1950 Tweed Cane Cutter Knife

Era: Cultural background: , , , Collection: Theme:Agriculture Economics Folk Art Food Settlement

Cane cutter knife c.1950s, photograph Joanna Boileau
Cane cutter knife c.1950s, photograph Joanna Boileau

Tweed River Regional Museum, Murwillumbah, Australia.

Object Name
Cane knife.

Object Description
Cane knife with curved steel blade and wooden handle. The blade is attached to the handle with four nuts and bolts and washers, two at the widest part of the handle where it adjoins the blade and two below. The lowest nut and bolt is missing. The blade is straight sided on one edge, with a right angled hook at the end. The other edge of the blade is curved and sharpened; it shows signs of wear. The wooden handle is worn smooth from use. Dimensions: total length 690 mm with bent blade, 715 mm as originally manufactured with flat blade. Handle 445 mm long, tapering from a maximum width of 55 mm where it adjoins the blade at the end to 32 mm. The knob at the end of the handle is 52 mm wide. Blade 270 mm long, measured from the handle as if it was straight, maximum width is 150 mm, at the end across the hook.

This cane knife was donated to Tweed River Regional Museum by Len Brooks, who cut cane in the Condong area in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He recollects that it was given to him by a cane farmer he was working for. The first experiments in growing sugar cane in the Tweed Valley were carried out in the late 1860s by Joshua Bray at Kynnumboon near Murwillumbah and Michael Guilfoyle at Cudgen. A major factor in growing sugar cane is that it requires expensive machinery to crush and refine it, and to obtain the best sugar yields the cane must be crushed as soon as possible after harvesting. During the 1870s a number of individual farmers built small mills on their properties and produced sugar with varying degrees of success. Many of the small mills did not survive, hampered by inefficient production methods and the lack of a reliable supply of good quality cane and a ready market for the crude sugar they produced. In 1872, dissatisfied with the production of the small mills, sugar growers on the Tweed approached the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR) to build a mill on the Tweed River. After lengthy negotiations, the CSR mill at Condong was completed in 1880 and began crushing. The lush rainforests of the floodplain of the Tweed River were progressively cleared for cane, transforming the landscape.

Narrow metal blade with a right angled hook at the end, hafted on a round wooden handle. There is a metal band around the end of the handle where it is hafted onto the blade. The end of the blade is curved almost at a right angle, and has a blunt point. The wooden handle is smooth and polished from use and the blade is rusty. Dimensions: overall length 930 mm, handle 530 mm long and 35 mm in diameter, blade 400 mm long and 14 mm wide. The metal band around the end of the handle is 14 mm wide and 40 mm in diameter.

William Julius, who had considerable experience growing sugar cane in the West Indies, was one of the most successful independent sugar cane producers in the Tweed. He arrived in the Tweed Valley in 1875 and took up a large area of land at Cudgen, where he planted sugar cane and built a mill to process it. Most of the workers on Julius’ plantation and mill were South Sea Islanders or ‘Kanakas’, who had been lured from their homelands by the infamous ‘blackbirders’ as indentured labourers on the sugar cane plantations of north Queensland. Sugar cane production was both capital and labour intensive and a large cheap, unskilled labour force was needed as the industry developed in northern New South Wales in the 1870s and 1880s. Julius brought to the Tweed about 200 South Sea Islanders who had completed their contracts in Queensland and employed them to completely clear the land. Julius then leased lots of around ten acres to South Sea Islanders to grow sugar, while others worked in the mill. Despite the deportation of large numbers of South Sea Islanders under the White Australia Policy after Federation in 1901, some who had married in Australia or who had been in Australia for 20 years or more were able to remain. They intermarried with local Aboriginal people and their descendants live in the district today.

Indians also played a significant role in the sugar industry in New South Wales. During the 1880s and 1890s Indian hawkers and peddlers settled in rural areas in New South Wales and Victoria. They were collectively known as ‘Hindoos’ although the majority of them were Sikhs and a few Muslims, who came from the same area of the Punjab in northern India. In the Tweed Valley Indians found work as labourers on sugar cane farms, some rented their own farms to grow sugar cane, and others grew bananas or worked in the dairy industry.

