Port Kembla 1996 with Two Offshore Oil Platforms Readying for Departure
(Courtesy of Hoogendoorni p86 – See later image for size of platforms)

The history of the Illawarra region’s port has its roots in the coal trade of the 1880s.  Prior to that the land concerned and its environs had, like other parts of the Illawarra, seen its main European occupancy being from illegal cedar-getters (known to have been active from around the start of the century), farming settlers and escaped convicts.  In colonial ownership terms, its location had seen  one of the earliest land grants – some 2,300 acres being granted in 1817 to David Allen, who named the area concerned “Illawarra Farm”.  It stretched from Tom Thumb Lagoon adjacent to Wollongong township, to Lake Illawarra, fronting the sea at Red Point and what later became Port Kembla. (Red Point had been named by Captain Cook in 1770, from the appearance of some of the soils around it.)  Allen sold his land after 10 years to Richard Jones, and he in turn sold it in 1828 to William Charles Wentworth, who renamed it the ”Five Islands Estate”.  Subsequent dealings in the land were with the Wentworth family.

Disquiet from local settlers over the activities of loggers and convicts led to the stationing of a small detachment of soldiers at Red Point in 1826.  They lived on David Allen’s land until 1829 when they moved to the then more important port in Wollongong.  Following a visit to the area by the State governor in 1834, the NSW Surveyor General was despatched to the area to assess its development needs – one aspect of which was to determine the most appropriate location for a town.  He selected the current site of Wollongong as the location for the town, with the Wollongong Boat Harbour as the port.  That was to remain the state government’s position for some 64 years.

Several events over that time were formative in terms of future development.  The first occurred in 1849 when the first coal from Shoobert’s mine on Mt Keira was exported through the port of Wollongong, marking the start of what was to become a major trade for the region.  The second was the development in 1865 of a venture exploiting hydrocarbon-bearing shale at Mt Kembla, for the purpose of manufacturing kerosene.  While not long lived, that venture was to later lead to the development of the Mt Kembla coal mine.  In 1881 the company concerned (Mt Kembla Coal & Oil Company – the COOC) obtained authorisation to build a rail line from their mine to Red Point, with a branch to Wollongong Harbour.

Mt Kembla Coal & Oil Co Jetty, Port Kembla
(Courtesy of Hoogendoorn p8)

The latter was never built, but the Red Point line opened in 1883, connecting to a newly-built and substantial, 900ft (272m) long jetty in what became known as Port Kembla Harbour, taking its name from the mountain location of the mine. (The name is thought to derive from an Aboriginal word meaning “plenty of game”.)  On 27 February 1883 the first Mt Kembla coal (1000 tons) was shipped from the jetty on the steamer Arawata, which had brought dignitaries from Sydney for the opening festivities.  The mine employed 110 men and shipped 21,522 tons of coal that year.

Southern Coal Company Jetty, Port Kembla 1887/9
(Courtesy of Hoogendoorn p9)

Within four years another, larger, jetty had been erected at Port Kembla by the Southern Coal Company (the SCC), a structure 1400ft (423m) long, of double-decker construction with a relatively sophisticated coal loading system capable of loading around 300 tons/hour.  The SCC did not initially have production facilities of its own, and in 1889 bought an existing mine at Corrimal (in northern Wollongong), using rail transport to take the coal from Corrimal to Port Kembla.  Their first shipment was on 7 November 1889 on the steamer Kurrara, topping up a part load taken on at Wollongong, again in the presence of a range of appreciative dignitaries.  The SCC was also in 1889 producing metallurgical coke from coke ovens it owned, some 250 tons per week being shipped largely to Adelaide for use in South Australian smelters.

