Six Decades After:  the Remains of the Port Kembla Cement Plant
Photo by and from the collection of Don Reynolds

Over the one hundred and seventy years since James Shoobert developed a vision of coal mining in the Illawarra, the region has seen a diverse range of industries start up and grow, in some cases to a scale significant by both national and international standards, and of long term duration.  Given that activity though it is not surprising that there have been some initiatives which did not achieve the outcomes sought by their promoters.  Some (like the Dapto Smelter and the Mt Kembla Kerosene Works were initially successful, but were only short-lived.  Others (like the later years’ redevelopment of Electrolytic Refining and Smelting) were completed but did not achieve their specified objectives, and were terminated. 

There were also those few industrial projects which were commenced, but did not reach the actual production stage (to the detriment of their investors), for a variety of reasons.  One such project was a cement manufacturing plant whose construction was commenced at Port Kembla in 1929 by Exploratory Construction Products Ltd (later Kembla Cement Ltd).  Its story is of interest not just as a part of the overall picture of industry in the Illawarra but also because, like some other Illawarra operations, it embodied technical aspects which were of potential significance to the industry concerned, and individuals important to technology in Australia. 

What follows is essentially two narratives which were intertwined over some years.  On the one hand, it is a record of one of the few new industrial enterprises undertaken in the Illawarra which failed. On the other hand, it is the story of a gifted and intrepid engineer regarded by those in his chosen professional field as a major figure in that field – and by others, as an ‘adventurer’ who overreached himself technically, with resultant losses to his investors.  The enterprise was the Port Kembla “cement plant which never was”; the engineer – Edward Giles Stone.  Detailed information on the events surrounding the plant’s construction and demise is poor, although some other aspects of E G Stone’s life are documented in more detail.  Much material for this section as regards the plant itself and its history has been drawn from the work by Don Reynolds[1].  Other material has been taken from newspaper reports of the day, together with patent data, heritage records and further supporting personal material on E G Stone (EGS).

The Project

The first public record of any action towards a cement production facility in Port Kembla emerged on 14 October 1927 when the Illawarra Mercury reported that a cement company had purchased land at Port Kembla with the intention of commencing production “at an early date”. That implies that organisation of finance (and some corporate vehicle) had taken place by that date.  Newspapers of the time were active in reporting foreign investor activity in the area (which was significant at the time) and the absence of any such reporting in relation to the proposed plant points to financing by a local group.  Five months after the initial report, the group made an approach to Shellharbour Council for a permit to extract shellgrit and silica from a beach in their area, to supply the plant with its calcium feed to make “finest standard Portland cement”.  The letter to Council came from one E G Stone.  In June 1928, the group made an application through Mr Waldo Lance, draper, of Wollongong for a dredging lease for shellgrit for cement manufacture.  (We may infer from this that Mr Lance was a member of the cement plant investor group.)  Evidence was given by E G Stone (EGS), as agent for the group, on the need to make cheaper cement in NSW.  EGS would appear to have been the prime mover behind the overall project.

Edward Giles Stone

EGS was born (in 1876) and educated in Sydney, both he and his elder brother following their father into the engineering profession.  He worked initially in a range of public authorities gaining experience in civil engineering design over the ten years from leaving school in 1892.  In 1902 he secured the Australian rights to the ‘Considere’ system of concrete reinforcement, a system involving longitudinal steel bars linked by a spiral of reinforcing steel.  After setting up as a consulting engineer, he proceeded to employ this system in a range of innovative reinforced concrete designs ranging from simple storage chambers, through houses (including Iandra Castle, in NSW) to a very major facility, a woolstore in Geelong embodying clear spans of 54m, then the longest reinforced concrete span in the world.  His works were technical feats.