Cane cutters were a hardy crew; they generally worked in gangs of six to eight, between 40 and 44 hours a week. Until the 1930s they lived in tents, with a cook to provide hearty meals to satisfy appetites sharpened by hours of hard physical work. After the war, with improvements in transport, the cutters traveled from their homes and supplied their own food. During the war Italian prisoners of war worked cutting cane in the Tweed Valley, and some farmers built barracks to accommodate them on their properties, with bedrooms, kitchens and dining rooms. Cane cutting was tough, dirty work, out in the open in all weathers, contending with snakes, rats and other vermin and the risk of diseases like leptospirosis or Well’s disease, carried by the vermin. From around 1950 sugar cane in the Tweed was burnt before harvesting to get rid of snakes, rats and trash. The sugar syrup would start to ooze out making it sticky to handle and the cutters were quickly covered in soot from head to toe. First thing in the morning after a heavy dew the cane was particularly slippery, and the knife could easily slip causing nasty injuries, to the cane cutter or to the man working beside him. In north Queensland where conditions were even hotter than in northern New South Wales, some cutters wore a strip of flannel around their wrists to stop the sweat running down their arms into their hands. Once the sun was higher the syrup would attract bees, another annoyance to contend with. It was not only the men who worked hard. Wives and mothers would be up before dawn every day, preparing their men’s lunches and washing their soot blackened clothes. Mary Healy, whose husband was a cane cutter in the Tweed, remembers that her two year old son was frightened of his father when he came home black all over, with only his white teeth showing.

Cane cutting gangs could earn three or four times the average wage during the season, which ran from June to December. They were paid by the ton, and every man in the gang had to keep up the pace, otherwise they would be forced to leave and find lower paid employment. Competition was fierce to join the top gangs, and men who missed out were disappointed not to be selected. Carl Redman, whose father was born in Fiji, worked cutting cane at Cudgen in the early 1950s. The top wage for cutting cane then was £30 a fortnight, compared to the average wage of £5 per week. He remembers the cane cutters earning enough money to buy themselves new Holden or Ford cars in the 1950s, and the farmers saying ‘you blokes are better off than us’. If the cane was lying down, full of weeds, rat infested, or the terrain steep and rocky, the cane gangs would try to negotiate with the farmer for higher wages.

During and immediately after the Second World War the cane farmers of the Tweed were desperately short of labour. European migrants played an important role in the survival of the industry. Refugees had to work for two years as a condition of their assisted passage to Australia and many were sent to work in the cane fields of northern New South Wales. Anton Potocnik came from Slovenia to Australia as a refugee in June 1951. He spent his first two weeks in Bonegilla migrant camp, before travelling to Murwillumbah by train to work cutting sugar cane with thirteen other Slovenians. He recalls that there were only three jobs going – cutting sugar cane, working on the railway out west, or working on the Snowy Mountains scheme. They had no choice in where they were sent. Cane cutting was regarded as the toughest job; if they thought you were good enough, the camp officials put you in the sugar cane line. Arriving in the Tweed Valley the migrants were accommodated in barracks. Conditions were primitive; Anton recalls there were beds in the barracks, cane knives, wood and water, but no blankets and no electricity. The next day the farmer organised the butcher, baker and milkman and brought an abundance of food. The men had not seen so much food for many years, and they ate and ate. After spending months or years in refugee camps with little food the men were soft, and then they suddenly had to adjust to the hard physical work of cutting cane. They were covered with blisters and boils. Anton remembers they were cutting the long, heavy variety of cane called Trojan, which was the worst kind to cause boils.