The presence at Port Kembla of the two large jetties was later to be a factor of significance in the selection in 1898 of Port Kembla as the future port for the Illawarra region.  That selection though was no foregone conclusion, with four possible developments vying for government support – Port Kembla, a proposal based around the Bellambi Jetty, the Lake Illawarra Harbour scheme associated with the Dapto Smelter, and a scheme to develop the Tom Thumb Lagoon immediately south of Wollongong as an Inner Harbour for Belmore Basin.  The first proposal to be eliminated was that for a Lake Illawarra Harbour, when the company which held a license for that development failed to carry out adequate works to satisfy license conditions, resulting in the cancellation of the license.  In ‘value for money’ terms, Port Kembla looked attractive, as the table shows:

SiteWater area enclosedExpected cost
Port Kembla223 acres£158,800
Wollongong127 acres£183,000
Bellambi150 acres£208,300

Data from “Roadstead to World Class Port: Port of Port Kembla, 1898-1998” p11

Other factors also favoured the Port Kembla site – the existing jetties and their associated rail lines as noted above, and the proximity of stone quarries for breakwater construction, implying lower costs. The recommendation though was not greeted with universal plaudits.  In the Legislative Assembly Committee hearings into the matter, a range of parties objected.  Newcastle members objected as they felt a major harbour in the south would be deleterious to Hunter Valley coal interests; supporters of the Lake Illawarra scheme, led by a future Australian Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, still had hopes for their scheme; and one Illawarra member strongly opposed Port Kembla as he supported the Bellambi scheme, in his own electorate.  Ultimately however, the Port Kembla option was selected and embodied in the Port Kembla Harbour Act of 1898, the first step in the development of Port Kembla as a world class port.

The first stage of development was the construction of the port’s eastern breakwater.  Prior to the protection this provided, it was not uncommon for ships to have to leave port and either stand at sea, or go to Sydney, because of rough harbour conditions  arising from winter storms – much diminishing the harbour’s capability.  Work commenced on the breakwater in August 1901, but with problems with government finance delays were encountered with the work.  By May 1905 the breakwater was 1300ft (393m) in length; by 1912 it had reached a length of 2,800ft (847m) at a cost to that point of £200,000.

A later extension took the total length to 3,750ft (1134m), embodying 844,631 tons of quarried rock.  It had been a massive project.

To counter rough seas the seaward side of the breakwater was armoured by large rocks 10 to 40 tons in weight – but even these could be moved at times of heavy seas.  To aid the handling of these rocks, Public Works Department personnel converted an imported steam shovel formerly used for quarrying work into a steam crane, and this item, restored for the Port’s centenary, may be seen at the harbour today.

Placing Rock on the Breakwater, Port Kembla ca 1918
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P11014) Collections)

The original proposal for the harbour (named after a Public Works Department head Mr Darley) included two breakwaters, an eastern construction 2800ft (847m) long, and a northern, 3530ft (1067m) long, but was amended in the course of its negotiation through the Legislative Assembly to exclude the latter.  It was subsequently authorised separately in 1912.  Its construction had however informally started before that time, as the result of the dumping (on the site of the proposed second breakwater) of large amounts of quarried material too small to be incorporated in the eastern breakwater.  It had in fact reached a length of 1470ft (444m) before the relevant Act was passed sanctioning its construction.  It reached its intended length of 3263ft (987m) in 1928.  When extensions to both breakwaters were completed in 1937, it was estimated that over two million tons of rock had been used in their construction, at a cost of £802,869.  These initial works had enclosed a harbour area of 360 acres (146ha).

The early years of the 20th century saw a substantial involvement by the state government, through the Public Works Department (PWD), in forming the course of development of the port and its environs.  In 1902 the Harbours and Rivers Department of the PWD took over management of the harbour and its shipping movements.  As well, the 1898 Act authorising the eastern breakwater contained provisions for the resumption (compulsory acquisition) of land around the port area, and these provisions were implemented with an eye to attracting industrial development based around the port.  New facilities were also constructed, including a No 4 Jetty to serve Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Company (ER&S) in 1908.  In 1915 a new coal jetty (No 1 Coal Loading Jetty) of modern design was built with its electrically powered, 3000ft (907m) long conveyor belt regarded as being a “marvel of modern technology”.  That loader was to remain in service for some 50 years, until replaced by a larger facility inside the Inner Harbour.

