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Brownlee's Milling

Last Modified: 23-6-2017 15:14

In 1864 William Ross Brownlee and his family moved to Marlborough after a short period milling in the Catlins in Otago. The family already had an international name as pioneers in the sawmilling industry, owning extensive milling operations in USA, Mexico and the West Indies. On arrival in Marlborough Brownlee assembled his plant which he had brought with him from Otago and began milling first Nydia Bay, then the Kaituna Valley and Linkwater areas. His brother James who had been sent back to Europe to study circular saw technology soon returned with the new technology enabling much faster processing of logs. When an area was cut, the Brownlees moved on. By the 1870's cutting at Linkwater had ended and was now focused in the Pelorus Valley. Yet again at the forefront of technology, the Brownlees built extensive railways with steam locomotives for extracting logs and massive steam driven mills. 50 miles of railway lines were laid in total up the Pelorus Valley from Havelock, where the company's fleet of ships collected their cargoes of timber.

Through their success as timber millers Brownlee & Co also established considerable political influence. No unions or strikes were tolerated and even mass public discontent did little to deter them from their business activities. In one such instance in 1898, 4000 people in the Nelson Marlborough district signed a petition requiring the setting aside of the Ronga, Turakine and Opouri valleys for a wildlife sanctuary. Brownlee & Co organised the other sawmillers and their workers to sign a counter petition which although only gained 900 signatures, resulted in the granting of milling rights to those areas.

By the second decade of the 20th century Brownlee & Co had both lost their monopoly status in Marlborough and furthermore areas suitable for large scale milling had dried up. As was the Brownlee's custom they packed up and transferred to Westland where logging opportunities were still good.

Throughout Marlborough today it is possible to see evidence of Brownlee & Co.'s reign as logging giant. Large tracts of previously forested land now showing little trace of the dense lowland forest that once clothed them and the occasional rusting relic of the era is still visible, but perhaps the Brownlee's greatest contribution to Marlborough often goes unnoticed. Many schools and other public facilities around the Havelock Pelorus Valley region were funded almost exclusively the family.

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