Coke Quencher Stack, Coalcliff, 1980s
Courtesy Illawarra Coal and Coke Company

The manufacture of coke has been an integral part of the development of industry in the Illawarra for almost 150 years.  It became important for several reasons –

  • the nature of the coal seams mined, and the mining methods, meant that a significant amount of fine coal material  might be generated in the process of mining.  Coal was important initially for its value as a heating fuel – and in most of those applications, lump coal rather than fine coal was favoured for its cleaner burning and ease of handling,   Fine coal was therefore a nuisance product, often virtually dumped at the point of mining or initial transport.  On the other hand, fine coal comprised a usable feed for cokemaking, generating a product able to be used either as an alternative fuel (eg for steam trams running through Sydney streets) or for metallurgical purposes.  Having the ability to turn fine coal into a saleable product did much to enhance the economics of the coal industry.
  • the coal seams mined in the Illawarra gave a product capable of producing a physically strong coke, an attribute of specific interest in the blast furnace ironmaking process.  The fact the Illawarra coke was a more suitable feed for blast furnaces than that from Lithgow or Newcastle was a significant factor in the decision by the Hoskins brothers to move their iron and steelmaking business from Lithgow to Port Kembla, thereby commencing the development of the steel-based industries of the Illawarra.  The billowing plumes of steam from the quenching of coke at the Port Kembla Steelworks remain a feature of the Wollongong sky to this day.

The description which follows is largely based on a talk given by Mr Don Reynolds to the Illawarra Historical Society in 2006, augmented by images from various sources, and other of Mr Reynolds’ own material.  (It should be noted that two of the cokeworks described in his presentation, the Coalcliff Cokeworks and the Corrimal Cokeworks, have shut down since that presentation, leaving the very large scale byproduct coke ovens at the Bluescope Steel  plant as the last remaining producer of coke in the Illawarra.)

Coke Making in Illawarra

When you travel by train from Wollongong to Sydney you see close-by on the left hand side at Corrimal railway station several chimney stacks which at times belch steam; however a stand of trees hide that industry from view.  That industry is the Corrimal Coke Works of the Illawarra Coke Company.  Later while still traveling north you emerge from the Scarborough tunnel you see on the left hand side a row of brick structures and a collection of large steel structures and stacks that also belch steam at times; this is the Coalcliff Coke Works of the Illawarra Coke Company.

Corrimal Coke Works ca 1990
Courtesy Kembla Coal & Coke P/L

These two coke works are the only ones that are still operating in Illawarra out of a total of fourteen beehive coke oven plants that had been built.  It is interesting to reflect on the reasons for the rise and fall in the number of these coke ovens operating.

In the early days of coal mining the coal sold by the mining companies was for use as fuel for boilers where it was fired by hand on grates.  The customers wanted lumpy coal free of fine coal which only clogged the grates and made firing difficult.  The miners at the coal face had to load their coal into the skips by forks to minimize the amount of fine coal in the skips.  At the pit head the coal being fed into the rail trucks was further screened to remove the final traces of fine coal.  This fine coal, also known as slack coal or duff coal, was not saleable and was dumped into the closest gully available.  The fine coal left in the mine was removed to minimize fire risk and also dumped with the other fines.  These slack coal dumps were an embarrassment to the collieries as in flood times some of the slack coal was washed down into private properties and caused flooding.  Also spontaneous combustion took place at times causing a fire hazard.

A brief description of the cokemaking process may be found here.

