Wollongong Harbour: The Port of Wollongong

On a sunny summer day, a visitor to the picturesque small boat harbour at Belmore Basin, near central Wollongong, might find it hard to visualise it as the location of what was once the third largest port in NSW, and the principal export/import point for the Illawarra region.  People of many nationalities wandering the beach and lawns, children playing in playgrounds and in the water, pleasure craft crowding in a protected bay – all seem far removed from a major coal export port which could handle up to 15 ships at a time, and cater for over 30 ships per week with coal being delivered by rail from mines on the hills behind the city.  It was a harbour which provided a major platform for the development of the region as a whole in both mining and agriculture, before being ultimately superseded by the growth of a larger facility to the south, and then transformed into a place of relaxation and enjoyment for both residents and visitors alike.  There is still, though, much to be seen of both remnants and complete examples of the facilities built since work commenced on the first of its fixed structures, one hundred and eighty years ago.

Settlement around this part of the Illawarra was primarily driven by the logging of cedar timber, and later agriculture.  Both these activities implied some means of sending product to markets – an often arduous task – and in turn receiving supplies to support the settlement.

Timber getting and transport ca 1900.
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P02833) Collections)

In the case of the Illawarra, topography dictated that for many years the means of transport must be sea shipment, until the development of a rail link to Sydney towards the end of the nineteenth century.  As Gardiner –Garden noted, wherever the products of local human endeavour are exchanged, the focal point of the settlements concerned will be where those exchanges take place.  In the Illawarra and Wollongong specifically, that point was the harbour, which was very much the centre of early development in Wollongong.

Early Uses

While the cedar-getters were the first to ship products out of what was later to be a formal harbour, they were far from being the first to take advantage of the relatively sheltered bay protected by Flagstaff Hill.  The local indigenous people (Dharawal) had made use of the area for cultural and ceremonial purposes for many thousands of years, as shown by the existence of shell middens.  The first Europeans to use the site are likely to have been early explorers, runaway convicts, shipwreck survivors, or (illegal) cedar-getters.  The logging and shipment of cedar is known to have been undertaken in the Shoalhaven further south in 1812, and the same was highly probable in the Illawarra.  In 1815, the year of Waterloo, the event occurred which was to lead to an agricultural industry, when Dr Charles Throsby Smith took cattle from his holding near Sydney to the Illawarra, in what was to prove a most successful venture, with dairying ultimately to largely replace the earlier cropping agriculture.

The First Steamship

Shipment from the area of the harbour was at that time from a sandy beach (with no jetty), with some goods transshipped by boat, and others landed directly.  It was not always an easy operation, as disembarking passengers could attest.  Despite the lack of facilities, trade grew.  With increasing use of the area, a detachment of soldiers who had originally been located at Red Point to the south, was brought in 1826 up to the harbour site, where they constructed facilities for themselves.  In 1831 the first shipyard was built by John Cunningham, who constructed a number of vessels there.  The first steamship visited Wollongong in 1834, although it was to be 1839 before the first scheduled steamer service was commenced, with the steamer “Maitland”.  Over this time, with increasing volumes of goods passing through, and a recognition of the great potential for further growth, there was much local pressure for the development of more functional port facilities.

The First Basin: the Convicts

This finally had its effect in 1837, when Captain George Barney (the first Colonial Engineer and known for his civil work elsewhere in NSW) was instructed to design and build a harbour facility in Wollongong.  Later that year a group of three hundred convicts under Captain Plunkett was sent down to do the work.  The convicts lived in a stockade on Stockade Point, later known as Flagstaff Point.

Construction started on Dec 18th 1837 and by May the following year much progress had been made, leading to compliments by visiting Sydney Monitor writer that it was “.. highly creditable to the directing officer.”  The method of construction was by drilling and blasting and manual excavation, all done behind a coffer dam wall keeping the sea out of the basin as it was created.

