At Mittagong, 90km south of Sydney, in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, relics from Australia’s first iron works have been unearthed by archaeologists in a shopping development site beside the old Hume Highway. A cairn 300 metres away has long marked the site of the iron works established in 1848, but when workers began clearing the site for a new shopping centre in 2004 they discovered old foundations lying under a shallow layer of soil.
An Interim Heritage Order was imposed by the NSW Heritage Office and painstaking work over several months exposed foundations, footings and fixtures of an industrial complex that once processed iron made from locally smelted ore on a large scale. On that same site over 140 years ago stood a foundry for processing pig iron and rolling mills for producing irons sheets or bars.
Relics unearthed include a fly/drive-wheel pit; timber dampeners for a tilt hammer used in forging; puddling furnaces for producing wrought iron; boiler foundations; air intakes and flues; cupola furnaces and the base and two stone grinding wheels of a Chilean mill used to grind clay for a brickworks then on site.
These relics date mostly from the middle and later period of the complex’s life however archaeologists believe the footings of a Catalan forge are under the remains of the rolling mill.
The Fitz Roy Iron Works began operation in 1848 using ore from a rich deposit discovered during the building of the Mittagong to Berrima road in 1833. It was officially opened in 1850 at which time the company cast 50 effigies of a lion rampant which were presented to guests at the ceremony.
The iron works had a chequered history over the next 40 years, closing several times and reopening under new management, sometimes remaining idle for years in between. In the 1860’s extensive renovations were carried out including the building of a new blast furnace and a machine house where the cairn stands today. This was the most productive period during which castings for the Gundagai Bridge, pig iron for export to the US, bar, plate, sheet iron and railway lines were produced.
Ultimately unable to compete against cheaper imports from England, Fitz Roy Iron Works produced decreasing amounts until after the mid 1890’s when it was gradually dismantled and carted away. In 1927 the blast furnace was demolished and its sandstone blocks sold. Other rolling mills existed in Australia in the 1860’s but Fitzroy Iron Works was the only place rolling Australian-made iron.
The most outstanding aspects of the site have been conserved in an area roughly 45 x 40 metres in the car park below the shopping centre. Attempts are being made to have the site listed on the State Heritage Register covering the remains not only recently discovered but those near the cairn and an old stone cottage nearby believed connected to the works. The site is easily accessed with protective pathways and signage installed to an exceptionally high standard. Ten information panels cover a brief timeline and give an overview of the individual owner/investors and the processes carried out on the site. Substantial remains of masonry and brickwork are clearly visible. The site is well worth a visit and is free.
Visit the website at www.fitzroyironworks.com.au
Contributed by Bill & Elaine Ruddick
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Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association