06- Mining Tunnels
Subterranean Sydney
One of the earliest mines dug in Sydney was a tunnel that existed for many years at Long Reef. This underground way, which eventually fell in, is shown on Mines Department maps but nobody is quite sure who dug it, when they dug it, or even why they dug it.
One claim is that it was a copper mine dug by James Jenkins who died in 1835 and owned Long Reef during the 1820s.


Most high school geology students in New South Wales know that the coal basin which is mined at Lithgow, Newcastle, and Wollongong runs deep under Sydney. But it is not generally known that there was once a coal mine under Sydney Harbour itself. The surface works were on the site now owned by Howard Smith Industries, next to the Birchgrove Primary School. The Sydney Harbour Colliery, as it was then known, began operations in 1897. The last coal was mined in 1931. At the time, it was the deepest coal
mine ever to operate in Australia.
However, it was not a commercial success. Working conditions were poor and the mine suffered a couple of disastrous accidents. The property was sold in 1955 and the shafts were filled in and sealed two years later.
Coal was discovered very early in European settlement. Even as early as 1797, shipwrecked sailors found coal at Coalcliff near the present site of Wollongong, and later in
the same year the explorer George Bass confirmed their discovery.
The year 1797, too, was the date that Lieutenant John Shortland is credited with
finding coal on the Hunter River, near the present site of Newcastle.
After the crossing of the Blue Mountains, in 1813, coal was found in the west and the
idea was formed of a continuous coal basin centred on Sydney. Predictions were made
that coal existed under Sydney, but there was disagreement about its depth. One incentive
to find Sydney coal was the high cost of transporting coal from Newcastle, even then. But
since in those days prospecting for coal had been by finding outcrops in creeks and cliffs
or by slow and expensive sinking of shafts, it was not until the introduction of the diamond drill that there was any practical way of proving the existence of coal there.
Diamond drills for mineral exploration were brought into Australia in the late 1870s
and, as a result, many bores were put down around Sydney to search for the hoped-for
coal. Some of the sites chosen were Liverpool, Rose Bay, the Hawkesbury River, Newington on the Parramatta River; Moore Park, and Narrabeen.

The bore under Narrabeen Lakes was made at Deep Creek in the 1880s. At 494 metres
they reached a seam of chocolate shale with carbonate of iron modules. This bore was
finally taken down to the considerable depth of 769 metres
A report on natural gas and coal at Narrabeen on 23 June 1889 reveals that a bore put down by a Mr Coglan showed there was enough gas to be collected at ,603 metres. The report concludes that there was probably coal under the Narrabeen Lakes at a workable distance from the surface.
Yet another person who looked for coal in the early days of settlement was the Rev. J.J.
Therry, the pioneer Roman Catholic priest who had interests in the Avalon area over a hundred years ago. He is reported to have sunk a 120-metre bore in a vain search for coal where the Avalon golf course is today.
The first to win economic coal was the Helensburg bore in 1884. This led to the opening up of the Metropolitan Colliery which is still in production.
In 1890-1891, the Sydney and Port Hacking Coal Company bored at Cremorne, with the help of a government subsidy and at 900 metres reached a three-metre seam of coal. The trouble was it had been turned into cinder by a volcanic dyke!
Professor David, a noted geologist at the University of Sydney, urged that a second bore should be put down. He was proved right when the second bore, sunk in 1892-1893 at Cremorne, reached a good seam at about a thousand meters. One shaft was located about the present corner of Cremorne Road and Hodgson Road. The other was about ninety metres from where Milson Road now joins Cremorne Road.
The company having finally proved the existence of coal, and with a title, granted in 1878, to mine under the waters of Sydney Harbour, now had to look for a site for its surface workings.

Those considered were Kurraba Point near Neutral Bay, Balls Head, and two on Bradleys Head. The proposed plan for one of the Bradleys Head sites, on Little Sirius Cove, showed an area for miners' cottages, a reservoir, and a forty-metre smoke stack. This is now Taronga Park. However, hostility of local property owners opposed to the extension of industry to the north shore caused the Government to reject all these sites. Finally, the Birchgrove site was bought in 1895 for $15 000.
Sinking of the first shaft, named the "Birthday", started in June 1897, and was completed in November 1902. This and the second shaft, the "Jubilee", were five metres in
diameter and fully-lined with more than four million bricks. Other heavy expenses were the cost of surface-machinery and buildings and the reclamation of a wharf which provided nine metres of water at low tide.

Steel head-gear used at the Birthday Shaft, Birchgrove.

The sinking of the shafts did not go smoothly, though. A disastrous accident occurred in March 1900, while sinking the Birthday Shaft, when six men were being lowered in a
bucket. This was tipped over by an obstruction in the shaft wall and threw out five of them. They fell 130 metres to the bottom. The sinkers also went on strike in 1902 and 1905.
Finally after a full five years of sinking, coal was eventually struck at 900 metres but was split into several thin seams, the largest being less than a metre. This was certainly not encouraging to the English directors of the largely English-owned company, and the company was reconstructed as a New South Wales company in 1903.