The Beginning, 1875

In 1875 Messrs Osborne and Ahearn built a small battery of circular beehive coke ovens just to the south of what is now Belmore Basin to use slack coal from Osborne’s Mt Keira mine.  This was the first coke ovens plant built in Illawarra; it operated spasmodically from l875 to 1890.  One notable feature of this coke works is that it supplied coke to the first modern blast furnace in Australia, built by the British & Tasmanian Charcoal Iron Company Ltd on the banks of the Tamar River.  This furnace began operations in May 1876.  The coke works site near Belmore Basin was uncovered during road works in1984.  Mr Brian Rogers carried out a detailed archaeological examination of the site which was then covered in.  Brian wrote an extensive report on his dig which is held in the Wollongong Local Studies Library.  There is some dispute as to who actually started this coke works,  Gifford Eardley in his Transporting the Black Diamond claims that Patrick Lahiff of the Mt Pleasant Colliery built two ovens at Pulpit Rock with the first coal being shipped in February 1876.  Eardley claims that in September 1878 the venture was taken over by Osbourne and Ahearn.  No evidence has been found to support this claim.

First Coke Ovens Site, Belmore Basin
From the collections of Wollongong City Library
P20523 and the Illawarra Historical Society

Development of the coke making industry

Bulli Coke Works at Sandon Point
From the collection of Ron Cairns

Thomas Bertram opened the Brokers Nose Coal Company behind Corrimal in 1884; and in November 1885 opened a battery of 7 beehive coke ovens adjacent to the railway from the mine to a transshipping point near Corrimal railway station.  It is presumed these were circular ovens located on the northern side of Tarrawanna Road.  Very little is known about the operations of these ovens and it is presumed that it was very spasmodic.

A major English based Company, the Southern Coal Company (SCC), opened a colliery on the southern slopes of Mount Kembla; they also built a standard gauge railway to the new roadstead port near the Five Islands to supply a jetty they built capable of berthing large ocean going vessels.  The SCC also built what was the first large scale beehive coke ovens battery in Illawarra adjacent to their railway where the now demolished Commonwealth Steel (Comsteel) Unanderra stainless steel plant was later built.  These coke ovens were known as the Australian Coke Making Company (ACMC); the ovens were of the rectangular beehive variety and were of very modern design.

Unfortunately the SCC mine ran into operating problems from the outset and the mine was immediately abandoned.  To meet their contract coal supply requirements the SCC negotiated with Thomas Bertram in early November 1888 and he agreed to lease them the Brokers Nose Colliery in Liquidation in 1902.  The SCC rapidly expanded those facilities to allow them to rail coal via the South Coast railway to their jetty at the Five Islands.  With the modem coke ovens facility at Unanderra available, Bertram’s Corrimal ovens were abandoned.

Although it was not a coke works the Bulli Pass Coal and Coke Company operated during the 1890s and early 1900s winning natural coke from the Bulli No 1 seam; this natural coke was formed due to early volcanic disturbance of the Bulli seam.  This coke had a ready demand as fuel for Sydney’s steam trams as it was virtually a smokeless fuel unlike coal. 

The Bulli Coke Company Ltd established a battery of 39 rectangular beehive coke ovens adjacent to the Bulli Colliery’s railway to Sandon Point in 1889; these ovens were built to consume the slack coal arising from the mining operations.  An additional set of 15 ovens was added at a later date.  In 1916 their major customer was the Broken Hill Associated Smelters at Port Pirie; some coke was also shipped to San Francisco.  Much of the coke was bagged for shipment.  These coke ovens were closed down in about 1930 and lay derelict until about 1938 when they were demolished and covered over when AIS built the bridge to carry the colliery railway over the South Coast railway.  In recent years as part of the Sandon Point development the Stocklands company had to partially excavate the site which was recorded by Brian Rogers before it was backfilled.

Another set of beehive coke ovens was built in 1889 on the Mount Pleasant Colliery property near their loco sheds adjacent to the Wollongong to Bulli road.  The company leased the site for the coke ovens to Messrs Robshaw and Figtree who built a set of four beehive coke ovens (probably circular beehive); the number of ovens was soon increased to 14.  No doubt these ovens were built to absorb the slack coal from the mine.  In 1910 the Figtree brothers erected a battery of 40 beehive coke ovens of their own on the eastern side of the Government rail line and just to the north of where the old Princes Highway (Wollongong to Bulli road) crossed the South Coast railway.  The initial fourteen ovens were then closed down and dismantled.  This new battery of coke ovens was of modern design and was regularly upgraded as technology improved.  Slack coal for the coke ovens was initially obtained from the Mt Pleasant Colliery but after it was closed down coal was obtained from the South Bulli Colliery.  The ovens at North Wollongong were closed down in 1978.