Placing Rock on the Breakwater, Port Kembla ca 1918
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P11014) Collections)
Loading Coke at No 2 Jetty, Port Kembla
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P08889) Collections)

During this period also a coke ovens battery operated at a site adjacent to the original Mt Kembla jetty.  The plant, owned by the Mt Lyell Coke Company, was built in 1899 and initially supplied Mt Lyell’s own copper smelters in Tasmania.  When ER&S was established at the port in 1908, the coke ovens’ output was diverted to its use.  Low copper prices after World War I, and process changes at ER&S, meant this use was no longer viable.  The plant was demolished in 1926.

Mt Lyell Coke Works, Port Kembla ca 1900 – 1910
Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P02247) Collections)

ER&S was the first of what was to be a succession of industries establishing in Port Kembla town, and reliant on the port.  What was to be the largest (Hoskins Iron and Steel, later Australian Iron and Steel) made its appearance in 1924 when Charles Hoskins bought 400 acres (162ha) for the construction of a steel plant.  Hoskins consulted with the PWD on infrastructure provision for the plant.  Later however, following the takeover of the Hoskins enterprise by the Broken Hill Pty Ltd (BHP), the steel company purchased from the PWD some 1600 acres (648ha) of the 2500 acres of land around the port owned by the PWD.  That had the effect of diminishing the role of the PWD in subsequent development planning.

Incremental development continued to and through the years of World War II, including new jetties and flammable liquids facilities.  It was ongoing development at the steel plant which was to be a major driver in the next major phase of port growth – the construction of the Inner Harbour.

This step had been first suggested in 1916 but did not receive support then.  The proposal was raised again 35 years later, and approved in 1955, in a scheme involving the dredging of the Tom Thumb Lagoon area, the construction of 2600ft (786m) of wharfage, and new rail access.  The harbour as initially authorised was to have an enclosed area of 121 acres (50ha) dredged to 36ft (10.9m), with additional land available for future extension.  As had been the case with Belmore Basin (link to Belmore Basin page) in the port of Wollongong, design changed materially in the course of the work due to both a recognition of different needs, and variations in dredging conditions (much more rock being found than had been expected).  When the dredging was eventually completed in 1962, there had been removed some 7 million cubic metres of sand and silt, and 0.5 million cubic metres of rock.  The Inner Harbour had been officially opened in November 1960.

Completion of the Inner Harbour initial stage led in turn to a broadening of port activities – some in ‘traditional’ port activities, and several in much less traditional initiatives.  Coal was to play a significant part in the next stage of growth, built initially on coal exports to Japan.  A new No. 1 Coal Loader commenced operations in December 1963 and a No 2 Coal Berth in November 1982, with capacities of 7.2 million and 15 million tonnes of coal per year respectively.

Coal Terminal Port Kembla 1982
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society  (P12326) Collections)

Further harbour dredging to 50ft (15.2m) allowed the entry of ships up to the size of the BHP vessel Iron Pacific – which in July 1986 delivered a record cargo of iron ore from Port Hedland of 179,351 tonnes.  On a smaller scale, but reflecting similar innovation, the port hosted for some years from 1973 two gas turbine powered roll-on roll-off ships berthing at a facility specially designed to handle steel product shipments to various customer ports.

In 1986 a tragic incident occurred which took the lives of two men.  A special purpose heavy lift ship, the MV Gabriella, was delivering two heavy sections of equipment to Port Kembla for use in the continuous caster plant at Australian Iron & Steel.  While approaching Port Kembla, the ship encountered very heavy weather which caused one of the units to shift, causing the ship to list.  Accompanied by a BHP ore carrier, the ship remained at sea for several days before being able to enter port.  Having survived that experience, the ship was unloading several days later when a crane rope holding one unit of around 220 tonnes broke, causing the load to fall around one metre (destroying a large waiting low-loader).   The ship having been ballasted to balance out the crane load was suddenly massively off balance and rolled, filled with water and sank.  Most still on board escaped, but two men, both marine surveyors, died in the accident.  A memorial to the men and the accident is accessible in Port Kembla harbour.

