Sunday, August 30, 2009

Images of Illawarra non-air coal wagons

An original South Bulli Colliery wagon quietly rotting to the west of Princes Highway, just inside the colliery property. Although this (and other shots of the same wagon) were taken almost 20 years ago, it's still there - silently rotting, although now almost surrounded by trees.

Me standing beside the same wagon. Note it has an additional hungry board not shown in the B&W image below (middle wagon). It was also fitted with split-spoke wheels.

My wife, Faye, standing at the end of the same wagon. Note the fabricated Turton-style buffers. These appear to have been fitted later in the wagon's working life, as many of this size had simple dumb buffers at the outset.

A South Bulli Colliery publicity shot from the early 20th Century. The middle wagon has dumb buffers, and the wagon at the extreme right is one of the original back box wagons. Note the oval registration plate on the wagon in the foreground - enabling this and others so fitted to operate over government lines.

The open chute of the South Bulli wagon.

The sole remaining, preserved Corrimal wagon. Some basic work had been done by the time this shot was taken. The wagon now rests outside Bulli railway station, along with one of the South Bulli steam locos and an original brake van.

The delicate details of the sole remaining Southern Coal Co iron wagon now displayed in the church yard at Mt Kembla. Note the split-spoke wheels and wooden brake block.

The same wagon, showing its side and end details. Note the brake lever that could be pinned in any number of positions.


I SHOULD say at the outset these notes are by no means a definitive review of private-owner rolling stock, locomotives or work practices on Illawarra colliery railways in the 19th and 20th centuries.

If anyone can add to my basic research, or wishes to refute me, I’d be delighted to hear from them.

I’d also like thank Dr Don Dinsdag, of the University of Wollongong’s history department, and Alan Baird, of Appin, for their kind assistance.

Pete Heininger. Email:

Copyright: 1985. Updated March 2013.



It irks me to say it – as a product of the Illawarra – but the Hunter Valley coal barons got the drop on their Wollongong cousins when it came to developing coal mines, and building railways and rolling stock to transport their lucrative cargo.

Almost 20 years’ drop in fact. Why? Because of the monopoly held by the Australian Agricultural Co (AA Co) on all mining in the colony. Coal had, in fact, been discovered in the Illawarra in the late 1700s.

But there was an upside to this delay – the Hunter miners got to make most of the mistakes first. And among nthese mistakes, they seem to have opted for older, more expensive technology, almost universally modelled on British mining practices.

The Northern Coalfields of NSW also ‘suffered’ geographic constraints; while Hunter Valley coal was wound out of the ground, often far from Newcastle’s ports, the Southern Coalfields operators were able to mine and transport the stuff virtually out on the level. Illawarra mines south of Stanwell Park all tended to be perched up about 120m above sea level, with their adits driven almost straight into the side of the escarpment. 
From there, the mine owners used simple gravity inclines to drop their coal down to sea level - or to the level of the Illawarra railway line when that became operational in the late 1880s. More efficicient, and far less costly.
By 1885, there were at least nine mines operating in the Illawarra. By 1900, 2300 men and boys were producing 1.26 million tonnes a year, and this rose to 2.06 million tonnes 11 years later.
The Hunter barons also opted for crane-loading of colliers on the Hunter River, while the Illawarra crew favoured jetties built out into the sea, from which coal could be dumped directly into ships’ holds. Although jetties at Coalcliff, Austimner, Bulli and Bellambi were blown away at various times in fierce storms, they were quickly rebuilt – seeming to testify to their advantage of being efficient, cost-effective cogs in the coal transport system.

The major exception was Wollongong Harbour – also called Belmore Basin – where colliers were loaded by trains arriving mainly from Mt Keira and Mt Pleasant collieries (alough there is evidence coal from Corrimal and other collieries may also have found its way out through this harbour). The harbour was built using convict labour.

Bellambi coal, extracted by Thomas Hale, was the first Illawarra output exported to other States (Adelaide and Launceston), and was also shipped to Britain, China and California.
But what’s all this to do with coal wagon design, I hear you ask. Plenty, I believe . . .

