Commemorating the discovery of coal in Australia

  • By Graham Pryor FAusIMM, Secretary, Mineral Heritage Subcommittee of the Illawarra Branch

A new plaque commemorating the discovery of coal was unveiled late last year by the Lord Mayor of Wollongong on behalf of the AusIMM Illawarra Branch.

Coal was discovered in the Illawarra in May 1797 when shipwrecked sailors walked from southern Victoria along the coastline to reach Port Jackson in Sydney. They found coal on the shore between Austinmer and Coalcliff and burned lumps of coal to keep warm while they slept that night. This was the first discovery of coal to be reported to the Governor of the Colony of NSW.

That discovery of coal in Australia was confirmed by Dr George Bass who sailed to the Illawarra in a whaleboat with a small crew. His report includes a description of the 2.1 metre thick coal seam he found at Coalcliff. Bass returned to Port Jackson with three bags of coal and Governor Hunter sent samples of coal via the ship Britannia to Sir Joseph Banks in England.

The plaque

This new plaque replaces the original plaque erected in 1996 by the Illawarra Branch on Platform 2 at Thirroul Railway Station. That site was chosen as it is a major transport hub close to the coastline where coal was discovered. Although the original plaque has faded with time, it is now mounted on a wall next to the office of Thirroul Station Master Michael Keelan who is a keen supporter of local history.

The new plaque (click for larger image).

The new plaque is made from stainless steel and printed using technology that makes it more legible. It was funded by the Illawarra Branch and its Mineral Heritage Subcommittee. The plaque is doubled sided so it can be viewed from both sides on Platform 2.

Original ‘Discovery of Coal’ plaque now in waiting room on Platform 1 (click for larger image).

Booklet about the discovery of coal in Australia

The Lord Mayor of Wollongong also launched a new booklet about the Discovery of Coal in Australia, published by the Mineral Heritage Subcommittee of the AusIMM Illawarra Branch.

Coal mining in the Illawarra

Although coal was discovered in the Illawarra in May 1797, it was more than 50 years later before mining commenced. Mount Keira Colliery was the first coal mine in the Illawarra. It began mining in 1849 and its success led to more coal mines opening along the coastal escarpment. By 1900, 12 collieries employing 2,300 men were operating along the coastline from Mount Kembla in the south to Balmain in the north. In 1907 there were 10 cokeworks operating in the Illawarra. They supplied coke for smelting metal ores and later for making steel at the Port Kembla steelworks.

Coal proved to be an essential resource for the industrial development of Australia.

Feature image: Ron Cairns, Graham Pryor, Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery, MP Ryan Park, Micheal Keelan and Andy Hubscher at the unveiling.

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