He then went into business with another engineer, Ernest Joshua Siddeley, in a partnership which was to enjoy wide recognition for its designs, and delivered projects.  Their works included a 12.2km outflow system for a sewage treatment plant in Geelong, incorporating a 739m long aqueduct across the Barwon River (completed in 1916), a structure now heritage listed after its decommissioning some 26 years ago; a very large woolstore in Geelong noted for its wide clear spaces; and other structures including major jetties.  The Stone/Siddeley partnership, stressed by contractual difficulties during World War I but having delivered much notable work, was formally dissolved in 1922, with them having separated some time before.  EGS then as an individual consultant and designer undertook a variety of projects including hydroelectric dam design, railway workshops, and a major confectionery factory which included housing, shops, and sports facilities for employees.  The latter was to be the last of his work in major public concrete projects, a body of work which made his reputation as a very important figure in the development of reinforced concrete design in Australia.

At that point, for reasons which are not clear EGS embarked on a career change – from being a proficient and recognised developer of the uses of concrete, he made a move towards the production of cement itself.  He would have been aware of the growing need for cement production in Australia, having seen one of his designs, a hydroelectric dam (Miena #2 in Tasmania), built entirely out of imported cement.  Equally he would have been aware of growing local demand for other Australian projects including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, needing some 50,000 tons of cement.  As well, he had in his structural work shown skill and initiative in innovative design, and perhaps perceived the field of cement manufacture to be one which might benefit from those skills.  Certainly in his subsequent work in cement production, he spent much effort in designing and developing new technology and equipment, and embodied those concepts in patents as he had done, together with Siddeley and others, in the field of reinforced concrete structural design.  Results from that were, however, to be much less positive than had been the case with reinforced concrete structural applications.

EGS in Tasmania

The first essay into cement manufacture by EGS was to be in Tasmania.  In 1922, after having worked in Tasmania as a consultant, he joined with a partner in founding the Tasmanian Cement Company, which in turn acquired several parcels of land, one containing limestone deposits and the other oil shale.  At the instigation of EGS the plant to utilise these resources was located at Railton.  The shale excited Stone’s interest, and he developed (and applied for patents covering) a process to extract oil from the local shale.  He further ventured into overall plant design, in formulating a process design in which oil from the shale might be processed to provide fuel for the cement kiln (and for public sale).  The residual shale would provide some of the necessary but more minor components of the kiln feed, with the hot exit gases from the kiln providing the energy to free the oil contained in the shale – an interesting example of what would now be termed integrated process design.  (For a description of the basic cement kiln process of the time, see here). He also undertook trials of a reinforced concrete rotary kiln – an approach not known to have been attempted elsewhere.  Stone became managing director of the project and plant.

Stone’s work with new technology was by no means casual – over his life his name could be found on fourteen patents, most in the process equipment field.  They included a new rotary kiln design, retorts for oil recovery, and new mill designs.  Interestingly, while most patents were from the US or Australia, his patent on rotary kiln design was lodged in Denmark, being his only one there.  This odd situation may perhaps be due to the fact that some forty years before there had been founded in Denmark a firm which became (and remains) a Danish-based major world cement kiln provider – FL Smidth A/S.  The patenting of a new kiln design in Denmark may well have been directed towards that company.

The Railton Cement Plant, 1924:  A Mural
By courtesy of Shane Perdue and Sheffield Murals

Construction and commissioning of the Railton plant encountered funding problems, presumably due to cost over-runs quite likely due to the adoption of new technologies developed by Stone, particularly in the area of shale oil recovery. (There were reports of the shale retorts exploding  during trials.)  That led a major shareholder (Dorman Long of England) to remove him as managing director and take over management of the project, as a condition of their taking up more equity in (and thus providing more funds for) the new company.  Dorman Long’s interest in the project was presumably due to their need for 2,000 tons of cement per month for their contract of the time to construct the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  Interestingly, they were also a shareholder in Australian Iron and Steel who were, through their subsidiary Southern Portland Cement, to later construct a cement plant at Berrima, south of Sydney, based on their nearby limestone deposits.

