By Ellen Hill Photos: David Hill
(Continuing the story of the Hawkesbury River, we re-publish here an article that featured in the April-May 2009 edition of Blue Mountains Life magazine.)
THE last tendrils of fog swirl up to meet the golden rays of a weak winter sun, mirrored on the still surface of the water.
The occasional jumping fish makes a quiet “blip’’ noise. Birds twitter in the trees and skate across the gentle ripples before settling on the surface to float aimlessly with the tide.
This is Ted Books’ favourite time of day to cruise the Windsor section of the Hawkesbury River in his boat, the Montrose. He’s alone.
By mid-morning, the water twinkles in the glaring sun, the river a silver thread pulsing through colonial Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s kingdom with the monotony of routine.
Given the majestic Hawkesbury River has supported his family for five generations, you understand Books’ attachment to it.
As the boat gently bobs along the water, Books’ shares his memories and tells the history of the stretch he knows best _ the strip of water his famous colonial ancestors eventually learned they could not tame.
Ted Books is known for expressing a strong opinion and enjoying a chat. But he’s not known for being an emotional man. A former wrestler and retired excavator, he tends to say his bit in his no-nonsense way and leave it at that.
But aboard the Montrose, I not only see a different side to Books, but the river I have known most of my life.
“Sydney’s salad bowl’’, “Sydney’s playground’’, the Hawkesbury River has supported Australia’s largest city since European settlement.
For the handful of free settlers desperately trying to survive with virtually nothing in a foreign environment, the river was their transport, it watered them, their crops and animals.
In colonial times while chain gangs of convicts were still cutting roads by hand, the Hawkesbury River was the natural highway to Sydney Cove.
In fact, ships including the 101 ton Governor Bligh were actually built on the river. Two of Books’ ancestors _ Captain John Grono and Alexander Books _ had a shipyard at Pitt Town on Canning Reach, the remains of which can still be seen at low tide.
Among the 200 cargo vessel movements on the river each year were tall ships which took three inward tides (about 20 hours) to travel from Brooklyn at the mouth of the river to Windsor.
The 100 ton SS Erringhi was the last of the big ships to trade on the Hawkebsury River between the 1920s and 1937.
“I used to dive off the Windsor bridge and there used to be 30ft of water there,’’ Books says. “We used to dive off the bridge and go with the tide to Pitt Town, about 4 miles by water.’’
The Hawkesbury Nepean River is part of the vast 22,000 sq km Hawkesbury Nepean Catchment, stretching from Goulburn to Lithgow, Moonee Moonee, Pittwater and Singleton.
Its tributaries and creeks begin in the higher land of the Great Dividing Range, others in the highlands to the west of Wollongong and south of Sydney.
The Nepean begins in the Camden Valley near Moss Vale and becomes the Hawkesbury at Yarramundi after being joined by the Wollondilly River, on which Warragamba Dam, Sydney’s main drinking glass, was built in the 1950s.
From the 1870s, a series of dams was built on the Upper Nepean, south east of Camden and its tributaries the Cataract, Cordeaux and Avon Rivers.
The mighty Hawkesbury Nepean River ends at Juno Point at Broken Bay.
“Sydney would never survive without this river,’’ Books says. “This river is the playground for the city.’’
Every now and again Books stops the boat, points out a landmark, pulls out yet another packet of black and white photographs and tells the story of the place.
“See that place up there? That’s where Thomas Arndell (the first surgeon to the colony, he came out with the First Fleet) settled when he came to the Hawkesbury. His homestead’s still there.
“They built next to the river because it was clean water and there was fish.’’
The oldest church building in Australia is at Ebenezer, built from stone in 1803 by a small band of free settlers. The church used to run a punt across the river to transport people to church.
The water is deepest _ about 90ft _ nearby, opposite Tizzana Winery at Sackville Reach Wharf.
Glancing at the river banks from the boat, it seems not much has changed apart from technology. Irrigation pumps spew water across enormous paddocks of turf, veggies and flowers. The staccato bark of a dog sends drifting ducks into a flurry. The sun’s rays highlight the fur on a lowing cow staring with lazy interest at the boat. The ghostly figures of farm workers can be seen inside a row of greenhouses.
But then Books’ tale of how his dad and his mates used to catch more fish than they could eat up this stretch of the river is broken by the roar of a power boat towing a skier.
Books pauses and waits for silence to return before pointing out another historic property on the hill.
He revs up the engine and the Montrose slips on.