Basin construction behind coffer dam
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P04620) Collections)

Quartz sandstone brought in from elsewhere was used to form the bottom two rows of wall, keyed into the base rock.  Lesser quality sandstone recovered from the excavation was used for the remainder of the wall, all pieces being cut to specified dimensions.  The sandstone was bonded by a lime mortar.  Other excavated material was used to backfill behind the walls as they were built.  The State Heritage Register report  notes that “(while vertically faced dressed stone block harbour works were built elsewhere in NSW… – some by convict labour, Wollongong is the only Basin that was constructed by convict labour”.

The original design was for the basin to be 100ft long, 35ft wide and 8ft deep (33m x 10.6m x 2.4m).  During construction this was increased to 300ft by 150ft (91m x 45m), at the same depth.  The project overall including basin, pier and approaches cost some £3500.  The work was laborious and difficult, even requiring the use of a diving bell to adjust the dressed stone facing of the walls: it was completed in 1844.

Resulting from this work, the site now contains the oldest and most intact block walled harbour in NSW. “The Harbour, Quay and Southern Basin are rare and substantially intact survivors of major convict harbour construction.”1

 First Coal Shipped

Five years after completion of the first basin, James Shoobert opened his mine at Mt Keira, and with great fanfare coal was brought from the mine for shipment from the harbour by the steamer William the Fourth.  By the early 1850s both passenger and freight traffic had much increased, leading to the construction of a second pier in 1856, a timber structure leading from the southern side of the basin.  The nature of trade had also started to shift, with dairying starting to become the dominant form of agriculture in the region. In the quarter ending September 29 1856, butter comprised over 60% of total exports by value.

With the growth of trade in coal and agricultural products, and concerns for safety in the harbour due to its shallow depth (remains of the original coffer dam not having been completely removed) there was agitation for improvements.  In Jan 1859 plans and estimates for a new basin were approved, for a cost of £26,892  This basin, to open into the existing basin, was to be 300ft long, 102ft wide, and 10ft deep (90m x 31m x 3m).  The excavated stone was to go to building a new breakwater.  Where the original basin had been convict-built, this was no longer possible so the government sought contractors for the work.  However a suitable single contractor could not be found and it became necessary for the government to supply the necessary plant and machinery, and hire labour only.

Basin Extensions

As had been the case with the original basin construction, it became apparent, with further growth in the coal trade, that the intended size would be inadequate.  Additional funds (£5000) were sought for a larger basin, these being approved in 1864.  The revised basin size was 455ft wide and 153ft long (138m x 46m).  Also authorised was £3000 for the installation of three high-level coal staithes, with provision to connect these with the rail lines already installed from the Osborne Wallsend (Mt Keira) mine (in 1861) and the Mt Pleasant mine (in 1863).  In addition, the need to close the existing basin for construction of the new basin had led to the construction of a 550ft (166m) jetty outside the basin to allow trade to continue.

Temporary jetty outside coffer dam, ca 1860
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P04621) Collections)

Funds were also sought to have the whole of the basin area deepened to 18ft (5.4m).  In the event only the inner basin was so treated, depth elsewhere remaining at 14ft (4.5m).  The end result of the 1860s modifications was that by 1868 there were in place three staithes capable of loading 3000 tons of coal  per day, and a wharf frontage of some 1748ft (nearly 530m) – “enough for about  15 vessels”.  The total basin area was some three acres (around 1.2ha).

Basin Under Construction ca 1867
(Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales Collection)

Belmore Basin

After seven years’ work and £44,892 expenditure the extended harbour was opened on 6th October 1868, and named Belmore Basin by Governor His Excellency the Right Honourable Somerset Richard Lowrey-Corry, Earl of Belmore.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported on the coming together of three “great events” for the town – the opening of the harbour, the visit of the Governor, and the local race meeting – the effect of which was to place to local public houses under “a state of siege” with a dire shortage of accommodation for the great occasion.

