The production of eucalyptus oil in the 1880’s was often carried out by aborigines and by erstwhile miners as the goldfields petered out. It was hard work and very labour intensive. The virgin scrub was cut by hand with slashers and special sickles.
The eucalyptus branches and leaves were collected and carted by wagon to the distillery where the freshly cut material was dumped into vertical iron stills set into the ground below wagon level for easy filling. After steam had carried over the volatile oil the spent leaves and stick were hoisted out by derrick and dumped on the fire, whose rising column of smoke was a constant landmark.
The old distilleries were somehow kept going by pieces of wire, bits of tin, lumps of clay and the infinite resourcefulness of the true bush workman whose ramshackle buildings were made of hand hewn posts and roofed with branches of nearby trees.
Things changed after World War II. The old workers gave way to the younger generation who would no longer accept the same living conditions that had prevailed in the past.
By about 1950 the cost of producing eucalyptus oil in Australia had increased so much that the oil could no longer compete against Spanish and Portuguese oils on international markets.
The labour cost however, was not the only cause of the decline. After World War II there was a strong demand for Australian wheat and this entailed drastic destruction of stands of high quality eucalyptus species. Improved wheat strains and modern farming machinery allowed wheat to be grown successfully on land formerly suited only for eucalyptus. The class-conscious prosperous Australian wheat farmers have always been inclined to look upon eucalyptus oil production as a low grade occupation. Wheat growing appeared to be more profitable than eucalyptus oil production.
Australia dominated the world eucalyptus oil market for over 80 years. Regretfully Australia’s market share then declined. Happily the downward trend is now being reversed, at least for medicinal oils. Advances in science and technology have combined to modernise the industry.