Gabriella Memorial, Port Kembla Heritage Park

 Other Facilities

Other facilities included over this period were extended liquid fuel handling, a multi-product berth, and a grain terminal handling grain from inland NSW in 1990.  The latter facility could handle ships up to 129,000 tonnes, and was equipped with storage of 260,000 tonnes, loading capacity of 5000 tonnes per hour, and an annual capacity of 5 million tonnes per year.

Grain Terminal Port Kembla 1986
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P19143) Collections)

It reflected a progressive broadening of product base for the port, further demonstrated by the move of NSW car imports from Sydney Harbour to Port Kembla in 2007.  The first two 55,000 tonne car carriers commenced unloading on May 10, 2007, in a trade which will ultimately see more than 200,000 new vehicles per year delivered through the facility, believed to be Australia’s largest car import hub.  In 2016, a new grain terminal capable of 1.3 million tonnes/year shipped its first export grain.

In all, the nature of the trade undertaken through the port has transformed radically since the 1898 Harbour Act when coal was the principal driver for the port’s existence.  That is further exemplified by two major projects undertaken in recent years – the construction of the submerged section of the vehicle tunnel traversing Sydney Harbour, in parallel with the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the construction of oil and gas production platforms for Bass Strait.

The Sydney Harbour Tunnel

In June 1987 the NSW government signed a contract for the construction and operation of a traffic tunnel traversing Sydney Harbour.  The company involved (a consortium of (Australian) Transfield Pty Ltd and (Japanese) Kumagai-Gumi had proposed a submerged concrete tube tunnel, with the tunnel sections to be built at Port Kembla and floated to Sydney.  The facility concerned was to include a newly excavated casting basin, 100m wide, 320m long, and overall 12.5m deep, in the western section of the Inner harbour.  The new basin was protected by a sheet pile wall, and pumping systems to remove seepage water.  Its construction required the removal of 870,000 cubic metres of spoil.

Three Harbour Tunnel Units at MultiPurpose Berth
(Courtesy of Hoogendoorn p83)

The submerged section of the tunnel comprised eight sections, each 120m in length, with a cross-section including two vehicle roadways each 8.35m wide, flanked on each side by a ventilation duct 3m in width, all of an interior height of 5.5m.  Designed to withstand events such as the sinking of a vessel, the units were of robust construction with parts of different thickness – the floor around 1 metre thick, the roof 0.95m, outside walls 0.95m, and interior walls 0.5m.  Each of the eight units weighed around 30,000 tonnes.  Four units were constructed at a time, with the casting basin being flooded and then dewatered again for their removal, and setting up for subsequent units.

Three Tugs with Harbour Tunnel Module Oct 1989
(Courtesy of Hoogendoorn p83)

Their use in construction was conceptually simple – after fabrication at Port Kembla, the units were each sealed with steel end plates, floated in a flooded casting basin, and towed to Sydney, where they were laid on a dredged and prepared base, to be joined together by divers.  In execution though the task, being done for the first and only time in Australia, was a most demanding one in all phases, including the transport of nearly one quarter of a million tonnes of formed concrete from Port Kembla to Sydney Harbour.  The construction project was essentially completed, ahead of schedule, in August 1990, with the actual Harbour Tunnel opening in August 1992.

Concrete Gravity Structures – Oil Industry Offshore Platforms.

The second major project undertaken in the Casting Basin was just as far removed from the everyday as was the first.  Bass Strait is the area where Australia’s first offshore well was drilled, and with much development over the years is now home to 23 offshore platforms and installations.  Of these, two are of particular relevance to Port Kembla – the West Tuna and Bream B platforms.

Offshore oil and gas platforms are commonly fabricated steel structures which may be floating, or fixed to the seabed, or gravity based structures relying on weight to hold structures in place.  Less common are concrete structures, either gravity based or floating.  Concrete gravity based structures (CGS) have advantages where seabed conditions are poor, but more particularly offer cost savings in construction through their ability to be constructed virtually completely near shore facilities, and floated to their end location where they are flooded and sunk into position.