The sugar industry in northern New South Wales and Queensland did not begin to mechanise until the 1960s, when it became increasingly difficult to find men willing to undertake the hot, dirty and strenuous work of cutting and loading cane. Serious interest in mechanisation was prompted by the severe labour shortages during and after the Second World War, but it took almost 30 years of improvisation and adaptation before the cane industry was fully mechanised. The process of mechanising the sugar industry was so slow because of the difficulties of handling such a bulky crop and the variety of terrain in which it was grown. First loading of cane was mechanised with the development of front end and hydraulic grab loading machines, replacing the back-breaking work of loading by hand. Lifting and carrying heavy bundles of cane put great strain on spine and shoulder. Cane continued to be cut by hand for many years, until the mid 1970s when mechanical harvesters were in general use. So cane cutters continued to suffer blisters every time they began a new cane cutting season, resorting to mutton fat, urine or Condy’s crystals to harden their hands. In fact there was initially little cost advantage in mechanisation, and when mechanical harvesting was finally introduced it was found there were higher losses of cane and greater quantities of dirt and extraneous matter compared to hand harvesting.

In a poem called ‘A Cane Cutters Memory’, written while he was serving in Papua New Guinea in 1944, Ernie Cobb vividly recalls the hardships of the cane cutters life, the races between local gangs and the gangs from the south and their hopes for a good cane cutting season, with fine weather and light cane. He recalls the little black brimless hats the cane cutters wore, that didn’t get in the way when they were cutting or loading cane like straw hats did:

How’s my old black hat
The one that did the trick
You could carry it anywhere
On your head it sat like a jerry

…We were called the black crows
Because of our little so and sos

On hot days our necks burnt
because of the little black hats
As on it no rim was attached
But we soon got used to that

When it used to rain
Black drips would run down your face
Some black dye, the rest of treacle
Because of no rim to stop it.

Cane knife blades were purchased from hardware stores and the handles generally added separately. The length of the handle varied according to the height and preferences of the individual cutter. At the beginning of the cane cutting season each cutter shaped his handle to suit his hand, paring it down and finishing it off with a piece of broken glass or rasp to make it smooth, reducing the chance of blisters on a hand softened after six months of the off season. When cutting cane on rocky country such as at Cudgen, the cane cutters used a short handled knife so that they could see the rocks. If the knife hit a rock it was dangerous because it could bounce off and hit the cutter’s leg. The collection of Tweed River Regional Museum includes both long and short handled cane knives, and separate blades. Because handles outlasted blades, they were reshafted with replacement blades. Each cutter sharpened his blade to his liking with a file, and a blade would last two or three weeks with constant sharpening. It was important to get the curve of the blade right so that the weight was in the tip.

Cane knives were commercially manufactured, either imported or made in Australia. William Hunt and Sons, founded in 1793, and Ralph Martindale and Co, founded in 1882, were English manufacturers based in Birmingham. They were major exporters of agricultural hand tools, including cane knives, around the world. The 1930 edition of the Brades Catalogue produced by William Hunt and Sons contains a variety of cane knife designs for different parts of the world, including Queensland, Cuba and Mauritius. All the Queensland knives have the distinctive straight end and hook. The Titan Manufacturing Co Pty Ltd, based in Tasmania, was an Australian manufacturer of cane knives. Ernie Cobb recalls two brands of cane knives, one called the Giraffe with a short handle and one called a Distant with a longer handle. Cane knives were also home made from materials close to hand. There is one cane knife in the collection of Tweed River Regional Museum made from an old cross cut saw (catalogue number 98-108C).

Cane cutters modified the commercially manufactured straight blade to suit their particular style of cutting. The blade of this cane knife has been bent to shape by applying heat. Knives were heated in a fire while working in the field; perhaps the same fire the cane cutters used to brew their billy of tea. The cane cutter then placed his heavy boot on the heated blade and bent it to the required shape. There was a knack to bending the blade, applying just enough heat to bend it without breaking it or affecting the temper of the steel. In theory knives were best bent by heating the blade to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, in an oven rather than by the direct application of heat. Once the blade was bent to the required angle, it was cooled gradually; plunging into cold water was not recommended. Having a bent knife enabled the cutters to work faster without having to bend over so much. The thin edge of the blade, thinner than a machete, slices through the cane better than a thicker blade, as the cutter slashes the cane at an angle. The cane stalks had to be cut close to ground level, in order to harvest the maximum amount of cane. The cane stalks were piled up in between the rows and then topped, usually using a straight cane knife. It took skill to cut the cane at exactly the right level top and bottom, to satisfy both the farmer who wanted to get the maximum amount of cane to the mill and the mill which did not want the tops of the cane with no sugar content.