The Railton plant subsequently progressed to commissioning, but encountered major problems with the oil shale component of the design, leading to its being removed and pulverised coal firing fitted to the kiln instead.  The plant then continued to operate and grow substantially over the years (as the Goliath Portland Cement Company), but without E G Stone who left the company around 1926.

Port Kembla Cement

By 1928, Stone was in Wollongong ‘planning his cement works’ as the local newspaper put it.  It may be conjectured why he chose Wollongong for his next venture, particularly given that there was already action by the firms involved in establishing Australian Iron & Steel  at Port Kembla to establish a large cement plant at Berrima in the Southern Highlands, in association with a limestone quarry which would provide lime feed to the steel plant.  It may have been that he believed he could get to production before that group; it may also have been related to financing.  Cement production is capital-intensive, meaning that an assurance of funding is needed prior to any major development work.  EGS had two important links with Wollongong which would have undoubtedly been helpful in securing the necessary investment.  Waldo Lance, who had appeared on behalf of the new company, was a well-known local businessman and the nephew of EGS.  That of itself would have been helpful in securing finance – but in addition, the partner with whom EGS had practised his civil engineering consultancy, with much recognition, was also a well-known figure in Wollongong.  Ernest Siddeley had been at the Dapto Smelter for some years when it operated, rising to be chief engineer before his move to other companies.  He had been an active and recognised local sportsman, and had also returned later to marry locally.  So EGS is likely to have found in Wollongong a ready acceptance among those able to provide finance for his venture.

Like the initial design for the Railton plant, the Port Kembla plant was to have features of some novelty.  Where limestone was the normal feedstock for the calcium component of cement, Stone proposed using shell grit, deposits of which were known to be located at several points along the central Illawarra coast.  It may be inferred from the later remnants of the plant that, unlike the more ‘standard’ process, the shell grit was not to be ground to a fine size, as would be limestone.  A second feature was the use of clay as a source of silica and alumina in lieu of shale:  this clay was to be extracted from the Tom Thumb lagoon immediately south of Wollongong.  The last component, gypsum, was bought in, presumably from outside the region.

Port Kembla Harbour, 1919, Showing Later Cement Plant Location (A).
(From the collection of Don Reynolds)

The overall facilities comprised

  • the primary plant site itself, including the rotary kiln proper, associated pulverised coal firing facilities and coal mill, preheaters, and material handling facilities.  This was located in a former NSW Public Works Department quarry – the second developed by the PWD, at Reid’s Hill a little west of Port Kembla, for the purpose of constructing the eastern breakwater in Port Kembla Harbour
  • shell grit recovery facilities, recovering seafloor shell grit deposits.  These were located on ‘Metal Manufactures (MM) beach’ adjacent to the MM plant, and comprised a suction pump mounted on a pontoon, which dredged material and delivered it to a rail facility where the shellgrit could be drained for transport to the kiln site
  • a clay extraction facility on Tom Thumb lagoon.  This impressive structure included a device termed a ‘clay digester’, and little is known of its design.  It was evidently though to condition clay extracted from the lagoon bottom into a suspension which could be pumped the 3 – 4 miles from the lagoon to the kiln site.  The concrete structure remained in place for many years becoming known as “Stone’s Monument” and understood to have been designed by EGS.

There was no evidence of clinker (raw product cement) grinding or packaging facilities, or other related activities.  The initially installed kiln shell was of reinforced concrete construction, with steel supports and drive.  It is thought this may have been the experimental kiln shell which Stone had developed at Railton – although it would have been a major task to transport such a shell from Tasmania to Port Kembla.

