Castlemaine authors' silk yarn draws attention to pioneering woman

Two Castlemaine authors hope to draw attention to the forgotten efforts of a 19th century silk producer who brought the trade to Australia and transformed ten acres of Mt Alexander into a mulberry plantation.

Ian Braybrook and Marilyn Bennet’s new book Sarah’s Search – A Silk Odyssey explores the life and work of industry pioneer Sarah Florentia Bladen Neill.

Mrs Bladen Neill transformed her late-husband’s Corowa district land into a mulberry plantation to feed silkworms.

The ruins of her operation at Mt Alexander still stand 140 years after her central Victorian operation went bust, though Mr Braybrook said the mulberry trees had disappeared. 

The ruins of a farmstead once used by a silkworm pioneer. Picture: SUPPLIED

The ruins of a farmstead once used by a silkworm pioneer. Picture: SUPPLIED

The book looks at Mrs Bladen Niell’s life and work, beginning with her move from the UK and her experimentation with sericulture in Victoria.

Mr Braybrook said the Mt Alexander operation was established in 1874 as part of a bold plan to grow the industry, but was stymied by a dodgy land elevator, a bad climate and a government that refused to take Mrs Bladen Neill seriously.

“Reading between the lines I think that was because she was a woman and the government saw silkworms as a bit of a fantasy. They were treating her with contempt,” he said.

Sarah Florentia Bladen Neill. Picture: SUPPLIED

Sarah Florentia Bladen Neill. Picture: SUPPLIED

“She was on the right track, though. In Europe the silkworm industry had been devastated by disease and she saw the opportunity to move into their market. If people had listened there would have been no reason why Australia would not have a thriving industry today.”

While Mrs Bladen Neill had success in other parts of the state, the Mt Alexander venture only lasted three years.

A specialist from Geelong had declared the land an ideal location for mulberry trees despite never leaving his office, Mr Braybrook said.

The land proved too hot in summer and too cold in winter for the trees to thrive. Their leaves and bark were stripped by possums and other wildlife.

By 1877 Mrs Bladen Neill had moved remaining trees back to the Corowa district.

“There’s not a trace of them now, not even a single twig,” Mr Braybrook said.

The remaining building ruins had been heritage listed. Mr Braybrook said efforts were underway to have a Corowa property heritage listed too.

The book can be purchased from local bookshops including Castlemaine’s Stonman’s Bookroom and Kyneton’s Aesops Attic. It can also be purchased direct from the authors by emailing ianandmazza@gmail.com