We are a manufacturing city. There has never been a doubt that this has been possible because of a labour force conditioned and trained in the many skills inherited from the steel industry. This industrial trait at all levels is part and parcel of the city; it is almost a "genetic" pathway. It is the culture of at least four generations of people to whom steel was a second nature, and the trilogy of coal, transport and steel represent 200 years of working class heritage.
Despite the closure of the steelworks Newcastle is still a major industrial city. One only has to look at the scenery from The Hill to grasp the sprawl of industry just across the river.
Present day Newcastle would not be the same without the contribution made by the people of the steel era. One can argue that the resilient coal trade would eventually have made Newcastle the great port it is today, but there can be no argument that the synergy of coal and steel did in fact produce the transition to diversified industries at a greater and faster pace. Six years after the closure of BHP Newcastle remains a busy port. Ships of very large tonnage negotiate the bar at the mouth of the river with safety, infrastructure is being upgraded both in the harbour and rail system. These changes must continue if the port is to remain one of the greatest in the southern hemisphere.
No matter how one looks at it, Newcastle has a colourful maritime history. The decision by BHP to cease steel making in Newcastle in 1999 has reduced shipping movements in the port. Almost a century of steelmaking had impacted on the past of a city renowned for its shipping trade. Now the past is catching up with the future. Shipping is increasing again. King coal will see to that. Notwithstanding the power of steel, coal had always been a serious competitor for the port use, mainly because of infrastructure shortage in the harbour and the transport system. Both railways and road transport have always lagged behind the efficiency of the mines to produce and shipping to deliver. This situation still exists today with the added critical shortage of loading infrastructure at Kooragang. The long line of ships at anchor outside the port is testimony to that.
Coal is now the main factor in the economy of the State of NSW, as it is, in addition to a source of foreign trade, the principal fuel used for electric power generation.
Coal is produced in more than twenty mines in the Hunter Valley. The mines production comes mainly from open cut operations, but highly efficient underground pits using the longwall mining technique also produce substantial coal tonnages. Various types of coal are produced, these include coking coal suitable for steel-making and low sulphur minimal residue steaming coal for energy production. The present plan for 17 new mines and significant extensions to 10 existing operational mines will add 60 million tonnes to the present 100 million tonnes of coal produced each year in the Hunter Region. The value of the extra coal produced is estimated to be about $4billion at today’s prices.
NB. The new development in the coal industry will generate about 2,500 new jobs: added to the existing workforce it will bring the total to 8,000 men employed in mining. Considering that at peak production in the last century the industry employed 11,000 men, employment of 8,000 in an industry dedicated to best practice mechanised technology producing 160 million tonnes PA is something to ponder about in terms of tonnes per man.
The heritage of coal is most evident in the Hunter Valley town of Cessnock, about 50km from Newcastle. Cessnock was once the home of 28 underground mines, they provided employment for 11,000 miners. Although the city is fast becoming a tourist resort and a wine buff destination, the contribution of those who worked the mines is not forgotten. The nearby village of Kurri Kurri is the site of a mining memorial. It features a statue of a coal miner with helmet, shovel and safety lamp. A nearby wall has an attached plaque that states "in recognition of the immeasurable contribution of all mine workers to the city".
Steel has played a major role in the Newcastle trilogy for nearly a century. It has provided the impetus needed for the development of the Australian Manufacturing Industry, more importantly it has pioneered the development of essential technologies in the fields of metallurgy and specialised ship design.
Today OneSteel, a spin-off of BHP steel making is the only reminder of the steel era in Newcastle. However, ships of the company's fleet are regular visitors and vessels like the purpose built bulk carrier Iron Pacific continue to carry Newcastle coal to many Asian countries. For nearly a century the port of Newcastle had grown and prospered, with coal providing the necessary stimulus.
The planned landing at Botany Bay was significant. It meant taking possession of the continent.
Subsequent unplanned events led to the discovery of Coal River which in due course became Newcastle. These events took place because of the availability of a suitable mode of conveyance, shipping transport.
