Launceston's Coats Patons celebrates reunion

During the golden era of the nation’s booming wool export industry there was a saying; Australia rides on the sheep’s back.

For about 75 years in few places was that saying more accurate than in Launceston.

From the late 1800s to the mid-1900s, the nation was in the golden era of fleece.  

Like working ants in a nest, thousands of employees descended on the steel gates of Coats Patons’ Launceston mill in the 1960s to earn their living.

From the sheep to the packaging, the entire wool process featured inside the square factory.

It was the largest mill of its type in the southern hemisphere.

At its peak in 1967, 2247 employees spent their days in the imposing brick factory on Thistle Street.

Paton and Baldwin was founded by entrepreneurs James Baldwin and John Paton in the late 1700s to produce spinning yarn for knitting machines.

In the 1960s the company became Coats Patons after a merger with J & P Coates of Glasgow.

Like the machines in the factory, the manufacturing industry seemed to carry on without much bother.

But by 1982, the majority of the 1967 workforce had been retrenched and only 604 employees remained.

In 1997, after 75 years of operation, the machines fell silent for the final time.

Like many people in Launceston, the closure of Coats Patons signalled the end of an era for Avery Harwood.

For more than 40 years his father and uncle had worked on the building’s timber floors.

In the factory’s dying days, Mr Harwood and his wife had called Coats Patons their second home, and the employees their family.

But as quality became less important to consumers, work dried up.

In early 1997 Mr Harwood and his pregnant wife, along with hundreds of other workers, were made redundant.

“We thought our whole world had ended,” Mr Harwood recalled. 

These days the large brick factory can still be seen on the hill from many parts of the city.

Several businesses occupy the floor space, but the building’s largest tenant is the Door of Hope Church. 

Two decades on, the wool mill’s closure still draws sadness from the Mr Harwood. 

At his home, a room is filled with photos, pamphlets and memories of the old Coats Patons building and its faces.

Mr Harwood predicted there were several hundred people in Tasmania who feel the same sense of sadness when reminiscing about the Coats Patons’ life.

To quell that feeling of loss, Mr Harwood has organised a reunion for employees and anybody with a connection to the old site.

“I wanted people from all the years to come for one last look,” he said. 

Since announcing the reunion plan earlier this year, Mr Harwood has been inundated with stories and excitement ahead of the event.

“There are people ringing me up who are in their 80s and 90s, and even a 100-year-old lady from a home; she got in contact and said she wants to go if she’s still kicking,” he laughed.

 “People that knew their mum or dad worked there say they never got to go there – and they want to come along too.”

The prices at the Coats Patons cafeteria.

The prices at the Coats Patons cafeteria.

Mr Harwood, who worked at the factory for 11 years, acknowledged its importance to the benefit and prosperity of the city.

“It was a factory that’s probably built half of Launceston,” he said.  

“So many people worked there and built their family homes and created work and money in the industry and in Launceston.

“Pretty much everyone in Launceston had a family member that worked at Coats Patons.”

There was no better evidence of comradeship than the annual competitive Sports Meetings for employees.

The event ran for decades and featured everything from spoon races for the kids to a 100-metre sprint for the serious adults. 

The factory also operated the Patons & Baldwins Soccer Club, which played in the Northern Premier League. 

After a generation of family members working inside its walls, Mr Harwood was there almost right to the end.

He recalled noticing the writing was on the wall several years before its closure. 

“The demise of it all became apparent after I’d been there five years, they were slowly putting people off and the work wasn’t there,” he said. 

The global trend towards cheaper fabric and lower quality was beginning to bite at the wool mill. 

“People were buying jumpers from Japan, or Kmart,” Mr Harwood said.

“Back then everyone’s mothers or sisters knitted jumpers, that sort of thing slowly deteriorated.

“Now you just go buy a jumper for $8 to $10 and you’d throw it out after winter – whereas if you knitted a jumper it would last you 10 years or more.”

Writing on the wall 

By 1980 the nation’s booming wool export industry was on a downhill spiral.

Mr Harwood said poor management at the factory had contributed to the speed of its demise.

“They retrenched or retired a lot of the older managers who knew the place inside-out and knew all the formulas and techniques,” he said. 

A battle with management climaxed after closure plans were announced in 1997– with 175 workers walking off the job to protest payout arrangements.

“They were going to close the place down and they wanted to not give us a very good payout,” Mr Harwood said. 

Management proposed two weeks’ pay for every year of work, but workers wanted four weeks per year.

“We had bands there and we had people singing, campfires and 24 hours round-the-clock there were people there,” he said of the picket line protest 20 years ago.

“Everyone banded together to get what we wanted because people had been paid out that before.

“We thought it was just fair enough we were treated the same.”

In the end the protest was successful, but the factory doors closed. 

It was a bittersweet victory for the Harwood family.

“It’s sad because it was such a big place and a big part of my life and a big part of the lives of everyone who worked there,” he said. 

“It was such a great place to work.

“Everyone helped each other out – you don’t get that anymore – it was great.”

The Coats Patons reunion will be held on October 14 at noon at the old factory, now the Door of Hope Church – at the main entrance off Glen Dhu Street.

Mr Harwood hoped people would be able to walk through parts of the old factory and reminisce with old photos.

He said there would not be food and drinks organised, but a cafe would be open.

“It’s just going to be a giant get together – a look at the photos and people can just have a talk – catch up with their old workmates, because it will probably never happen again,” he added.

“I miss the place and a lot of other people would too, and hopefully a lot of people come along on the day of the reunion and have a bit of a look.”