Electrolytic Refining & Smelting, Australian Fertilisers Ltd, and Metal Manufacturing Ltd

The metallurgical industries of the Port Kembla area formed the core of the industrial development of the Illawarra. Among them, one group is of particular importance – though not the first, and not the largest industries, these three firms largely provided the base from which Port Kembla industries developed. The firms were related in both initial ownership, and in output and processes; they were Electrolytic Refining and Smelting (ER&S), Australian Fertilisers Ltd (AFL), and Metal Manufactures Ltd. (MM). The first and largest was ER&S.

View of the town of Mt Morgan and the mine beyond (1890-1900?)
By Lundager, J. H. (Jens Hansen), 1853-1930 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gold in Queensland

The copper smelter which was to be a major visual symbol of Port Kembla industry for nearly ninety years had its corporate origins nearly one thousand miles north in Queensland, where the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company (later Mt Morgan Limited) mined a large and rich gold orebody at Ironstone Mountain from 1882. The mine’s gold resource was diminishing in grade and available reserves by 1905, but the gold orebody turned out to be a cap over a far larger copper ore deposit.

The company became a major copper producer, producing blister copper (around 99% purity). The blister copper needed further refining for its major end uses, and was sent to the USA for that treatment. As production from Ironstone Mountain (later renamed Mt Morgan) developed, it was concluded there was scope for a copper smelter/refinery of world scale in Australia, and Port Kembla with its coal resources and recently developed harbour was chosen as the site. A new company was set up for the purpose of developing that plant. The company was Electrolytic Refining and Smelting (ER&S).

But it was not the sole arm of the venture. In a manner which was in the latter part of the twentieth century to be termed ‘clustering’ several other related industries were to follow shortly. The first was a sulphuric acid plant, which was capable of both supplying ER&S with the acid it needed for its refining process, and supplying the acid to convert phosphate rock into a fertiliser containing soluble phosphate, single superphosphate (SSP). (In an interesting twist, it later became common for copper smelters to supply similar sulphuric acid plants with the sulphur dioxide which they needed as a feedstock to make the acid.). The acid/fertiliser plant was operated by Australian Fertilisers Ltd (AFL). ER&S and AFL had shared interests in sulphuric acid manufacture and use; both needed shipping and other transport infrastructure, and electricity and water. Both were also significant employers.

Working at the cutting, Mount Morgan Mines, 1906
Source:  Wikimedia Commons

The third arm was one which made direct market products from the basic material produced by ER&S – pure copper – including pipes, tubes, and cables. The latter in particular were much relevant to the rapidly developing electrification of Australia, and the broad takeup of telephone communication. The company was Metal Manufactures (MM).

ER&S at the outset was jointly owned by Mt Morgan Mining Co and Aaron Hirsch und Sohne, a German metals trading company. AFL in turn was owned initially by Mt Morgan Co. and ERS; while MM was owned by Mt Morgan, ERS, a number of other Australian investors, and a British cablemaking firm, British Insulated and Helsby Cables Ltd. Mt Morgan had been the moving force behind the establishment of the three companies – but its own fortunes were relatively soon to take a turn for the worse. Within 20 years of the founding of ERS, AFL and MM, Mt Morgan itself was struggling to remain viable in difficult international copper markets. Despite trials with alternative mining methods, the company eventually succumbed to its losses (more than half a million pounds over five years) and announced its closure and liquidation in July 1927. The Sydney Morning Herald described it as “The End of the Great Mount Morgan Enterprise”.

 Mount Morgan Mine, ca 1927
Source:  Sydney Morning Herald, 30 July, 1927 from Trove

Among its assets (revenue from which had helped prop up the enterprise for some years) were substantial shareholdings – in ER&S, and with ER&S, AFL. In a series of transactions, Mt Morgan sold all its shares in ER&S and AFL; and ER&S sold its shares in AFL. At the same time Hampden-Cloncurry Copper Mines (another Queensland copper miner) sold its shareholdings in ER&S and MM. After the various transactions, AFL was owned by the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company, Nobel Australasia Ltd (later ICI Australia) and Cuming, Smith & Co. P/L. ER&S no longer had an ownership interest in its immediate neighbour. ER&S was owned by Broken Hill Associated Smelters, and National Smelting Company. MM in turn was owned by the latter two companies together with Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), the British Aluminium Company, and Electrolytic Zinc, and the British cablemaking company instrumental in its startup. Such interlocking shareholdings of various related and unrelated companies were not entirely unusual at the time.

ER&S, AFL and MM ca 1921
From the collections of the Wollongong City Library
and the Illawarra Historical Society (P08922)

The sections which follow consider each of these operations in turn.

Go to Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Company

Go to Australian Fertilisers Ltd

Go to Metal Manufactures Ltd