The Newcastle wagons, apart from the earliest, clumsy box coal wagons, followed a design that was later copied by the NSW Government Railways in its CH and LCH four-wheel hoppers – they were all built with lift-out hoppers. These could be crane-lifted from their frames when they arrived at the Hunter River wharves, swung over the sides of ships and emptied through bottom-opening doors (see my separate essay on these northern wagons).
Queensland Railways developed a similar four-wheel coal wagon with lift-out hopper, and I shall try to follow up with more research. I also believe the Victorian Railways had a similar wagon (the J Class), but I have been unable to find images.

Apart from:


  • End-opening box wagons similar in design to wagons used briefly on the Northern Coalfields (these square, crude beasties appeared on North Bulli, Bulli, South Bulli and Keira rosters - and may also have worked the old isolated Austinmer colliery line between 1886-95)

  • Renegade ex-government lift-out hoppers (35 such wagons of an unspecified class found their way onto the Keira roster quite early)

  • A dozen ex-Wickham & Bullock Island iron lift-out hopper wagons, which found their way onto Bulli Colliery’s property

  • The later use of NSWGR CH hoppers on the Keira Colliery line after the Australian Iron & Steel takeover in December 1937

. . . all private-owner Southern Coalfields wagons were fitted with hoppers fixed permanently to their frames. Ironically, they shared much in common with the fixed-hopper wagons introduced on the Hexham-Minmi Railway on the Northen Coalfields in the 1870s - which may well have been the main influence on Illawarra wagon design.

Because high jetties (Austinmer, North Bulli, Bulli, South Bulli, Bellambi) and high harbour staith loading in Wollongong (Mt Keira and Mt Pleasant) were all the go on the Illawarra, there was simply no general need for lift-out hoppers down south. The only exception was Wollongong’s Belmore Basin. A crane at the end of a wharf built into the harbor was used to life wagons out and over the coastal colliers of the day – which may explain the lift-out Keira hopper wagons.

But about the only things most Hunter and Illawarra private-owner wagons had in common were the fact they had four wheels, were built of iron and/or timber (or a combo of both), were non-air and opened from the bottom. Oh, and many shared the same red-lead painted liveries.


Let’s start with the blunt end of Illawarra coal trains – the brake vans.

Trains from North Bulli/Coledale, South Bulli, Bulli, Corrimal and Keira regularly trod government rails – either heading for one of the jetties or to the Southern Coal Co’s loading facilities at Port Kembla, or to Wollongong Harbour or Cringilla exchange sidings when the Port Kembla steelworks came on stream. While hauled by a varitable menagerie of small steam locos, they almost brought a four-wheel CHG (or CHG-type) brake van along in tow. These were identical to brake vans used on the government railways and by the private lines in the Hunter.
Although I have been unable to determine ownership, I assume these brake vans were government-owned, and leased/borrowed/assigned to facilitate mainline train movements. Pictorial evidence – from South Bulli and Corrimal – suggests these were government-owned, or varied little from government CHG vans.

Now for the wagons.

It’s interesting that a number of Southern collieries employed box wagons similar to those used early on the Northern coalfields. Pictorial evidence suggests these were end-opening; when they arrived at the end of the jetties, they were simply up ended using steam rams so their loads could slide into the colliers below. These wagons were crude, rough and unsprung, with inside-bearing wheelsets. They ran slowly, couldn't carry much and were prone to derailing.
They borrowed much in design and operation from similar wagons used earlier in the Hunter Valley, and on British wagons that persisted in that country into the 1960s-70s.

However, as already mentioned, Bulli and Keira also used lift-out hopper wagons. Pictures of Keira stock suggests a rake of CH-type wagons. It’s unlikely that these wagons would have been fitted with LCH iron spill ‘aprons’ at either end, but I am unable to determine their framing arrangements. I suspect, though, that end frames would have been open, with internal timber supports running from the buffing beams, parallel to the solebars, on either side of the drawgear. Or they may have been angled from the buffing beams to a central beam.

