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Ironfest: shifting gears for Lithgow


 

Steampunk inventor Bruce Hodsdon of Ingleburn at the 16th annual Ironfest at Lithgow Showground. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Steampunk inventor Bruce Hodsdon of Ingleburn at the 16th annual Ironfest at Lithgow Showground. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

By Ellen Hill                                       Photos: David Hill

“We have an executioner on duty. He’s explaining his craft to someone – it seems to work.’’

Emcee Friar Craig Batty has been whipping up the peasants with outrageous one-liners for years.

“Medieval torturers: the only people allowed to be drunk at work’’; “The grandstand is a designated bomb shelter; “It’s okay to get killed, just not injured – there’s too much paperwork’’.

Steampunker Augustus Smoke at the 16th annual Ironfest at Lithgow Showground. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Steampunker Augustus Smoke at the 16th annual Ironfest at Lithgow Showground. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

He continues as the ominous vibration of a procession of World War II vehicles take to the racetrack.

“There is an attack imminent,’’ Batty blares.

“Do please cover your ears and close your mouth as the firing starts.’’

Under thunderous skies, a medieval knight decked out in iron helmet and chainmail covers his ears while a French damsel in a cylinder caul headdress takes a picture on a smart phone and gluts of Steampunkers cheer and stamp their feet, trinkets and baubles jangling and glass eye pieces glinting.

Crowds of voyeurs in jeans and caps gawp in amazement at the mish-mash of history and unabashed exhibitionism surrounding them.

“Don’t stand too close to the fence or you might get hit,’’ Batty booms.

A camera drone buzzes overhead capturing the whole spectacle.

“The aerial attack has been thwarted. The displacements from Lithgow Small Arms Factory saw them off.’’

The crowd murmurs and shuffles in anticipation for the next instalment.

“Where else can you go to have your children disembowelled?’’

The Kingdom of Ironfest, in a windswept valley in Australia’s first industrial heart, Lithgow just west of the Great Divide, that’s where.

For 16 years, long before Game of Thrones, Vikings, Marco Polo and the like, the secret lives of those who cover inhibition with costumes have been played out in a surreal real-life fantasy for all to witness at Lithgow Showground.

The “Festival with a metal edge’’ has strayed slightly from its original intention of showcasing metal art and celebrating Lithgow’s industrial heritage.

These days there are fewer medieval groups and more Steampunk. Regardless, the event attracts an ever increasing number of people eager to transform from bland to brazen.

Chainmail jewellery maker Tamara Dalrymple of Blacktown, who attended Ironfest with partner Graeme Paterson, said: “When I dress up I can be myself.’’

Kendall Bailey of Redfern in her extravagent rendition of Maleficent. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Kendall Bailey of Redfern in her extravagent rendition of Maleficent. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Like every hard core cosplayer Kendall Bailey of Redfern knew her costume would create a stir amongst the watchers.

Resplendent in gold medieval-style gown, cosmetic cheekbones, towering horns and wings with a 1m span, she faced a wall of lenses at every step as her interpretation of silver screen character Maleficent.

“It’s one way you can do art without having to publish it, and everyone can enjoy it,’’ she says.

For Steampunkers Natalie and Ray Everton it’s a family activity they enjoy with sons Joshua, 16, and Fletcher, 10.

Deesh strides through the lush grass besides the row of Australian colonial era canvass tents, her navy blue medieval gown flapping in the wind, her dark hair playing around her face. She looks exquisitely regal.

Her slim frame is deceptive: Deesh is an expert – and ruthless – swordswoman, capable of packing and taking a bone-jarring wallop.

Swordsman Rob Lyon of Sydney prepares for battle. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Swordsman Rob Lyon of Sydney prepares for battle. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Partner Rob Lyon used to be satisfied playing Dungeons & Dragons.

These days, he likes a more robust game – sword play.

“Some people don’t like to be hit hard but I like to be flogged so I know I’ve been hit,’’ he says.

“You can be whatever and whoever you want to be. Some people take it to the enth degree.’’

John Pettigrew from Tamborine, Brisbane, likes the Viking era. With cascading grew/white hair and beard, he is on the road six months of the year peddling drinking horns on the re-enactors festival circuit.

“My wife passed away four years so there’s nothing to keep me at home now,’’ he says.

“I like the Viking period but I’m damn sure I wouldn’t like to live in it. The average age was only about 24; very few would have gotten to see their grandkids; there was disease everywhere. It was a hard life all round.’’

