Molloy’s Timber Mills, Bulli

molloy timber bulli 2014
Molloy Timber Yard in 2013. Picture: Google Street View


MORE than a century of sawmilling at Bulli came to an end in May 2013 with the closure of Molloy’s Timber Yard.

Austrian-born cabinetmaker Gunter Grafenauer operated Molloy Timber with his wife, Pamela, for 38 years before shutting the long-operating business. Mr Grafenauer bought the timber business in 1975 from the Molloy family, who had opened a steam-driven sawmill called Molloy Brothers on the opposite side of the road in 1906, later moving into the large corrugated iron shed that became a Bulli landmark.

The Molloy brothers, James, Arthur and Lewis, came to the Bulli district from New Lambton, near Newcastle in the early 1890s.

James, who went on to manage the Bulli timber business, first settled in Sherbrooke, with his wife Mary, where, aged in his early 40s, he established an orchard and raised a young family.

“Mr. Molloy has just started an orchard on a large scale at Sherbrooke, planting over 300 trees to start with. It is confidently believed that the fruit will eventually eclipse the coal industry here.”

– Illawarra Mercury August 2 1892.

At the age of 50 he bought property at Woonona in 1901, where, with his brothers, he established his first saw mill.

molloy woonona
The site of the first Molloy Timber Mill at Woonona (circled). Picture: Google

“[Bulli real estate agent] Mr. H. F. Cotterell reports having sold lot 37 and 38, section 13 Campbell’s subdivision, Bulli [Woonona], for £22, the purchaser being Mr. J. Molloy.”

– Illawarra Mercury Februrary 9 1901.

James lost four fingers on his left hand when they were severed by a circular saw at the Woonona sawmill in March 1904. The South Coast Times reported at the time that so instantaneous and clean was the cut, that he felt no pain. He was taken to Bulli Hospital where a portion of his hand was amputated by Drs. O’Connor and Dixon.

The business operated on the main road at Woonona for five years before a massive fire, which began next door in Davidson’s Polytechnic store, totally destroyed both businesses.

The business operated on the main road at Woonona for five years before a massive fire, which began next door in Davidson’s Polytechnic store, totally destroyed both businesses.




BULLI, Thursday.

Yesterday morning at about 3.30 a fire broke out at Mr. J. Davidson’s Polytechnic store, the largest in the town. At the time Mr. D. Jones was on his way to business, and when passing the Polytechnic store he noticed smoke issuing from the top of the building. He at once gave the alarm. Next door to Mr. Davidson’s store, was a timber and furniture business carried on by Mr. J. Molloy. It was at once seen that the whole of Mr. Molloy’s property was in danger; in fact, if it had not been for Mr. Jones walking up the occupants they very probably would have had difficulty in escaping. The fire broke out in the drapery department, and very rapidly spread over the whole building. The owner, Mr. Davidson, lives some distance from the store, but he was very quickly on the scene. He at once broke in a back window, and entered the shop, securing the books and certain cash that was in the safe. In doing this he was almost overcome by the fumes from the fire, and was only dragged out through the window in time. The flames soon spread over Mr. Molloy’s promises adjoining, and notwithstanding the hundreds of willing workers who were quickly on the scene with buckets, tubs, etc, the fire proved too great for them, and in a short time the two buildings and Mr. Molloy’s timber yard were destroyed.


In the case of Mr. Davidson, the stock was insured for £3000, and the building £850, in the Sun Insurance Company. Mr. Davidson estimates his loss at £6000. In Mr. Molloy’s case the shop and dwelling, including furniture, was insured in the Phoenix Insurance Company for £1200. Mr. Molloy estimates his loss at £1000. The machinery of the timber yard was uninsured.


The flames were soon for miles around. The property of Mr. T. Ball, a cordial manufacturer, was also in danger, only being saved by saturating the buildings with water. Mr. Ball’s property is directly across the street, and consists of a row of shops, six in number. These were more or less damaged. The fronts of the shops are considerably charred by the fire, and also windows broken. Mr. Ball is insured in the New Zealand office, and estimates his loss at £100. In saving his property Mr. Ball was considerably scorched about the face and hands.

