The Southern Coal Company (SCC) was a major coal mining company floated in London to open a coal mine in the Bulli Seam, on the south eastern slopes of Mount Kembla.  In 1888 the SCC commenced the mining of the Bulli Seam from its outcrop, and the construction of an endless rope incline down the mountain side in an area that included Portions 311,123 and 320, Parish of Kembla, County of Camden.

The incline was designed to deliver the mined coal down the escarpment in small coal skips, using an endless rope haulage, to a screening plant erected at the base of the incline along with offices, steam locomotive facilities, sheds and workshops. SCC also undertook the construction of a railway line from the mine site to a jetty erected at Port Kembla.  These works were all carried out in the same period of time.[1] The standard gauge railway line terminated at Red Point, now known as Port Kembla.  There a jetty with modern design features and some 1400 ft in length was built by the Company, to accommodate the loading of large carrying capacity, ocean going ships from wagons hauled to the jetty by the company’s locomotives.[2]

Mine Tunnel, Southern Coal Company
From the collection of Ron Cairns

Ironically, for a mine which was to fail, the tunnels were developed in a quality fashion, as is shown by the photograph above, taken over a century later.

In 1888 the Company also, in conjunction with a business partner, undertook the erection of a battery of beehive coke ovens adjacent to the railway at Unanderra. Its purpose was to absorb the duff coal generated at their own mine under construction on Mount Kembla as well as from other mines in the area. These coke ovens were known as the Australian Coke Making Company Ltd Ovens. All of the items included in this large project undertaken by SCC were completed on schedule, except for the planned development of the underground workings of the mine itself, the principal reason for the project.

A Major Problem

In driving the main tunnels from the outcrop at the mine, while good quality coal was found at the outcrop, quality soon deteriorated as the tunnels developed.  The material encountered was later described by L.F. Harper,[3] (a well-known coal geologist of the time) as “very carbonaceous clay with coaly partings” caused by the presence of a Master Channel in the Bulli Seam, into which the tunnels had been driven.  While the SCC continued mining for some time, coal of saleable quality was not found and the plans to open a mine were abandoned.  As the coal initially mined was inferior, the first ship to use the Company’s jetty was loaded with coal purchased by the company from other Illawarra mines.  The underground and other developments on Mount Kembla themselves, and the infrastructure supporting the mining operations, were abandoned in 1890.  It was a curious situation for a major project.

Master Channel in the Bulli Seam
From  Harper, L.F. “The Geology and Mineral Resources of the
Southern Coalfields” 1915, p.87

The problems encountered in attempting to open a mine on Mount Kembla, and the abandoning of that site led the SCC to seeking another source of coal to satisfy their already contracted customer orders. Confronted with this problem, the SCC moved to leasing the Brokers Nose Colliery owned by a Mr Bertram and others. Later, that colliery went through changes that included others becoming part of the ownership, and the colliery being renamed the Corrimal Balgownie Colliery and later again the Corrimal Colliery.

At the time the SCC leased the Brokers Nose Colliery it had a daily output of 200 tons, and the mine plant was evidently in need of upgrading.  The SCC turned its attention away from the Mount Kembla sit, to modernise and increase the output capacity of the Brokers Nose mine. It is reasonable to assume that being able to transfer equipment and manpower resources to upgrade the existing Corrimal plant from the Mt Kembla mine site enabled the SCC to complete that work in the shortest possible time.  The work included setting up locomotives and rail wagons owned by the SC, to haul coal mined at Brokers Nose to the SCC jetty. at Port Kembla.

Construction of the that jetty was completed in March 1890, and a number of relatively large shipments of coal were made by the SCC after purchasing coal from other mines in the area to fulfil their contractual commitments.  Notable in these shipments was the visit of the vessel The Gulf of Mexico, by far the largest vessel to have ever visited Port Kembla at that time.

Southern Coal Company Jetty – Port Kembla
From the collection of Ron Cairns

During that same month of March 1890 a party of mining and mechanical engineers visited the (SCC) Australian Coke Making works at Unanderra, under the guidance of the company’s Manager Mr Pringle.  In the discussions that followed that visit, Mr Pringle confirmed that as a result of the problems encountered in developing the mine at Mt Kembla they had turned their attention elsewhere, and leased the Brokers Nose Colliery.  He  went on to say that this would enable the company to make good use of the recently completed jetty at Port Kembla, and that the company would consider returning to the Mt Kembla mine site, in the near future, being confident that the geological problems they had encountered would be overcome and the mine would be developed, as planned.

