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The men who built Marian Mill

by Danielle Jesser

These 67 men laboured through an unseasonably hot and dry 1926 to complete a major expansion of Marian Sugar Mill in time for the crush.

Each lined face tells a story of hard work, some wearing shirts with rolled-up sleeves and others in singlets showing off muscled upper bodies.


Some have a cigarette; one a pipe, another a large spanner and many stand or sit with the obligatory hat in hand or at their feet. Only one has a waistcoat and tie.

These are the faces of “Barbat’s men” recruited by an Ipswich-based engineering firm appointed to expand Marian Mill.

In 1925 Marian Central Mill shareholders agreed to install a modern crushing plant and additional equipment to cope with the extra juice the new crushing plant would produce.

Their decision followed four years of lobbying by the mill’s manager Mr J O’Neil to convince the directors his “big mill proposal” would be profitable for farmers and the company.

The directors agreed to build a larger mill capable of crushing 100,000 tons of cane and more, however the mill’s bankers were less enthusiastic and refused to finance the deal, concerned about the mortgage owing on the existing equipment.

“What will happen,” wrote the bank manager to the directors, “if the new mills are not installed in time or the ship bringing them is sunk, or they are otherwise lost?”.

The Engineering Supply Company of Australia (ESCA) in Brisbane instead financed the deal and three 6ft mills with steam engines and ancillary equipment were ordered for $85,000 from Fletcher and Co in England, a firm founded in 1830 to manufacture sugar milling machinery for the West Indies.

Seven weeks after placing the order, the machinery arrived.


Felix Edward Barbat, Ipswich, ca, 1920.

Image courtesy of Picture Ipswich

The appointment of Barbat and Sons followed and was no doubt influenced by their recent successful work in erecting the Tully Sugar Mill.


The work was supervised by mill manager Mr O’Neil. The Daily Mercury of May 1926 reports the old crushing plant was removed in January and a month later excavation of the foundations for the new plant started.

The solid concrete foundations for the crushing plant and engines were 8ft deep and 4ft above ground.

Other work during the slack included erection of a new sugar room and demolition of the main building of the mill and replacing it with a steel structure.

Work progressed quickly and on June 10, 1926, a trial run of the new crushing plant was a success.

“A trial was made throughout the day and the massive machinery ran without a hitch, as the huge fly wheels commenced to revolve not a sound was heard beyond a dull rumble as the cogs meshed and set in motion the heavy crushing mills,” the Daily Mercury reported.

“It was a successful consummation of a big undertaking and if the initial run can be taken as an augury of future operations the mill should have a very prosperous future.”

A contingent of “commercial men and others” from Mackay journeyed to Marian to see the trial run.

The group then visited the laboratory where “a number of felicitous speeches were made in connection with the work of the installation and the harmonious manner in it was carried out”.

Mr Barbat Senior paid tribute to the work of his son Bart and proposed a toast to the health of the mill manager Mr O’Neil, who returned the toast, and praised the amicable working relationship saying not one cross word passed between them.

The photo

As part of the celebration a professional photographer was sent to Marian to photograph the workmen.


After poring over the photo with a magnifying glass and leafing through a photo album, cousins Kathryn Celata and Kerry Bonaventura identified their grandfather Arthur Carr Price.

Kathryn donated the photo to the Mackay Historical Society after finding it while sorting out the family home in Melbourne following her father’s death last year.

“I happened to go through my bedroom and in the corner of a cupboard was this photo. At first I thought it was rubbish, but when I turned it over and saw it was this photo I was amazed,” she said.

She can’t remember it displayed in the family home.

Kathryn said she had no hesitation about returning the photo to Mackay.

“I don’t want it to deteriorate further, it’s got to be shared with everybody. It was important for me to get the photo back to where it belongs, in in Mackay, rather than in Melbourne where it won’t be recognised. All these men, and their families, someone may recognise them,” she said.

Kerry too is happy for the community to have access to the photo.

“There’s a lot of pride in that photo, it would have been a big project at the time, and to be all employed was a bonus in those times as some people weren’t. I’d imagine a lot were locals, and we hope that some people will recognise them,” Kerry said.

Their grandfather Arthur, also known as Jack, worked as an engineer at the mill until his retirement aged 75. Both women remember touring the mill with him when they were very young.

Kathryn grew up in Melbourne but came to Mackay to spend holidays with her cousins, always visiting their grandparents at Nabilla. Their fathers were among 10 children born to Arthur and Priscilla.

She recalls cane fields all around and running bare foot in the soft dirt after the ground was ploughed.

Kerry, who grew up at Slade Point, was a regular visitor to Nabilla.

“Gran and Pop had a little land holding on Kennys Rd and the Walz family grew cane around them,” she said.

Their paternal grandfather was born in Blackwater, England, and served with the Royal Tank Regiment in World War 1 before emigrating to Australia.

“Pop always said he was a friendly alien and a 10-pound Pom,” Kerry said.

Arthur Price arrived in Perth and came across to Melbourne, before moving to Maffra in east Gippsland where he worked at a sugar beet factory. From there he made his way to Queensland where he was issued with an engineering ticket.

In Mackay, Arthur married Priscilla Poulson and worked at Marian Mill until he retired aged 75. Kerry hadn’t seen photo before.

“It was amazing to relate to it because we always knew Pop was in the mill, but we didn’t know his story was any deeper than that,” she said.

Both have many treasured memories of their Pop, and today even the terrifying requirement for a small child to be silent during the 7pm ABC news, brings a smile to their faces.

Do you recognise anyone in the photo? 





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