In 1899 the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company of Tasmania built a very modern coke works at Port Kembla.  These works were known as the Mt Lyell Port Kembla Coke Works and consisted of 36 rectangular beehive ovens.  The coke works were situated adjacent to the Mt Kembla to Port Kembla railway and its jetty, with the Mt Kembla Colliery supplying the slack coal demands of the ovens.  The entire coke output was bagged and shipped to Strahan in Macquarie Harbour, south western Tasmania, and then railed to Queenstown on the famous rack railway.  The coke was used to support the copper smelting furnaces of the mining and smelting company.  The coke ovens were closed in 1925 when the Queenstown blast furnaces were closed down.

Mt Lyell Cokeworks (nd)
From the collections of Wollongong City Library P06104
 and the Illawarra Historical Society

The South Clifton Coal & Coke Company was established in 1900 adjacent to the shaft and headframe of the South Clifton colliery to absorb the slack coal generated at the mine. A total of 66 rectangular beehive ovens were built in two batteries, one each side of the headframe.  That coke works was closed down in 1919.

In 1900 the Federal Coke Works Company was established to build a battery of 45 rectangular beehive ovens of modern design.  The ovens were built alongside the Mt Keira railway line, just to the west of the South Coast railway in Gwynneville.  The Beaton Park athletic field now stands on the site of the old coke works.  Slack coal from the Mt Keira colliery was used as feed for the ovens.  The Federal Coke Works ceased operations in 1971. 

The BHP Bellambi Coke Works was started in 1901 to supply coke for BHP’s non-ferrous smelters at Broken Hill.  In 1915 it was taken over by Broken Hill Associated Smelters (BHAS), a company created by a number of the Broken Hill mining companies to erect and operate non-ferrous smelters at Port Pirie.  The coke works, which comprised 115 rectangular beehive ovens, was situated just to the north of Bellambi railway station between York Street and the South Coast railway.  Slack coal was supplied by the South Bulli Colliery via their railway which ran along the northern side of Bellambi Road to their jetty at Bellambi Point.  The entire output of the coke works was despatched to the BHAS Port Pirie smelters.  The coke works was closed in 1935.

In 1906 the North Bulli Coke Works was erected at Coledale, adjacent to the North Bulli Colliery, 52 rectangular beehive ovens being built initially; in 1912 a further 54 ovens were provided making the total 106.  The colliery and coke ovens formed a very large complex just to the north of the present Coledale railway station.  The North Bulli Coke Works closed down in 1926 due to the depressed market.

North Bulli Cokeworks, Coledale nd
From the collections of Wollongong City Library P01589
 and the Illawarra Historical Society

What was left of the old Southern Coal Company and the Corrimal Colliery were reconstituted into the Corrimal-Balgownie Colliery Ltd in 1902 with G.S.Yuill & Company being the major shareholder.  In l9l2 the Corrimal Cokeworks, a very modern bench of 40 rectangular beehive coke ovens, was built on a site adjacent to the Corrimal railway station.  This was the first set of coke ovens in the State designed to recover the waste heat leaving the coke ovens and use it in boilers to raise steam to generate electric power.  Enough power was available to support the total electrical demand of the coke ovens plant and the Corrimal Colliery.  In 1918 the Corrimal-Balgownie coke ovens power house supplied power to North Illawarra Council for street lighting  and continued this supply for over 40 years.  (In the mid 1960s the local Council changed their supplier to the Illawarra County Council.)  In the 1930s an additional 8 ovens were added to the initial battery.  A new battery of 32 beehive ovens was added in 1962.

