This article was prepared by Harry Gardner for Australian Tradition, [24/10/2001] and first published online in Issue 3 of Simply Australia the same year.

“Uncle Ben” was the pen name of the editor of a column in The Weekly Times.


of interest

When this article was written in 2001, Reginald’s widow, Ellen was 86 and still living in Ballarat. Together, she, her daughter Maureen and Maureen’s daughter, Sally Dennis, provided the information for this article including photos taken in 1960 and a poem by a friend, Aimee Farnsworth.

Aimee’s poem reflects the continuing competition from oil made overseas from eucalyptus trees grown from seeds which were exported in the very early days of the industry.

READ Aimee's poem.


Extracting Eucalyptus Oil


The remarkable letter from a 12 year old lad, Reginald Harvey, to the Weekly Times in 1926, marked the beginning of Reginald’s own business which continued for much of his life and provided well for his family, namely, Ellen Joseph, whom Reginald married in 1938 and their children, Norma, Maureen, Ian and John.

Reginald’s father John Reginald Tickener Harvey, was an orchardist at Lamplough, near Avoca, Victoria. The orchard still produces apples. However, a neighbour, whose name is remembered as Charlie Holland, distilled eucalyptus and probably caught Reginald’s interest. Reginald began work as a shearer until he accumulated enough capital to purchase a farm at Lamplough upon which he installed his own still, and a property, Angies, three miles away at Lilicur, from which he harvested eucalyptus leaves.

The daughter Maureen worked on the job to earn money to begin a nursing career. She remembers the excitement when a bull stood on the ajar lid of the underground vat of the still and fell through. Its two eyes peered upwards through the leaves and the hoist of the still had to be used to retrieve the animal.

The heyday of the business would probably be in the 1960’s. The oil was sold through Goodall’s shop on the Strand, Williamstown, and the business itself sold to Goodall’s in the 1970’s, when Reginald retired to become a dedicated fisherman living at Ballarat until his death in 1999.

Since the basic technology of Reginald’s operation was similar throughout his life, references to the photos on the next page have been inserted into Reginald’s letter, but the reader must allow for the dray being replaced by a motor truck and the portable steam engine by a permanent boiler.

When Sally’s son, Damon was at the Hobson’s Bay Kindergarten in Newport, the three generations, Maureen, Sally and Damon, participated in a laboratory demonstration of the distillation of eucalyptus oil from gum leaves which the kindergarten children themselves had collected. The photo on this page shows the children collecting their eucalyptus.

The Letter

Reginald Harvey, who lives at Lamplough, via Avoca, writes:

Dear Uncle Ben,

I saw in the Weekly Times that you were offering a prize for any subject published this month. I will take for my subject - “The process of extracting the eucalyptus oil from gum leaves.”

Reg and Maureeen

Well, first of all you go to a paddock where young bushes are growing, cut down a generous quantity, carry them into heaps and sickle them (i.e. cutting the leaves off the stems with a sickle). When you get a vat cut, the dray comesand your leaves are carted to the plant nearby, where they are emptied .

[Photo 1: Reginald and daughter Maureen standing by their truck loaded with eucalyptus leaves.]

The plant consists of a portable steam engine, vat, condenser and oil container . The engine has an inch pipe screwed into the upper portion of the boiler, and this pipe passes down to the bottom of the vat. The vat is made of pine and is some 8 feet deep and 4 feet in diameter. The pipe is showing in the bottom of the vat six inches.

[Photo 2:The truck under the hoist on the still.]

The truck under the hoist on the still.

The leaves are then forked into the vat and tramped down. The lid of the vat is then let down by means of a crane. This lid is very heavy as it has to stand a heavy pressure of steam. The lid is then plastered over to avoid any steam escaping. The dome is then inserted into the hole in the lid. The dome passes from the vat into the condensing pipes which are some hundreds of feet in length and under two or three feet of water (cold).

The steam is then turned on, and it passes from the vat through the through the inch pipe leading from the vat down to the bottom of the vat. It spreads right through the leaves and gradually works its way upwards. Only 20-30 pound of steam is needed. When the steam gets to the top of the vat it passes through the dome to the condensing pipes, not as it came from the vat, but with the eucalyptus with it. When the steam reaches the condensing pipes it strikes something cool, and by the time the last length of piping is reached it is cold water, and in this form it runs into the container. It is only the colour of rain water, but it is oil and water mixed.

The boiler shed.

[Photo 3:The boiler shed]

When it runs into the container, the water goes to the bottom and the eucalyptus oil floats on the surface. A thick scum forms between the water and oil and thus the water can be easily distinguished from the oil. the oil is then allowed to run off the top of the container into a kerosene time, and the water runs out the outlet pip at the bottom. The oil is then put into drums and sent to the refinery where it goes through a further process of refinement.

Age 12 years and 11 months.

You have sent an interesting letter, Reginald, and I shall be please to hear from you again.
- Uncle Ben