HOME OF THE LADY DENMAN - Local history isn't always about the big story - the everyday story of life in the early development of the region can be a fascinating, entertaining and educational journey.

1 November 2016

Grass Tree - Xanthorrhoea

The amazing story of the Grass Tree.

Xanthorrhoea literally means "yellow flow" in Ancient Greek.
This beautiful specimen is in the garden at the museum.  I have never seen such a high and well formed flower spike.




The value of the Grass Tree. "A free healthy and independent life."

I’m sure everyone would have seen a grass tree at some stage,  they were commonly known by the early settlers as " Black Boys " because of the resemblance to an Aboriginal standing proud holding a spear. The plant was once quite a common sight along the coastal fringes,  but in many areas urban development has been responsible for clearing vast areas and they have all but disappeared in these areas.

But what does the Grass Tree have to do with anything of significance with the history of our local area,  well,  you may be as surprised as I was when I came across articles during  research telling an interesting tale of the value of these beautiful, seemingly innocuous plants to the local community and economy, …. but first!,

Long before the first European settlers found uses for the plant,  the grass tree’s were a 'staple' plant for the aborigines, providing food, drink, fibre and materials for making implements and weapons,  The resin (Gum) was melted over a fire and used to bind spear heads,  to fill holes in water containers,  the long flower spike was used to make fire by friction, their heads were burnt during ceremonies,  the young shoots were used for food and medicine, The nectar was steeped in water to make a sweet drink.

It wasn't long before the early settlers started to appreciate the value in the grass tree, and that's where the grass tree which was abundant around Jervis Bay on the higher wooded rises and hills and ridges,  became intertwined with the local economy and the families of the area.

Gum Getters or Gummy’s were the names given to men who worked long days in the bush right along the south east coast gathering the precious golden gum.
The gum-getter before setting to work on state lands,  had to obtain a licence at a cost of one pound per annum,  His kit consisted of a light,  broad-bladed axe,  or a heavy tomahawk and two sieves - one with a quarter inch mesh and one with a half to three quarter inch mesh,  and a broad sheet of canvas,  or a few bags sewn together for beating on.  When camping out he required a tent, some light camping gear and provisions.

A man could without much instruction take up the work of a Gum Getter,  but being happy,  free and living a healthy life wasn’t always the case.
When the conditions were right, and the weather was warm and dry times could be good, but with long periods of rain and cold weather condition in the bush would be very hard for the men. One Gummy took exception to an article in the papers that painted such a rosy picture of their easy life.


Australian Town and Country 1883.
Sir, - In your issue of June 2, under the heading of "Ulladulla," your correspondent has evidently jumped out of the fat into the fire,  and should not have hastened to correct a previous error before he had gained better and more reliable information.  He says Mr.  Myers is an agent,  and buying gum at 14s, per cwt.  This is not correct; 10s, per cwt is the price paid,  and not 14s; and furthermore,  after to-day the price is to be 9s,. The gum is thin,  and considering it takes 250 to 300 grass trees to make a 2cwt bag.  I fail to see where the 1 pound a day comes in.  As to 10 pounds for a licence none have been taken since the commencement of this quarter for Mr. Myers's camp.  The past 6 weeks have been most wretched two and three days wet every week,  and our camp being 10 miles from Tomerong,  our nearest store,  our living has been very scanty,  mearly damper,  salt beef and tea,  and for a change,  tea,  salt beef and damper.   If your correspondent disputes these facts,  we shall be very glad to make his acquaintance,  and also give him every information as to the true version.



Tree varieties.
There are three sorts of gum - red,  chestnut, and yellow.  The latter is the sort desired by the buyers.  The tree bearing it can be distinguished by it's light golden green top,  the tops of the other being dark green.

Most men take a slice off the trunk with a downward chop of the tomahawk,  and if it is yellow resin bearing,  both the side of the blade and the shaved trunk will be smeared in yellow powder.  The best time for gathering the gum is in the cool months of the year.  In hot weather dirt is liable to become fused into the gum,  which cannot then be purified,  and in consequence it's value deteriorates.
Bush fires also ruin the gum-getters harvest.  After a severe scorching the tree seems to run quickly to seed and when bearing the seed-spear all the good of the plant goes to that.

Method of getting the gum.
First  off the gum-getter takes his tomahawk and cuts off the crowning bunch of grass,  leaving a small tuft on top to serve as a handle when subsequently beating the gum from the trunk.
Then the black outer case is shaved off all round to the ground,   It is then cut off at ground level.  The best gum is in the ground at the butt,  it is difficult to clean and is generally left untouched.

Belting out the gum.
The green trunks are stacked in the shade to dry making sure every piece receives plenty of ventilation.  In fine weather the drying process will take around a week,  in damp weather it will take longer.  When the cut trees show signs of splitting they are ready for beating.
The operator holding the tufts left at the top,  then beats off the leaves and gum with the back of his tomahawk, or a wooden mallet,  each piece is beaten from the severed end upwards,  once the trunk shows no more sign of resin the trunk is disguarded.

Separating the gum
When he finishes he is left with a heap of leaf bases,  fibre and gum on the bagging or canvas sheet.
The next task is to separate the gum and this is easy as the gum weighs more and settles to the bottom off the sheet. Some men clean it using the wind in the same was as dry blowers separate gold from the dirt. Others separate the waste by tilting and gently shaking the bagging.  They then sift it through the larger mesh first then twice through the smaller mesh sieve.
When thoroughly cleaned,  the gum is bagged, well rammed,  and the bags sewn and stacked in the shade ready for carting away.