For mechanical engineer Bruce Hodsdon of Ingleburn, Steampunk is all about the detail: “Too much glass is never enough.

“I like to look at that things and think: `That can actually work’.’’

Ironfest is as much about a gathering of artists, re-enactors and cosplayers as it is about an industrial town emerging from its time languishing in the shadow of the hulking golden Greater Blue Mountains escarpment.

Viking John Pettigrew of Tamborine, Brisbane. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Viking John Pettigrew of Tamborine, Brisbane. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Dotted with gritty industrial sites such as the Blast Furnace ruin, the Small Arms Factory and State Mine Museum, the largely working class population is reeling from the recent and imminent closures of its main employers – the coal mines and the power station.

Rather than wallowing in self-pity, Lithgow Council has implemented a range of morale-boosting initiatives.

Efforts to reinvigorate the town centre with murals, shop window displays and retail competitions aim to encourage local business while events such as Lithglo lighting show and Halloween encourage town pride and foster community spirit.

The plan has paid off, along with a new focus on local tourism.

The fact that the town’s first female Mayor Maree Statham supports these events in spectacular style must surely help too.

 

Magnificent in head-to-toe Steampunk costume with trademark coral coloured lipstick and immaculate coif, Madam Mayor made a jaw-dropping debut on the dress-up stage at the 2014 Ironfest and was unrecognisable in a red mask and cape at Halloween.

“I do it for Lithgow,’’ she says, again in full Steampunk attire.

The success of Ironfest, which began when metal artist Macgregor Ross convinced about 200 mates to turn up to the inaugural festival 16 years ago, is testament to that – about 16,000 attended on the April 18-19 weekend.

Detail work of the Steampunk outfit adorning the elegant Mayor of Lithgow Maree Statham. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Detail work of the Steampunk outfit adorning the elegant Mayor of Lithgow Maree Statham. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Icy rain begins to fall like medieval arrows from the sky, the freezing droplets stinging the eyes as they splosh on bodies unprepared for damp rising from beneath and suffocating fog bearing down from above.

Kids wearing Roman helmet-style beanies, wielding plastic swords and lance splinter mementos burrow into fleecy hoodies, stuff mottled hands into denim pockets and trudge slowly through the wrought iron gates of the showground.

Behind them, fantastic characters pull woollen capes tightly around themselves as they wander through the makeshift campground: members of Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s own 73rd Regiment in their red and white colonial uniforms chat with those of the Australian Armoured Vehicle Association while Danish wenches prepare hearty meals in cast iron pots and the kings of the joust brush down their steeds.

The stalls are battened down and the blacksmith fires doused until next time.

But next time is not next year. For these folk, Ironfest is not a one-off event. It is a mobile playground filled with every character of the imagination.

Members of the Macquarie's 73rd Regiment re-enactment group (l-r) Simon Fowler and Lea Barnett study an antique from the period. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Members of the Macquarie’s 73rd Regiment re-enactment group (l-r) Simon Fowler and Lea Barnett study an antique from the period. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

The weird and the whimsical roam the nation in search of playmates.

They cross paths (and swords) at the Australian Celtic Festival at Glen Innes in April, Rowany Festival in April, My Lords and Ladies Medieval Fayre at Doonside in May, Winterfest Sydney Medieval Faire at Parramatta in June and St Ives Medieval Faire in September.

They re-convene at Abbey Medieval Festival in Queensland in July, Gumeracha Medieval Fair in South Australia in May and Balingup Medieval Carnival in Western Australia in August.

They are the ones who have courage to act out their fantasies and breathe fire through their inner St George’s dragon while the rest of us gaze with jealous eyes from beneath safe floppy fringes in wonder and wish we too could unleash our inner Captain Victoria Winter-Buckingham, don squeaky leather corsetry, adjust our decorative cogs and pose ever so politely for photos.

 

 

Go to www.ironfest.net for more information about Ironfest and Lithgow Tourism for more details on other events in the area.

Go to www.deephill.com.au to see Deep Hill Media coverage of Ironfest throughout the years.

* David and Ellen Hill received complimentary into the Ironfest event

Steampunkers and their bling. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media

Steampunkers and their bling. Photo: David Hill, Deep Hill Media


Blasting History: Lithgow Blast Furnace


By Ellen Hill      Photos: David Hill

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

William Sandford, 1907

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.

(l-r) Tom Thornley and father William Thornley, early 1900's.

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.