TABMA History – Timber Tally

Timber History


By Alicia Oelkers, General Manager Member Services, TABMA Australia


The timber industry has a long history in Australia, starting with our Nation’s First People who used different species of timber for different artifacts and building materials. Then when the first fleet landed, one of the first things they did was look for timber to build houses and barracks and repair their wooden ships.

Through colonisation, Sydney particularly has an important place in our history. In the late 1800s many sawmills opened along Pyrmont’s shores processing the coastal trees.

It did not take Australia long to start importing timber as well consuming domestic supply. Prior to WW1, there was a small band of timber merchants who were operating mainly from Sydney waterfront yards. Logs that were imported were loose which was off-loaded from the ship’s hatches and decks onto colour coded lighters (barges), generally owned by the merchants. Shipping companies employed stevedoring labour required to effectively discharge the timber and merchants sent their representatives to the ship to oversee the unloading to ensure the correct marks were loaded onto their respective lighters. The logs were then milled in the merchant’s yards. Loose sawn timber was also being imported.

After WWI, as the result of a post-war boom in the building industry, the number of timber merchants importing timber grew and the current system that was in use was no longer efficient. There were problems handling loose timber. A meeting with the Sydney and Suburban Timber Merchant’s Association resulted in Tally Co. being formed. The new company was responsible for tallying timber in the ship’s hatches, supervision of the marks onto the correct lighters and lodging a timber outturn for each ship with the Customs Department relieving the Merchant of this task. The ‘Tally clerk’ was employed on a casual basis by Tally Co. They recorded all the timber pieces according to length and dimension and each shipment was costed individually.

During the depression years between the World Wars, the Government duty on the import of logs was eased and consequently, Australia saw Douglas Fir and Hemlock began flowing into Sydney. By the end of WWII, log shipments from America finished and instead sawn timber was imported. This was an important era for Timber Tally and TABMA.

After WWII there was a huge boom in building. This also saw the innovations of what was known as ‘timber substitutes’ such as asbestos cement (fibro). The building industry was also adopting power tools and eventually pre-cutting roof trusses. Large builders became more common and subcontracting evolved. Even though there were ‘timber substitutes’ the Timber Merchants were still an integral part of the building industry because apart from providing materials and short-term credit, they were and still are today a necessity and source of technical information for builders.

In 1940, Fred Kelly was working on the waterfront. It did not take long for the timber merchants to recognise Fred’s worth and asked him to devise a new system for tallying and distributing the ever-growing timber volumes coming into Sydney harbour. Fred agreed to help and kicked off Timber Tallying Pty Ltd (a division of TABMA). At this point, Timber Co.’s responsibility ended once the timber was on the lighters. There, Merchants were still responsible for sending the lighters to the ship and they only worked daylight business hours and unloaded when it suited them. This was costing the shipping companies a lot of money while the ship was docked waiting to be unloaded. Fred assessed the situation and noted that the ships ‘marks’ had all the timber in lots e.g., Hudsons’ timber was on top, then Eatons’ was on the bottom. Fred decided on a bold move and told the shipping companies, when loading the timber, ‘mix it’. He was asked ‘if he was sure’, and he said ‘yes’. So, the next shipment was loaded a lot faster as they did not have to differentiate the timber according to their ‘mark’. Fred then approached all the merchants and told them that the timber was coming mixed. The ship arrived and Timber Tally unloaded the timber onto the lighters and took it all to land. Instead of the ship in harbour for 5 days, it was in in 1 ½ days. Once the timber was on land, Timber Tally then sorted the timber and rang the merchant when their timber was sorted and ready for pick up.

By the late 1940s almost all of the imported timber was softwood and originated from Canada and United States and accounted for ¼ of wood consumption in Australia. This was mostly used for framing and almost entirely distributed to the builders by merchants.

Between 1945 and 1953, sawmills in Australia doubled due to the increase in demand and mill permits granted by the government. Similar timber 1944-1945 and 1951-52, timber imports more than quadrupled.

Early 1950s saw timber ‘substitutes’ making serous inroads into merchants’ businesses and the 1.77 billion super feet of timber that was consumed in 1951-1952 was not matched again until 1959-1960.

In the 1970s, early methods of handling timber were changing. The wharf at Rozelle Bay was no longer required for the coastal hardwood trade and became available for Timber Tally’s use. Fred approached the shipping company to move to Rozelle Bay at the shipping companies’ costs, which included the transportation to the yards. They clearly saw the saving by not unloading in Sydney Harbour and agreed, covering all costs. The Waterside Workers’ Federation objected to the change however the Arbitration Court brought down a judgment in favour of Timber Tally to commence its new method of handling.

1973 saw the employment of Fred’s son Kevin who later took over the management of Timber Tally. In the late 1970s timber was now not only being imported from North America, but also New Zealand. This continued for 10 years until the industry started importing timber in a container.

After 48 years, in 1988, Fred Kelly retired. He had a large send off at Cockatoo Island. TABMA named one of the steel barges after him, calling it “Fred Kelly”. It is still in Sydney Harbour today.

The next major change in Timber Tally’s history was the end of the ‘lighter’ system. In September 1991, Kevin decided that it was too expensive to run. The ship pulled into No.16 Pyrmont and instead of unloading onto a barge, they put the timber straight onto the wharf and then forklifted the timber to the yard. This was a successful endeavour and saved $1.70 per 100 super feet. This also was an integral saving to TABMA.

The early 2000s, Kevin then changed where the timber arrived. Instead of the ships arriving in Sydney, they arrived in Port Kembla. When they did this, Timber Tally broke handling records and the ship moved a lot faster. They only downside was the extra transport costs to the timber yards, but TABMA subsidised this.

With less and less loose timber arriving and more and more containers arriving, on 18th March 2018, after 78 years of operation under TABMA, Timber Tally closed.

I caught up with Kevin Kelly only recently, and there were many more stories that could be told like TABMA leasing a vessel to ship cargo from New Zealand to Australia and owning their own lighters, but I would be here all day re-telling them (which by the way I wouldn’t mind doing at all!). But as far as TABMA is concerned, Timber Tally was an integral part of our history and we owe a lot to the success of the business due to the Kelly family and their teams.

Timber History