Other buildings which caught fire were: Mr. A. O. Thomas, draper; Mr. Burrows, boarding-house; and Mr. J. Sharples’ stables. Fortunately for these properties the fire was discovered early, and promptly put out. If Mr. Thomas’ shop had gone it is more than probable the most part of Woonona would have suffered a similar fate.

This is by far the largest fire yet seen in Woonona. The only things saved were the books at Mr. Davidson’s store. The origin of the fire is unknown.

– The Sydney Morning Herald Friday 16 March 1906

After the fire, the Molloys moved their business to Bulli, where they established a sawmill on land where Bulli Woolworth’s supermarket now trades.

“Mr. Jas. Molloy’s new premises, in course of erection, and nearly completed, were bodily wrenched 4 feet off their brick foundation (during a gale).”

Leader (Melbourne) Saturday 5 May 1906

The brothers continued operating the mills until James retired to Marrickville in 1912, handing the reins of the business to his son, James Junior.

“Mr. Cotterell during the week held a successful sale of Mr. James Molloy’s effects lasting two days. Mr. Molloy and family are moving to a Sydney suburb. Mr. Molloy retains his interest in the sawmills, here and at Nowra.”

South Coast Times Friday 2 August 1912.

The other two brothers went on to other business ventues, with Arthur opening a sawmill in Berry, which was later moved to the northern banks of the Shoalhave River at Bomaderry, on the New South Wales South Coast.

“TIMBER – Messrs. Molloy’s, limited, timber merchants, of Bulli, who for the past six years have carried on a branch at Berry, have now removed same to another site on the northern bank of the Shoalhaven River, Bommaderry, Nowra. Most of the logs will now be brought down to the mill by punts, and will then be cut up into timber and be put on trucks and railed to all parts of the district, this will mean at least the employment of sixteen to twenty men. Some of whom have also removed their homes from Berry to Nowra. Mr. A. Molloy is the manager and Mr. W. Hockey, foreman.”

Illawarra Mercury Friday 30 March 1917

molloy bulli 2
The two Bulli sites of Molloy Timber. The larger circle shows the first site established in1906, and the smaller circle the relocated timber retail business, which closed in 2013. Picture: Google.

James and Arthur later closed the Bulli mill, and sold the land, which in the 1960s became Cavion’s Scrap Yard. The business was relocated across the road,  where the Molloys focussed more on retail rather then milling until 1975, before selling to Gunter Grafenauer.

inside molloys 1980s
Inside Molloy Timber Yard in the late 1990s. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Mr Grafenauer told the Illawarra Mercury in March 2013 that his decision to sell his business was difficult but, at almost 73, he wanted to spend more time pursuing his other passion – skiing.

Mr Grafenauer migrated from Austria in 1960 where he had learnt his craft by restoring antiques and palace doors that were destroyed during World War II. When he arrived in Wollongong, he built cottages and was a regular customer at the timber shop owned by Arthur Molloy, the father of the four Molloy brothers.

For 20 years, Mr Grafenauer, besides continuing to sell and mill timber, has run woodworking classes, teaching hundreds of Illawarra men and women to craft beautiful furniture and children’s toys to his meticulous standards.

The closure of Molloy’s Timber ended a significant chapter in Bulli’s industrial history. The following story was put together by the late Jack Devitt, who reminscences, Down Memory Lane, has recorded an important part of Bulli’s history from the 1920s and 30s.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2016.
molly timber roughs 1920s
Employees of Molloy Brothers Timber Yard 1920s. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

By Jack Devitt*

THE Molloy brothers, James, Lewis and Arthur were the sons of parents who came from New Lampton in the Newcastle district.

They first settled in Sherbrooke on the top of the mountain above Bulli, walking to and fro to the Methodist [Uniting] Church at Bulli every weekend, which was quite a hike.

Later they settled in Woonona, opening a furniture shop on the main road near Davidson’s [hardware] store. They lived in a beautiful cottage, still standing on the southern side of Campbell Street, about three down from the highway.

When the shop was burnt down they moved to Molloy Street where the scrap metal merchant now has a business [now Woolworths supermarket]. In fact this while area covers the entire area of Molloy’s plant, which was a steam-driven saw mill.

James was the manager, Lew the machinist and Arthur helped James in running the yard. They used a lot of Canadian oregon flitches transported from Sydney Harbour by rail and later by Ed Ball’s motor trucks.

