Lost Sydney: Coal Mines

Location: Birchgrove, Sydney
Coal was discovered in 1797 to the south of Sydney at Coalcliff by the survivors of a shipwreck, and to the north of Sydney around the Hunter River near Newcastle by Lieut. John Shortland when chasing escaped convicts. The discovery was shortly afterwards confirmed by Surgeon George Bass, who found coal in the cliffs southward of Point Solander. After the crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813, coal was also found in the west and the idea was formed of a continuous coal basin centred on Sydney. Predictions were made that coal existed under Sydney, but there was disagreement about its depth.

Prospecting for coal had been by finding outcrops in creeks and cliffs, or by slow and expensive sinking of shafts. Until the introduction of the diamond drill, there was no practical way of proving the existence of coal under Sydney. The idea of using diamond bits for rock drilling was first used in boring blasting holes in the driving of the Mount Cenis tunnel though the Alps in 1864.

Diamond drills for mineral exploration were brought into Australia in the late 1870s and many bores were put down around Sydney to search for coal. Some of the sites chosen were Liverpool, Rose Bay, the Hawkesbury River, Narrabeen, Newington on the Parramatta River and Moore Park. The first to find economic coal was the Helensburgh bore in 1884, which led to the opening up of the Metropolitan Colliery which is still in production.

The Cremorne and Mosman test bores

In 1890-1891 the Sydney and Port Hacking Coal Company bored at Cremorne in the area between Rialto Avenue and the intersection of Cremorne and Milsons Roads. Sunk with the help of a Government subsidy, at 861 metres the test drill reached a 3 metre thick seam of coal which had unfortunately been turned into cinder by a volcanic dyke. The south side of Hodgson Avenue between Kareela and Cremorne Roads, Cremorne was the site of a second test coal mine bore sunk in July 1892. The bore reached a good three metre seam at around 900 metres, however the company abandoned its original plans to go ahead with mining on the site due to opposition by local residents.

The company, having proved the existence of coal, and with a title to mine under the waters of Sydney Harbour granted in 1878, looked for an alternate site for its surface workings. Those considered were Kurraba Point near Neutral Bay, Ball's Head and two on Bradley's Head. The proposed plan for one of the Bradleys Head sites, on Little Sirius Cove, showed an area for miners' cottages, a reservoir and a 37 metre smoke stack at what is now Taronga Park.

An area of ground that is today part of Taronga Zoo was flattened after being selected as the site of a coal mining venture. The site had been cleared and levelled when mining was stopped by an act of Parliament brought about by public pressure to stop mining in the immediate area. The mining company lost 3,500 pounds in the venture.

Test bores were also sunk at the following locations - Newington (1878) to 668 metres, no coal found; Botany (1879) to 690 metres, no coal found; Moore Park (1880) to 567 metres, no coal found; Heathcote (1884), coal seam struck by 258 metres; Waterfall near railway station (1886) 2 coal seams by 483 metres; west of Narrabeen Lakes (1886) no coal found; Rose Bay (1886) no coal found; Moorebank (1889) 3 coal seams struck by 793 metres.

Birchgove mine in 1950, alongside Birchgrove Primary School

Birchgrove Mine

The ridge of the suburb of Birchgrove was eventually chosen as the site of what was to be Sydney's only working coal mine. Sinking of the first shaft, named the Birthday to commemorate Queen Victoria's birthday, started in June 1897 and was completed in November 1902. This and the second shaft, the Jubilee, named to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen's reign, were around 5 metes in diameter and fully lined using over four million bricks as was a horizontal tunnel driven between the Birthday Shaft and the dock on Iron Cove. The Sydney Harbour Colliery was and remains the deepest coal mine ever to have been sunk in Australia. A disastrous accident occurred in March 1900, while sinking the Birthday Shaft, when six men were being lowered in a bucket which was tipped over by an obstruction in the shaft wall and threw out five of them, who fell 122 metres to the bottom. After five years of sinking, coal was eventually struck at 870 metres, but was split into several thin seams, the largest being less than a metre. A decision was then made to mine the coal towards the successful Cremorne bore in the expectation that the seams would join.

In spite of the problems, mining continued and remained a major activity in the area for many years. Above the Birthday Shaft stood a 21 metre high head frame, an 81 tonne steel skeleton that remained a landmark on the Balmain waterfront until 1956. The frame was used to raise coal from the mine and to raise and lower the miners. Massive steam engines and boilers were installed to provide the power for operating the enormous ventilation fan and winding gear needed to reach the mine's depths, and a 59 metre high brick chimney to remove flue gas from the boilers was also a prominent feature on the Balmain skyline. Coal was removed by pick and shovel then transported to the shaft using skips pulled by pit ponies.

The company never managed to produce enough coal to get a cash flow large enough to offset the huge capital costs. It simply ran out of cash and work ceased in 1915. After a nine year shutdown the mine was reopened in 1924. The new company obtained permission to drive two new headings by another act of Parliament (Sydney Collieries Enabling Act, 1924), but these were never completed. Following continuing financial trouble the mine was reorganised in 1928 on a semi co-operative basis. The miners, operating as the Balmain Coal Contracting Company Ltd, agreed to take over running of mining operations and to supply the new company with coal at a certain price. Continuing industrial and financial troubles caused the Sydney Collieries Ltd to go into liquidation in February 1931, bringing coal mining operations at Balmain to an end.

In 1932 the Natural Gas & Oil Corporation Ltd issued a prospectus which stated that it was expected to find gas or oil if a bore was put down a further 1,200 metres below the bottom of the mine shafts. Two men were preparing the site for boring in January 1933 when an explosion occurred. They were severely burned and later died in Balmain Hospital. By 1937 the bore had reached 1,505 metres from the surface. No reservoir of gas was found and the gas flow was weak. During the war and after, the gas was compressed and sold as an industrial and motor fuel. In the peak year, 1944, over 3 million cubic metres of gas was produced. The last year of production was 1950. The property was sold in 1955.

After the shafts were capped, the site was used for wool stores and for ship repairs and maintenance. A housing development has since been constructed on the site. There have been several newspaper reports and questions in Parliament since about the site's safety but it is considered impossible for an explosion to occur. Most of the workings will have collapsed and filled with water. Access to the surface was blocked by 855 metres of fly ash from White Bay Power Station which was topped by concrete seals in 1957. Residences (left) now cover the shaft heads and mine site. UBD Map 9 Ref Q 4

Units in Birchgrove built on part of the Birchgrove coal mine site

Morts Bay from the coal mine poppet head

South side of Hodgson Avenue, Cremorne, the site of coal mining test bores

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