Some of these Keira wagons also appear to have been fitted with single-plank ‘hungry’ boards to help increase capacity.

However, at least two Keira images show a mysterious type of wooden-hopper wagon unlike any others used in the Illawarra. Although one appears to be fitted with an air pipe (!) and Turton-style iron buffers, it looks nothing like a government hopper wagon of the time. However, these wagons look very similar to those early Minmi wagons of the Northern Coalfields.

Pictures taken at Bulli in the 1950s show rakes of government CH and LCH (air brake-equipped) wagons being hauled away from the screens – either for a run to the Port Kembla steelworks, or to Sydney over the Illawarra Line.

However, other government wagons visited various colliery lines for a variety of reasons. Pictures show that air-braked S and K wagons roamed along the Corrimal and Keira lines. These could have been used to ship mining and perway materials in, and eye-witness accounts suggest government locomotive-coal trains sometimes moved on the Corrimal and South Bulli lines. One account, courtesy of Alan Baird, of Appin, suggests that U boat wagons and 70 ton-capacity BCH bogie hopper wagons also visited South Bulli loading screens. Pictorial evidence and shows BCH and AI&S bogie hopper wagons on the Bulli Colliery line. As late as the early 1970s, government BCH wagons were pushed under the coke loading bins at Corrimal coke works, having negotiated the former colliery sidings with the mainline, and a short connection section of the former colliery line. The coke works also played host to government S, K, CH, CCH and LCH wagons.

However, the home-brewed hopper wagons of the various collieries present a general mystery. Having tracked back through what information I have found available, it would appear the first batch of 30 six ton-capacity, fixed hopper wagons were built for the Keira Colliery line by Richie Bros in Granville, Sydney. These wagons were later duplicated at Keira’s own workshops in several 10 ton-capacity batches.

Timber hoppers, fitted with either dumb or Turton-style buffers and three-link couplings, they were braked only on one set of wheels. All ironwork, including the 3ft-diameter split-spoke wheels, was imported from England.

Giff Eardley suggests these first wagons were later transferred to another colliery, as they don’t appear on later Keira registers. If so, they may have found their way to South Bulli, where they may have been fitted with ‘hungry’ boards, thus lifting their capacity to eight tons. Other reports suggest “large numbers of Keira hopper wagons” were transferred to Bulli colliery when AI&S took over Keira in 1937.

South Bulli’s so-called Blue Wagons (I suspect they were painted in a light sky-blue colour, although later accounts have them in weathered or grey-painted timber, with blackened ironwork) first appeared in 1909 when 200 were built. A further 100 of these 7 ½-8 ton-capacity wagons were added to the roster some time later – presumably built in South Bulli’s own workshop. These Blue Wagons look almost identical to earlier Keira wagons caught in photos taken at Wollongong Harbour.

At least one photo shows a Blue Wagon just inside Corrimal colliery’s property in the early 1930s.

South Bulli also acquired a large number of slightly larger wagons (10 ton capacity). Similar in design to the Blue Wagons, these were painted in red lead to help protect them from the corrosive coal and sea spray of Bellambi Point. They were also registered to run anywhere on the NSWGR. They were also most likely built in the company’s own workshops.

One was ‘preserved’ just off the highway at Bellambi, just inside the gates to South Bulli Colliery. Unfortunately, even in the 1980s, it was deteriorating quickly. Not a scrap of evidence exists on that wagon to suggest which company supplied the components, but one could hazard a guess that Richie Bros did the deed. (Hudson had previously supplied a batch of 100 second-generation so-called black box wagons at an undisclosed date.)

These six-plank red wagons - with an incorporated 'hungry' board - were also fitted with Turton-style buffers and three-link couplers, although some fitted only with dumb buffers were sandwiched on the middle of various rakes. Like the Blue Wagons, these red-painted wagons also had split-spoke, 3ft diameter wheels.