In March 1964 Australian Iron & Steel (AIS) purchased the Corrimal-Balgownie Colliery Ltd primarily to acquire the Corrimal Colliery and its coal leases.  AIS continued to operate the coke works.  The AIS 33kV transmission line supplying power from the Steelworks power house to Mt Keira, Mt Pleasant and Bulli collieries was tapped into to supply power to the Corrimal Colliery.  It was no longer economical to generate power at the Corrimal Coke Works power house so it was closed down and gradually demolished.  In 1969 AIS sold the Corrimal Coke Works to the Bellambi Coal & Coke Company who in turn sold it to Kembla Coal & Coke Ltd.  The coke works is still in operation with a total of 82 ovens in service.  Over recent years major alteration to the plant have been made to improve efficiency and to minimise pollution as the works is in the middle of a high density residential suburb.

The Illawarra Coke Company Ltd at Coalcliff was formed by H.O. Hyde in late l9l3 with coke being first produced in 1914.  Initially the works consisted of 40 rectangular beehive ovens and was located adjacent to the Coal Cliff Colliery shaft mine at the northern end of the Scarborough rail tunnel.  The South Coast railway separates the coke ovens from the mine.  The lllawarra Coke Company and the Coal Cliff Colliery were initially two completely separate companies; the colliery supplied coal, electric power, water and most other services to the coke works.  In 1954 both the colliery and the coke works were acquired by Kembla Coal & Coke Pty Limited (KCC).  In the 1960s another 8 coke ovens were added together with other major up-rating of the works designed to make it more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Coalcliff Cokeworks, 1960
From the collections of Wollongong City Library P02486
 and the Illawarra Historical Society

The last beehive coke ovens plant built in lllawarra was commenced by Hoskins Iron & Steel (HI&S) of Lithgow in 1916.  HI&S were having trouble with their blast furnaces at Lithgow due to the weakness of the Lithgow coke.  In the mid 1910s they experimented with imported coke from the Newcastle and Illawarra and found that a blend of Lithgow and Illawarra cokes gave a vast improvement.  They began to import large quantities of coke from coke works at Bulli, Coaldale, Corrimal, Mount Pleasant and other Illawarra coke works; all those works used coal from the Bulli or No I seam.  In about 1915 some 75 to 80% of Lithgow’s coke requirements were coming from Illawarra.  Hoskins began to look for a coal mine site in Illawarra in order to minimise coke costs.  In 1916 Hoskins acquired an undeveloped coal mine working the No 3 or ‘dirty’ seam from Alexander Lang at Wongawilli.  They developed the mine and built a set of 20 rectangular beehive ovens of very modern design; they also recovered the waste gases from the ovens and used it to generate enough electricity to meet the demands of the coke works and the mine.  The mine and coke ovens were placed in operation in October 1916.  Another 20 ovens were added almost immediately.

AIS Wongawilli Coke Ovens 1934
From the collections of Wollongong City Library P20762
 and the Illawarra Historical Society

In December l9l8 the Wongawilli mine and coke ovens were shut down to allow a coal washery to be built immediately adjacent to the coke ovens; upgrading of facilities at the mine also took place.  The mine, washery and coke ovens were place back in service in mid 1920.  The coal washery was needed to remove much of the ash from the coal to improve coke works productivity, reduce freight costs and operating costs at the blast furnaces.  In June 1923 an additional 40 ovens were installed bringing the total to 80.  HI&S began planning for the relocation of their iron and steelmaking activities from Lithgow to Port Kembla in the early 1920s and in 1927 an additional 40 ovens were built at Wongawilli.  In 1928 Australian Iron & Steel (AIS) was formed to take over all the assets of HI&S; the Hoskins family still retained control of the new Company.  Following the merger of AIS and BHP a major up-rating of the Port Kembla steelworks took place; one major improvement being the building of the first Port Kembla by-products coke ovens battery which came into operation in 1938.  Following the commissioning of this new coke ovens plant the Wongawilli beehive coke ovens were shut down; the Wongawilli coal washery continued to operate.  To cater for the heavy demand for iron during World War II the Wongawilli coke ovens were recommissioned; they were ultimately closed down again in 1945 and eventually demolished.

