During the years of steel manufacture both in New South Wales and in other states BHP acquired a number of vessels, they were to be used for the transport of iron ore and coal to the steelworks, and steel products to both local and export markets. The Company acquired some ships from the Commonwealth in the post World War 1 period, having first chartered vessels through various agents, notably William Scott Fell & Co, who arranged for the steamer EMERALD WINGS to transport to Newcastle the first shipment of iron ore from South Australia on January 19 1915. It was through Scott Fell that on 22 November 1917 a ten-year-old steamer named KOOLONGA was purchased (in joint ownership), and renamed IRON MONARCH (1) on 30 July 1918. BHP were now shipowners, the new steel era had begun.
Within a few years Newcastle would be known as the birthplace of the BHP steel empire, and the first home of the BHP Fleet, the IRON SHIPS.
With the steel business booming BHP decided to set up its own shipping department. Captain J. R. Barter (previously involved in the purchase of the Wings steamers) was appointed as Shipping Manager at the Company's HO in Melbourne on a salary of 1,700 pounds per annum. Barter chose Mr. TR Longney as his assistant.
Captain W.H. Halley, previously master of EMERALD WINGS, at a salary of 500 pounds per annum, accepted the position of Marine Superintendent at the fleet’s operating base, Newcastle.
The birth of the BHP's Shipping Department in 1918 coincided with renewed fleet- building activity by both the Company and the Government. Availability of British ships made it convenient to engage considerable tonnage at cheap rates, the time-charter method being preferred by BHP. But these ships were required to return to England every two years leaving the Company's fleet depleted.
After the 1922 closure of the steelworks, an event that saw 5000 people dismissed, the fleet was laid up at the Company's wharf at Newcastle. The resumption of steel-making in 1923 saw the BHP fleet recommissioned and the works engaged in the manufacture of steel plate for the Government's Commonwealth Shipping Line. It was an opportunity that presaged the awakening of BHP's interest in Australian-built tonnage. However the advent of the great depression caused the Company to shelve their shipbuilding ambitions.
In 1939 with World War 2 looming the Commonwealth Government requested that the BHP Board consider the construction of a shipbuilding facility at Whyalla. Within a year a shipyard with 5 slipways capable of handling ships of up to 15,000 DWT was nearly ready. The new yard’s maiden launching was the fittingly named HMAS WHYALLA, first of four BHP built "Bathurst" class minesweepers delivered to the Royal Australian Navy on 12 May 1941. The keels of " Chieftain" class ore carriers were next to be laid.
Iron Monarch (2) and Iron Duke (2) were launched on 8 October 1942, and 3 May 1943 respectively. In March 1942 work began on the first of five 10,000 tons "River" class freighters to the order of the Australian Shipbuilding Board. This shipbuilding activity was to benefit Newcastle in more than one way. Whilst most Australian-built ships were occasionally carrying iron ore to the Newcastle Steelworks, BHP was planning the construction of purpose-designed ships. The bulk carriers.
Prior to the advent of modern bulk carriers and particularly in the early 50's many British ships were operating on the Australian coast and some of them, thought ill suited for it, did carry iron ore for the steelworks. The following are but a few: LEVENPOOL, CEDERPOOL, HERONSPOOL, STAGPOOL, CULROSS, AMICUS, PINEHILL, CULTER, GRYFEVALE, GARYVALE, KING JAMES, ROYAL WILLIAM, SPERO, STERLING VICTORY, OLYMPIA, SAINT GREGORY, BEDFORD EARL and KING ALFRED.
The Whyalla shipyard was producing Australian tonnage in increasing numbers. The Australian Shipping Board was constituted to operate the fleet of Government owned ships. Included among these were thirteen 5,000 GRT Australian built "A" class or" River" class ships (five of which had been built at Whyalla), several of these, along with the TYALLA (7,343 GRT), were chartered to carry iron ore and coal for BHP.
Occasionally the ships would load South Australian ore in the lower holds, and in Adelaide, Holden car bodies for delivery to Sydney and Brisbane in the "tween decks" and on the hatches.
In January 1957 the Australian Coastal Shipping Commission, later to become the Australian National Line or ANL, replaced the Australian Shipping Board (ASB).
