coal, Coke and Wood. George senior was obviously proud of his business. Few fuel merchants would have lauded themselves in verse as in this 1895 example

 

North Melbourne Gazette July 1895.

 

This was one of several verse sets regularly appearing in local newspapers, by which Stuckey sang the praises of his business.

 

Wood was an essential commodity, and by 1900 500,000 tons of firewood was being cut each year. Hospitals, benevolent institutions, schools and other public buildings were heated by open fires and factories powered by steam engines relying on furnaces. The Coal and Firewood Act 1904 was introduced to ensure that wood and coal was of the declared quantity, and appointing inspectors to check suppliers and weighbridges.

 

George Stuckey senior died in 1909, leaving his estate of £6000 to his wife Catherine. George junior and William managed the firm for their mother, with various other family members involved from time to time in different capacities. In December 1914 the firm became a Registered company with 10,000 shares of £1 each. George and William were co-directors with their Mother, though she was the majority shareholder.

 

Stuckeys were major players in a vital industry, wholesaling as well as retailing, and holding a number of Government contracts. The supply chain was long and complex involving sourcing suitable timber stands, ringbarking trees seasons ahead of felling, holding a license to fell and mill, paying the necessary Royalties, sorting, transporting to railheads, loading trucks in the required manner, liaison with Victorian Railways, delivery to depots,  further processing, bagging and delivery to homes and retail premises.  Stuckeys were eventually to develop their independent sources of supply with sawmills at Hurstbridge, Wunghnu, and Heyfield and sidings at North Melbourne and Windsor as well as Essendon.

 

There were many types of fuel, of varying degrees of quality and different purposes. Bakers’ wood was of a high quality and longer length; Mallee roots gave a long lasting sparkle to domestic fire. Newcastle coal was better than the damp Victorian brown coal. Knowing what type of fuel to use in particular circumstances, being able to judge quality and fitness for purpose was an important life skill.

 

Bill Stuckey took on a leadership role in the industry founding the Victorian Fuel Merchants Association and being an office bearer for some years. Both associations had secretariats and suburban chapters that met regularly to set prices, and organize industry picnics and social occasions. In the 1920s Will Stuckey became the Employers representative on the Fuel and Fodder Wages Board and testified before various inquiries such the 1919 /1920 High Prices/Fair Profits Commission, and in 1924 before the controversial Royal Commission of High Cost of Living. This was the first Royal Commission on which a woman served. Eleanor Glencross (1876 –1950) was a feminist and activist and was the Consumers Representative on the Commission. She produced  a very strongly worded Minority report that devoted a full page to the firewood industry and made half a dozen recommendations for the reform of the trade.

 

Eleanor Glencross, The Daily Telegraph Sydney 3 May 1950,  P1.

 

Catherine Stuckey died in 1922 leaving an estate of £8000, with her shares in the business valued at 13/6 each. In mid-1925 William Winter Stuckey split from the family firm, and established his own business. William had managed the Essendon depot since its establishment and in setting forth on his own was in direct competition with his family. Bill Stuckey’s wood yard was at No 1 Russell St in what had been part of the Royal Hotel’s livery stabling. Some of  the  family firm’s experienced employees attached themselves to his business.

 

Advertising in The Age newspaper August 1925. 

Neither of the sons had their father’s way with words.

 

In becoming independent, Bill Stuckey purchased the business of Oswald John Harris (1881-1932). Harris was a long standing Essendon resident who ran a fruit business alongside his Napier Street woodyard. He had also been a keen cricketer and footballer with local clubs. Harris, in a letter to the newspaper on 26 July 1911, highlighted what was a perennial problem that was still being complained of fifty years later - delays caused by a shortage or incorrect deployment of railway rolling stock. This problem was just as consistently denied by the Railway Commissioners.

 

SCARCITY OF TRUCKS.

The Railway Commissioners stated to a deputation of firewood merchants that there was no shortage of trucks. At Essendon on July 10 there were three trucks in the siding, instead of 10 or 15, which would meet ordinary requirements, and merchants were standing around with nothing to do. I was advised by letter that a truck of firewood (No. 3670 I.) was consigned to me from Euroa on Saturday, July 15. This truck has not yet reached me at Essendon siding. Perhaps this has something to do with the present scarcity (of firewood).

 

Until the 1950s most wood was transported by rail with the trucks having to be loaded in a particular way to ensure safe transport. Other issues complained of included the inadequate cleaning of trucks after they had carried road metal, leading to contaminated wood and incorrect weight, and the pilfering by small boys of wood from the wagons. The Railways often defended their services announcing, for example, daily deliveries. In June 1920 Essendon siding received 23 trucks of firewood. The Victorian Railways consistently issued written loading instructions backed up by diagrams and photographs illustrating correct and incorrect loading practice.

