A new book will be released this month detailing the history of local coal mining and how it’s formed the foundations of the Illawarra. You can read more about that HERE
One of the book’s three authors, Graham Pryor talks briefly about how the Northern Illawarra and the local mining industry unfolded…..
The History of Coal Mining in the Illawarra, Southern Highlands and the Burragorang Valley
By Graham Pryor
Coal Cliff is the site where coal was first discovered in Australia, by shipwrecked sailors in May 1797. More than 50 years passed before the first coal mine in the Illawarra opened at Mount Keira in 1849. Then more collieries opened to mine coal seams where they outcropped along the escarpment.
As there was no all-weather road or rail access to Sydney from the Illawarra, a number of sea jetties were erected and ships, called Colliers, transported coal to the market. All of these jetties were linked by tramways (rail lines) to the mines.
The harbour at Wollongong was linked to tramways from the Mount Keira and Mount Pleasant collieries in 1861 and 1862 respectively. The original harbour was extended and named Belmore Basin in 1868.
Completion of the Government Railway line from Sydney to Wollongong in 1888 and construction of Port Kembla harbour in 1898 greatly improved coal transport.
As the individual mines developed, nearby townships formed and this created a sense of community. These communities suffered hardships which included the devastating Bulli Mine Explosion in 1887 when 81 men and boys lost their lives, only to be followed in 1902 with an explosion at the Mount Kembla Mine where 96 men and boys perished.
By 1900 there were twelve coal mines employing 2,300 men operating in an area along the coastline from Mount Kembla in the south to Balmain in the north.
The opening of these mines coincided with the increasing need for coal to generate steam power and for coking coal to create coke for smelting plants.
By 1907 there were ten coke-making plants operating in the Illawarra.
In the 1935-7 period the BHP subsidiary company Australian Iron and Steel purchased Mount Keira, Mount Pleasant and Bulli Collieries and introduced the mechanised system of mining. This progressively reduced the “contract system” of hand mining. In 1947 this company opened Nebo Colliery at Mount Kembla which was our first fully mechanised mine.
The Joint Coal Board (JCB) was established in 1947 with funding to support mining communities and the mechanised system of mining.
The ongoing development of mining machinery reduced the heavy labour aspect of mining. In 1965 the longwall mining system was introduced.
The early mines opened on the escarpment where the coal seam outcropped on the surface. As mining progressed deeper to the west of the escarpment those mines encountered “outbursts” of coal and gas from the coal face, sometimes resulting in loss of lives. A chapter of the book details the “outburst” events and utilisation of methane gas for electricity generation.
In more recent times there have been two major incidents resulting in loss of life. In 1964 an underground fire at Bulli Colliery resulted in 4 men being suffocated and in 1979, 14 men were killed in an underground gas explosion at the Appin Colliery.
At this point in time, the underground coal mining industry has achieved an enviable record of embracing best mining practice techniques, with extensive training, and a dramatic reduction in injuries and fatalities when compared with the past.