The bulk carriers gradually took over the ore and coal trades, nowadays they are the most common ships to be seen in the port of Newcastle. The closure of the BHP Steelworks means iron ore is no longer coming to the port, but manufactured steel and manufactured products from other industries in addition to coal will ensure that BHP ships will keep coming back to the port that first saw them as an operating fleet.
As steel production increased during the post-war period, BHP was paving a path to the beginning of national development. The dynamics of steel were creating a climate that was to be the golden age of the Australian Manufacturing Industry. For the first time, in 1955, the Port Kembla works with its one million tons per annum hot strip mill exceeded the steel making capacity of Newcastle.
Meanwhile at Newcastle modernisation was taking place on several fronts in an attempt to bridge Port Kembla's production exploits.
The 1960s witnessed the exit of the ageing open hearth furnaces and the introduction of the state of the art basic oxygen technology. On the waterfront the old timber Ore Bridge track and the Wharf were rebuilt in concrete as was the bed of the stockpile area. Feeder bins of 38 ton capacity were added to the front structure or the bridges enabling ‘constant’ feed of Sinter Plant reserve stockpiles.
The 1970s saw a major change in the management of the waterfront departments.
The operations of the Ore Bridges and the Luffing Cranes including the Anti-breaker (a crane used for loading coke and coal situated at No.6 berth) had always been under control of the Shipping Department. Operations were based on shipping priorities rather than plant requirements, although a degree of cooperation allowed for the main functions of blast furnaces and sinter plant operations to take place as required.
This situation was brought about by the necessity to achieve a fast turn around of ships and materials supply. Under this arrangement the wharf was part of "shore based marine operations" controlled by officers with Marine Rank qualifications.
In the mid 70s this situation was reversed. The reason was that reserve stockpiles now had the capacity to provide feed to Blast Furnaces and Sinter Plant for sustained periods, a tactic that alleviated the urgency of shipping deliveries. Only in emergencies would Ore Bridges feed the Blast Furnaces from the wharf.
No doubt that the installation of the new Lurgi Sinter Plant and materials handling system was responsible for the change because it did introduce the ability to blend the ores on the reserve stockpile and directly feed the Blast Furnaces, enhancing quality control of feed. The Ore Bridges became completely integrated with "The Works" for the first time in their history. The Luffing Cranes remained part of the new Wharf Operation Department but their function remained unchanged and continued to be administered by Shipping for stevedoring purposes, yet supervision remained a responsibility of Wharf Operations Staff.
The 70s heralded the arrival of a higher technological age when No.4 Bridge was commissioned. The new ore unloader, a Krupp type electric travelling gantry of higher capacity than the old bridges had all electronic boards and joystick controls which required a vastly different technique of operation from the previous rheostat controls and relay boards. These cranes were slow and awkward to operate. The change was resented by the drivers, to the point that one of them resigned rather than drive the new crane. The reason was that the driver’s cab was stationery rather than moving with the grab trolley. At times the grab was operating at critical distance from the driver who was deprived of close vision of the operation. An agreement was reached and eventually the old bridges were phased out and demolished. This, plus the fact that drivers were becoming accustomed to the new ore unloaders, resulted in the commissioning of another Krupp gantry.
It must be said that although the efficiency of the old bridges could not be questioned, they had limited lift capacity (5 ton & 10 ton grabs), the Krupp unloaders with their 25 ton grabs and 1200 tonne per hour individual discharge rate were more suited to the bulk carriers discharge plans. But all these innovations were to be fruitless.
Enter the 1980s. By this time world steel production was in decline and this was having a negative effect on the Company's operations. Fewer orders for steel meant less ore transported. BHP Shipping had reached a stage where operations other than those required for steel making had to be found for the fleet to be efficient. Coal and coke export were added to the products manufactured at the Newcastle plant.
BHP was entering the world of Maritime Transport.
However the decline continued and at this time the Directors considered a possible closure of the Works. Senior Staff were offered early retirement. A program of workforce reduction through attrition was initiated at this time and continued through the 90s.
BHP Shipping divested of their interest in shore-based operations at Newcastle, and Wharf Operations became an auxiliary part of the Sinter Plant, requiring diminishing involvement in Shipping operations. At times the unloaders were idle for extended periods, resulting in the drivers being engaged elsewhere. This arrangement continued until the closure of the Newcastle Works.
The Company's Fleet continues its diversified operations under the banner of "BHP Transport'.
Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association