The township of Clifton featured early in the history of mineral exploitation in the Illawarra, being the site of the first identification of coal in the area, by a group of shipwrecked sailors in 1797. A combination of rugged topography and difficult access however meant that it was many years before that coal was mined, and then only in testing conditions.
Clifton itself was founded in 1877 with the commencement of the Coalcliff mine. Very shortly after, the Clifton School of Arts was founded, in a reflection of the international movement towards adult and technical education. The School of Arts also reflected the dominant position of the mine in the township, with the founding of the School of Arts being in fact a result of a gift from the mine owner. The sections which follow deal with these separate, but closely related, developments in Clifton.