The deepest coal mine ever worked in Australia was on the waterfront in Sydney’s inner western suburbs. This week we took a look into the pit of a surprisingly little known historical industrial site.
Coal was an important component for 19th century industry and to have a ready supply in the centre of Sydney would have been of huge benefit to local factories and exporters. In 1874, following up on theories that the existence of coal seams in the Illawarra and Hunter meant that it must also run under Sydney, Mr RD Adams applied for mining rights for over 10,000 acres under Sydney Harbour. This covered virtually the entire harbour area.
His first exploratory bores were sunk in Newington and Botany in 1878, then Moore Park in 1879, followed by Narrabeen and Rose Bay in 1880 – none struck coal. However bore shafts at Helensburgh, Sutherland and Moorebank did. In 1890 a syndicate was formed to mine the seam and in September 1890, the Sydney and Port Hacking Coal Company Ltd first began boring for coal at Cremorne Point on Sydney’s lower north shore. The coal they found about 850 metres below the surface was of poor quality and so a second shaft was sunk in 1893 nearby, with much more successful results. It was estimated that there was over 113 million tons of excellent coal available, making it one of the largest possible mine sites in the Southern Hemisphere at that time. Cremorne however was already becoming an increasingly wealthy residential area, and strong protests about the presence of a coal mine, along with difficulties in the depth of the harbour for shipping, mean that in 1896 the project was abandoned and new ways of accessing the seam were explored.
The new site selected was on the other side of the harbour on the Balmain peninsula at Birchgrove. At this time Balmain was a working class area with an existing shipbuilding industry. The site for the mine was ideally located on the end of the peninsula, with ships able to load coal direct from the pit. In 1896 work on sinking shafts and building the surface works began, and the newly renamed Sydney Harbour Collieries Ltd opened the ‘Birthday’ shaft in 1897 and the ‘Jubilee’ shaft in 1902 (both named in honour of Queen Victoria). The shafts were 5.5 metres in diameter and were fully lined with more than four million bricks.
Although the mine was closed between 1915 and 1923, by 1926 it employed over 350 men, 200 underground. Not all of these worked at the narrow coal face – the rest were employed laying tramlines, timbering tunnels and other essential site works. With no ventilation under the sea, the work was hot, dirty and often dangerous, with a number of fatal accidents recorded during its working life.
The heat and humidity were such that at least some of the miners were reported to work in the nude. As one reporter said in 1926 ‘what does it matter? There is no one to shock’. Cleaning a miner’s work clothes would have been an arduous task too.The mine workings were run by electricity, with elevators to take the men up and down the 900 metre shaft, electric lights and battery lamps lit the underground brick tunnel entrance and the long tunnel that ran half a mile to the workings, with electrical motors driving the pumps and the tramway. Close to the face, pit ponies were used to haul the coal-skips to the tramway. The ponies lived and worked underground, never seeing the light of day.
In August 1926, Oswald Anderson, manager of the radio station 2FC (better known today as the ABC’s Radio National), ran one of his legendary broadcasting stunts, taking the 17th Area B Military Band and the Sydney Harmonic Male Voice Choir down the mine to a point three-quarters of a mile from the entrance to the main drive, and over 900 metres below sea level, from where their performances were successfully broadcast to radio listeners across New South Wales. Sadly no recordings exist.
The mine closed in the 1931 when its owners went into liquidations. Some largely unsuccessful attempts to find gas followed, but evenutally in the 1950s the Birthday and Jubilee shafts were filled in with fly ash from the nearby White Bay Power Station and concrete seals placed on the shaft heads. The site is now occupied by Hopetoun Quays, a development of more than a hundred townhouses.
Read more about the Balmain Colliery in Dr Neil Radford’s article on the Dictionary of Sydney here: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/balmain_colliery
Mark Dunn is the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!