Steamer Illawarra ca 1860
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P04621) Collection)

In the year of its opening the harbour handled 31,443 tons of coal (excluding bunkers).  Ten years later, the volume had trebled to 92,546 tons, largely carried on sailing ships.  (Steamers in service were generally passenger vessels.)  The growth in exports led to further capacity increases.

“T” Wharf, ca 1890
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P02776) Collections)

In 1880, a timber “T” wharf equipped with steam crane and associated boiler was erected – running westerly from a point between the basin and the breakwater.  The steam crane was mounted on a substantial concrete base, still prominent in the harbour over 130 years later.

T Wharf Crane Pedestal
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P20700) Collections)

A sea wall was also built to protect both the basin and the rail lines connecting the lines from the mines to the various coal loading points.  By 1885 a fourth staithe had been erected to complement the first three, and another specifically to coal steamers of the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company.

The Peak of Port Activity

Artist’s View of Harbour and Town, ca 1887
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P02764) Collections)

With the improvements of 1885 Wollongong Harbour neared what was to be the high point in its operating history, when in both shipped tonnages and vessel clearances the Harbour was bettered only in NSW by Sydney and Newcastle.  In calendar 1885, three years before the completion of the Sydney-Wollongong rail line, the port handled an average of 31 vessels a week.  The freight included among other goods 167,653 tons of coal (excluding bunkers) and more than 700 tons of butter, a substantial part of Sydney’s supply.  But not only exports were important – much material and equipment needed for the growth of the city came in by sea – including carriages for the new Illawarra rail line, brought in two at a time on small steamers.

Coal was delivered by rail systems from the Mt Keira and Mt Pleasant mines.  Because of differing gauges on their tracks, special arrangements were required so that both supplies could access the various loading points.

Map of Rail Connections from Two Mines, 1885
(Drawn by G Mould, courtesy of R Cairns)

The coke works noted comprised 2 beehive coke ovens erected near Pulpit Rock, as an experiment by Patrick Lahiff Manager of the Mount Pleasant Colliery.  They were the source of the first coke exported from the Illawarra.

Coal trains at Harbour ca 1890
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P02767) Collections)

Competition for Development

Despite the growth of the 1880s competition was looming from both rail transport, and another seaport.  In 1883, Mt Kembla Coal and Oil Company had opened a jetty for its Mt Kembla coal at Red Point (Port Kembla).  In 1887, the Southern Coal Company also opened a jetty there connected by rail to the main government rail line.  Both these jetties could handle vessels larger than those served at Wollongong and were a clear sign of developments to come.  In 1887 also there commenced efforts by local businessmen to develop a harbour at Tom Thumb lagoon, using the existing Wollongong Harbour as an entrance.  The Wollongong Harbour Trust, a body set up to oversee the project, was dissolved in 1895 when the initiative collapsed, and the state government resumed control of Wollongong Harbour.  The Harbour Trust during its tenure had commenced construction of a north-heading breakwater, but construction ceased when the Trust was dissolved.

That year also saw competition between potential sites for a major harbour which ended when the government settled on Red Point (Port Kembla) as the basis for future development.  With rail competition also, the use of Wollongong Harbour rapidly diminished.  By 1890 there were virtually no vessels trading regularly between Wollongong and other ports except Sydney, with outward cargos being mainly coal from the Mt Keira and Mt Pleasant mines.  In 1895 the Illawarra Steamship and Navigation Company announced the cessation of passenger services from the harbour, freight only being undertaken.

The End of the Coal Trade

Mt Pleasant Colliery closed in 1933, and coal exports ceased altogether in 1936, with the coal staithes and other infrastructure largely gone in 1937.  In 1938, Australian Iron & Steel, then the owner of the two mines which had exported through Wollongong, gave the Mt Pleasant railway land east of the government rail line to the City Council.  The ships of the Illawarra and South Coast Steam Navigation Company ceased calling at Wollongong in 1948.  The transition of the Harbour continued, from being the third port of NSW to the picturesque recreational facility it is today.