However, the colliery's own balance sheets show that between October 1908 and November 1909, A. Goninan & Co, of Newcastle, supplied at least 88 new hopper coal wagons. Their type is not specified.

The South Bulli Blue Wagons differed only slightly from the later red wagons. They were slightly smaller and had their hand brakes activated by small spider wheels, rather than the red wagon’s brake wheel. I suspect the deteriorating wagon just inside the property gate is a five-plank Blue Wagon, fitted with an extra 'hungry' board, and painted red!
Both types of hand brakes were side mounted, at one end only. A Blue Wagon is on permanent display at the NSXW Rail Transport Museum at Thirlmere.

ARHS Bulletin No 463 (May 1976) tells us 12 iron lift-out hopper wagons from the Wickham & Bullock Island colliery were transferred to Bulli colliery. What happened to them after this remains a mystery. They may well have found their way on to the Port Kembla Steelworks property.

Perhaps the most interesting – and varied – wagon roster rolled along the Corrimal colliery line. Two types were iron and the third was all-timber (frames and hopper) – and all differed considerably from anything else running on the Illawarra.

The first iron wagons appeared to have been adopted from the Southern Coal Co’s Unanderra/Mt Kembla operations. These 200 wagons were delicate beauties, imported from the Darlington Wagon Co, Britain, about 1880-81. Bearing boxes of one such wagon preserved in the Mt Kembla church yard were made by Hudson Bros – and were fitted at time of manufacture, or during a later rebuild.

Pictorial evidence shows some sported Southern Coal Co’s lettering, while others transferred to Corrimal – evidence suggests the Southern Coal Co owned Corrimal for a short period towards the end of the 19th Century, although this isn’t clear – sported CBC lettering (Corrimal-Balgownie Colliery Ltd) and later CCC lettering (Corrimal Coal Co).

Pictures show these wagons strayed up and down the main Illawarra line, from Mt Kembla – where the Southern Coal Co owned a short-lived mine up behind Unanderra – out to the company’s jetties at Port Kembla, and at least as far north as Corrimal colliery’s line. As regular Corrimal trains travelled either to Bellambi jetty or to Port Kembla, many miles would have been racked up on government metals.

(One picture also shows what appears to be a SCC iron hopper wagon standing at Wollongong Harbour, suggesting the company's coal also found its way over the Mt Keira colliery line from time to time.)

The other two wagon types at Corrimal – one timber with timber frames, the other all-iron – were quite substantial looking. Unlike almost all other hopper wagons ever built (which sported flared sides), both wagon types had straight sides. Their ends has substantial, vertical sections that gave way to sloping sections about 4ft (1200mm) – in the case of the iron wagons – and about 2 1/2ft (600-750mm) – in the case of the wooden hopper wagons - from their tops. Unless it was discreetly tucked away down low, the iron-hopper wagons do not appear to have had end bracing. The timber hopper wagons had two vertical iron end-support bracing straps, and three vertical support irons on each side.

One all-timber Corrimal wagon has been preserved, and now sits on the eastern side of Bulli railway station with a CHG-type brake van and one of the diminutive South Bulli Steam locos. This wagon does not sport an extra 'hungry' board, which appears to have been fitted to this type of wagon towards the end of its working life in the early 1960s.

The all-iron wagons also sported the same support strapping.


As previously mentioned, most hopper wagons on the Southern Coalfields were painted with red-lead paint, not only to protect them from the corrosive Illawarra coal, but also from salt sea spray. It would appear that apart from the earlier black-box wagons and the Blue Wagons of South Bulli, the universal colour was red.

There may have beden some exceptions, as I vaguely remember seeing rakes of hopper wagons at Mt Pleasant and South Bulli sidings that appeared to have been painted grey at some point.

Many wagons, though, especially those of Keira colliery (and many others towards the end of private colliery workings around Wollongong) were left to deterioriate and weather back to bare, bleached timber.