Overall View of Cement Plant Under Construction, 1931
(Courtesy Wollongong City Library (P02796) and the
 Illawarra Historical Society Collections)

It is likely that an amount of design by EGS was incorporated in the plant.  Certainly, the kiln shell proper was of his design.  Another critical piece of equipment, the mill to grind coal for firing the kiln, was almost certainly to Stone’s own design.  The image below shows a piece of equipment installed under what is obviously a feed bin, with that equipment having a very strong resemblance to the grinding mill shown in the patent application No 412,849 filed by EGS on Dec 9, 1929 (see comparison image below.  The equipment shown even has the same number of grinding chambers as the patent model.)  That design is not known to have been used elsewhere.  It is also likely that the equipment was manufactured at site – see note below regarding final equipment disposition.

More information on the overall plant proper may be found here

Port Kembla Mill and Stone’s Patent Design Ball Mill

It is not apparent whether the kiln was ever fired, although it is clear that it did not go into commercial production.  There are conflicting reports on when work ceased at the site.  One source suggests 1932.  Against that, there are reports of electric power being sought from the local Council for the clay digester site in 1933; as well, the Company secretary had to state publicly in July 1933 that the works were not immediately about to commence production, as they had been embarrassed by many applications for work after newspaper reports of imminent startup.  There are also reports of the company seeking relief from certain labour conditions in the Mining Warden’s Court in 1934.  The latter is interesting as it was stated to the Court that the company was actively working to buy further equipment overseas for the venture.  Less happily, that evidence was given by a Mr JM Wilcox “receiver and manager of Exploratory Concrete Products Ltd”. 

Photographs believed to be from 1932 show a new (conventional) steel kiln shell under assembly alongside the original reinforced concrete shell which had been fully installed.  At the time work ceased, the plant was near completion and possibly able to be fired.  A number of buildings had been erected – buildings notable for their appearance, where the building sheeting had been mounted on the inside of the structural framework.  This would have been to minimise the loading on the structures from the deposition of airborne dust.  The grit extraction facility was essentially completed, as was the clay digester.  The absence of any further reports on the company following the Mining Warden’s hearing in 1934 would suggest that efforts to further progress work on the project ceased in late 1934 or early 1935.

EGS’ firm Exploratory Concrete Products was ultimately deregistered as a company in February 1940.  Interestingly the original partnership of Stone and Siddeley was formally deregistered in the same Government Gazette – a sign perhaps of EGS tidying his affairs and moving on to new things.

Edward Giles Stone and Narrabeen

EG Stone’s second misadventure in cement manufacture did not deter him from further effort in that field.  Even during the time that development was continuing at the Port Kembla site, he had been active in working towards a third undertaking, this time at Narrabeen, in the Northern Beaches of Sydney.  This also was to be shellgrit based.  In 1933 a 20-year lease had been granted to his company for an area for dredging on Narrabeen Lake.  (Shellgrit was later dredged from this area and barged to lime-burning kilns nearby.)  In November 1934 EGS sought a variation (on behalf of his company Industries and Cements Ltd) to allow access to an area nearer to the sand spit at the sea mouth of the lake.  There was considerable disquiet among locals as to the effects of the proposed activities.

Bridge built by EG Stone over Deep Creek, Narrabeen, 1939
Courtesy Warringah Shire Library

Stone’s aim was to build a pilot scale (6,000 tonnes/yr) cement plant, presumably with a view to the construction of an industrial scale plant later.  The pilot plant was built, and also a small residence nearby, a large dam on a creek (Deep Creek) feeding the lake, and a bridge over the same creek.  This took some time, and no doubt substantial finance.  It was all however to come to an abrupt end in 1941, when the state government resumed 5.3 ha of land between Stone’s property and the lake – thereby cutting off the ability to supply shellgrit to the plant.  (The land was resumed for the construction of the Wakehurst Parkway – still in use.)  Despite protests, the resumption stood, meaning the end of development by EG Stone.  The name given to the cement works had something of a sad twist: the “Never Been Beaten Lime & Cement Works”.