A decision was then made to head towards the successful Cremorne bore where the Directors hoped the seams would join. The seam did improve, to two metres in places, but long drives still had to be made under Balmain before much coal at all could be won. The company had title to mine only under the Harbour and public reserves and a special act of Parliament (Sydney Harbour Collieries Act of 1903) had to be passed to allow these drives. These went under the slipway at Morts Dock in spite of that company's complaints. The "longwall" method of mining was used. In Australia, the usual method of mining coal has been "bore and pillar" in which drives and cross cuts are made leaving pillars of coal. The proportion of coal recovered by this method when pillars are not extracted is about forty per cent. Mines Department regulations provide that a certain proportion of coal should be left as pillars, this proportion increasing with depth of workings. At 700 metres, eighty-five per cent of the coal seam had to be left as pillars. At Balmain's depth, the requirements would have been over ninety per cent which, especially with a thin seam, could not possibly have allowed economic working. Even before striking the disappointingly thin seam, the company's Management had decided that an alternative form of mining, "longwall" should be used. The site of the shaft leading to the Balmain Coal Mine is now occupied by Howard Smith Industries Pty. Ltd.

In the longwall advancing version used at Balmain, a long, continuous face was advanced, extracting all of the coal, and the roof allowed to fall behind. Access roads were kept open with stone pack walls gained by "brushing" the low roof. With such a thin seam, much stone would have had to be removed anyway so that the roof was high enough in the access road to allow passage of men, horses and coal. However, the company never managed to produce enough coal to get a cash flow large enough to offset its huge capital costs. The company simply ran out of cash, and work ceased in 1915.

There was a nine-year shutdown before the mine was re-opened in 1924. The existing headings were inadequate for transport and increasingly inadequate for ventilation as the working face advanced further from the shafts. The new company obtained permission to drive two new headings by another act of parliament (Sydney Collieries Enabling Act, 1924), but these were never completed. Following continuing financial trouble, the mine was reorganised in 1928 on a semi-co-operative basis. The miners, operating as the Balmain Coal Contracting Company Ltd., agreed to take over the running of the mining operations and to supply the new company with coal at a certain price. There was some hostility from Miners' Federation branches in the other coalfields, particularly because the contract specified fork-filled -that is "large" coal -and accusations were made that wage rates were lower and that working conditions were being broken down.

The co-operative scheme was, in fact, temporarily successful during the lock-out on the northern coalfield which, for a while, reversed the usual situation of oversupply in the coal industry. Wages were reduced to pay the salaries of the surface hands, who were not members of the contracting company. Continuing industrial and financial troubles caused the Sydney Collieries Ltd. to go into liquidation in February 1931, and that was the end of coal mining operations at Balmain.
Working conditions had always been poor at the Balmain mine. It was hot, dusty, and . gassy. The roof tended to break away and the floor heaved up. Coal being worked on the face broke away unevenly. The dust could not be laid by water sprays because the humidity would have been unbearable at the working temperature of 3yC. The high temperature followed from the depth of the mine and the poor ventilation. By 1931, the working face was almost three-quarters of a kilometre from the ventilation shaft.
A letter written to the Labour Daily in 1924 gives one miner's impression of working in the mine: "The cage in which we go down this deep shaft appears to have outlived its usefulness. Some of the side plates are eaten through with rust. It is still used for lowering and raising men -thirty-six at a time. When we step on the cage to go into this living tomb, we do not know but that the day may be our last. Much of our risk could be remedied, but profits stand in the way.
"A few yards from the shaft bottom we have several minutes to get our eyes accustomed to the dungeon-like darkness of our surroundings. Then we start in single file –a stream of men about seventy in number. The dust begins to rise from under our feet and we are in a cloud due to horse refuse and stone dust.

"There's no side-stepping the foulness of it.
"After the best part of an hour's walk under beautiful Sydney Harbour, we reach, in a
half-dazed state, the coal face. Dripping with perspiration, we begin to get our drapery
By gee, Scotty!' a mate of mine will say, 'She's hot -a regular furnace'.
"The work on this longwall face is so dangerous a man is always on his guard. Broken
roof is the most awkward feature of this particular job. This means that it is always
broken in the face. Every miner knows how much more this difficulty adds to his work of
cutting coal. Apart from watching your life and limbs, the miner has to see that none of
this stone gets in among his coal. If it does, you are treated as not trustworthy and rewarded with the boot."
The mine had a feeble extension of life as a producer of methane gas which, before its final sealing, caused two serious accidents.
In 1932, the Natural Gas & Oil Corporation Ltd. issued a prospectus which stated that
it was expected to find gas or oil if a bore was put down a further 1000 metres below the bottom of the mine shafts.
The property was sold in 1955 to Grascos Co-operative Ltd. Each shaft had been filled with fly ash from White Bay Power Station and concrete seals placed on the shaft heads by 1957. There have been several newspaper reports and questions in parliament since, but it is considered impossible for an explosion to occur. Most of the workings have probably
collapsed and filled with water and access to the surface of gas is blocked by 1000 metres of ash topped by seals, and now also by buildings.
After the war the Joint Coal Board did give consideration to reopening the mine for coal production. This was rejected because working conditions would have prevented mechanisation, the workings would have collapsed, surface equipment was worn out or had been sold, and the area able to be worked from the existing shafts was too small to be economic.
With the increasing demand for energy, which can be met in part by coal, mining will be carried on in deeper and deeper parts of the Sydney Basin. At present, mines in the southwestern coalfield are working at over 500 metres. It seems certain that coal will eventually be mined again at a depth of over 700 metres not far from Sydney.

Pit Head of Balmain Coal Mine.

This section is based on the excellent book by Brian and Barbara Kennedy. (Subterranean Sydney (The Real Underworld of Sydney Town), Reed, Sydney, 1982. ISBN 0 589 50312 X). Copyright Brian and Barbara Kennedy and Reed Publishing.
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