Blasting History: Lithgow Blast Furnace
THE faint sound of metal tapping rhythmically against metal and the distant shrill ring of a telephone is a fitting background theme song for the towering ramparts of the Lithgow Blast Furnace ruins.
Rising from the hill overlooking the town, the carcass of what was Australia’s first and only inland heavy industrial centre displays an almost superior air despite its decay.
Shrugging off the reason for their abandonment nearly 70 years ago, the ruins stand as a demonstration against progress and time with an insolent attitude of what they represent, not what they have become.
It was here that the first iron and steel in Australia were cast.
FROM THE BEGINNING
The Lithgow Blast Furnace was built by William Sandford in 1906-1907.
However, iron smelting in Lithgow began more than 20 years previously in October 1875 under the direction of Enoch Hughes at a foundry built on Thomas Brown’s Esk Bank property where ore was found just beneath the surface. Hughes also encouraged Cobb and Co principal shareholder and manager James Rutherford of Bathurst, Canadian railway engineer Dan Williams and Public Works Minister John Sutherland to join him in this steel making venture. By the end of 1876 the blast furnace was producing more than 100 tons of pig-iron a week.
However, it soon became clear that the operation would be limited by cheap imports transported to the colony as ship’s ballast. The mill carried on for a while under a co-operative system but eventually failed.
Frustrated at the lack of government support of local industries, Rutherford blew up the blast furnace with two dray loads of blasting powder.
William Sandford, who was associated with the early steel making operations in Mittagong, took over the lease from Rutherford in 1886 (he bought the works in 1892). He revived the business initially by puddling Australia’s first steel in 1900.
A strong lobbyist for Lithgow industry, Sandford urged the State Government to use only locally produced iron and steel. The government complied, and in 1904 sought tenders from America, Europe and Australia to supply it with iron and steel – on the condition that all operations used local ores and all works were located within NSW.
Sandford was awarded the contract in 1907 but then found he could not fulfil it.
In a letter to his son Tom dated June 24, 1907, blast furnace manager William Thornley wrote: “…we have had very great trouble in keeping up with our contract, as a matter of fact our plant is not nearly large enough to carry out the contract satisfactorily’’.
The size of the operation wasn’t Thornley’s only gripe. He was scathing in his opinion of the workforce at the iron works and directed Tom to scour factories for more labourers during his travels throughout England. Thornley even gave Tom the names of men to approach and wrote that if the government did not cover the cost of their fares the company would.
“The men we have, have, no experience, and do not seem willing to be shown, they are more interested in trying to draw money from the firm without giving equivalent value…
“If you come across any men during your travels who would like to come to Australia, and who have had experience on the basic open hearth furnaces, second hands, or even third would do, if the men are intelligent and likely workmen.’’
Thornley was also disappointed in the quality of work produced at the steel works.
“The results from the Steel Furnaces are not anything like we could reasonably expect,’’ he wrote. “Unfortunately our men are not accustomed to Basic working and we have been much hampered through not having sufficient Dolomite. We have been using the local stuff, but, it does not equal the important in some respects.’’
Thornley recommended an expansion of the Lithgow works.
“If we had the furnaces and one or two spare producers we could keep the work constantly going’’ and turn out an average of 400-500 tons of steel a week, he estimated.
Sandford took Thornley’s advice and built a new blast furnace, paid for with a hefty bank overdraft. Officially opened on May 13, 1907, the new 1000 tons/week capacity furnace was built specifically to smelt iron from ore near the railway about 1km away from the Eskbank Colliery.
However, William Sandford Ltd soon ran into financial strife and, under the threat of bank foreclosure, handed the reigns over to George and Cecile Hoskins at the end of 1907.
There were also clashes within management, with Thornley complaining to his son Tom about the amount of limestone another manager had been adding to the finished iron.
“When you were here, the blame for everything that Mr [blast furnace manager] could find it possible to blame anyone for, fell on you, since you have left he has been trying to fix blame on me, which, of course I quite expected.’’
(Mr Thornley left the blast furnace in 1908 and established his own successful engineering, iron founders, blacksmith and machine tool manufacturing company at Sydenham, W. Thornley & Sons Pty Ltd, which operated until 1990.)
Under the new owners G&C Hoskins Ltd, the ironworks eventually underwent substantial changes. The Hoskins persuaded the government to pay a bounty for Australian-produced steel. They then moved their operations from Rhodes in Sydney to Lithgow.
The brothers also had Sandford’s struggling government contract transferred to them and extended until the end of 1916. They then built 80 coke ovens and a second blast furnace at the eastern end of the site in 1913, followed by 15 more coke ovens.
Lithgow’s monopoly on iron smelting was seriously dented by BHP, which opened its Newcastle plant in 1915.
However, the outbreak of WWI, specifically the opening of a small arms factory in Lithgow, was a boon for the company which continued to expand. A fifth blowing engine was added to the original furnace in 1923. At 400 tons, it was the largest in Australia.
By that stage, Lithgow had long been renowned for its steel production, with thousands of tons of steel produced for the Trans-Australia Railway. In the first year of production, the steel works treated 51,000 tons of ore and employed 632 people. By 1926 the steel furnaces had turned out 178,000 tons of ore, resulting in 105,000 tons of pig iron.
Nevertheless, in the mid-1920s, it was decided to move operations to Port Kembla where the natural resource and transport network were more attractive.
Coke, limestone and iron ore needed for the operation was originally sourced from Lithgow and surrounds but it was not an endless supply. Extra metallurgical coke had to be brought in from the south coast at great cost, exacerbated by the 10 per cent State Government railway freight charge hike in 1919. Together with the western district’s inability to supply enough quality ore resulted in the demise of the Lithgow iron and steel industry.
The Hoskins abandoned the blast furnace in 1928, joined the Australian Iron and Steel Company and set up works at Port Kembla. In 1932 the blast furnaces were removed from the Lithgow site and the last employees dismissed.
With the closure of the Lithgow smelters also came the cessation of a nearby iron ore mine taken over by the Hoskins in 1907 and used for the smelter.
WHAT STATE TODAY?
Lithgow Council bought the wedge-shaped Inch St site in 1988 and opened it to the public as The Lithgow Blast Furnace Park.
Today, visitors can picnic among the remains of the pump house and the furnace foundations.
They can wander freely around the base of the brick chimney stack and walk over great iron bottom plates and the pig bins and even crawl inside the brick material bunker tunnels.
The foundations of No.2 furnace and its four stoves remain, along with the brick base for the chimney stack; the footings for the second Parsons turbo-blower, the rail embankment in the south-west corner, the rail bridge over Inch St and the bolts for the boiler stacks.
Remnants of the third Parsons turbo-blower are still there with the footings for the Thompson engine, other extensions to the engine house, footings of the pig-breaking machinery and footings for its gantries.
And for those who are interested, the faces of Sandford, Thornley and others gaze back at them from the information boards dotted around the site, reminders of Lithgow’s golden age at the forefront of Australia’s industrial revolution.
Sources: Lithgow Public School 1947; Heritage Council of NSW; Draft Economic Development Strategy for Lithgow by Economic and Community Development Class, University of Sydney October 1996; Furnace, Fire & Forge (Light Railway Research Society of Australia Inc); Thornley family archives.