That was the case with two such platforms built in Port Kembla for use by the BHP-Esso consortium in Bass Strait in 1993 through to 1996, as the second and last major project for the Casting Basin.  The two platforms, Bream B and West Tuna, weighed 45,000 and 104,000 tonnes respectively, the Tuna platform being the largest structure placed in Bass Strait to that time.  The smaller platform was an unmanned platform as a satellite to another existing platform, and built first.  The second larger platform was a complete manned production platform.

CGS Bottoms Being Moved to MPB for Topside and Fitout
(Courtesy of Hoogendoorn p84)

Both platform bases were built in the Casting Basin, and then floated over to the Multi Product Berth which had been extended for the purpose.  There the concrete structures were completed, and the ‘topside’ – the large packages of processing equipment and systems – installed prior to their 600km travel to site in Bass Strait.

CGS Topside Installation at Multi Purpose Berth
(Courtesy of Hoogendoorn p85)

Following completion of these two major projects, with no further such projects available, a development study indicated that the best use of the area concerned would be as a part of the development of the broader port facility.

Off to Bass Strait – West Tuna CGS Leaves Port Kembla, 1996
(Courtesy of Hoogendoorn p86)

Defence and Fortifications

Like the port of Wollongong, the strategic value of Port Kembla in World War II dictated the need to provide a defence capability against seaborne attack.  That took the form of a network of three facilities – the Breakwater Battery – a fortification at the southern end of the eastern breakwater; the Drummond Battery at Mt St Thomas northwest of the port; and the Illowra Battery on Hill 60, to the south of the port.

The Breakwater Battery comprised two six inch Mark XI guns from scrapped British and Australian cruisers. They were large weapons: with barrels of eight tons, they could, with an elevation of 20 degrees, fire a 100lb (45kg) shell over a distance of 16,000yds (14,624m) – over nine miles.  They were supported by an overall facility including accommodation, magazines, stores, searchlights and all those other elements needed to support their assigned duty – to stop any enemy from landing at any beach considered of strategic importance to Port Kembla.  Some of these structures including the control tower and concrete gun emplacements remain.  As a further protection of the harbour itself, steel netting was set across between the two breakwaters to stop both surface and submarine craft from entering the harbour.

Gun Emplacement Remains, Breakwater Battery
(Note central trunnion and base track)

The Illowra Battery at Hill 60 was a similar installation to that at the Breakwater site.  The third facility, at Fort Drummond, had larger weapons, two 9.2inch (230mm) Mark XV guns.  These were classed as ‘counter-bombardment’ weapons, specifically designed to counter attack by ships up to cruiser size armed with 8 inch (203mm) guns, and with their normal mountings could fire shells up to 14,000 yards (12.7km).  The housing for these weapons remain in place at the Fort Drummond site at Mt St Thomas.  Other coastal defences included a battery of two 3.7 inch (95mm) anti-aircraft guns and searchlights north of the port, and an Anti Motor Torpedo Boat Battery of 2 x 155 mm guns at the port.

230mm Gun Being Mounted at Fort Drummond, 1942
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P08338) Collections)


Principal sources for this were:

Roadstead to World Class Port 1898 – 1998 Capt W Hoogendoorn, Port Kembla Port Corporation, Port Kembla, 1998

Port of Wollongong CW Gardiner-Garden, Illawarra Historical Society, Wollongong 1975

The Role of the Public Works Department at Port Kembla, address to the Illawarra Historical Society, 6 May 1987, republished Illawarra Historical Society, Sept/Oct 2010

A Thematic History of the City of Wollongong, Kass, T. A report for Wollongong City Council, December 2010

Wikipedia (various) for details on fortifications.


i Hoogendoorn, Capt W 1898 -1998 Roadstead to World Class Port, Port Corporation, Wollongong 1999. Material reproduced by kind permission of the Port Authority of NSW.

ii The Role of the Public Works Department at Port Kembla (Anon) Illawarra Historical Society Bulletin October 1987.