159-179 Heidelberg Rd Northcote

Hat Mills

The McCrohan Hat Factory first opened in 1906 on the current site of 159-179 Heidelberg Rd Northcote. They specialised in felt and fur hats. It was opened by Thomas John McCrohan. The factory was renamed Fairfield Hat Mills when Thomas John McCrohan had joined with Thomas Bardsley to form the company McCrohan & Bardsley Pty Ltd.   

In 1919 the hat mills was nearly destroyed by a fire that broke out in the drying and engine room. 1920 was a difficult year for the Fairfield Hat Mills as well. In August of 1920, 14 year old Edward Corneille died in an accident at the mills. In September of the same year, the female workers in mills across the state were disputing their low wages by stopping work. In a dispute between the Federated Felt Hatting Employees' Union and the felt hat manufacturers, the issue of imported hats competing with locally produced hats and tariffs was given as a reason for not increasing wages.   

By 1923, Thomas Bardsley had left the factory and it was owned by McCrohan & Sons Pty Ltd. In 1925 Fairfield Hat Mills joined with eleven other felt hat mill companies to form the United Felt Hats Pty Ltd in a way to combat competition from Italy. This proved effective as in 1929 members of the Victorian Provincial Press Association praised the 'superior product' of the Fayrefield fur hat produced in the Fairfield mill.   

By 1935 the United Felt Hats Pty Ltd company moved to Abbotsford and the Fink Brothers took over the building and began manufacturing “worsted mills” which is a way to make wool. In 1940, the factory bid farewell to its textile past and became Spry’s corn flakes factory. 

From Cornflakes to Beaufort gun turrets

The Beaufort was a twin-engine aircraft designed for torpedo or bomb carrying and produced by the Bristol Aeroplane Company Ltd. At the start of World War 2 these aircraft were made with both local and imported parts. As the war progressed, the plane had to be manufactured entirely from materials and components sourced within Australia, and so the Beaufort Bomber became the first purely Australian-built aircraft.  

The manufacturing and production processes were spread across three states, with 600 companies involved in what must have been an extraordinary logistical feat. The heavier manufacturing processes took place in selected railway workshops.   

A factory in Fairfield also played an important part of this project.  

Shortage of gun turrets and armaments from overseas led to the development of a gun turret annexe in Fairfield. The Department of Aircraft Production (DAP) selected a factory building located at 159 Heidelberg Road, Fairfield which was producing Cornflakes breakfast cereals before the start of the war.  

Work began on the gun turrets at the Fairfield plant in the expectation it would take up to 2 years to produce the first locally manufactured turret, but this was achieved in 6 months.  

An article in The Age explains that of the total work force across Melbourne working on the Beaufort planes, over 80% were men and women without previous factory experience. Training centres in NSW and Victoria ‘converted butchers, bakers, clerks, hairdressers and even women who had no experience beyond household duties into efficient units on the production line’.  

The men and women who are building Beauforts come from the stage, the circus tent, the bake house and the bar room. The division employs a pastry cook who helps to make ship busters now instead of doughnuts’.  

In 1944 The Age mentions distinguished service awards for pilots in the South West Pacific area and asks the question, ‘How many people recall that these Australian airmen won distinction while serving in Australian- built machines? The story of the planning and building of Australia’s great fighting plane, the Beaufort, is one of which every Australian may well be as proud, as are the men and women who turn out these famous machines’.  

During the war years the Fairfield factory increased its range not only to different types of turrets but also undercarriage support beams and hydraulic components for other aircraft.  

At the end of the war and with a reduction in the manufacturing of aircraft, the operations at Fairfield were stripped back, but DAP staff were still working at the building in some capacity for several years later according to street directories.  

The building is now operating as a self-storage facility. Hat Mills
Advertising (1914, March 26). Labor Call , p. 7
Advertising (1929, January 28). Northern Star, p. 9
A Great Australian Industry (1929, December 31). Camperdown Chronicle, p. 4
Boy caught in belting (1920, August 23). The Herald, p. 8
Brigade Saves Hat Mills (1919, August 29). The Herald, p. 5
Dispute at Hat Mills (1920, September 27), The Herald, p. 9
Fairfield Hat Mills Pty Ltd. (2016). In Trove. Retrieved July 16, 2020, from https://nla.gov.au/nla.party-1681843
Fatality at Hat Mills (1920, August 16). The Age, p. 8
Felt Hatter's Dispute (1921, March 23). The Age, P. 11
Hat Manufacturers' Combine (1925, May 29). The Daily Telegraph, p. 1.
United Felt Hats Pty. Ltd. Manufacturers factory warehouse complex.
Retrieved July 16, 2020, from https://vhd.heritagecouncil.vic.gov.au/places/93568 Sands and McDougall’s Melbourne and Suburban Directory 1864- 1974. [Microfiche]. (1974). Melbourne, Australia: Sands & McDougall.

Cornflakes and Gun turrets

Butlin, Sydney J. (1977). War Economy 1942-1945. AWM digitized collection
Page, Charles. (2008). Wings of Destiny. Rosenberg Publishing.
Sands and McDougall’s Melbourne and Suburban Directory 1864-1974. Melbourne, Australia: Sands & McDougall.
Advertisement for Spry's Cornflakes. The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) Monday 19th August 1940 
Advertisement for Department of Aircraft Production. Argus (Melbourne, Vic: 1848 - 1957), Saturday 9 September 1944, page 21
Advertisement for Department of Aircraft Production. Argus (Melbourne, Vic: 1848-1957), Monday 30 March 1942, page 12
Advertisement for Department of Aircraft Production. The Argus (Melbourne, Vic: 1848 - 1957) Monday 30th March 1942 
Beaufort Torpedo Bombers. The Age (Melbourne, Vic: 1854 – 1954), Saturday 1 January 1944, page 5
Reduced aircraft production: 15,000 dismissals by March: Argus (Melbourne, Vic: 1848-1957), Saturday 17 November 1945, page 3.
Australian War Memorial images collection