The Illawarra Coast

While the Illawarra region had much to offer early settlers in terms of natural resources and productive farmland, its topography did not readily facilitate the transport of goods to or from outside markets. The region comprises a relatively narrow strip of land bounded by the Tasman Sea to the east, and an often steep escarpment wall to the west, rising to levels from around 300m to some 800m. The difficulty of constructing either road or rail systems for heavy freight meant a high dependence on sea transport, and virtually all significant industrial operations (initially primarily coal mining , and later steel) were associated with sea transport facilities.

But that in most cases was no easy option.  On the exposed coast, a ‘black nor’easter’ or a ‘southerly buster’ could rapidly bring high winds and rough seas, both of major threat to the mooring structures, and the vessels loading at them.  Jetty damage was not unusual and nor were shipwrecks.  One area alone (around Bellambi Bay) recorded seventeen shipwrecks over a ninety year period.

View from Sublime Point overlooking towns of Thirroul and Wollongong
Image by JWC Adams, 2008 via Wikimedia Commonsii

The development of shipping facilities on the Illawarra coast may be viewed as four separate phases

  • the development  of local and in many cases single-user jetties along the coast, often in close proximity to the mines they served
  • the early development and importance of Wollongong Harbour as a port for various users
  • the later long-term dominance of Port Kembla and
  • the two would-be major harbours which were never built, but affected development elsewhere.

While separate, these phases were not consecutive, and in the latter part of the 19th century coal was being shipped from three of the four locations above.

In broad outline the story of sea transport in the Illawarra started in 1797, from when a very basic harbour facility was developed in Wollongong, to transport cedar timber and farm products (early exports from the area) and also serve passenger traffic between Wollongong and Sydney.  That was to grow to a busy harbour with a later emphasis on coal export, the first occurring in 1849 (from Mt Keira Mine) through a harbour basin constructed by convict labour.

Bellambi Jetty ca 1905
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P01037) Collections)

It was only nine years later that the first deep-water jetty was built to serve a specific coalmine – Thomas Hale’s mine at Woonona, shipping its coal through his Bellambi Point Jetty.    Another six jetties were to be built along the coast over ensuing years.  Wollongong Harbour’s prominence was to last until 1896, when the state government chose Port Kembla to be the principal port for the region and development moved to that site.

Port Kembla’s role in the region’s economy began in 1883 with its first shipment of coal from the Mt Kembla Colliery, with other loading facilities following after that.  With government backing, and the ability to develop much larger scale facilities there, Port Kembla’s ongoing growth was mirrored by a progressive reduction in the role of Wollongong Harbour, until it ultimately became the fishing and largely pleasure craft port it is today.

Wollongong Harbour / Belmore Basin ca 2014
(Courtesy of Destination Wollongong)

The Harbours That Never Were

The relatively open business environment of the 19th century New South Wales provided fertile ground for entrepreneurs of the day.  In terms of sea transport, this was to be reflected in several notable attempts at port construction which failed to see development.

In the first, the Illawarra Harbour and Land Company (a development company with Australian directors including Edmund Barton, and backed by a group of London financiers listed as the Camden Syndicate) was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1890 to undertake significant developments on and around Lake Illawarra.  A notable part of this was the development of a harbour on the lake, initially for the purpose of exporting coal, but later to serve a smelter plant to be constructed on the southern shores of the lake.  Work was in fact started, on the construction of an entry to the lake, incorporating a breakwater.  The entry was to be 430ft wide at the sea end, leading to a channel some 4 ½ miles long.  At its shore end it narrowed to 100ft, with a depth of 23ft of water over its length.  It was a most substantial scheme and started well – but for a variety of reasons slowed markedly to the point where by 1893 it was reported that hopes for the scheme seemed to have “altogether vanished”.  It was revived with visits from Parliamentary dignitaries and even an Admiral to assess its security` in 1895 in conjunction with the development of the Dapto Smelter – but while the latter was constructed and operated for a time, the harbour did not eventuate.   It was argued later that one of the main reasons for the demise of the smelter plant was the inability to feed the plant with raw material by sea.

The First Proposed Inner Harbour, with Entrance from Brighton Beach
(The Old Dapto Smelting Works JP O’Malley, The Illawarra Historical Society 1968)

Competing port development interests were strong between advocates of Port Kembla, Wollongong Harbour, Bellambi and the Lake Illawarra Harbour scheme.  The Lake scheme was an early casualty, but there was another in the same period.  Local Wollongong businessmen had promoted the concept of a harbour to be formed by the dredging of Tom Thumb Lagoon, then the town water supply.  Entry to the new harbour was to be via the existing Wollongong Harbour, with a channel leading to the deep-water dock in the Lagoon.  A Commission of interested businessmen, the shipping company, and local and state government was formed, and designs undertaken, with alternatives presented to the Commission by their chosen Engineer in May 1890.  Reflective of the competing interests, in the month after the Commission meeting at which those designs were debated, what was described as the largest public meeting ever in Dapto was held to ”express approval of the Lake lllawarra harbor project, and protest against the opposition that is being offered in certain quarters in Wollongong against the scheme”.

For the Lagoon scheme, breakwaters were to be constructed to protect the entrance, at a cost of £537,000.  These were started, but contractor difficulties, bad weather and inability to secure government financing, led to the demise of this project also, with Port Kembla emerging as the preferred contender – and ultimately as a major port facility for the region and beyond.

For further information, see


  1. The Old Dapto Smelting Works JP O’Malley, The Illawarra Historical Society 1968
  2. Chapter 7 of A History of the prospecting and Development of Coal Mining in the Illawarra, Southern Highlands and Burragorang Valley’ Part 2 AusIMM. Mineral Heritage Sub-Committee, 2016
  3. Illawarra Mercury 030590 Harbour Commission meeting
  4. Illawarra Mercury 240690 Dapto public meeting Lake scheme


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