AIS Port Kembla, No 1 Battery 1937
rom the collections of Wollongong City Library P20753
 and the Illawarra Historical Society

HI&S of Lithgow was a large consumer of Illawarra coke and to a large extent sustained the operation of those coke works not specifically built for a wedded customer such as the Mt Lyell and BHAS works.  Even after Hoskins opened their by-products coke ovens they continued to take coke from various Illawarra coke works.  Again, after AIS opened their new blast furnace at Port Kembla they continued to augment their Wongawilli coke with coke from various northern Illawarra coke works.

In 1925 the NSW Department of Mines issued instructions that an investigation be carried out into the reasons for the marked decline in the coke industry of NSW.  The NSW Department of Mines Annual Report for 1927 contains a copy of a report issued by L.F. Harper addressing this problem.  The bulk of the imported coke was used in the nonferrous smelting plants.  Harper’s research on the BHAS silver and lead smelters indicated that these smelters were very sensitive to coke quality.  Using Durham (English) coke a smelting furnace would treat 45 charges per shift and the furnace would operate smoothly and produce little fume.  Conversely, when using NSW coke a furnace would treat only 25 charges per shift, the furnace would tend to hang up and large quantities of fume would be generated.  Even though the higher ash content NSW coke was cheaper than Durham coke landed at Port Pirie, furnace operating costs were lower when using Durham coke.  Durham coke was manufactured in circular beehive ovens while the Bellambi coke was manufactured in rectangular beehive ovens from Bulli No 1 seam coal.  The Illawarra coke makers began to take notice of Harper’s remarks and began to make coke from blends of various coals to satisfy the needs of their customers.  As far as coke for blast furnaces was concerned Illawarra coal produced good high strength coke.  Newcastle and Lithgow coals produced low strength cokes; this induced Hoskins to move to Port Kembla while BHP at Newcastle was restricted to using small blast furnaces which were better able to survive using low strength coke.

The two remaining beehive oven coke works at Corrimal and Coalcliff are highly efficient operations despite the fact that none of the volatile products in the coal are recovered.  Worldwide there are niche markets for beehive coke where by-product coke is not suitable.  Considerable research is being carried out internationally to improve the efficiency of beehive coke ovens.

When considering coke manufacture in Illawarra there is one family name that stands out and that is Fleming.  Edmund Fleming was born in the UK in 1835 and managed coke works for some 12 years.  Edmund migrated to Australia in 1886 with his wife and four sons and worked in the Mt Pleasant colliery.  In 1888 he was persuaded to become the manager of the new Australian Coke Making Company’s works at Unanderra and brought that works into operation.  In about 1890 he moved to the Mt Pleasant site where he established a small coke works, which was soon expanded with the help of his sons Henry, Frank and Edward.  In 1910 the Figtree brothers established their new coke works at North Wollongong.  Edmund recommended that his fifth and eldest son, Joseph who was the manager of a coke works in the UK, migrate to Australia and become the manager of the Federal Coke Works.  Edmund Fleming was known as the pioneer of Illawarra coke making, he died in 1910 but his sons carried on the family tradition for many more years.  Alex Fleming, a late esteemed member of the Illawarra Historical Society, was not a member of the Fleming coke ovens dynasty but for a short period after AIS purchased Corrimal Colliery he was secretary of Corrimal Coal & Coke Limited.

I hope that this talk has helped you to understand more about the coke ovens that dotted the Illawarra escarpment many years ago.  With the exception of Wollongong Harbour, Mt Lyell and Wongawilli, all those coke ovens were visible from the South Coast railway; what a spectacle they presented during the night.                    

DKR Rev 0  23-2-2006