Lettering appears to have differed in size, depending on the collieries. As boards fitted to timber hoppers were 8-8 ½ inches wide, pictures suggest letters applied to various Illawarra wagons ranged from 16-17in in height. This size also seems to have applied to iron wagons, although no evidence exists to indicate this was always the case.

Keira colliery does not appear to have lettered its rolling stock, and many wagons of the Bulli colliery register appear to have been treated the same way. Corrimal had several letterings – CBC and CCC – while South Bulli wagons had large SB lettering applied. Southern Coal Co wagons all had SSCo lettering applied.

Road numbers were applied either to the side of the hoppers or to the solebars. But as hoppers were almost universally fixed, there was no need to match hoppers to specific frames - as was the case with Hunter Valley rolling stock. Some of the most interesting markings appear in pictures of North Bulli wagons taken at Coledale colliery and cokeworks in the early years of the 20th Century.

Apart from large NB lettering, these wagons also sported a solid white square with an open circle inside - thus indicating they were suitable for running on NSW railways as part of air-braked consists. They appear to be the only Illawarra private colliery rolling stock to be so marked.

The strange, crude narrow-gauge (3ft 8 1/2in) hopper wagons of the Mt Pleasant colliery line sported neither lettering – or external wheel bearings! As these would have only operated on the colliery’s line, there appeared no need for identification niceties. One could best describe these wagons as ugly ducklings; they looked ungainly, and their small dimensions would have meant they would have carried considerably less than 10 tons of coal each. It can only be assumed these wagons were tipped when they arrived at Belmore Basin, as there is no description of a discharging mechanism.

One interesting photo, on page 4 of Transporting, shows several smaller iron wagons standing at Wollongong Harbour, waiting to be unloaded. Apart from appearing to be of the lift-out iron hopper variety – they also have a large C painted on their sides. These could have come from anywhere – Coalcliff further up the coast or Corrimal (although there’s no evidence to suggest Corrimal ever painted its wagons in this style or, in fact, ever owned lift-out hopper wagons. Or that Coalcliff, in fact, owned any standard-gauge coal wagons). So the mystery remains.

Another question arises in the same photograph – what is the single Southern Coal Co wagon doing at Wollongong Harbour? One can only assume it had strayed onto the Keira colliery line via Corrimal colliery’s roster. It may well have been one of the first SCCo wagons transferred to Corrimal.

All colliery lettering appears to have been white.


Because all Illawarra lines – particularly Bulli, South Bulli, Corrimal and Keira – ran UP to their colliery screens from the harbor, jetties or the main Illawarra line, and were short compared with distances travelled in the Hunter Valley, transport costs were minimal.

Locos on all these lines pushed rakes of wagons to the screens, and ran down ahead of loaded trains, acting as brakes against their loads.

Train lengths varied from about 10 wagons through to 33 (on South Bulli and Corrimal – and then only occasionally).

The shunter/brakeman tended to ride the lead wagon on the way to the screens, and warn drivers of traffic on the Princes Highway. Several accidents were reported, one serious one at South Bulli, where rakes of wagons being propelled to the screens hit unsuspecting vehicles crossing at the highway. The only line with highway gates (and a signal box on private property) was South Bulli. This line also had gates on its York Road crossing just west of Bellambi railway station.

Corrimal and Keira had the added ‘protection’ of flagmen (and women) who would help stop road traffic as empty and loaded trains barrelled through, accompanied by long blasts of the locos’ whistles.

There’s no evidence to suggest that either the Mt Kembla or Southern Coal lines, which crossed the highway just north of Unanderra, had flagmen, but it should be assumed to have been the case.


Transporting The Black Diamond, Book 1, Colliery Railways of the Illawarra Dist. NSW (Central Section), By Gifford Eardley; Traction Publications, 1968

The Corrimal Colliery Railway, by Ken McCarthy; Light Railway Research Society of Australia, No 60, April, 1978

Steam On The Illawarra, Frank Larkin (ed.); NSWRTM, 1979

BHP Rail, by Don Drysdale; View Publications, 1988

ARHS Bulletin, Vol XXVII, No 463, May 1976 (Bulli Colliery)

ARHS Bulletin Vol XXVII, No 465, July 1976

Sunday, May 31, 2009


Here are some images (below) I shot in 1987 on the Hexham to Stockrington Colliery line - the last remnant of the once thriving railway empire of Hunter Valley Coal baron, John Brown.

