Within five years of the first copper production at Electrolytic Refining and Smelting in 1909, war in Europe was looming.

As a result, in 1914 the Federal government became most concerned at the potential loss to Australia of supply sources for a range of metal products – and in particular those of significance to the newly-important fields of communications, and electric power reticulation.

While discussions had already taken place about the further processing of basic materials such as copper in Australia, the Prime Minister now expressed it as a matter of “urgent national concern”.

MM Products, ca 1966
Courtesy of the University of Wollongong Library (Metal Manufactures Ltd: A Golden Jubilee History, 1916 – 1966) Collection)
MM (in foreground) adjacent to ER&S, ca 1920
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society Collections)

Local companies responded, developing links with British cable manufacturers one of which (British Insulated and Helsby Cables Ltd) provided some capital and more importantly, the initial expertise on which to develop an Australian cable manufacturing industry.

That was to be developed on a site adjacent to ER&S, and be known as Metal Manufactures.

The firm was established in early 1916, with Mt Morgan, Hampden and Cloncurry mining firms and ER&S as local partners. Its founding capital was £200,000, with 60,000 shares issued initially, of which Mt Morgan held 20,000. Later that year, Mt Lyell Mining & Railway Company Ltd was the recipient of a further 20,000 newly issued shares. Factory construction was well under way in 1917, on no small scale – one of the buildings being over 400 feet long, and the overall facility designed to cater for up to 2,000 workers. Shipping difficulties with equipment though meant that it was mid 1918 before the first copper wire was produced (IM 210618). Production developed steadily, and markets were reasonably assured, the government having given, through the Post Office, a supply contract for all the copper cables required by government agencies. Copper wire was the principal product in demand, 3000 tons being produced in 1923.

Boys and Girls at Work

Telephone cable production led to the first hiring of females on shift work at the MM site in 1923. The Illawarra Mercury noted that “[t]he rates of pay were to range from £1 per week for girls under 17 years of age, up to £2 per week for girls over 21 years.” There was much contention over female shiftwork, including issues relating to safe night travel.

It would appear that young males were also employed on the cable insulating machines, as the Illawarra Mercury reported on 18 July of the following year that “[t]he boys and girls employed on the paper lapping machines in the Telephone Cable Factory…came out on strike on Tuesday last.”

Copper Tube Production

Production from the new facility grew early. Over the next few years however the world economy slipped into depression, and times became much harder with government expenditure in all areas seeing major reductions. MM in response developed a new market area for itself, that of copper tubing – tubes of all sizes, shapes and uses, from large turbine condenser tubes through to refrigeration tubing. Tubing was in fact to remain as the most enduring product of the site.

A Popular Figure

In July 1925, Harold Greenwood, the founding General Manager of MM, died. He had come from England to start the enterprise, and had seen employment numbers grow from an initial 100 men to 900 personnel at the time of his death. He was a popular figure in the community and the company and, notably for the day, had been active in promoting good working and living conditions for employees. Newspaper reports of visits to the plant mentioned favourably the plant’s gardens, and general condition.

Interestingly, as early as 1937, the plant had ‘safety boards’ erected as large public notices, where current safety statistics of the plant were displayed literally for all to see – a practice which was only to become a standard safety approach elsewhere some good number of years later.

Wire wrapping
(Courtesy Metal Manufactures Ltd)
Safety Board,Metal Manufactures 1939
(Courtesy of Metal Manufactures Ltd,1939 Gazette.)

Three Main Production Operations

The plant by 1927 consisted of three main sections – a wire and cable factory, a tube factory, and a telephone cable factory. The wire and cable plant could produce wire, cable, bars, rod and strips, at an output up to 10,000 tons/year. The tube factory (comprising a brass foundry, piercing machines, drawbenches to draw out tube, furnaces, saws and other ancillary machinery) was capable of producing 2,000 tons of copper and brass tubes per annum.

The telephone cable plant commenced in 1922 and by 1927 was able to produce 160,000 miles of cable per year.

Supporting the main production units were workshops producing packaging materials (drums, cases, reels), extensive metallurgical laboratories, and workers’ amenities. Warehouses and dispatch facilities were mechanised. It was a modern plant, and its wire and cable, and telephone cable units, were capable of meeting Australia’s total national demand for their products.

