The printed to private order window cover has an advertisement for James Alston & Sons PTY. LTD., Windmills, Pumps, Troughs, Steel Tank Stands, Etc., South Melbourne S.C. 4, Victoria. The green printed 1½d KGVI Head stamp is cancelled with roller postmark with a boxed MELBOURNE/ 26 FEB/ 1948 as well as a slogan PREVENT/ BUSH FIRES. Below the cover’s there is another advert: Over 50,000 ‘ALSTON’ WINDMILLS in use throughout Australia, Regd. Trade Mark. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).
James Alston, manufacturer, was born on 21 September 1850 at Southwark, London, son of Thomas Alston, plasterer and later a pottery-ware manufacturer, and his wife Kezia. Little is known of his early life, but he arrived in Victoria in 1861 or 1863 and spent some years on the goldfields. In the mid-1860s he was apprenticed to the iron trade in Ballarat, serving four years in general engineering, before establishing himself in 1874 as an agricultural implement-maker and blacksmith at Warrnambool. There, on 25 May he married Mary Sophia Georgina O’Sullivan, daughter of a shopkeeper.
Alston had a long interest in pumps, but from the early 1870s he began to realize that the windmill offered the real solution to tapping the resources of artesian water. Moreover, if the design could be perfected, windmills could also meet the immense demand for power to drive sawmills, shearing machines and other implements efficiently and economically. Alston began working on improvements to windmills and by 1884 was ready to apply for a patent for his design. His windmills, constantly improved over the next two decades, were of iron (later steel) construction, of a circular form, and with curved sails. In the next two years he applied for patents for an attachment to ploughs, and for an ‘improved trough or flume coupling’, but his windmills were in such demand that by 1890 he was able to devote himself almost entirely to their manufacture and installation. By then hundreds of them were operating in the Western District of Victoria, and he was well on his way to dominating the market in the other Australian colonies and in South Africa.
In 1897 Alston moved to Melbourne to be closer to his sources of raw materials and to save freight costs, recognizing that the capital was now the only real location for an enterprising manufacturer. Close to Queen’s Bridge at Moray Street, South Melbourne, Alston built a large, modern factory, equipped with machinery which he had himself invented or adapted. A fair, paternalistic employer, he concentrated on training and keeping a skilled workforce; low labour mobility helped to ensure efficiency, economy and reliability. His management abilities, as well as his entrepreneurial and inventive skills, made him a formidable capitalist.
Alston was a manufacturer; he had few other interests. He perfected a number of inventions which were of great assistance to the rural community, such as the steel water-trough for stock, but took little part in public life. Mary Alston (1856-1932), on the other hand, made up for his lack of community involvement. She bore him four sons and three daughters, ran his large house, Majella, in St Kilda Road from the late 1890s, and also involved herself whole-heartedly in an impressive range of charitable activities. Both she and her husband were Catholics, but her ‘philanthropy recognised no boundary of creed’, and at her death on 13 December 1932 she was president of the Women’s Hospital, patroness of the central executive of St Vincent’s Hospital, a vice-president of the Victoria League and president of the Loreto Free Kindergarten. Her other concerns included the Queen Victoria and the Alfred hospitals, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the City Newsboys’ Society. During World War I she had been a zealous worker for the Red Cross and she was also a member of the Lyceum Club. She was remembered for her unassuming generosity, her old-world dignity of manner and her kindly charm.
Alston died at his home on 27 July 1943, survived by three daughters and three sons; he was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery and left an estate valued for probate at £236,691. He was probably the last of the Victorian manufacturers who in the 1870s and 1880s had made that colony the industrial leader of Australia. The size of the market for certain products seemed to promise a new industrial revolution, a basic change in the Victorian economy. However, while there was manufacturing, there was not industrialization, which was to come much later. Alston’s period had been the pre-war years; little is heard of him after 1914. His business was still prosperous, his products still innovative, but the dreams of his generation had faded. James Alston and his fellow entrepreneurs had promised much more; the promises now rust on farms all over Australia.
An advertisement for ‘Alston’s Gearless Windmills, as follows, is shown in Figure 2.
‘NEW INVENTION’ ‘Alston’s Gearless Windmills’ ‘The mechanism is of the simplest form, consisting of only Three Moving Parts, which are entirely enclosed in a DUST-PROOF CASE, and run in an OIL BATH. Fitted throughout with Steel Ball Bearings, which makes it Frictionless, Noiseless, and Unwearable. It has no Chain Drive to stretch or get out of order. No Cogs to wear. No Pins or Keys to work loose. It is, in fact, the Simplest, Strongest, and Lightest Running Mill manufactured.’ ‘No attention required. One Pint of Oil will lubricate this Mill for months. As soon as the Mill starts, Oil is carried to all Working Parts.’ ‘Over 30,000 “Alston” mills now in use Throughout Australia.’
‘Expert advice and 70-page Catalogue posted Free on application.’
‘The largest manufacturer and only firm giving Its whole Attention to the construction of Windmill Outfits.’ ‘JAMES ALSTON, Windmill, Trough, Pump and Valve Manufacturer, Queen’s Bridge, MELBOURNE.’ ‘Agents for New South Wales – H.H. HINDS, Ltd., Machinery Merchants, Smail St., SYDNEY.’
This paper on James Alston relies heavily on the account in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.