Former Unilever Oil Mill | NSW Environment, Energy and Science

Culture and heritage


Former Unilever Oil Mill

Item details

Name of item: Former Unilever Oil Mill
Other name/s: Former Oil Mill, Engineer's Store and Electrician's Shop
Type of item: Built
Group/Collection: Residential buildings (private)
Category: Block of Flats
Primary address: 7 Rosebery Place, Balmain, NSW 2041
County: Cumberland
Local govt. area: Leichhardt
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
7 Rosebery PlaceBalmainLeichhardt CumberlandPrimary Address

Statement of significance:

No 7 Rosebery Place is of local historic, aesthetic and social significance as part of an early subdivision and Federation period industrial building constructed in c. 1896. The building significantly was part of the nucleus of the first soapery constructed in the southern hemisphere and part of the Unilever industrial site, which became a major complex and employer in Balmain. Despite the change of use and conversion, the building retains a sense of its original form, and industrial character and detailing including face brick facades, brick, terracotta and stone details, arched and regular openings and roof form. The building is now enhanced by a garden setting and with the adjacent buildings, Nos. 5, 7 and 9 Rosebery Place make a positive contribution to the local area.

Note: This inventory sheet is not intended to be a definitive study of the heritage item, therefore information may not be accurate and complete. The information should be regarded as a general guide. Further research is always recommended as part of the preparation of development proposals for heritage items.

Council's Library Service has identified photos and/or subdivision plans relating to this item which may be viewed online through the council website at Select Library & Local History to get to the Library online catalogue and keyword search "Balmain Map" and/or Unilever for results.
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: Mansfield Brothers
Builder/Maker: Stuart Brothers
Construction years: 1896-
Physical description: One and half storey rendered and face brick former factory building with hipped and gabled roofs clad in terracotta tiles with terracotta ridge trims, roof ventilators and vents to the gable ends. Two clerestories are located along the main roof ridges. The north western façade and corner of the building features a series of arched openings with large multi-paned aluminium framed windows at ground level and arched timber framed multi-paned windows with brick arches over. A continuous profiled terracotta stringline extends around the building at the spring of the arch. Rough cast and render finish also remains around the brick arches. The building facades also feature long regular multi-paned windows with projecting stone sill and stone plinth. A parapeted gable roofed projection with circular vented opening and stone details to the gable end extends from the south western façade. A suspended balcony has been added to the projecting wing and is accessed via a pair of timber panelled doors. A number of alterations, infill and replacement of windows are generally evident. Brick and asphalted paths surround the building with garden and a number of trees and palms located about the building.
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
In good condition. The roof cladding appears to have been recently replaced. Some alterations such as replacement of windows and doors, infill, patching and repairs to the brickwork are generally evident. Service elements have also been fixed to the building facades. The terracotta string course is damaged at the north western corner of the building.
Modifications and dates: 2009: Install a boom gate in carpark entry between No's 5 - 7 Rosebery Place (D/2009/528).
Further information: The building is one of three converted, former factory buildings surrounded by open grassed and landscaped areas and modern residential flat buildings.
Current use: Commercial
Former use: Factory building


