Vicars Woollen Mill
A trip down memory lane to unveil the history of the site that is now home to Marrickville Metro.
John Vicars Senior was born in Scotland in 1821 and was apprenticed to a tweed manufacturer before emigrating to Australia with his wife Ann and their young family of seven in 1863. After trying his luck on the Queensland goldfields he moved to Sydney and returned to his former trade, becoming manager of a tweed mill in Sussex Street Sydney, before becoming owner of the mill in 1873.
In 1876 John Senior was employing over 100 people, half of which were children, some as young as 10. He was consequently requested to give his opinion to the colonial New South Wales parliament regarding the employment of children. He said that to his knowledge children were being paid a better hourly rate in the colony than in England but that he favoured the English model of only allowing children under eight to work no more than six hours a day instead of the full 12 hours which he believed affected their health and their education.
John Vicars retired in 1887, leaving the running of the business to his three sons, John Junior, Robert and William. While Robert and William had worked with their father, John Junior was more enterprising, setting up his wool brokerage firm with offices in Circular Quay and Botany. Upon succeeding his father, John Junior sold his own business and, in 1893, moved the family’s woollen mill to a nine-acre site on Victoria Road Marrickville to what the newspapers described as: a picturesque part of the district contiguous to a well-improved public park. Its presence is denoted by a massively constructed chimney stack, which rises from a clump of some of the finest specimens of the Moreton Bay fig tree that are to be seen in New South Wales. John Vicars Senior died at his Ashfield home in 1894.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, John Vicars and Co. boasted they were the biggest woollen mill in Australia with over 200 employees and 27 modern electric looms that were capable of producing a greater output than the 40 looms they replaced.
At the outbreak of World War I, Vicars won the tender to produce uniforms for military training and consequently boosted their number of employees to over 400 in 1911. The company continued to be allied with the Australian military during World War II, boosting their employees by a further 1000.
Vicars was popularly an employer of women in the local area. The company claimed that this was because women were more akin to the textile industry and also had smaller hands which were more suitable for the intricate work of spinning and weaving. In all likelihood, however, women were primarily employed at Vicars as their pay was half that of men.
John Vicars Junior was knighted in 1924 and retired in 1929. He died of a heart attack while driving across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on 28th February 1936, aged 78.
Vicars Woollen Mills merged with Australian Woollen Mills in 1967 and continued to operate until being unable to compete with imports in 1976. The site became the Marrickville Metro Shopping Centre, which opened in 1987.