The cane knife was a multi functional tool. The hook at the tip of the blade was used to remove the trash and dead leaves from around the cane stool and pile up the cut cane. The flat of the blade of a straight cane knife was used during burning off to put out spot fires along the fire break. According to some stories a practiced cutter could throw a cane knife like a tomahawk to kill snakes or rats. Les Such, a cane cutter in Queensland in the 1950s, recalled seeing a man decapitate a snake at several yards range by throwing his cane knife. One cane knife in the collection of Tweed River Regional Museum [Catalogue no. 96-119] was used by Jeet Singh to kill a seven foot long brown snake in the 1960s. The farmer brought out a cream can full of water to the field on a wooden slide, and Jeet Singh and Barry Roach were washing their cane knives when the snake emerged from under the slide. Reacting quickly, Jeet Singh severed its head with one blow of his cane knife. The collection of Tweed River Regional Museum also includes several cane knives that were used in banana plantations.

This cane knife was donated to Tweed River Regional Museum by Len Brooks, who cut cane in the Condong area in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There are numerous cane knives in the collection of Tweed River Regional Museum and in other museums such as the Australian Sugar Industry Museum in Mourilyan. The blade of this commercially manufactured knife has been bent to suit the particular cutter’s style of cutting. It has historical and technological significance as it demonstrates the skills of ‘making do’ – improvising and modifying tools to make the heavy work of cutting cane easier. It provides evidence of the hard manual labour involved in cutting and loading sugar cane, and the very late development of mechanised cane harvesting. The cane industry was not fully mechanised until the mid 1970s and sugar cane continued to be harvested by hand for many years after loading of the crop began to be mechanised in the early 1960s.

The cane knife also has social significance, representing the manual labour of the many South Sea Islanders, Indians and migrants from Europe who were the backbone of the sugar industry in northern New South Wales. It has the capacity to interpret the distinctive history of the cane industry in the Tweed.


Barnes, Allan. Written notes filed with cane knife held in Tweed River Regional Museum, Murwillumbah.

Boileau, Joanna 2006, Caldera to the Sea: A History of the Tweed Valley, Tweed Shire Council, Murwillumbah.

Cobb, Ernie, Cobb Family History 1800 – 2000: A biographical record of the Cobb family history on the Tweed, Unpublished manuscript held in Tweed River Regional Museum, Murwillumbah.

Healey, Sally, ‘Cane Cutters Remember the Early Days’, Daily News, 8 August 1991.

Kerr, Bill and Blyth, Ken 1993, ‘They’re All Half Crazy’: 100 Years of Mechanical Harvesting, Canegrowers, Brisbane.

Kijas, Johanna 2007, The Other Side of the World: International Migration to the Tweed 1940s to 1960s, Tweed Shire Council, Murwillumbah.

Johansen, Ron, ‘The Cane Cutters’, Tales of Our Times Vol. 1,
December 1992.

Neville, Denise (ed) 1998, Sweet Talking: A Collection of Oral Histories From the Australian Sugar Industry, Australian Sugar Industry Museum, Mourilyan.

Norman, Janet. Australian Sugar Industry Museum, Mourilyan, personal communication.

Potocnik, Anton, Interview with Brian O’Keeffe, Tweed River Regional Museum, 25 October 2006.
Edited version on website of Migration Heritage Centre, www.migrationheritage.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/belongings (accessed 13 May 2008).

Redman, Carl. Interview with Gwen Hart, 30 September 2003, transcript held in Tweed River Regional Museum, Tweed Heads.

Wogas, Bill. Interview with Gwen Hart, 23 August 2000, transcript held in Tweed River Regional Museum, Tweed Heads.






Written by J Boileau,
Tweed River Regional Museum
June 2008

Written by Stephen Thompson
Migration Heritage Centre
December 2005 – updated 2011

Crown copyright 2006©

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