MM Wire Factory (nd)
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society Collections (P08248))

Growth and Expansion

With the impact of a worldwide economic slump, output fell after a peak in 1925, and would not reach that level (around 12,000 tons of wire, cable and tube) for another twelve years. But the testing economic times provided an opportunity for MM to expand, through the purchase in 1929 of Sydney-based Austral Bronze Ltd which was struggling at the time. Austral Bronze was to be a vehicle for later further expansion by MM but initially provided both wider markets and potential for production rationalisation.

By 1932 economic conditions were improving once more and new orders were expected particularly for telephone cable, the production of which had been suspended. In 1937 a new factory was built to manufacture lead armoured telephone cable, a product not previously made in Australia. It was in full production in 1938, and increased production generally also made necessary expansion of facilities for the production of cable packaging. Both production and profit were on the rise in that year – MM (including Austral) produced over 14,000 tons of product, with total revenue of £15,773,096. Profit was also up, at £128,753. MM was a company of significance, and continuing to grow, with a new, large modern brass foundry brought into operation in 1939. That year saw also the Company’s inaugural Ball, celebrating the young company’s 21st birthday at a large and festive occasion.

Further expansion in 1940 took the company into rubber insulated cable production, in cooperation with the British Cablemakers Association, and British Insulated Cables Ltd. Notably, the expansion was not on the Port Kembla site, but at a plant in Liverpool. MM already had external production facilities at Maribyrnong in Melbourne acquired with Austral Bronze Ltd. (Equipment which was considered to be key plant, and hence critical to the war supply effort, had been transferred to Maribyrnong away from what was perceived to be the more vulnerable Port K.embla site.) This appears however to be the first new production facility built away from the Port Kembla site, and commenced a trend which was ultimately to see actual cable production shift from Port Kembla to other newer and larger facilities.

Wartime Changes

The period of World War II brought with it not only a stress on defence and strategic production, but also seemingly a change in the industrial relations environment. Reports of industrial action became much more frequent than had been the case in the past (particularly for a company at whose 21st birthday celebration in 1939 much was made of the “…industrial harmony for which the firm was renowned.”). This continued into the immediate postwar period, one strike in 1946 involving 1400 men in a wage dispute.

The D Tube Mill Crew (ca 1940-45)
(Courtesy of Metal Manufactures Ltd)

Wartime on the other hand brought about a major shift in the workforce. With the firm’s production of strategic importance, and a labour shortage widespread, women were recruited into the industry on a scale not previously seen. Where earlier female participation had mainly been confined to the telephone cable factory, it now became much more general. One plant (the D Tube Mill) was operated entirely by a female workforce, the only such plant in Australia to be so. The plant manufactured tubing for use in military aircraft applications. Four of the wartime crew were still in the same D Mill crew twenty years later.

A New Cable Plant

Keeping up with demand led to a further increase in plant capacity in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A doubling of profit in the 1949/50 financial year was credited in part to new plant being commissioned . A further major undertaking at the Port Kembla site came in 1951 when a consortium including MM and several British cable firms (one of which, BICC, was to become the owner of MM for a time) constructed a new facility of 60,000 square feet on a six-acre site adjacent to the MM plant. The operator, British Australian Power Cable Pty Ltd, was to manufacture metal sheathed, paper-insulated high voltage power cable. The capacity objective was to be able to supply all cable needs for the Australian electrical grid and hydroelectric scheme. It was also to focus on underground power cables, with the perhaps optimistic view that this would make it possible “..for the electricity undertakings to do away with unsightly overhead wires in Australian towns by using underground electrical power cables” . The power cable operation was later merged with its only domestic competitor, with production transferring to that firm’s plant at Liverpool.

A New Tube Factory

Following the vacating of the power cables building, it was extended and converted to tube production as No 2 Tube Factory, based around a 2,100 ton extrusion press and the ancillary equipment needed for tube production. The new drawing benches in the plant could produce seamless brass or copper tubes up to 140 feet in length.

