Phillip Island & District Historical Society

The Chicory Industry on Phillip Island

Last updated on 15-Sep-22

100 Years of Chicory Growing at Phillip Island, by Stanley Joseph McFee, chicory grower, Rhyll, Phillip Island., Self-published 1976



To the observant coffee drinker the word chicory may be familiar from the label on the Coffee Essence bottle, or a tin of Rickory.  However, the tiny and compact industry which supplied this commodity received little public attention, and this was understandable, yet despite its smallness the chicory industry had many interesting features.


Chicory was first grown on Phillip Island in 1870, and the first two or three years was shipped green and taken to Melbourne by Captain John Lock in his ketch, John and Elizabeth.  In 1878, the first chicory kiln was built by Messrs. John and Solomon West, in Thompson Avenue, Cowes, near the Esplanade.   A coloured photo can be seen in the Historical Society Museum, Cowes.


Owing to there being more chicory grown than one kiln could handle, a second kiln was built in 1880 by Mr Joseph Richardson.  So important did the industry become that by 1920 there were at least 25 kilns erected on the Island.


In 1881, there were 231 acres of chicory grown yielding 960 tons (1 ton = 1.016 tonne).  The anticipated return in 1883 was expected to be 1203 tons over all areas growing chicory in Victoria.  The areas growing chicory and estimated returns were as follows:-


            Phillip Island 501,  Avon 200,  Bacchus Marsh 200,  Bairnsdale 60,  Romsey 164,

            Metcalf 24,  Rosedale 12,  Shepparton 40,  Warragul 2 tons.


At this early time and up to 1885, chicory was harvested or dug out of the ground with picks.  About 1884, Mr Duncan McGregor thought of the idea of making a tool with a blade 1½ inches – 4 cm – wide shaped like a spade which he called a “chicory devil”.  This implement was used until 1930.  Then a single furrow plough drawn by two horses was used to lift the root of the chicory which did away with the hard work of digging every root.  With mechanization the crop was then lifted with a ripper attached to a tractor which made the harvesting of crops much easier.


Weather permitting the chicory seed was sown from mid September to the end of October.  Approximately 3 to 5 cwt – 152 to 254 kg - of super-phosphate to the acre was disc or harrowed into the soil prior to planting.  The standard variety of seed used was “Brunswick”.  The worst pests which had to be dealt with was the lucern flea and the red legged earth mite which attacked the young plants as they appeared through the soil.  The only way to ensure that the crops were given a good start was to scatter super-phosphate and lindane all over the sown area at the rate of 1 cwt – 50.8 kg - to the acre.


The leaf of the chicory is dark green and the root resembles a parsnip.  Harvesting commenced in mid April or early May.  Following the root of the chicory being dug out, it was topped, bagged and taken to the kiln to be washed.  It was then put through a cutting machine which cut into slices.  From the cutter it was carried on an elevator to the drying floor, which was a heavy wire gauze floor set about 10 feet – 3.4 metres – above a wood burning furnace.  The heat, which for the first three or four hours was intense, was gradually reduced as the moisture dried out.  The average time required to dry, what was known locally as a floor comprising approximately 50 bags of the sliced green root, was about 24 hours.  Between 2½ and 3 tons of wood was needed to dry 1 ton of the kiln dried root.


After the chicory was dried it was bagged and sent to Melbourne to the Chicory Marketing Board for sale.  It was purchased by the tea and coffee merchants, who roasted the chicory again, and later put it through a kibbling machine which broke it into small pieces.  It was then ready to be blended with coffee beans and made into coffee essence, or grounded into powder to be blended with coffee.


Chicory contains medicinal properties, relatively high in sugar and counteracts the drug caffeine in the coffee bean.  Doctors and Dieticians spoke highly of its health giving properties.


The chicory industry reached its peak during the 1940’s when over 75% of Australia’s requirement was grown in the Western Port area.  On Phillip Island, French Island and in Corinella and Grantville districts, there were 164 growers, who were partly or wholly dependant on this crop for their livelihood.  A good annual rainfall, almost free from frosts and apparently some local soil peculiarity, made this area most suitable for chicory production.  Some believed that proximity to the sea was an advantage in some way.  The other 25% of Australia’s requirement was produced at Rendelsham in South Australia, although production in that State was on the decline.


CHICORY MARKETING BOARD:  In 1934, when the price of chicory had fallen far below a payable price, it was decided by a majority of growers to form a voluntary pool and sell from the pool at  ₤45 per ton.  The merchants refused to pay this price and consequently not an ounce of chicory was sold for two years; by this time most of the growers were virtually insolvent.


In desperation three representatives were sent to Melbourne to talk to the Parliamentary Member, Mr Alf Kirton, MLA., who was most sympathetic.  He mentioned the growers difficulties to the then Minister of Agriculture in the Dunstan Government, Mr Ned Hogan, who had brought a Bill down in the House titled “The Marketing of Primary Product Act”.


Mr Hogan and Mr Kirton travelled to Cowes to meet and discuss the plight of the chicory growers.  Mr Hogan explained the Bill to the growers and advised that a petition be presented to the Government declaring chicory a commodity under the Act.  This was carried out and chicory became the first Primary Product to come under the Act.


In April 1936, the Chicory Marketing Board was constituted with two representatives from the growers and one Government Nominee appointed.  All chicory grown in Victoria had to be vested in the Board.  This scheme proved so successful that the South Australian growers also used the services of the Victorian Marketing Board.


At the first meeting of the Board, Mr Rupert Harris of Phillip Island was elected Chairman and held the office for more than 34 years, which spoke well for his ability and honesty of purpose.


Production of chicory in 1945 was 50 tons Phillip Island, 200 tons French Island and Corinella, 250 tons Rendelsham and returned  ₤55 per ton to the growers.


In 1956 a request was made by the Phillip Island Shire Council that a road transport be allowed for Phillip Island chicory growers, owing to changed market conditions.  The most vital one being a reduction of moisture content from 20% to 16%, quick transport from the kiln to the merchant was essential.  Owing to the absorption of moisture from the air, and the root having to be so crisply dried, breakage in transit had to be avoided as the size needed to be maintained for processing with coffee.


Over the years the farmers in the Rhyll area supplemented their income with the growing of chicory and at one time there were at least six kilns operating.  By the mid 1970’s one kiln was operating on Phillip Island with only a handful of growers.  The last crop to be grown was at Rhyll by James McFee in 1987.


Today there are still a number of chicory kilns dotted around the Island and it is hoped they will be preserved as a feature and reminder of part of the Island’s history.