As part of that transition, in the 1960s a slipway to handle large fishing vessels was built near the Lighthouse breakwater, and in 1966 -67 the Northern breakwater was constructed to provide safe anchorage for pleasure craft so the only vessels using Belmore Basin were the commercial fishing fleet.

Northern Breakwater and Flagstaff Hill, 1968
Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society collections (P23206)

While much of the equipment associated in particular with coal transport has been removed, there remains much to be seen of the broad construction of the harbour.  But of course there also remain much in evidence those other features commonly associated with harbours of the day – lighthouses, and fortifications.

Wollongong Lighthouses

The Breakwater Light

Breakwater Lighthouse 1900 – 1910
(Courtesy of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society (P04720) Collections)

This harbour is the only point on the east coast of Australia to have two lighthouses.  The first, located on the harbour breakwater, was built after the harbour extensions planned in 1859, though not a part of that work.  Until 1867, the harbour and its adjacent rocky shores were marked only by a red lantern on a pole at the end of the breakwater.  Arising from public concern and following a deputation to the government, approval was given to erect a lighthouse, completed at a cost of £3,451.  It was designed by EO Moriarty, the Public Works Dept Engineer in Chief for Harbours and River Navigation, who also determined its location.  The building is now Heritage listed for the fact that it was the first pre-fabricated steel lighthouse in Australia, and “illustrative of early achievements in prefabrication and in the application of the new technology to the new building tasks of that era”  Construction is of inch wrought iron boiler plate prefabricated off site, and riveted horizontally and vertically to an iron frame on site. It was made by Joseph Mather of Sydney, who made a similar unit for Ulladulla, and was 42ft (12.7m) in height, 13ft (3.9m) diameter at the base and tapering to 8ft (2.4m) at the top.

The light was illuminated originally by vegetable oil, then towns gas, then by acetylene, and ultimately by electricity.  A sophisticated lens and prism system by Chance Brothers of Birmingham maximised light visibility from the source, all housed within an elegant lantern house of gun-metal framing and ¾ inch thick glass.The function of the lighthouse as the major light of the area was taken over by the Wollongong Head lighthouse (a little south of the Breakwater Lighthouse) in 1937, and the light was finally extinguished in 1974.  As the building proper had been substantially neglected in maintenance terms for a long time, it was in poor condition both superficially and structurally and plans were made to demolish it.  However community pressure led to its retention, with a restoration supported by both government and private (community) funds in 1978/9.  A further full restoration was undertaken in 2000/2.  The light has been re-lighted for several special occasions including in 2002 (after 18 years) for the Lighthouses of Australia annual dinner.  For more information of the Breakwater Light, see here.

The Breakwater Lighthouse, 2011
From the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the Illawarra Historical Society, P20521

The Wollongong Head Light

Wollongong Head Lighthouse, 2017

The lighthouse located on Flagstaff Hill was commissioned in 1936 and serves not only for Wollongong Harbour but also the far larger Port Kembla Harbour to the immediate south.  It is taller, higher in elevation and greater in power than was the Breakwater Lighthouse in its operating days.  Like that lighthouse though it has its own historical distinction, being the first fully automated lighthouse installed in NSW, some eighty years ago.  No other lighthouses had been built in NSW in the 33 years before that.A reinforced concrete structure, it is 9ft 10ins (3m) in diameter, nearly 84ft (25.3m) tall over its base elevation of 132ft (40m), and its white 70,000cd light can be seen from 19 nautical miles (30km) away.  Its red light has a field of view of 80 degrees, and indicates the reefs and headlands in the Tasman Sea below.

The location of both lighthouses is readily accessible although neither is open to the public.  The Wollongong Head (Flagstaff Point) lighthouse is the centre of a popular location for walking, views, and general relaxation.

