Old Bulli Mine (nd)
P13681 From collections of the Wollongong City
 Library and Illawarra Historical Society

The Corn Beef mine was one of a number of pits worked over many years at the Old Bulli mine site.  (The name is suggested to have been bestowed as it paid so little that workers could only afford a corn beef sandwich.)  Its commencement date is not clear, but was between 1878 when the Bulli ‘B’ pit was commenced, and 1904.  In that year it was the site of a major dispute over the owners’ attempts to change the basis of payments to miners from day employment (ie hourly rate) over to a distance or tonnage rate.  The date at which it ceased operation is not known, but it is recorded that in 1940 the Excelsior Collieries Limited intended to reopen the mine.  A likely reason for this is noted below.  The mine can lay claim to several notable features of interest.  First, it was one of the few mines (and likely the first) to operate mining the so-called ‘natural coke’ (otherwise known as cinder coal, or burnt coal). 

‘Natural Coke’

This was a product which arose where rock of volcanic origin had intruded into coal seams, and in doing so largely coked the coal by thermally driving off the hydrocarbons contained within it.  This produced a product not unlike that made in conventional coke ovens.  In early years, encountering this product was treated in much the same manner as the rock intrusions which arose elsewhere from the same source, – that is, as an obstacle to the economic production of coal proper.  However a Mr TW Garlick of North Bulli (“a gentleman of considerable experience in coal mining matters” as the Illawarra Mercury put it in 1891) had a wider view, and took some of the material to the operators of Sydney’s steam tramways as a possible boiler fuel.  After testing the natural coke in their trams its suitability for use in their steam boilers was confirmed.  In fact it enjoyed a preference for its cleaner burning characteristic – important in vehicles carrying people through town areas.

team Tram, 1879
State Archives and Records Authority of NSW (via Wikimedia).

This application provided a useful and lucrative market for a product otherwise regarded as a hindrance to mining.  Natural coke continued as the preferred fuel for Sydney steam trams until the demise of that type of tram.  Its relatively low emissions however underwrote its ongoing use in offices and hotels around downtown Sydney which had their own heating boilers.  This continued for some many years, and it is probable that the Excelsior company which proposed to reopen Corn Beef in 1940 was doing so to access its reserves of natural coke, as Excelsior was already producing natural coke elsewhere.  Natural coke though was not the only product available from the Corn Beef mine, as other parts of the seam in that mine comprised quality (unburnt) coal.

The 1938 Miners’ Strike

The second notable aspect of Corn Beef came half a century after its opening.  It arose from attempts by mine owners to break a strike by accessing dumps of “slack” coal alongside Corn Beef for shipment to Sydney in lieu of their normal coal shipments, stopped because of a miners’ strike. 

‘Slack’ Coal

“Slack” was the name given to the fine coal content which had been separated from the original coal as mined.  This separation was necessary because too high a content of small particle size coal meant that the coal did not burn cleanly in a boiler furnace.  Separation could be as crude as using forks to handle mined coal, rather than shovels, and thereby leaving behind the small coal and dust. In other applications normal screening was used to size separate the products, the slack coal being stockpiled.  In the worst cases, coal would be loaded to ships over screens, which allowed the fine coal to drop through – into the sea below.

Prior to the development of a coal coking industry which could (and preferentially would) use fine coal, large amounts of this material accumulated near mines, to the general detriment of the surrounding countryside.  In 1873, heavy rains washed copious amounts of slack from a Bulli Mine stockpile, depositing it over a large area; later, in 1890, there were numerous complaints from councils about this fine coal being washed into creeks in their area.  A further and equally unwelcome problem was the propensity for fires to start in the slack coal heaps, with the associated fume, smoke and other issues that created.  In one notable incident, light from slack fires at two mines (Mt Keira and Mt Kembla), on an evening of poor visibility, were mistaken by a ship’s crew for the lights of Sydney, causing their ship en route from England to Sydney, to run aground on Towradgi Beach.  The ship was the barque Queen of Nations, which went aground in May 1881.

In 1938 a significant strike had been called in coal mines in the Illawarra to address major issues of concern to workers.  The strikers had a number of objectives in striking, including a reduction in working hours (to recognize the increasing spread of mechanisation), issues of safety in mines, and pensions for miners.  The strike lasted about four weeks, and was ultimately settled on grounds which included the testing for, and where necessary paid compensation for, miners affected by dust in the workplace.  During the strike, mine owners sought to make up coal supplies to Sydney by using some of the fine coal contained in numerous slack heaps around the area, one of which was adjacent to the (then abandoned) Corn Beef mine.  In the first attempt, a crowd of workers surrounding men attempting to load trucks with this coal prevented the shipment. 

The Workers’ Weekly (Sydney, NSW : 1923 – 1939)    Tue 4 Oct 1938    Page 4


Later though, police intervened and railway wagons were loaded with coal for transport to Sydney.  But that was not the end of the story…

Songwriter and singer Maurie Mulheron in 1996 told the story that followed – in song

His introduction:

Great true story about a union victory down here in the Illawarra that occurred in September 1938 at the Old Corn Beef Mine. The story is told in the song. After the scabs had loaded the coal, 8 miners stowed away on the train and spent the next couple of hours shovelling out the scab coal onto the track as the train headed north to Sydney. The next day, when the police investigated, the Miners Federation explained to them that they knew nothing about the missing coal. By way of explanation, the union suggested that it could have been the heavy winds that had blown the night before! The “Bulli Times” ran a headline: “THE COAL THAT BLEW AWAY”.

By the way, after the coal had been shovelled off the train by the ‘stowaway’ miners, the Detective-Sergeant raced down to Thirroul the next day to interview the miners. An astute fellow, he visited Arthur McDonald, one of the miners. “Don’t insult my intelligence,” said the policeman, “by trying to make me believe that the bloody wind on the South Coast blew all that coal away. We think you bastards did it.”

From the Workers’ Weekly, Sydney, 18 October

The song:

When the Coal Blew Away

Do you know how heavy the winds blow here?
His smile was rising from ear to ear
The old miner sat back, he’d a story that day
About the time on the coast when the coal blew away.

All the mines around Bulli and further away
Were being worked each week for only two to three days
Just enough to stop them from getting the dole
While the mine-owners secretly stockpiled the coal.

The winds were so heavy on the coast that day
The winds were so heavy that the coal blew away!

So the miners formed a strong picket line
To try and stop the coal from leaving the mine
From Sydney they trucked in the scabs each day
With police on guard to keep the miners at bay.

With scabs loading coal by the railway track
The miners stepped forward, the mood blacker than black
The sergeant stood between them with a gun and a sneer
I’ll shoot the first Commie who tries to interfere!

The winds were so heavy on the coast that day
The winds were so heavy that the coal blew away!

A fifty ton load was sent on its way
Scheduled for Sydney the very next day
The miners withdrew, full of anger, despair
No victory this time, no hope in the air.

The train slowed down just near Waterfall
The guard heard laughter and this is what he saw
From a wagon some miners jumped onto the track
With shovels, grins and faces smeared black

The winds were so heavy on the coast that day
The winds were so heavy that the coal blew away!

With his lantern he searched up and down the train
No coal could be seen, he searched in vain
And the headlines in the paper read the very next day
The winds were so heavy, the coal blew away!

Now as you listen to my story today
You might think it strange that coal could blow away
But the miners with their shovels in the wagon that night
Swear it is true and I reckon they’re right

The winds were so heavy on the coast that day
The winds were so heavy that the coal blew away!

Maurie has kindly provided an MP3 track of the song.  This can be played or downloaded here: