Commonwealth Steel Products Ltd
At a meeting in 1917, four engineering firms decided to form a new company to manufacture in Australia, wheels, tyres, axles and steel castings for railway use.
The firms concerned were:
The Clyde Engineering Co. Ltd.,
Goninan and Co. Ltd.
and the Pioneer Spring Co. Ltd.
A few months later Howard Smith Ltd. joined the group.
Thus, born of necessity, the new company called Commonwealth Steel Products Ltd. was registered in March 1918 with an authorised capitol of $500,000.
At first, serious consideration was given to siting the new plant on the Parramatta River at Sydney. The availability of electric power was the decisive factor in selecting the present site at Waratah. In the long run this was to prove a most important step which, when they became associated with BHP, influenced the Company's growth to its present stature. Before the company got under way, it was discovered that NSW Railways had plans for building their own tyre and axle plant. They were happy to abandon the idea as soon as they were informed of Comsteel’s intentions. In 1913 the Company acquired 47 acres of land at Waratah, valued then at $100 per acre.
The site had been a brick-works. When the first main office was built, the builder's contract stipulated that he would purchase from the company, bricks which had been made on the site by the old brick-works. In 1919 four acres of the property were sold to Newbolds and later sixteen acres, on the North West side of Waratah Lane (now Maud St.) were sold to Mr. A A Rankin. The original plant included a 6 ton capacity electric arc furnace, a steam driven tyre mill, a 5 ton steam hammer and a machine shop. A 2,000 ton forging press was installed in 1924. Mr A M Henderson was the first manager. The No.1 furnace tapped its first heat in February 1919.
Before this, a substantial interest in the Company had been acquired by Taylor Bros. of Leeds - one of the leading makers of railways components in England. In these early years it was learned that the well-known English firm of Vickers was intending to start a tyre plant in conjunction with BHP. Comsteel proposed, as an alternative, that BHP buy an interest in Comsteel and Comsteel would agree to buy steel from BHP. This arrangement was acceptable and in 1923 the name of the Company was changed to Vickers Commonwealth Steel Products Ltd. The BHP Co. Ltd. first applied for shares in the Company in 1929, with a right to appoint one director to the board. Ultimately they acquired 20,000 shares and Essington Lewis was appointed a director. He was to play a vigorous part in the period of expansion which lay ahead.
In March 1931, English Steel Corporation acquired the shares originally bought by Vickers Ltd. - thus forming a link, which gave Comsteel access to a vast amount of research and experience in the manufacture of special steels. This was to be of great value when, a few years later the production of these steels was begun on a large scale.
In April 1933 an event of outstanding importance was the purchase by the Broken Hill Pty. Co. Ltd. of the shares held by the English Steel Corporation and Taylor Bros. The Company became known as the Commonwealth Steel Company Limited. Subsequently BHP acquired the shareholdings of the Clyde Engineering Co. Ltd. and the Pioneer Spring Co. Ltd.
In 1936 the installation of the Edgewater Universal Tyre Mill was completed. In addition to tyres, this was capable of rolling the one-piece solid wheels increasingly coming into use. A second electric arc furnace was also installed at this time.
Planning for the special steels plant was begun in 1938 and the plant commenced production in 1941.
Plans were also made for the manufacture of many types of munitions including bulletproof plate (successfully made for the first time in Australia in 1940). 2,000,000 steel helmets were produced. Behind where the heat treatment section now stands was a proof range where inspectors used to fire at sample helmets with a heavy calibre pistol.
Steelmaking capacity was increased by the installation of a third electric arc furnace and a 35 ton open-hearth furnace. The open-hearth furnace tapped its first heat in January 1942. It was later modified to 50 tons capacity. It ceased operations and was dismantled with the installation of the 50 ton electric arc furnace in 1966. Employment increased steadily. From approximately 140 in the early 1920's the figure rose to nearly 600 in 1939. When war began most of the plant went onto three shifts and maximum employment at the peak of the war production was 3,200, which included a number of women.
The first major post-war development at Waratah began in July 1948 with the commencement of extensions to the open-hearth building, comprising the addition of a heavy foundry and dressing shop. The extensions were completed in December 1951.
The record of continuing expansion from then on reads as follows:
1952 Extensions to existing sheet mill completed.
1953 Modern manipulator installed at the 5 ton hammer, converting the forging of axles from a manual to a mechanical operation.
1955 The 5,100 ton Schloemann press came into use.
1956 Ball shop No. 2 plant, with fully automatic forging machine, came into use.
1957 Construction of cold-rolling mill, for stainless steel sheet, commenced at Unanderra.
1959 Stainless steel cold rolling mill commissioned at Unanderra.
1962 Agreement with Krupps of Germany for access to their knowledge and experience in manufacturing hard steel rolls. This activity was already well pioneered and developed at Waratah.
1963 Decision to modernise and expand the plant at a cost of over $15 million during the five years to 1967.
1964 Improvements to the heavy forge plant, the provision of a new mechanical manipulator and new machine tools in the heavy machine shop.
1964 Installation of a rotary hearth furnace in the Wheel, Tyre and Axle plant with modifications to the Wheel Press and the Edgewater Mill.
1965 Provision of better heat-treatment facilities.
1966 Installation of a 50 ton electric arc furnace. New walking-beam type mill furnaces at the Special Steels Plant 30" and 12" mills. Additional finishing equipment installed. Improved metallurgical testing equipment, including spectrographic and X-ray analysis, installed. Installation of the ‘Bright Anneal’ line at Unanderra.
1967 Introduction of vacuum degassing equipment to improve the quality of steel. Modernisation of the 12" and 30" rolling mills and installation of a 20" mill. Agreement with Crucible Steel of America for access to their know-how and commencement of manufacture in Australia, of tool, die, and other special steels.
Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association