 

Photo Courtesy State Library Victoria, Victorian Railways, photographer (1920).

10 Ton Truck 4'6" Firewood, Bad Loading. H92.301/191

 

Bill Stuckey did not flourish and when he died in 1928 his widow assigned his estate of £4165 for the benefit of his creditors who claimed liabilities of nearly £5000. His 3500 fully paid shares in G Stuckey and Co were valued at 3/- each. The family firm purchased his business in 1929. The wood yard on the eastern side of Russell Street continued being run by W Mahoney until the mid-1930s.

 

 

In Victoria the gas and electricity industries relied on black coal which was mostly supplied from New South Wales. The Wonthaggi Coal Mine operated from 1909 but mainly supplied slack coal, very fine particles of coal and coal dust. The quality varied and often was contaminated with dirt. The NSW black coal supply was unreliable, often disrupted by strikes on the coalfields or the waterfront. The 1916 mining strike brought pressure to bear on the Victorian Government to investigate the use of brown coal from the Latrobe Valley. In the 1920s the SEC established plants using German technology to crush, dry and press brown coal to extract the water, and form a hard fast-burning block –a briquette that was easy to transport. Briquettes also had a burning power equivalent to 200% of the same quantity of wood however they still required a wood fire for ignition. Stuckeys received one of the first consignments of briquettes and promoted their use, Will Stuckey declaring in 1925 that briquettes had come to stay. It took some years however to fully convince the population that briquettes were a legitimate form of household fuel, cleaner, economical, adaptable and the birthright of every Victorian. A briquette depot existed at Essendon 1930-1969.

 

Hanson seeking a share of public patronage via

The Essendon Gazette, 1916

 

As well as Stuckeys there were always at least one and usually two other firms operating out of the Essendon yard, which had four firewood allotments available for lease. John Sweatman, of the large Ascot Vale family was a tenant for 1910-1918, as was the firm of Hanson and Sons for 1910-1924. Sweatman’s main wood yard was at 247 Maribynong Road near Bowen St. Hansons’, established in 1870, was a large firm that also had the concession to run the Weighbridge at Arden St, North Melbourne. The Fontana Brothers, sons of Domenic Fontana, sawmillar of Avenel, held a lease in the mid-1920s. Father and son, Cromwell and Cyril Norcott, were also tenants 1921-23. They had previously been fruiters and orchardists  and only seemed to spend a short time in the wood trade before moving on. Cyril, who lived in Butler Street, Essendon had a great interest in horse breeding and rode with the Oaklands Hunt.

 

THEY COME IN VARIETY OF SIZES (1948, July 23). The Herald (Melbourne, Vic. :

1861 - 1954), p. 5.  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article247291864

 

Plan of Essendon Railway Siding (drainage) Scale 40” to 1’ 1923. VPRS 421 Secretary's Inward Registered Correspondence, Annual Single Number System P0, Unit 193, File 1923/13366.Note the Public Weighbridge lower middle of plan. Reproduced with permission Public Record Office of Victoria, located by railway researchers extraordinaire Des and David.

 

Benjamin Hood’s (1877-1952) tenancy at the station yard, 1910-1918, was also comparatively short however his varied career in the trade illustrates its opportunities. Hood had been born in Queensland in the course of his family’s migration from Northern Ireland to Ascot Vale. Ben joined his elder brother Andrew who ran a St Leonards Road produce store which also carried fuel such as charcoal. Ben married in 1904, the family living variously in Davies, Ngarveno and Stuart Streets and attending St Thomas’ Anglican Church. Ben was a member of the Loyal Albert Lodge and was Secretary in 1912 when the Lodge opened its own meeting room in Mt Alexander Road.

 

Photo Punch 26 December 1912 P30, showing opening of new Lodge Rooms, at Albert Hall in

Mt Alexander Rd, Moonee Ponds, currently a lighting shop. 

 

By 1904 Ben had established his own business at 450 Mt Alexander Road, on the corner of Dickens St. There he operated a wood and coal yard with the entry off 9 Ormond Road.  As was common he also worked as a carrier, transporting picnic parties and household goods being removed locally. The irregularly shaped block, (41’ x 37’ x 150) had been part of Thomas Bent’s holding and was transferred to Louisa Hood’s name in 1907, with the mortgage being held by the Trustees of the Loyal Albert Lodge. As well as the work area there was also a dwelling.

 

 

Ben Hood's fuel and corn store, 450 Mt Alexander Road, 1914, taken from an invoice.