European uses for the gum.

The gum was used in a variety of products from perfume to explosives, the French experimented with it's explosive qualities as far back as 1870.  The gum was washed with alcohol - in which it is soluble - and then transformed into picric acid,  the product being used in a mixture intended as a gunpowder substitute.
It was also used to make varnish  and polish that rivalled the best products available from France,  waterproof leather dressings, floor paints,  sealing waxes,  high class metal lacquers,  size for paper manufactures and in perfumery, medicine and soap making. If you burnt the gum a pleasent perfume would be given off and this was used in early churches.

The Dent family connection - Jervis Bay.
Vast areas of grass trees were harvested by scores of men.  The Jervis bay region was no exception. Local shipbuilding identities the Dent Family took advantage of this new industry, employing local men to harvest many tons of gum resin from the surrounding districts,  thereby keeping many local men employed and the local economy stimulated in uncertain times.

The work was very lucrative for the harvesters and the traders, The shipbuilding family the Dents were receiving large orders for the precious gum. The following newspaper article highlights the success of the local industry.



Shoalhaven Telegraph November 1895.
The grass - tree industry is looking up.  Mr. Jas Dent has received two 20-ton orders,  Mr R. Dent a 16 ton order,  and Mr. Joseph Dent orders for 20 tons and 6 tons.  The gum is worth 12 pounds a ton,  and it takes one man about 3 weeks to gather a ton.


Traders from outside of the area employed large groups of men to take advantage of the abundant local Grass Trees...one such group comprised of 40 men arriving from Sydney, encamping in the bush near Jervis Bay and clearing the local forests of Grass Tree. It was expected up to 100 men would eventually be in the bush doing the same.

Waste of a good resource.
Not everyone was happy about the grass tree industry,  there were concerns about the huge waste of grass trees during the harvest process.


N.S.W Agricultural Gazette 1895.
Report by Forester Allan, stationed at Milton.

"There is a large area on the north-eastern portion of the county of St. Vincent covered with grass tree.  There are two varieties; one produces the yellow gum of commerce,  and the other a red gum not at present utilised,  but which may be of value when it's properties are fully known.  The tree yielding the red gum predominates."


He goes on to talk about the method of harvesting as previously mentioned,  then concludes with.



'In that part of the plant under the level of the ground,  which is left to go to waste,  I found a large amount of gum. As in obtaining the gum the tree is destroyed,  all the gum the tree contains should be carefully extracted.  The present primitive method of extracting gum discloses a system of sheer waste.  50 per cent,  being wasted."


Gum Getting leads to a young boys death at Jervis Bay. 1904 – Some local men used small steam launches to travel from Huskisson across the bay to the northern slopes where the grass tree was found.  This practice for one family named Speechley resulted in the tragic death of their son Thomas.  During one of thier trips the son found and picked up an explosive shell he found in the soft sand beside the bay.  This wasn’t uncommon,  for in those days the Navy was using this area for firing live rounds at floating targets and sometimes the rounds would overshoot and hit the shore.
The father of the boy asked him to put the shell down,  a short time later the young boy went back to the shell and a large explosion occured,   he suffering terrible injuries,  and was killed instantly.

Gum connection with the proposed continuation of the railway line to Jervis Bay.
One of the most critical decisions that held back the  development at Jervis Bay into a great port and commercial precinct was the lack of a good transport system,  mainly the stopping of the continuation of the railway line from Bomaderry to the shores of Jervis Bay.
There were many representations over many years by local communities, organised individuals and councils like the Clyde Shire Council to government urging them to continue the railway,  and they used  any opportunity to further their case.


The Gloucester Advocate 1911
Titled Grass Tree Gum.
"When taking evidence at Jervis Bay in regard to the proposed railway from Bomaderry to the Bay,  the Public Works Committee was informed that from the grass trees which grew abundantly in the district a gum was extracted which was worth 40 pounds per ton.  The gum was used for varnish purposes and was highly prised by the Japanese,  who imported large quantities.  Not so long ago as much as 500 tons were exported from the district,  From each tree from 1lb to 2lb of gum was extracted."


Export, and  World War One.
The gum was highly prized by other countries for all the reasons mentioned previously.  One country imported more than any other, Germany.
Leading up the the First World War Germany imported vast quantities of gum, at one stage the Germans were paying as little as 12 ponds per ton,  but shortly before the war there was a greater demand for the best quality,  and Germany was willing to pay 65 ponds per ton. 
Knowing that large quantities have been used in Australia for the production of explosives,  the inference is that Germany has,  all these years,  been using it for the same purpose.

Concerns raised about the gum falling into the hands of the enemy.


The Sydney Morning Herald 1915.
" Australian manufacturers should use the local material,  and save the large sums that are as present going abroad.
As a great danger exists the enemy is supplied through the channel of neutral countries,  and embargo should be placed on the export of gum."


World War Two.
After the first world war exports resumed until the approach of World War Two.

1942 Grass Tree Gum prohibited to be exported.
With the German’s arming themselves for war in Europe,   in  1942 a Federal Government Proclamation prohibited Gum Tree export for the same fear and reasons as in World War One. 

Unfortunatly the harvesting method killed the plants and vast areas of were cleared, eventually Grass Tree gum was replaced by the cheaper plastic industry and the the bush was left to slowly heal from it’s wounds.





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