They all show coal wagons and steam locomotives in regular service, as had been the case for more than 120 years beforehand.

Full wagons about to make the run from Stockrington Colliery to the washery at Hexham.

Empty wagons being drawn past the Stockrington loader.

An example of a wagon where the hopper does not match the frame.

Loaded wagons gravitating beyond the Stockrington loader.

My wife, Faye, at the crude Hexham wagon repair 'centre'. You can see the hopper has been lifted clear of its frame (which has been rolled clear) to enable several damaged timber planks to be replaced.

South Maitland Railway No24 shunting empty wagons at Stockrington. This and several sister locos were the last steam in regular revenue service - outside of preserved lines and museums - operating in Australia.

A typical wagon - this time with matching hopper and frame numbers.

Typical crude three-link couplings and Turton-style buffers fitted to so many Hunter Valley private railway non-air coal wagons.

An example of the longer wheelbase, higher capacity wagons operating in the closing years of the line.


THE fortunes of the coal industry and railways have always been intertwined – nowhere more so than in Australia. The country depended on it for loco power, and still does for the majority of its power generation, steelmaking and a large slice of its export income. In NSW, the relationship is particularly long and complex, stretching back more than 160 years. The railways of two major NSW districts waxed fat on moving this PRECIOUS COMMODITY FROM MINE TO WHARF. In the first of two articles I examine the humble four-wheel, non-air coal hopper wagon of the Hunter Valley coalfields around Newcastle – how it was born and evolved, and what modelers should search for in hopper realism.


ANY study of the ubiquitous NSW standard-gauge, non-air coal hopper must start around Newcastle.

Until recently, this irked me. Coming from Wollongong, south of Sydney, I has seen coal hoppers aplenty on the Southern Coalfields of the Illawarra District – and they displayed arguably more prototypical differences than those of the Northern Coalfields. But, alas, there’s no changing the chronology of history.

The four-wheel coal hopper was as much evolutionary as it was revolutionary. Being slavishly British, our forebears looked to the Old Dart for transport inspiration, and the coal barons of both the Illawarra and Hunter regions leant heavily towards the so-called box coal wagon which were employed enmasse in Britain.

Box of tricks

In Britain, the box design was improved and perpetuated through four-wheel wagons not dissimilar to the very early NSW B and D wagons – square wooden affairs of various numbers of side planks, and various door arrangements. Invariably, though, the first box coal wagons appear to have built to the early British recipe of side-opening door, hinged at the top. The boxes were fitted with lifting rings, which allowed them to be lifted cledar of their frames, and swung over the side of the colliers. This allowed coal to be tipped from the wagon into the hold once the box was up-ended.

The only problem was the Hunter region broke early with the tradition of staith loading, its barons opting for crane loading. Apart from being cumbersome and dangerous – many reports indicate early Newcastle cranes were far from capable of handling their loads reliably, with many subsequent breakages, crashes and industrial accidents – dumping the soft Hunter coal from great heights into ships holds tended to pulverise the stuff, lessening its commercial value. The preference, for 19th Century handling purposes, was for larger lump coal. Smaller, finer coal was invariably dumped or baked into coke – not so desirable, given that Hunter coal was far better for steaming than coking.

Loading the earliest Newcastle box-wagon loads meant lifting the whole wagon – frame, wheels and all – off the wharf siding, swinging it over the side of a ship, tipping it and hoping like mad all the stuff poured out, which it often didn’t satisfactorily.