The difficulties of a voyage to Terra Australis and the necessary logistics must have posed an unenviable task to the people of those times. On landfall, all transport was relegated to either human or animal traction. It was some time before technology would come to relieve man and beast of this burden.
As technology evolved mechanical devices improved all forms of transport, both on land and the seas. James Watt’s development of the “rotative beam principle” had enabled steam engines to directly drive machinery.
In 1814 George Stephenson’s invention of the steam locomotive was responsible for the first public railway in Great Britain, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel built the first propeller driven, ocean-going steamship in 1838.
However, the first practical overland transport was developed and applied in 1804 by Richard Trevithick when he operated the first railway locomotive at a Merthyr Tydfil coalfield in England.
This fact brings us back to the coal-fields of the Hunter Valley and Newcastle. Was it coincidence that the same happened here? The development of steam powered mechanical devices including locomotives for colliery railways was largely a coalfields event. Coincidence or not, steam was responsible for the technology that made the Industrial Revolution possible, coal being the essential element in the process. But railways, by connecting cities and factories, distributing manufactured goods and other materials in England and Europe made it possible. In our region this process followed a different path.
The growth of industry in our region or, for that matter in Australia, cannot be termed an Industrial Revolution, because it did not change an established system.
The birth of industry can be likened to an evolution from rudimentary to a mature state, in a progression of staged development as technology became available, was developed and adapted for local conditions. Thus industry followed the needs of settlement and development in the colony: The steel industry is an example.
The mining industry was a catalyst to the Industrial Evolution in Australia from the mid 1800s to the present. The birth of the steel industry, the largest industrial event of the last century, was needed in order to maintain technological momentum.
The fact that a company engaged in silver-lead mining, embarked in the economic exploitation of a secondary mineral (iron ore) which was first used as furnace flux, is a significant achievement, given that the industry was launched at the highest level of technological development in the circumstances of the time.
The pervasive ripple of progress generated by the actions of the Broken Hill Proprietary Co Ltd, stimulated Hoskins to do likewise at Port Kembla followed by a plethora of emerging industries, and a railway system designed to serve the needs of the interior. Manufactured steel derived products were able to promptly reach remote centres of primary industry, and return their products to national and world markets.
Our region has seen the birth of steelmaking in 1915. From an early date in its history Newcastle’s BHP plant produced a comprehensive range of rolled steel products. During World War II steelmaking answered and sustained the demands of war production. This involved duplicating unavailable strategic materials and developing new technologies, this prowess continued until closure.
Today, the steel industry is still part of Newcastle. Its diminished physical presence is supported by a culture developed over 85 years of “Hard Work” that makes its people unique in their resilience. One could be forgiven for mentioning a reference to “genetic heritage”.
Railways became an essential land transport mode and a major agent of social change. The mining industry still relies heavily on railways to deliver raw material to shipping. The port of Newcastle exports the largest coal tonnage in the world. Today, Williamtown airport is again being considered as the future airport of the
North, despite a major upgrade of the RAAF Base operational activity in the sky of the region.
Coal remains a prime source of energy, although other technologies have emerged which are claimed to be more environmentally acceptable. As an energy producer coal can claim to have provided the world with all that mankind has ever asked of it. Demand for coal is at record level and this trend appears to continue unchanged.
In the future, its use as a source of energy will depend on processing technology succeeding in reducing unwanted emissions. But the chemical industry’s dependence on coal is still unresolved.
Today, coal is the largest economic asset of the state of New South Wales. Newcastle gained prominence through mines and industries, but life had been hard and conditions poor for the first 150 years. The history of labour is synonymous with the lives of Newcastle’s working men and women. Their struggle had to overcome immeasurable hurdles set up by nature and economic forces to create a dynamic and modern city. Its heritage is proof of a rich and colourful history, its culture is the product of the people who embraced its ways at all levels, to build a society that bears a common banner in the spirit of tolerance and maturity.
In concluding, Coal, Transport and Steel, are the forces that shaped Newcastle and the Hunter for the past two centuries, a Trilogy of enterprise and progress that made a significant contribution to the economic emergence of Newcastle and Australia.
Victor Cattaneo 2006
Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association