That did not happen.  To date no official record has been found as to when underground mining operations at the Mt Kembla mine were finally abandoned, when the installed plant at the mine and the incline and screening plant were dismantled, or what became of that plant. The NSW Mines Department Annual Report of 1890, shows no record of the number of men employed at the mine, as it had done in the three previous years.  In 1902 the Southern Coal Company was reconstituted, becoming the Corrimal Balgownie Collieries Limited.

Two newspaper reports in 1890, give some indication of the situation at the screens sit, at that time.  The first report dated 17 June 1890, provides a full description of the machinery installed in the workshop, and refers to the fact that the workshop was being under-utilised, and could be used to great benefit by others should they care to make use of these facilities.

This same report suggests that the SCC was considering making use of the shop to manufacture some 100 rail wagons, to add to their existing fleet of about the same number.  A second newspaper report dated 15 July 1890, refers to an accident to one of two steam locomotives, travelling from the screens to take part in the loading of a shipment of coal at the company’s jetty. This would indicate, that the facilities provided to house and maintain the locomotives at the screening plant site, were still in use at that date.

Reports prepared by others dealing with railways in the area in that time, indicate that the steam locomotives and rail wagons were used to rail coal from Brokers Nose Colliery and other mines to the Port Kembla jetty, and the locomotives were later housed and maintained, in facilities provided at or near the company’s coke works at Unanderra.  The rail track from the coke works area to the screening plant site was later dismantled.


Despite the fact that the initial mine site seam samples had been taken by a Mr Rowan of the NSW Mines Geological Department, and on analysis were shown to be of typically Bulli seam quality, and a report supporting the project had been prepared by local identities Messrs Biggar and Sweeney, the project was an expensive and dismal failure.

The leasing of the Brokers Nose Colliery by the (SCC) in January 1890, provided the company with an opportunity to make use of the jetty and no doubt some of the mining and workshop plant at Corrimal, and to use their own locomotives and rail wagon, to haul coal to their coke works at Unanderra and the jetty at Port Kembla.

The decision to proceed at once with the whole of the project before having obtained a more representative sample of the seam roof and floor to confirm the mining conditions was, with the benefit of hindsight, risky but perhaps understandable, considering the successful activities of other companies mining the same seam to the north of the mine site.  Both the Mt Kembla and Mt Keira mines had been in production for many years, the former since 1855 and the latter since 1857, so there was no reason to expect after taking the outcrop samples at the mine site, that the same results could not be expected at the chosen mine site.

This was not to be the case as it turned out, but having suffered that disappointment and completed the installation of the incline, screens railway and jetty before this became evident, it is not clear why the Company did not attempt to mine one of the several seams below the Bulli seam.  As later events have shown, the washout only affected the Bulli seam, and the outcrops of all of the lower seams must have been exposed during the construction of the incline – but as far as can be established, the Company did not attempt to mine any of those seams.

 Corrimal – Balgownie Colliery Miners, 1902
From the collections of the Wollongong City Library
and the Illawarra Historical Society P19667

In 1912 the coke ovens plant at Unanderra was closed, when the Corrimal Balgownie Collieries Ltd opened a coke ovens plant, adjacent to the Corrimal Railway Station.

The sealed brick and stone portals at the abandoned SCC mine remain to this day. Additional steel structures have been recently added to these portals to satisfy current requirement for sealing of mine portals.  Earth cuttings can be found in undergrowth on the heavily timbered south eastern slopes of Mount Kembla that trace the route of the incline from the mine portals down the mountain side.  The site of the screening plant and workshops are believed to have been in the vicinity of Callistemon Road and Argyle Place, that adjoin the south western extremities of Staff Road, Unanderra.  There is no remaining evidence of the standard gauge railway line leading away from this area but some circa.1940 Wollongong City Council aerial photographs reveal sections of the rail embankment that existed.

Earth Cutting on Incline:  Remains, 2004
From the collections of Ron Cairns