From 1907 until 1966 St. Helena’s flax industry was the engine of its economy. Now there is nothing left. Prompted by the withdrawal of the Liberated African Station in 1874, and the resulting economic difficulties, New Zealand Flax phormium tenax was introduced to St. Helena with the aim of growing and processing flax for export. Although 100 bales of flax were shipped overseas in July 1876 (from the “Colonial Fibre Company”), the flax industry did not take off at that time.
The return of the Boer prosoners in 1902 and the disbandment of the St. Helena Volunteers in 1906 left the island without a garrison for the first time since it was colonised. Economic hardship resulted and it was decided to give flax another try.
This time the industry grew, aided by the demand for rope during the First World War, 1914-1918. Flax was cultivated across the island and many flax mills were constructed. They processed the flax into string or rope for local use and also for export. During the Second World War the island’s economy again benefitted from increased demand for flax rope.
Flax prices continued to rise after the war, rising to their zenith in 1951. In this year the value of exports from St. Helena actually exceeded that of imports, the only time in the history of St. Helena where this has been the case. A major customer was the British Post Office, who used St. Helena flax string for their mailbags.
The flax industry did bring some prosperity to the island, but it did not provide for a stable economic base: the price fluctuation of the flax on world markets was too high. To bring some stability, it was agreed that the government would help. If the market price fell below a certain level, the millers would receive a subsidy. If it rose above a level, however, the government would charge export duty. But whoever set the levels was clearly clever – more duty was paid in than subsidy was paid out, so the government’s support was achieved with no effective cost.
At its peak flax covered over 3,000 acres of land and the industry directly employed 300 to 400 people, often working 50 hours each per week. Work in the fields and mill was hard, repetitive, noisy and dirty, and the machines used were not safe, even by contemporary industrial standards, and caused many injuries. Just three families owned the land and almost all the profits went to them.
However the industry soon fell into decline, partly because of competition from synthetic fibres, but partly because the delivered price of the island’s flax was, due to shipping costs, substantially higher than world prices. Also, with growing social conscience, the wages paid to flax workers were raised, further increasing the costs of production.
The decision by the British Post Office in 1965 to switch to using synthetic fibres was the final blow. Within the year the island’s flax mills closed, that last closing in 1966. The result was considerable unemployment. The island was also left covered with flax plants that no longer had any purpose. They remain an environmental issue to this day.
There have been no attempts to revive the flax industry since its demise in 1966. It has been suggested that the recent interest in natural products could generate a new market for flax-based string, but the costs of production on St. Helena combined with the cost of shipping overseas are thought likely to make St. Helena Flax String uneconomic. A small quantity of flax-based products is produced by SHAPE and available in island shops.
Across the countryside many of the flax mills are now derelict or have been reused for other purposes. The photograph shows the old flax mill at Fairyland.
There are plans to create a flax museum, to be situated in the old Pipe Building situated behind the prison in Narrabacks. Much of the old machinery has been collected and some has been restored or re-created. But there is as yet no published date for its opening; the collection can currently be viered by special arrangement only. The Pipe Building is currently being used to house the bones of slaves removed from Ruperts in 2008 during airport works.
But by far the biggest legacy of the flax industry is the flax itself, which still covers large areas of the island. The photograph shows flax covering a hillside at The Peaks (the end of the ridge is Halley’s Mount).
Flax clearing, especially in The Peaks area is undertaken in an attempt to restore land for the re-growth of the island’s many endemic plants, many of which were pushed out to make way for flax at the beginning of the 20th Century and are now endangered.
THE INDUSTRY AT WORK
In 1962 a film was produced about St. Helena by Charles Frater and Esdon Frost. Inter alia it described the flax industry as it then was. The monochrome images below are taken from this film.
1. Flax grows best on higher ground, the area surrounding Diana’s Peak being particularly heavily planted. The flax was cut, by hand, bundled and then delivered down to the nearest flax mill, originally always by donkey. Later lorries were used in more accessible areas but donkeys continued to be used in the more difficult parts.
2. ‘Stripper’ machines were used to remove the green pulp, which was used elsewhere as fertiliser and animal feed, and the remaining fibre was washed to remove the natural acid. The flax was then loaded onto bullock carts and taken up to the drying fields.
3. There it was spread out on the ground to dry in the sun. Large areas of land were devoted to drying flax.
4. The dried flax was lifted and shaken to remove dust, and then taken back to the mill where it was processed further through a ‘scutcher’ machine, which separated the long (1.5-1.8 metre) high quality fibres from the waste ‘tow’.
5. It was then mostly bundled for export as a raw material. The bundled flax was transported to a warehouse in Jamestown to await the next ship. Some raw flax was set aside to be made into rope.
To make rope the flax was first amalgamated into great lengths. These lengths were then stretched out in the land surrounding the mill.
1. The fibres were twised into rope by an ingenious bobbin that was simply drawn along the stretched out fibres.
2. The resulting rope was then wound into coils, originally by hand but by 1962 using a winding machine.
3. Government departments used to require their rope to be died green, presumably to mark is such that illegal use of government rope for private purposes could be more easily detected.