The problem was overcome to some extent when a second generation of box wagons, again modeled on British principles, was introduced. This wagon was ostensibly a flat, wheeled frame on which sat two square timber boxes said to weigh ¾ of a ton and capable of carry about three tons of coal each. These could either be opened from the bottom or side. I believe this better design helped in the development of the later hopper wagons.

Hoppers MkI

In 1878, a batch of wagons built by the Birmingham Wagon Co of Britain arrived on the Hexham to Minmi Railway. These could best be described as the forerunners to later hopper wagons. Pictorial evidence shows these all-timber-bodied “hopper” wagons at Duckenfield Colliery, at Minmi, and at Back Creek Colliery.

Said to be capable of carrying 10 tons of coal, they had slightly tapered sides and ends, and ironically shared more in common with their Southern Coalfields counterparts – their hoppers were fixed to their timber frames.

Like the earliest box wagons, these early hoppers had to be lifted whole over the sides of colliers for their loads to be emptied via bottom-opening doors.

Nevertheless, they were said to be popular with mine workers, and a further batch was built locally in Minmi.

Little red wagons

But the real revolution had already taken place on a warm November day 15 years earlier. On that day in 1863, barely three years after the first box wagons are said to have been introduced to the Northern Coalfields, the management of the newly opened Lambton Colliery near Newcastle rolled out a rake of wagons that were to become part and parcel of coal transportation in NSW for more than 120 years.

These new hopper wagons, built in Britain to specifications laid out by the mine’s owner, the Scottish Australian Mining Co, were painted bright red instead of the drab black of the coal boxes. Pictures indicate these six-ton capacity wagons were about 13ft long over their solebars and ran on delicately sprung 3ft-diameter split-spoke wheels – a recipe that was to be repeated many times down through the years, with many batches of wagons subsequently ordered from British and local manufacturers.

These wagons were neat! Their timber, slope-sided hoppers were cradled in cast iron frames, which meant they could be lifted from their frames and swung more easily into an unloading position – sometimes deep inside the colliers’ holds. They immediately doubled the carrying capacity of individual box wagons, which also meant less time spent in handling at the wharf. And because they opened at the bottom, they could be emptied quickly and completely.

Nothing like it

According to a report in the Australian Railway Historical Society Bulletin No. 465, mining engineers almost 50 years later told a Royal Commission into the NSW coal industry they had seen no similar railway vehicles anywhere in the world. The Queensland and Victorian railways administrations, along with the owners of the light Snailbeach Tramway in Britain may have wished to differ, but the design and the way these hopper wagons worked appears to have been uniquely New South Welsh in standard gauge.

In 1865, 60 more six-ton capacity hopper wagons arrived from Britain, and the race was on to be the latest Hunter Valley colliery on the block with these bottom-opening beauties. This second batch started another trend – this time for iron hoppers cradled in iron frames.

The Hunter Valley barons tried every construction material combination known to man – timber hoppers in iron frames, iron hoppers and iron frames, steel hoppers (from 1878, and again the Scottish Australian Mining Co), timber hoppers and timber frames – but the original recipe of timber hoppers in iron or steel frames was considered the best.

According to reports, colliery owners soon learnt to bring iron wagons into Newcastle “flat packed”, enabling more of them to be securely stowed and shipped in the smaller ships of the day. In many case, especially where hoppers were manufactured from local Australian hardwood, only the iron framework, wheels and buffers were imported. All brake gear also appears to have been initially imported from Britain.

Slowly over the years, carrying capacity grew. From six tons, it rose to seven. From there to eight tons, then 8 ½ tons. Larger 10-ton and 12 ½-ton capacity wagons were the upper limit of the species. And they all looked much the same.

Many of the locally built wagons fitted with timber solebars had no buffers, the solebars being extended to keep the wagons apart. Dumb buffers, as they came to be called, were given the rush fairly quickly, though, in the 1940s, when the NSW Government Railways banned their use on all trains (government or private) running on government lines.

