Baling and sampling tobacco in the Maitland area of NSW (Powerhouse Museum, 55/102 Tyrrell Inventory Number, 654 Kerry Studio Number)
Baling and sampling tobacco in the Maitland area of NSW (Powerhouse Museum, 55/102 Tyrrell Inventory Number, 654 Kerry Studio Number)

Tobacco, taken in many ways including by pipe, snuff, chewing, cigars and cigarettes, has long had a hold over Sydneysiders. Nicotiana tabacum arrived with the First Fleet, but there are some plants native to Australia that contain nicotine, including pituri (Dubosia Hopwoodi), which were used by Aboriginal people. Tobacco originating from the Americas arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, and was in hot demand thereafter. Fragrant tobacco known as canasta was sourced from Brazil when the convict transports stopped there on the way to Australia.In 1818 Governor Lachlan Macquarie imposed an import duty on tobacco. This encouraged more local production. Tobacco was grown locally – John Palmer grew tobacco at his Woolloomooloo Estate – and under Macquarie, tobacco was grown penal farm Emu Plains. Later, it was grown on the floodplains of the Hawkesbury, and by the mid-19th century, tobacco was grown extensively at the Hunter Valley. But ‘Colonial leaf’ was regarded as inferior to the imported variety – it was stronger tasting and had more additives including starch, orange peel, spices and sugar.

Tobacco was used as a form of social control in the early colony. For the convict population, it was used as a reward for good behaviour and withdrawn for bad behaviour, although it was not part of the official rations.

Asian journalists visit a tobacco factory in Sydney, 1958 (National Archives of Australia, A1501, A1678/99)
Asian journalists visit a tobacco factory in Sydney, 1958 (National Archives of Australia, A1501, A1678/99)

For much of the 19th century, smoking was a largely male pursuit. Research shows that female smokers tended to be convicts or ‘rough women’. Recent excavations at the Hyde Park Barracks have revealed up to 4000 clay pipes left behind by women housed in the destitute asylum from the 1860s to the 1880s.

Label for Dixson and Sons Conqueror -Viginian Tens, 1869 (State Library of Victoria, Accession no(s) H96.160/2119) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/168215
Label for Dixson and Sons Conqueror -Viginian Tens, 1869 (State Library of Victoria, Accession no(s) H96.160/2119) http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/168215

Local manufacture of tobacco really took off in the second half of the 19th century. One of the most successful tobacco manufacturers in Sydney was Hugh Dixson, who arrived to Australia from Scotland in 1839 and opened tobacconist shop on George Street.

Dixson was a ‘strict and particular’ Baptist, meaning that he eschewed drinking and gambling, but evidently not smoking. His tobacconist business in Sydney didn’t prosper to begin with so set up shop on the goldfields. By the early 1860s, he returned to Sydney and went into partnership with his two sons – Hugh Jnr and Robert – to establish a tobacco manufactory on York Street.The Dixson family’s business was boosted by the advent of the American Civil War, which broke out in 1861. The best tobacco was grown in the southern states of America on the slave-run plantations. When the civil war broke out, there were embargos on tobacco (as well as cotton), which meant there were difficulties in getting American-grown product to Australia. This encouraged manufacturers to use locally grown tobacco.

At the same time, the NSW government imposed a lower duty on raw leaf compared to processed leaf. Somehow some raw tobacco came through to Australia, and business such as Dixson and Sons processed it locally. In 1864, the Dixson family claimed that their product was ‘imported wholly’ from America. The Dixson family specialised in ‘twist tobacco’, a labour intensive and skilled trade.

In 1884, the first excise (or tax) was imposed on tobacco in NSW. And here began the government’s uneasy relationship with tobacco which has continued to the present day – on the one hand, it has benefitted from the revenue that tobacco raised through duties and taxes, but on the other, it has been supporting an industry that is a risk to the health of the population.

Further reading:

Walker, R. B. (Robin Berwick) 1984,  Under fire : a history of tobacco smoking in Australia, Melbourne University Press ; Beaverton, OR : International Scholarly Book Services, Carlton, Vic

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