2,100 ton Tube Extrusion Press, No 2 Tube Factory ca 1966
(Courtesy of the University of Wollongong Library (Metal Manufactures Ltd: A Golden Jubilee History, 1916 – 1966) Collection)
Overall view No 2 Tube Factory ca 1966
(Courtesy of theUniversity of Wollongong Library (Metal Manufactures Ltd: A Golden Jubilee History, 1916 – 1966) Collection)

Over the ensuing years both MM’s corporate environment, and the firm itself, were to change. Tariffs were reduced, in part as the result of new trade agreements; new firms entered the market, and new production facilities were developed in various parts of Australia. MM itself evolved, particularly in the direction of electrical equipment supply, and even electrical contracting. The manufacturing capability at the MM Port Kembla site became less central to MM’s business activities, and gradually diminished. Telephone cable manufacturing, though expanded in the mid-1960s, ended in 1992-94. A basic material for cable manufacturing, drawn copper wire, continued to be produced for others to use to manufacture cables of different types. This too ended in 2014 when the rod mill and wire drawing plant closed down, leaving copper tube products, a major support to the company in its early days, as the last product of the MM Port Kembla site.

As noted elsewhere Metal Manufactures was formed by Mt Morgan Mining Company, ER&S, Hampden-Cloncurry Mining, and British. Insulated and Helsby Cables Ltd (BIHC). Shortly after, shares were bought by Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Ltd. Economic problems for both Mt Morgan, and Hampden-Cloncurry, in 1927/28 saw their shares in MM and those of ERS sold, with the result that ownership of MM became spread over a number of companies representing a wide section of Australian metallurgical industry. BIHC retained their interest but the shares of the other owners went to Broken Hill Associated Smelters (BHAS), Imperial Chemical Industries Pty Ltd (ICI), the British Aluminium Company (BAC) Ltd, Electrolytic Zinc Co Ltd (EZ), and the National Smelting Company Ltd.

In 1930, in what was to be an indicator of future ownership directions, MM participated in a consortium including the British Cablemakers’ Association and the Dunlop-Perdriau Rubber Company Ltd, for the manufacture of insulated wires and cables for electrical purposes. By 1940, the firm’s shares were held by ICI, ER&S, Mt Lyell, British Insulated Cables, BHAS, EZ, and the Broken Hill silver/lead companies (on whose behalf BHAS had bought shares in the earlier sale of 1928). The following year saw a share issue to raise capital, the two largest shareholders by then being Mt Lyell and ER&S at 19 and 24% respectively. A move to list the shares for public sale was initiated in 1940, but did not progress at that time.

Seven years later, the share register was much the same, although the Helsby holding had by then become British Insulated Callendar Cables (BICC, later to become the full owner) and other cable companies.

Later that year, MM joined with an American firm, Standard Telephone and Cable (STC) to form a new company to take over MM’s existing telephone cable factory, and develop new capacity at another site.

As might be expected MM’s ownership was to move from its original broad base of other Australian industry towards other firms specialising in its core business, the making of cables and tube. Its ownership by a range of Australian mining and metallurgical companies, representative of those which had founded MM, had by 1987 narrowed to a 36% share by Conzinc Riotinto Australia (CRA) which had taken over the interests of Broken Hill South and North Broken Hill in 1980 with the balance held by BICC. It was BICC in fact which was the instigator of the eventual listing of MM shares on the stock exchange, when it elected to sell down its 64% shareholding to 44% as part of a $M250 float in 1986. It became once more the majority shareholder the following year, however, when it took up shares in MM in exchange for selling MM a New Zealand cablemaking operation, and an Australian electrical contracting company.

Machine controls, 1987
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society Collections)
Overall view of Metal Manufactures ca 1966
(Courtesy of the University of Wollongong Library (Metal Manufactures Ltd: A Golden Jubilee History, 1916 – 1966) Collection)

MM had over the period of the 1980s and 1990s been growing and diversifying, including developing its own offshore cable operations, a move which saw it exposed to the disruption of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. A series of poor results left it in a weakened position, with major asset writedowns. In 1998, it sold four of its remaining cable operations to its parent, BICC, resulting in BICC quitting its participation in MM. In January 1999, MM sold its remaining power cables operations to a competitor, Pirelli, leaving it as an electrical distributor and tubing manufacturer. By 1999, financial commentators could describe it as a “specialist building products company”. In early 2000, after a series of unsuccessful takeover attempts, it was finally taken over by Marsh Electrical, a subsidiary of a US firm Consolidated Electrical Distributors Inc. It was delisted from the Stock Exchange in May 2000.

The firm’s original name however did not disappear. The site is now operated by Metal Manufactures Limited, trading as MM Kembla, a specialist manufacturer of copper and stainless steel tubing products and accessories, for a range of users and original equipment manufacturers in Australia and overseas. The company is a part of MML Holdings Ltd, which also owns MM Electrical Merchandising, a large electrical products company, and several other divisions.