The Two Lights, 2017

Fortifications and Defence

It is easy to forget that over the period Wollongong Harbour facilities have existed there have at times been real concerns over the possibility of attack from the sea, particularly in an area focused on strategic commodities  such as coal and steel. (Indeed during World War II vessels carrying iron ore around the coast to Newcastle and Port Kembla were sunk by enemy submarines.)

The First Flagstaff Hill Battery

Captain George Barney had raised the issue of defence in 1839 when the first basin was being built, but it took forty years before concrete steps were taken to provide some defence measures.  In the first step, a battery of three guns was located on Flagstaff Hill, pointing out over the harbour approaches.  The weapons were surplus, eighteen years old smooth bore 68 pounder muzzle loaders.  They are still in place and accessible, having been restored in 1983, with reconstructed carriages.  A smaller, 12-pounder gun was mounted alongside the three major weapons, and used for a time as the ‘one o’clock’ gun, before being mounted for some years outside the city Town Hall.

Flagstaff Hill Battery, 2017

A Major Emplacement

Those guns however were not considered adequate to protect the harbour, since it was considered possible that enemy ships might threaten to bombard the harbour (if not given supplies of coal) while remaining out of their range.  A review of port security in the mid 1880s developed plans for protection for Newcastle, Sydney and Wollongong harbours.  In the case of Wollongong, that protection comprised a very modern, concealed hydro-pneumatic disappearing (retractable) swivel gun mounted in a deep pit on top of Flagstaff Hill, a 6 inch breech-loading weapon.  The Vickers Armstrong Mark V gun was designed to be capable of sinking any ship from Port Kembla in the south, to the Five Islands seaward, and to Bulli in the north.  The pit containing the gun was 45ft (13.6m) in diameter, and connected via tunnels to underground stores, magazines, crew quarters and two machine-gun posts on the southern side.

Pit and Associated Chamber for Retractable 6″ Gun, Flagstaff Hill 2017

The pit itself was filled in in 1950, but  excavated again in 1999/2000 and now fully visible, although the only trace of the gun itself is the circular steel track on which it traversed.

Smiths Hill Emplacement

Accompanying the main weapon and its machine-gun posts was another gun emplacement located to the north, on Smiths Hill.  This, built in 1891/2, comprised two 80 pound rifled muzzle loader guns from the Royal Gun factory at Woolwich and a 38 mm quick-firing gun..  These were mounted with substantial underground works for personnel, ammunition and other supplies.  This installation – Battery Park – has also been renovated in recent years and is a pleasant park readily accessible and adjacent to North Beach. More information is here.

Wollongong Harbour and its associated facilities are easy to visit and tour, and provide an insight into the port which was the central feature of Wollongong in its earliest days, and a basis for the coal trade which was to become one of the principal industries of the region.  Much of the physical facilities remain as evidence of the nature of ports of the day.  This has been reinforced by the provision of a good range of informative signage identifying points of activity, and helping visitors to see a view of the harbour as it was in its heyday.

Resources: reference material used for these notes included:

  1. Wollongong Breakwater Lighthouse Heritage Listing“. 17 July 2000. Retrieved 14 November 2010
  1. Port of Wollongong CW Gardiner-garden, Illawarra Historical Society, 1975.
  1. Lighthouses of australia Inc (LoA Inc): websites:http://www.lighthouses.org.au/lights/NSW/Wollongong/Wollongong%20Harbour.htm andhttp://www.lighthouses.org.au/lights/NSW/Wollongong/Wollongong%20Head.htm
  1. Wikipedia “Wollongong Breakwater Lighthouse” and “Wollongong Head Lighthouse”
  1. Brighton Beach, Wollongong AP Fleming, Illawarra Historical Society, 1969
  1. National Library of Australia, Trove (various).
  2. http://thebluemile.com.au/Defence/smith-s-hill-fort.html