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.
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.
ROLLING STOCK – IN DETAIL
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)