The river remains a great source of seafood: flathead, bream, mullet, hairtail, mullaway, whiting, flounder, tailor, snapper, trevally, blackfish, leatherjackets, kingfish, John Dory, shellfish and prawns.
It is also home to much bird life: shags, cormorants, kingfishers, ducks, sea eagles, pelicans and terns.
And down in the salt water near the river mouth at Brooklyn there are sharks, sea snakes, jellyfish, stingrays and fortescues.
Today, the Hawkebsury, Penrith and Baulkham Hills region along the river generates a whopping $1.86 billion worth of produce (not including the equine industry). Sydney chows through 90 per cent of it.
The vast quantities of fruit, vegetables and turf grown in the Hawkesbury have fed the entire Sydney population and beyond for generations.
The river is also a major tourist attraction used extensively for recreation (the annual Bridge to Bridge boat race attracts thousands). Tourism and recreation reap $2 billion a year, thanks to the river.
Three car ferries and several bridges provide crossings over the waterway.
Crowds of day trippers are drawn to popular swimming, fishing, water skiing and boating spots each weekend.
A startling white glare suddenly burns the retinas of our eyes. Deck chairs blindingly white in the sun, emerald green manicured lawns and landscaped yards, expensive boat sheds. The property listings at the local real estate agents would reveal that river frontages are also becoming private paradises for the wealthy.
But later, in the golden after glow of sunset, the birds and fish replay their evening ritual as the mist settles like a gossamer blanket over the water surface, melding with the gloom of dusk. The river continues to beat its slow rhythm of life just as it always has.
Words by Ellen Hill Photos by David Hill
The world-famous Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath hosted another historic milestone when 360 costumed dancers high kicked their way into history to smash their own Guinness World Record at the launch of the annual Roaring 20s Festival and all that Jazz on Saturday, February 7.
In the flamboyant yet elegant style of legendary former Hydro owner Mark Foy, the Blue Mountains Charleston Challenge and the following Majestic Long Lunch attracted hundreds of chicly-draped visitors.
Hydro Majestic co-owner Huong Nguyen said: “We at the Escarpment Group were very proud of the refurbishment of the buildings and were confident they were true to the Mark Foy style.
“But no amount of beautiful décor and furnishings can bring a building to life – we needed the laughter and chatter, the movement and essence of people in the hallways and rooms.
“We have had several successful events at the Hydro since October but the Charleston Challenge and the Majestic Long Lunch was the real clincher – the Hydro is back to its rightful place as a centre of fun and activity in the Blue Mountains.
“Congratulations to all the dancers who helped keep the Blue Mountains on the international stage.’’
The day began with the Blue Mountains Charleston Challenge on the lawns when 360 dancers aged from 3 to 92 and dressed in 1920s-style costume broke the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of costumed people to dance the Charleston. The event set the record with 276 in 2013, 319 in 2014 and aimed for 350 in 2015.
After the dance challenge, 250 guests indulged in decadent local fare at the Majestic Long Lunch in the Majestic Ballroom.
In Great Gatsby style, they spent a long afternoon grazing on gastronomical delights, promenading on the lawns and dancing to the 1920s-style band.
Hydro Majestic head chef Maté Herceg and other Blue Mountains food heroes prepared a feast from regional food.
An antipasto platter from award-winning Princess Pantry featured meats and locally grown vegetables. Maté showcased his culinary skills with a memorable main course, followed by delicious cheeses from the Carrington Cellars & Deli. The finale of the feast was a wickedly indulgent dessert from Josophan’s Fine Chocolates.
Guests included Australian food and wine identity and Majestic Long Lunch ambassador Lyndey Milan OAM, Roaring 20s Festival ambassador Claudia Chan Shaw, festival patron Charlotte Smith and a host of food and wine writers.
“To have interest from specialist food and wine industry media and a sell-out event is testament to the quality of food produce in this region,’’ Ms Nguyen said.
“That is why we are so confident about the success of the new providores pavilion at the Hydro Majestic, where visitors can buy their own taste of the Greater Blue Mountains food basket.’’
Blue Mountains Lithgow & Oberon Tourism’s Roaring 20s Festival continues throughout the Blue Mountains, Lithgow and Oberon region until February 22. (Details: www.roaring20s.com.au)
The Roaring 20s Festival events were part of a continuing program of events and entertainment at the Hydro Majestic Hotel including the weekly Live at the Hydro gigs featuring high calibre acts such as Dragon, Adam Cohen, Diesel, Wendy Matthews and Christine Anu.
Go to www.hydromajestic.com.au for more information about events, dining and accommodation at the Hydro Majestic Hotel.
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.