Many of the early wagons – imported or locally built – had no brake gear at all. Those that did had hand brakes that were pinned down by long levers on the side of the wagons, or spider wheels which took the slack of chain-activated brakes. None – bar those owned by the Muswellbrook Coal Co at the extreme end of the Hunter Valley, or the government’s own CH and LCH hopper wagons – were fitted with air brakes. Hence the “non-air” handle.

These first hopper wagons differ little in basic appearance to the much-later NSW Government Railways’ CH and LCH. Major differences were that these government wagons tended to be more robust, were fitted with sprung buffers, and their ends were open and not covered by iron “spill” aprons.

Early versions of private wagons also appear to have been fitted with utilitarian goods-wagon buffers, light hooks and five-link connecting chains. Heavier three-link drawgear and Turton buffers were fitted over the years as improvements were introduced and trains lengthened.

As these private hopper wagons infested the Hunter Valley, they were invariably identified by large letters painted or stencilled on the sides of their hoppers. These stood either for the mine or the owning company. Many wagons sported names in full, albeit in smaller lettering. Most were painted red – a mix of red lead paint and linseed oil was found to be the best remedy against the corrosive Hunter Valley coal, especially on iron hoppers. Some others, however, were painted a dapper grey colour.

Eventually the non-air hopper population reached an estimated 13,000 vehicles, and it’s a tribute to their original design and durability that so many of them remained no-air until the bitter end. (Even when the last remaining section of the Richmond Vale Railway, between Stockrington and Hexham, closed on September 25, 1987, as many as 1000 wagons remained, of which an estimated 300 were in reasonably good working order.)


Private wagons were permitted to tread government rails, provided they were registered. Thousands of solebars carried the small, rounded iron registration plague. Even until the end of rail working at Stockrington Colliery in the 1980s, the last Hunter Valley mine to use these wagons, many registration stickers going back to the turn of the 20th Century could still be found.

Other universal markings were also interesting. Few of these hopper wagons ever carried a tare weight inscribed on their solebars. Because hoppers could be removed – and no doubt because the government thought, for tax-avoidance purposes, this would not have been too far beyond the barons’ thoughts – all hoppers were numbered, and their frames carried a corresponding number.

These numbers were stored on a giant register at the central Tighes Hill weighbridges near Newcastle and corresponded to tare weights written against them. Each hopper was also marked with lettered codes – S (for loads up to seven tons), SM (up to eight tons), M (up to 8 ½ tons), L (10 tons) and LL (up to 12 ½ tons). As each wagon rolled through Tighes Hill, clerks checked the numbers and letters against the tare register, coming up with an accurate nett train weight. The system kept all the bastards – including the government – honest.

As traditional Hunter Valley collieries closed and new ones opened (and in later years simply closed down to make way for far more modern and exploitative open-cut mining, hopper wagons changed hands or were transferred. In the early days they were repainted, renumbered, reregistered and reweighed. In later years they just survived – and survived. I saw many examples at Stockrington towards the end of hopper numbers that didn’t match their frame numbers. But I guess by them it didn’t matter. These wagons were isolated from the main government lines, and the Tighes Hill register had long disappeared.

It’s a testimonial to these rugged little gems that so many – along with their basic design – survived unchanged (even down to their split-spoked wheels) until the mid 1980s.

Some, including 12 small iron ex-Wickham & Bullock Island Coal Co hopper wagons strayed as far afield as North Bulli Colliery on the Southern Coalfields. On that point, I’ll leave discussion of the radically different Illawarra rolling stock for my second essay – except to say the peculiar fixed-hopper wagons of the also-isolated Catherine Hill Bay colliery south of Newcastle owed more in design and practice to their Illawarra counterparts.


Local wagon, wheel and axle manufacturers included the collieries themselves, Clyde Engineering, A. Goninan & Co, Ritchie Bros, Hudson Bros, AE&RS & Co, UP Davidson & Co, and R. Tullock.

Imports came from names such as Midland Railway Carriage & Wagon Co Ltd, of Birmingham; Ashbury & Co Ltd, of Manchester; Darlington Wagon Co; and The Lancaster Wagon Co Ltd.