This is a brief but incredible story of an industrial complex and the town that grew up around it. The town is called Newnes and it became a genuine “ghost town”
Most of the famous “ghost towns” like Silverton (in the far west of NSW) or Hill End (north of Bathurst), were never fully abandoned. Also these places retained a full time population that deals with the tourists that pass through – more so now than ever, perhaps.
Whereas places like Silverton now exist almost as tourist resorts, Newnes is totally different. And yet it is far more accessible than remote outback town like Silverton. It lies only 3 hours from Australia’s biggest city and less than an hour from the (relatively) large town of Lithgow on the western side of the Blue Mountains.
The story starts here, at the entrance to the enormous Wolgan valley.
The Wolgan valley is huge. Inside the wide valley are homes, farms and there is even an exclusive $3000+ holiday resort. By the time you follow the Wolgan river to the site of Newnes the sheer valley walls close in to form a narrow gorge.
A low key yet impressive entrance to the property, the resort is still some way off. This is the road access but it is more likely that visitors to this expensive resort fly in by helicopter.
Oil-shale was found in the Wolgan Valley in the 1860s and by the turn of the century several individuals and companies had started work (of sorts) on the main Wolgan deposit. There was actually more activity in the Capertee Valley, north of the Wolgan. However, there was nothing on a major scale until the Commonwealth Oil Corporation (COC), Ltd. started work in 1906.
Mines were established (one each side of the Wolgan river) but it was soon discovered that quality and quantity of shale was not that good and the first mine was soon abandoned.
Construction of the main works site was started in 1906. This included the construction of shale oil retorts, various distillation areas, oil storage tanks and washers, plant for the refining of the various finished products, a power station, workshops, etc., These were extensive works and were well built as can be seen by the extensive ruins that stand to this day. It took up to 1911 for the initial stages to be completed and the retorts charged for the first time.
Meanwhile the 50km railway line that linked the works with the main western line (near Lithgow) took only around one year to complete. Despite many problems that was an incredible achievement. It would take at least 12 months just to get the planning approved today – without laying a single length of track!!!
The town (named after Sir George Newnes, the chairman of the C.O.C.) was also built to house the workers and their families. The town grew to a population of 1,600. The company built a brickworks adjacent to the refinery area where most of the “common” bricks used for the plant construction were made. The company also started a coal mine to provide coal for use within the plant. This coal was found to be a good coking coal, so coke ovens were built and a spin-off business in metallurgical coke was established.
The C.O.C. had bought out its only opposition in the area; the New South Wales Shale and Oil Co., Ltd. The purchase price of this going concern was only £50,000 and this should have sent warning signals to the C.O.C. considering the much larger amounts that they were already spending on their as yet untried properties at Newnes.
By late 1911, after spending some £1.6 million, the company was experiencing trouble with their Pumpherston retorts, (a Scottish retort). Expensive modifications were needed to fix the problem, but attempts to raise the money failed. The C.O.C. went into receivership and, with industrial unrest making things even worse work at Newnes stopped in February 1912.
During 1914, the C.O.C. entered into a joint venture with John Fell & Co., Ltd., a company with years of experience in oil and Australian oil-shales. The retorts were modified and operations resumed. Fell avoided new developments at Newnes, concentrating on using and improving what was already available. The coal mine was reopened in 1916, but the coke ovens remained idle.
By 1922, costs forced Fell to close the oil-shale mines. In 1923, he started processing imported oils at the Newnes plant, but needed coal to work the power station and some of the plant. The mining unions had “blacked” the works until oil shale mining resumed. Work restrictions had limited the supply of oil-shale from the mine to a point that made operating the refinery uneconomic. Fell had no option but to abandon Newnes. Changing technologies and the increasing demand for fuel for cars had also made the Newnes plant obsolete.
By the late 1920s, the mining leases at Newnes were held by a bloke called Mr. A.E. Broue. The “Shale Oil Investigations Pty. Ltd.” company was formed and acquired the rights to the oil-shale works. However, it soon became apparent that the new company was mainly interested in “investigations”, rather than actual production. So, Broue decided to go it alone. Unfortunately, Broue had no capital and soon got into financial trouble after only a short period of mining.
This was now the Great Depression and pressure was mounting on the Commonwealth Government of the day to do something about unemployment. It was decided to use £43,000 to reopen Newnes. Work began in mid-1931 using the No.2 mine and the workable sections of the oil refinery. Production was mainly gas oil but motor car fuels and kerosene were also extracted and sold.
Following a change in government, emphasis again shifted away from production back to “investigation”. Work ceased at Newnes in March 1932.
In 1934 a body called the ‘Newnes Investigation Committee’ recommended the abandonment of Newnes and the establishment of new mines, works and town in the Capertee Valley. Rather than use some of the Newnes works and the railway, it was decided to instead build a pipeline to transport the finished oil In 1938 work commenced on these plans and the new industrial complex was born in the Carertee valley. That place was called Glen Davis.
With the decision to establish Glen Davis, most of those people who still lived at Newnes finally left. Many parts of the Newnes works were recovered and shipped to Glen Davis for re-use. The Newnes railway was pulled up and a petrol pipeline laid in its place. In 1946, what was left of the works was sold for scrap. Most of the privately owned buildings had been removed by their owners, while the old company buildings were readily sold due to the short supply of building materials during and after World War II. Recovery of material continued into the 1950s, while a few buildings still stood until the early 1960s.
Industrial Folly? Or Bad Luck?
Was it just a huge con? Did the owners pay for the building of the site or was that all financed by the banks? Will we ever know? I do not claim to know. But the company involved was a successful business and there was coal and shale to be mined. There was definitely oil based products to be extracted from that shale.
Over the years, some of the owners clearly seemed naive at times. Also union actions and political upheaval were a big part of life leading up to the Great Depression. Despite all of that there is something special about places like Newnes. To me these places are the epitome of pioneer spirit. It never ceases to amaze me what can be built in such a relatively short time and in such remote locations. Whatever their faults the people who saw and seized these opportunities deserve more credit than they receive. The ability to just get things built just over 100 years ago puts most modern day projects to shame.
The old Newnes Hotel is the last surviving building at Newnes belonging to the mining period. During the 1940s, the Newnes Hotel continued to operate with some of its trade coming from weekend visitors from the ‘new town’ of Glen Davis who hiked over the valley. By the late 1950s, increased car ownership and better roads led to more visitors coming to Newnes. Thanks to the quaint old Newnes Hotel the area became a popular camping spot.
Unfortunately the hotel original location was on the bank of the Wolgan River. In 1986 during a large flood, the river changed course and damaged the hotel structure. The building was moved by volunteers in 1987, but it sold its last beer in October 1988. Today it is being renovated and restored to its original condition including being transformed (in part) into a museum.
Next to the Hotel are a group of cabins so tourists can stay on the site of the old town. Closer to the industrial complex there are a couple of basic campgrounds. Peace and quiet guaranteed. Even in this real ghost town.
The closure of the refinery and processing works was followed by the imminent death of the town of Newnes. Yet amazingly a similar industrial activity started up in the adjacent valley to the north. That site – called Glen Davis – will be covered in a future post.