Alexandra Sugar Mill

1868 - 1884

Alexandra Mill circa 1870's. (picture courtesy of National Library of Australia )

Thomas Henry Fitzgerald selected a 1242 acre block flanking the alluvial plains on the southern banks of the Pioneer River.  The block had a two mile long river frontage and extended south to the road to Nebo.  Fitzgerald named the plantation "Alexandra" which was the name he had originally selected for the township that became Mackay.  Fitzgerald had planted a small plot of sugar cane in River Street in late 1865 and more at the plantation at Alexandra.

John Ewen Davidson had arrived in the Mackay district after gaining experience in the sugar industry in the West Indies.  He investigated the Mackay area but decided to commence a plantation in the Cardwell area named "Bellenden Plains" but gave up after six months of enduring hardship and loneliness.  He arrived back to the Mackay area on 8 February 1867 and shortly after signed an agreement giving him half interest in the Alexandra plantation.

The mill site was selected on 26 July 1867 and work began in late 1867 preparing the plant for the machinery.  The first machinery arrived by ship on 20 March 1868 and the mill commenced its first crushing on 15 September 1868 becoming the second mill in the district to commence crushing. After crushing ceased on 18th November, 230 tons of sugar had been made.

The mill at the time being the largest mill in the colony consisted of three rollers each four feet long and two feet in diameter.  The machinery had been assembled, adjusted and set up under the supervision of John Dow, engineer and was constructed by George Fletcher and Company of London. The Gadston pans were made in Sydney. Two South Sea Islanders were engaged in feeding the cane into the rollers.  The expressed juice was then poured into a large pan and was strained to remove the refuse cane and dirt.  The juice then ran through guttering to an underground vat where a force fed pump fed the juice to three five hundred gallon clarifiers.  Here the juice was heated using exhaust steam from the engine driving the crushing mill.  Once the juice was suitable concentrated, lime was added for clarification, the scum arising being raked off and used in the rum still which was an integral part of the plant.

The juice was then run from the clarifiers to four copper pans and two taches, termed as a "double tache battery" where the juice was boiled in a series of iron pans, heated by the same fire which powered the multi-tubular boiler and the small Cornish boiler.  A giant "dipper" suspended from a crane, was used to ladle the boiled juice into three syrup receivers.  The dipper had a one way valve so that it could be filled by simply lowering it gently into the hot syrup.

After the syrup was sufficiently granulated, a valve was opened and the syrup flowed along guttering into large iron vats sunk into the ground where it was cooled for 48 hours.  Each of the seven coolers held three tons.  The solid mass was then dug out, placed in centrifugals 42 inches in diameter, and spun at 800 to 1200 revolutions per minute by a small donkey engine.  The molasses thus separated off  was run into either of two 6,000 gallon tanks, ready for making rum while the sugar, after being carried in trays to the curing rooms, was bagged and stacked, ready to be exported.

The distillery comprised a 1200 gallon copper still built on Dunder's principle, oak butts of 2000 and 3500 gallons to hold the rum before casking, and a fermenting room with eight vats each holding 1000 gallons.

An extra battery was erected after the first season to accelerate the manufacture of the sugar. The second crushing lasted from 2 August to 11 December 1869.  The final output for the season was 255 tons of sugar and 7000 gallons of rum.

In 1873, Davidson introduced  a new system for clarification at Alexandra.  Fumes of burning sulphur were bubbled through the juice as it travelled from the rollers to the clarifiers.  It was based on the same chemical principle as the monosulphite process. The sulpher process with open pan boiling was used at Alexandra until 1879 when a large vacuum pan and new boiler were erected, increasing the mill's capacity to 700 tons in a season.

The Melbourne Mackay company of which Davidson was a director, later took over the Alexandra mill and plantation. It was announced in September 1884 that the Alexandra Mill would close and crushing be taken over by the newly constructed Palms mill about a mile to the northwest of Alexandra. Old machinery and increased labour costs forced the demise of the mill which had led the sugar boom which made Mackay the dominant sugar producing district in Australia.

The location where the mill was located was subdivided and now has residences built over the original site of the mill.

References -

Kerr, John. (1980).  Pioneer Pageant. Mackay, QLD: Pioneer Shire Council. p. 27-31, 57, 72, 83, 85-86, 99.

Manning, K.W. (1983). In Their Own Hands. Farleigh, QLD: Farleigh Co-op Milling Association Ltd. p. 16, 17, 21, 64, 150.

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Glen Hall

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