The motto for Ed’s transport business was: “You call, I’ll haul, Ed Ball, Woonona.”

“AN employee at Molloy and Son’s timber yards, named J. Waugh, had his foot severely cut the other day whilst trimming a piece of timber with an adze, the blade of which flew off the timber and entered his foot.”

Illawarra Mercury Friday 26 March 1909

Chubby Lynch, who drove for Ball often brought hardwood up from Tomerong and Maurie Boalnd brought timber from the top of the local mountain by bullock wagon. He had the last bullock team in the district.

The mill later went over to electric drive and developed into a very sophisticated business, supplying all wants of the local building trade.

One of James’ sons, Jack, a state league soccer player of note, went to Ulladulla during World War II building wooden boats for the navy and later a trawler, which he worked on down there with a few friends. He never returned to the Bulli mill.

After his father, Arthur managed the mill until he too retired, but still being active, opened a timber distribution business, which he called “Molloy Timber”, on the opposite side to the mill in Molloy Street.

James Molloy was very interested in Woonona Soccer Club. Jack, as previously stated, was an excellent state league winger, while Arthur played first grade cricket for Woonona.

There were three girls in the family. Ethel married Andy Hislop, Mavis married Syd Newtown and Jean married Gil Grant, both of whom gave me the bulk of the information for this story.

Some of the employees of the mill that come to mind were Ted Lewis, Ben Henness, George Ruskin (another state league footballer), Andy Hislpo, Norm Hayes, John Strachan, Jim Sharples, Roley Wynn and Max Lowe, who lost a hand whilst working at one of the saws.

* The late Jack Devitt was born in The Oaks, via Camden on December 12 1917. He arrived in the Illawarra with his family as a boy in 1921 settling in Bulli. He attended St Josephs Catholic School, where he won a bursary to attend Stanislaus College in Bathurst gaining a leaving certificate. He obtained work as a steelworks tally clerk after leaving school on a wage of 32 shillings and six pence a week before being employed as a clerk in the merchant mill. Jack bought his parents’ home in Hospital Road in 1925 and he lived there until his death in 2006 at the age of 88. His local history column, Down Memory Lane, became much loved in the Bulli Times, Corrimal Post and Northern Leader newspapers during the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s. Down Memory Lane was enjoyed by northern Illawarra residents for many years, and has become an important record of life in Bulli during the 1920s and 30s.

molloys timber 1980s
Molloy Timber Yard in the late 1990s. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

SKINNER v. MOLLOY. This case which came on in the Supreme Court, before Mr Justice Pring, and a jury of four, on Wednesday last was brought by Arthur Willie Skinner, as father and next friend of Charles William Skinner, against James Molloy and Sons, Timber Merchants, Bulli; the cause of action being injury sustained by Charles William Skinner, a lad of sixteen years of age by coming in contact with an unguarded circular saw at the defendants’ works, and thereby losing his right arm below the elbow. Dr Brisendon and with him, Mr D. S. Edwards, instructed by Messrs Owen and Son, of Wollongong, Solicitors, appeared for the Plaintiff, and Mr Bloomfield, instructed by Norton Smith and Co, of Sydney Solicitors, appeared for the defendants. After the case had been opened for the plaintiff a verdict by consent was entered for the plaintiff for the sum of £300 and costs.

llawarra Mercury Friday 1 October 1915

Mr. James Molloy, founder of the firm of Molloys Limited, timber merchants, Bulli, died at his home in Sydney this week, at the age of 69 years [also had a timber mill at Berry and lived at Marrickville – Merc].

South Coast Times Friday 5 November 1920

Mr. Jim Molloy, prominent soccer legislator for many years and president of Woonona State League Club sustained a severe injury to his left hand on Saturday morning at the sawmill. He was cleaning the trapdoor beneath the circular saw when his hand came in contact with the saw. Two fingers were cut off and a third badly lacerated. He was admitted to Bulli Hospital for treatment.

South Coast Times Friday 14 February 1941

molloy timber truck c1994
Molloy Timber’s delivery truck in the late 1990s. Pictured in Ray Brown from the Black Diamond Heritage Centre at Bulli, thanking Wollongong Historical Society’s Michael Organ for the donation of display cases. Molloy Timber donated the use of the truck for the delivery from the Wollongong Museum to the Bulli Railway Station museum. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection.

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