Historical notes: Surgeon William Balmain was granted 550 acres and most of the area now encompassing Balmain in 1800. In 1801 the entire grant was transferred to fellow surgeon John Gilchrist. Gilchrist never actually lived in NSW and advertised the land for sale in 1823. However, the sale was not a success. He gave power of attorney to his Sydney-based agent and merchant, Frank Parbury, who commissioned Surveyor John Armstrong to subdivide part of the land. In 1836 22, 2-4 acres lots mostly about Balmain East were auctioned for sale by Parbury on behalf of the absentee landowner, Gilchrist. The early subdivision was, however, suspended in 1841 due to difficulties associated with Gilchrist’s will, but was resumed in 1852 when Surveyor Langley divided it into 46 later 47 sections. Langley used existing routes such as Darling Street and other tracks such as Beattie and Mullens Streets, which followed the local topography and contours, to delineate the parcels. The sections were purchased over the next 30 years by wealthy investors, local speculators and builders.
The site and land subsequently acquired by William Lever and his wife is located in Lot 4 of the 1852 subdivision.
William Lever chose the name “Sunlight” for his soap company which originated in Port Sunlight, England. To supply a growing demand for soap in Australia, his firm, the Lever Brothers imported and distributed the soap from a warehouse in Clarence Street. In 1892 Lever purchased land in Balmain on which to set up an oil mill. The site was ideal due to the wharfage which allowed the import of copra from the company’s South Pacific Plantations and supply of coal from Newcastle and Port Kembla so the mill could produce the coconut oil which was then shipped to England to produce the soap. The company constructed what was the first oil mill in the southern hemisphere. By 1899 the Australian demand for products had grown so a soapery was also established on the Balmain site. A new Australian Branch of the company, Lever Brothers Ltd (Australia) was incorporated in 1899. The first boil of the Australian Sunlight Soap was made in October 1890.
Over time more land around the site was acquired to enlarge the original waterfront site to house the growing soap production facilities. In 1901 the crude glycerine plant began operations with additional plant installed over the following decade. By 1914 extensions to the soapery increased the demand for steam and a new boiler house was constructed.
The growth of the company also required additional staff and a new administration building was constructed in 1914. In the same year Lever Brothers Ltd (Australia) saw the first amalgamation of Australian soap firms, Kitchens and Burfords and Hudsons.
As trade continued to expand, further parcels of land were acquired and the site grew to an area of approximately 14 acres bounded to the north by Palmer and Booth Street, to the west by Foy Street and Punch Park and to the south by Buchanan and Reynolds Streets with eastern boundary enclosed by the bay. The Balmain Soap works was surrounded to the north and west by residential development, workers cottages and small one and two storey terrace houses.
The Inter-War period brought a major restructuring of the company with a new branch office established in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. By the time the Balmain plant was completely self sufficient and had its own timber yard and saw mill, carpenter’s shop and cooperage, printing shop and three boiler houses. In 1937 company restructuring and final amalgamation of Lever Brothers created Unilever.
The Post-War period also brought a number of changes to the manufacturing methods and processes and management. In 1958 Unilever House opened in Macquarie Street. This operated as the head office for all the Australian factories which produced many well know products including Sunlight Soap, Lifebuoy, Lux, Solvol, Rinso, Omo, Drive, Surf, Kit, Handy Andy, Jif, Softly and Domestos.
New machinery replaced old equipment and by the 1960s mechanisation also led to a decline in unskilled worker numbers. By the 1970s it became clear that the factory at Balmain could no be readily adapted to accommodate contemporary plant. The site now did not have the potential to grow and in 1975 concerns were compounded by the reduction of site area caused by the resumption of the waterfront land by the Maritime Services Board.
A decision was made to remove operations to a new factory and industrial site. Suitable land was purchased at Minto and in 1979 the first stage of development there opened. By this time the site was only occupied by part of the Lever and Kitchen company, which was left with the cost of maintaining the whole site. Toilet and laundry soaps production continued at Balmain in fairly large volumes but it was no longer economical to produce here and was relocated to Port Melbourne. In the 1980s the liquid detergent factory was relocated to Minto and the decreasing powder production was transferred from Balmain to New Zealand.
The Balmain soapery was closed in 1988 and the Technical Centre and administration offices were transferred to North Rocks and Minto.
The site was purchased by Leda Holdings who after some analysis and consultation rezoned and adapted the site for residential use. In the early 1990s the buildings located around the intersection of Hyam and Reynolds Streets including the old soapery, drying towers, dry soap powders building, loading docks, holding tanks and offices were demolished. The former Administration Building (Nos. 100-104 Reynolds Street) was privately sold and is now occupied by commercial offices. Some of the main buildings and elements were retained including the Copra Store/ Oil Mill suite of buildings (now Nos. 5, 7 and 9 Rosebery Place).
In 1895 the Lever Brothers commenced work on the suite of buildings for the extraction of coconut oil, served by a Copra Wharf. These buildings were single storeyed, brick detailed with terracotta tiled roofs. They were massive but not overbearing in what still remained largely a residential area. The early residential development in the area was slowly demolished by the company as the complex expanded. The Copra Store (No. 9 Rosebery Place) was constructed in c. 1896 and included a large gantry. The Vim Plant (former Oil Cake Warehouse and Meal Store, now No. 5 Rosebery Place) and the Oil Mill building, Engineers’ Store and Electrician’s Shop containing remnants of the original Boiler House, Engine Room and Cooperage (No. 7 Rosebery Place) were constructed between 1896 and 1910 and formed the nucleus of the complex.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Industry-Activities associated with the manufacture, production and distribution of goods Growth of Balmain-
5. Working-Working Labour-Activities associated with work practises and organised and unorganised labour Growth of Balmain-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
The site and building are of local historic significance as part of an early subdivision and Federation period of development in the local area. The building significantly was part of the nucleus of the first soapery constructed in the southern hemisphere and part of the Unilever industrial site, which became a major complex and employer in Balmain.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The site and building are associated with the Lever Brothers and entire Unilever company, also Mansfield Brothers, architects, and Stuart Brothers, a major building firm of the day.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The building is of high aesthetic significance as a good and relatively intact example of a Federation period industrial building constructed in c. 1896. Despite the change of use and conversion, the building retains a sense of its original form, and industrial character and detailing including face brick facades, brick, terracotta and stone details, arched and regular large openings and recesses and roof form. The building is now enhanced by a garden setting and with the adjacent buildings, Nos. 5, 7 and 9 Rosebery Place make a positive contribution to the local area.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
The building is of some local social significance as part of the former Unilever site and company and major local employer in the area for over 90 years.
SHR Criteria g)
The building is good representative example of Federation period industrial building that has successfully be converted for residential use.
Integrity/Intactness: Moderate to high
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

It is recommended that: - the existing scale, character and fabric of the building including face brick facades, brick and stone trims and details, arched and regular openings, terracotta stringcourse and roof form be retained and conserved; - no new openings should be made to the facades and timber framed arched windows should also be retained; - the building facades and stone details should remain face brick and not painted whilst surfaces that have been previously painted such as render, timber and metal work should continue to be painted in appropriate colours; - any further alterations to the exterior and interior of the building should not detract from the distinctive form and character of the building, existing pattern of openings or its relationship with the two other former industrial buildings.


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Local Environmental Plan I30523 Dec 13   

Study details

TitleYearNumberAuthorInspected byGuidelines used
Leichhardt Municipality Heritage Study1990 McDonald McPhee Pty Ltd (Craig Burton, Wendy Thorp)  Yes

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
WrittenMax Solling and Peter Reynolds1997Leichhardt: On the Margins of the City

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Local Government
Database number: 1940324

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