‘Never Been Beaten’ Lime and Cement Works, Narrabeen 1941
Courtesy National Library of Australia 23616

That was to be the last of his cement undertakings.  However over the next few years he continued to pursue invention in engineering, giving public comment on water supply, sketching dam protection works, developing new designs for vehicle tyres for rural use, and other engineering innovations.  He died in October 1947.  Notwithstanding his contribution to engineering in Australia, it had not left him wealthy.  The Official Receiver in the Court of Bankruptcy declared a first and final dividend from his estate in February, 1951.

The End for Port Kembla Cement

As noted above, by 1934 the head company (Exploratory Concrete Products) appears to have gone into bankruptcy – even though it was maintained that the company was still actively seeking new equipment.  No further site work appears to have been undertaken after that year.  Much equipment however remained – and was to remain for many years.  The large concrete clay digester structure remained a Wollongong landmark until the early 1960s when it was removed to make way for harbour developments.  Some large components (including the reinforced concrete kiln shell) remained on the site until around 1990, although the steel kiln shell purchased later is thought to have been sold to Adelaide Cement Ltd in 1939, and modified and installed after 1945.  As part of the company liquidation, an on-site auction of all negotiable assets (including leases) was advertised for 29th June, 1937, at which it may be assumed that the majority of the remaining plant was sold as it did not appear for further sale,  An interesting feature of the auction schedule is the amount of heavy machine-shop equipment put up for sale.  The purchase of such workshop machinery could only have been justified if substantial pieces of equipment were to be manufactured on site – which may in turn point to likely cost increases if specialised process equipment were being so manufactured – for the first time, and likely to the designs of EGS.

What caused the failure of the enterprise is not known, somewhat surprisingly given the interest of newspapers of the day in such matters.  Clearly the effect of the Great Depression must have been an influence, not only on markets but also on capital availability.  (That was graphically illustrated by the development of a temporary settlement for unemployed workers – ‘Spoonerville’ – a short distance from the plant site.)  It is known that shortly before the plant shutdown, EGS had invited a group of graziers to the site, seeking help in financing the venture.  That help was not forthcoming.  Another alternative (or jointly contributing) factor could have been technical difficulties.  As noted, the plant embodied certain innovations – both in terms of the overall process, and in the nature of equipment used.  The seeming use of unground shellgrit was a new approach, as indeed was the manner in which the shellgrit was recovered, along with sand.  The use of a reinforced concrete kiln shell was novel, and one not known to have been used elsewhere since.  Another factor was the apparent use of mills designed by EGS along the lines of his patented multiple tube mill design (see images above of the mill, and patent diagrams).  Given that no other engineer is mentioned in any record, it seems probable that the overall plant design was executed by EGS.  As with the Railton experience, problems may well have come from both the overall process route selected, and the equipment used to support that.

‘Spoonerville’ – unemployed housing, 1934
(cement plant roof in foreground)

(Courtesy Wollongong City Library (P02323) and the
 Illawarra Historical Society Collections)

Both at the time, and subsequently, there have been suggestions that the Port Kembla project may have been a vehicle to defraud investors.  No doubt those local investors who saw their entire investment produce no outcome might have been motivated to find some reason for failure which did not reflect on their astuteness as investors.  Viewed in the context of Stone’s overall career however, there seems little likelihood that he stood to gain from the venture.  From one aspect, he could have enjoyed financial rewards much more easily through his professional consultancy, given his reputation for earlier work.  From another aspect, it is difficult to see how he could have made any significant financial gain from his involvement in this project.  Rather it would seem that there was largely an issue of judgement – judgement as to his own capabilities in engineering fields far removed from that it which he won recognition; judgement as to how to economically construct the type of process plant on which he embarked.  These, together with external factors such as scarcity of finance, and the influence of the Great Depression, combined to make the Port Kembla cement plant “the cement plant that never was”.

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[1] DK Reynolds Swept Under the Carpet:  A History of a Failed Cement Works Project at Port Kembla Illawarra Historical Society, Wollongong Feb 2004