 

Benjamin’s many summons to Court and subsequent fines indicate the issues with which a business had to deal - or not. He was summoned to appear in 1907 for driving without a carriage light, in 1908 for failing to produce bank records and lodge income tax returns for the previous three years, three times  for  allowing stock to wander (1916 -1917), for underpaying a carter and failing to keep employment records (1917), failing to register his business (1917) and in 1918 of  physically assaulting two 9 year old boys whom he believed had been riding his pony which was paddocked off Dickens St.  The Justices in issuing the last fine were of opinion that Defendant had received considerable provocation.

 

In 1916 Ben Hood had been himself the victim of a robbery. His horse, with a covered furniture van, was stolen from the yard of 450 Mount Alexander Road and driven a little further down to a grocer where the van was loaded with quantity of sugar. The horse baulked at the load and the thieves abandoned the enterprise. In 1918 Hood gave over the Mt Alexander Road shop and for a time appeared to live on the rentals of  a number of investment properties. He then bought into a sawmill and pursued this occupation until retirement.

 

In later years the couple lived in Fletcher St and Benjamin became was a keen and skilled lawn bowler with the Essendon Bowling Club. In the 1940s he competed in Veterans (over 68 years) competitions, being described as a stylist with upright stance, balance, ease, grace and Essendon’s best bowler. The Mount Alexander Road workshop and dwelling,  rented for £10 a week, was still part of Louisa’s £34,497 estate left on her death in 1962. In 1964 Benjamin and Louisa’s daughter made a gift to St Thomas in memory of her parents and brother. The highly polished and decorated timber organ screen still bears a plaque memorializing the family.

 

Tobruk Battle that Halted the Germans! (1946, March 23). The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957), p. 28

(The Argus Week-end Magazine).  http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article22236093. See the full article for a graphic account of Stuckey's achievement.

 

In 1938 Stuckey’s added ice to its fuel business and George Stuckey’s grandson George Albert Stuckey became the manager of that section. Ice delivery was a natural corollary for fuel merchants using transport resources that would otherwise be underutilized in the warmer months. The firm had rounds in Essendon, Hawthorn, Windsor and North Melbourne, with over 1000 customers.

 

George Albert Stuckey enlisted in mid-1940 and his father Albert Edward Stuckey, the 64 year old last surviving of the four Stuckey brothers, took over this business. Delivery zoning was introduced in 1943, made necessary by wartime manpower demands. This restricted deliveries of milk, bread and fuel in any one area to one firm only and meant that consumers had no choice as to supplier unless they personally wished to collect the goods. Albert Stuckey could not maintain the business under these conditions and relinquished it. Despite having won a Military Medal for his actions at Tobruk, George A Stuckey on his return could not get back into the business as industry practices had changed so much. He was reportedly refused the rights to even a single ice round in Essendon. The Stuckey firm continued, however, in fuel, with leadership being provided by Martin Stuckey, one of George’s triplet grandsons. He also was a sportsman, being a champion hand-baller and represented Victoria in interstate competitions.

 

Various inquiries established that that fuel and light comprised about 5% of a total household budget. In 1919 one hundredweight of wood split and delivered cost about 2/-. In Melbourne winters’ heating was considered an essential item. The amount consumed depended on the family's resources. As a minimum during the Depression of the 1930s a family on sustenance was allowed 1.5 cwt (75 k) of firewood a week. This was available from depots using tickets issued by the local authority and marked with the details of the amount and quality of goods to be collected by the family. This was probably only about 50% of what a family would need to cook, heat water for washing and warm their housing. There are frequent reports at this time of theft from wood yards. In ordinary times a family earning a living wage would have a standing seasonal order with a wood merchant for a regular delivery. A store of wood would be brought in especially for the winter months,the prudent doing this well ahead of time to avoid the price rises associated with Fuel Famines caused by transport, weather and industrial issues restricting the supply to the city. During such shortages the rush in the morning at some wood yards  could resemble the crush at a theatre door with people queuing with wheelbarrows. In the war years firewood was a controlled item, families allowed to purchase only 1 cwt a week and not permitted to stockpile more than 3 cwt(152k). The shortage of coal meant that  firewood was required to fuel industry and  transport.

The Age 16 October 1945, p3. Goods trains mostly were fueled by

firewood from 1943 onwards.

 

The splitting and stacking of delivered wood attracted an extra fee. Consequently this duty usually was allocated to the males and older children in a family. This, by requiring the family to handle the product, had the advantage of avoiding some of the many frauds that beset the industry. There were over 1000 registered fuel merchants in Melbourne, each paying a yearly fee to maintain the Inspectorate. These Inspectors were authorized to check any delivery, on the road in the depot or in the consumer’s back yard. Outside of this system were numerous wood hawkers, who plied their trade travelling suburban streets. These often supplied inferior quality fuel, gave short weight by using smaller bags that mimicked official merchant bags, spiderwebbing bags to make them appear fuller and building hollow log stacks. It was said that there was more scope for dishonest practices in this industry than any other. Registered merchants also were not above sleight of hand. In 1937 a prosecution of a registered fuel merchant revealed that a pensioner living in a Richmond cottage had a standing order for 3 cwt (152k) a fortnight but had for 4 years actually had only 2.5 cwt (127k) per fortnight delivered. 

 

Ruth Hollick’s (professional photographer of Park St Moonee Ponds) 1910 image of an

elderly couple chopping wood. Courtesy State Library Victoria, H2004.61/238

 

In 1932 there were 37 registered Fuel Merchants operating in the City of Essendon. Besides Stuckeys, there were two at the Essendon railway siding. One of these had almost as long a history at the site as Stuckey. Leonard Stanley Warner started his business in partnership with father and son John Evan Morris and Thomas Henry Morris. The Morris family had three sawmills and were also timber and fuel merchants. Harry Morris was a diver and wrestler who represented Australia in both sports at the 1928 Summer Olympics. Initially the fuel business was in Flemington but in 1930 was established at the Essendon siding. A family dispute resulted in the breaking up of the partnership and Warner continued alone from 1937.

 

Warner had been born in North Melbourne in 1903. By his early 20s he had won local fame for his diving, winning many interstate championships.  He coached, and for a time was affianced, to Lesley Thompson, renowned woman diver (Footscray Swimming Club) who won two silver medals at the 1934 British Empire Games. In 1929 Warner joined a diving troupe organized by Harry Morris and for the next two decades performed athletic and comedic stunts at local swimming events, the proceeds being contributed to the local club or charity. Warner became the leader of this troupe which became known as an aquatic circus, exciting and delighting crowds and travelling extensively. Warner moved into judging being praised for his efficient manner.

 

The Australasian, 18 Mar 1933, p 23. Few pools had suitable diving boards so divers (plungers) often

launched themselves from cliffs or river banks. Public diving displays took place from Prince’s Bridge. 

 

Warner married fellow swimmer Alyce Kelly of Maribyrnong Road in 1940 and the couple raised their family in Bruce St, North Essendon. Warner became a founder member and Secretary of the Victorian Diving Association in 1947, and in 1954 was made a Life Member of the Victorian Amateur Swimming Association. His business continued at the Essendon siding till 1970.

 

A view of Russell St, Essendon, with advertising for L S Warner, Fuel Merchant next to the entrance to the

railway yards. 

 

By 1974 there were 200 fuel merchants in Melbourne but only one at Essendon. Frank D Bradshaw was a former resident of Ophir St and had a business as a carrier before moving into the siding, where the weighbridge still operated. From the 1960s there was a steady decline in the production and popularity of wood for fuel. The discovery of natural gas in Bass Strait had meant that from 1970 most homes converted to this fuel. Gradually firewood became for, most suburbanites, a discretionary rather than an essential item. The charitable organization Legacy, which had for most of its existence annually supplied winter firewood to Legacy widows and families, discontinued Operation Firewood in 1995 because of reduced need.

 

On her death Catherine Stuckey bequeathed three stained glass windows to her church, St Michaels in North Melbourne. One, meant as a memorial to her husband, could stand as a remembrance of those many woodmen who labored to provide their communities with fire

 

St George Slaying the Dragon, reproduced with permission of Harry Nicholls

 

 ©M Kenny 2019

 

See also Essendon Weighbridge

 

 

Acknowledgements 

Thanks to Des Logan, Bob Mckay, Des Jowett, David Langley. Lorna Hannan, Rae Nicholls.

 

Sources

 

Chalmers, R Annals of Essendon. Essendon Historical Society, 1998.

Hannan, Lorna.  Prince of Angels: the story of St. Michael's Church North Melbourne 1907-2007.  North Melbourne: Hotham History Project, 2007.

McInnes, G. The Road to Gundagai. Hamish Hamilton, GB, 1965.

Newspapers  - The Age, Argus, Punch, Herald, Essendon Gazette, Daily Telegraph, North Melbourne Gazette, Weekly Times, Sporting Globe

Parliamentary Papers Data Base

PROV Wills and Probates; VPRS 12409 Index to Land Leasing Register Engineer for Existing Lines Branch Victorian Railways VPRS 421 Secretary's Inward Registered Correspondence, Annual Single Number System P0, Unit 193, File 1923/13366.

Sands and McDougall Directories

Victorian Year Book

Victorian Births Deaths Marriages

National Archives of Australia War Service Records

Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works detail plan. 1678, Town of Essendon. 1906.

 

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