Wollongong 101

A History of Wollongong in 101 Objects

This project presents Wollongong's past in a new way. We have used a digital format and encouraged contributions from long-term residents, keen amateur historians and participants in historical events from Wollongong's past. We use 'objects' as a way of highlighting a particular event, to produce a version of the city's past or to rescue a seemingly forgotten artefact to make an argument.

The Project is a collaboration between professional historians, archivists, librarians and community historians. In particular, Why Documentaries, the award-winning community media group, who understand the importance of collecting local stories ensuring that we capture them before it’s too late and that digital media is an excellent way of presenting community stories. The team has a wealth of experience in the local history of the Illawarra and surrounding areas and is led by Dr Glenn Mitchell, a well known figure locally who has been active in protecting the cultural heritage of the Illawarra for well over two decades, serving on the city’s Art Gallery Board. Dr Henry Lee jointly leads the Project and brings a wealth of knowledge from working closely with local historians and authorities since his early days studying for his PhD in History. Dr Lee has lectured at UOW in History and Politics and is currently the Academic Program Manager at UOW College.

The editors, Dr Henry Lee, Dr Glenn Mitchell and Ms Josie Stuart, have taken a broad view of what constitutes an object. Sometimes it is a small physical artefact. Sometimes it can be a physical space such as 'missing' gravesite as in the case of Giovanni Pasotti. It can even be a sound - the rarely heard air raid siren that was heard on some occasions across Wollongong during the Second World War. This is a new history of Wollongong and the objects we believe make for not only interesting viewing in their own right but they make a coherent story about Wollongong's past. We hope you enjoy the objects we have selected.

Explore the objects

In the early 1920s, having acquired land at Port Kembla, the Hoskins iron and steel company based at Lithgow, about 110 kilometres west of Sydney, planned the transfer of operations to Port Kembla. It was attracted by the cost advantages of a deepwater harbour, largely developed and maintained by the NSW government, for shipping raw materials and finished products, and by the proximity of high quality steaming and coking coal. Hoskins and other sources of Australian capital were insufficient to complete the transfer and expand the Port Kembla works. The company turned to Australia’s traditional source of investment capital, London. In 1928 a new company, Australian Iron and Steel Pty Ltd (AIS) took over the Port Kembla steelworks. It was created and controlled by two Australian and two English firms: Hoskins Iron and Steel, based in Sydney; Howard Smith, a Melbourne shipping company; Dorman Long, an English iron and steel manufacturer, and Baldwins, an English iron, steel and coal company.

In its 1928 prospectus AIS proposed a board of nine directors, including one yet to be appointed. The Hoskins brothers, Cecil and Arthur, occupied two seats, with Cecil as board chairman. The chairman of Howard Smith, Harry Howard-Smith, and Edwin Flack one of its directors, both Melbourne-based, also took two seats. Dorman Long was represented by its English chairman Sir Arthur Dorman and by Lawrence Ennis, a director of Dorman Long in Sydney. Baldwins was represented by its English chairman, Sir W. Charles Wright. The eighth director was Arnold Taylor, Sydney-based chairman of the Southern Portland Cement Company – financed by Hoskins and Howard Smith – with its factory in Berrima, NSW; Southern Portland became a subsidiary of AIS.

The prospectus authorised a total capital of £5 million (or $10 million which, adjusted for inflation, was equivalent to almost $390 million in 2016) in five million £1 shares. Initially, 3,100,000 shares were offered. The other 1,900,000 remained in reserve for future capital raisings. Over two-thirds (68%) of the shares issued were taken already by the four companies forming AIS: Hoskins, one million; Dorman Long, 600,000; Howard Smith, 400,000, and Baldwins, 100,000.

The arrival of Hoskins and AIS transformed Wollongong. Buttressed by English capital, as coal mining had been in the 1880s when it pushed dairy farming to the fringe of the local economy, Port Kembla became a major industrial centre. A smelting works and other industries had been established there by the early 1920s but the steelworks would dwarf them all. Battered by the Great Depression of the 1930s, in 1935 AIS itself became a subsidiary of the Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP), the giant Australian mining and metal manufacturer. BHP-AIS grew rapidly during and after World War II. It acquired almost all of Wollongong’s mines and associated coke works, and at its peak in the early 1970s the steelworks alone employed some 20,000 people.

The 1928 AIS prospectus emphasised the importance to Australia, rich in raw materials, of a large and strong iron and steel industry. If it wanted to keep its White Australia Policy it could not afford, as “an isolated . . . member of the Great Commonwealth of British Nations”, to be without its own heavy industry to provide for defence. Otherwise, the prospectus warned, “the country must pass eventually into other than British hands.”

When deindustrialisation swept through Western economies in the 1980s, Australia’s economic and defence interests and arrangements had long since shifted from the defunct British Empire to Asia and America, and its governments had abandoned what was now an irrelevant and damaging White Australia Policy. As competition from new and more efficient manufacturers in Asia tore through Australian tariffs, the emerging post World War II international order arrived in Wollongong. Having embraced dependence on a single industry, the massive job-shedding at Port Kembla and the mines inflicted on Wollongong the greatest economic and social crisis since the Depression of the 1930s, and sparked a quest for a new, post-industrial, economy and identity.

Henry Lee

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Wollongong has few pieces of public art that celebrate or reference the city’s industrial past.

This artwork, completed in 2011 by Terry Cook and Jess McKenzie, stands on the Flagstaff Hill Viewing Platform.

The first sentence on a small plaque on the seaside of the artwork explains its inspiration. It reads:

This artwork has been inspired by the vibrant social history of its setting, within the historic heart of Wollongong.

The work taps into two significant aspects of Wollongong’s past – ships and industry.

Transport and communication by ships preceded road transport, and led to ports such as Wollongong and Port Kembla Harbours which in turn attracted industry to places like Port Kembla. Ships [Boat Masts] and industry [Chimney Stacks] are part of a relationship central to the city’s industrial past. The artwork has many references, both small and large, with some in small mosaics, to Wollongong’s industrial history – cedar getting, lighthouse communication and the stacks of industry. They also have mosaic artwork on the forecourt of the Illawarra Legal Centre, Greene Street Warrawong.

Glenn Mitchell


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The English Codd-neck bottle was patented in 1872. This Wollongong example is from James Parkinson, whose soft drink factory was established in 1883, around where the present-day North Wollongong Hotel sits. These were mostly broken by children to retrieve the glass stopper for playing marbles, so few are now known to exist.

This object was revealed after a property was destroyed by arson. Subsequently demolished and graded, somehow the object miraculously survived all of this with the base sticking above the ground’s surface - which makes it even more special. It dates from the late 1910s-early 1920s (Illawarra Museum collection, 600.174).

Glenn Mitchell

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‘Edina’ (photographed in September 2011) is not in the Wollongong district. At Edina, though, decisions were made that affected the lives of Wollongong’s coal miners and their families. Its owner, Ebenezer Vickery, was one of the most influential figures in the shaping of Wollongong, though he rarely set foot there. His most notable visit was in 1881 when he hosted a group of wealthy Sydney investors at the formal opening of the Mount Kembla coal mine.

Built in 1884 in the Sydney suburb of Waverley, Edina commanded sweeping views of Sydney Harbour and the city about eight kilometres to the northwest. From here and his Pitt Street chambers, Vickery oversaw his extensive Australian agricultural, pastoral, mining and commercial properties and shareholdings, including mines in Wollongong – in particular the Mount Kembla Coal and Oil Company’s mine where 96 men and boys were killed by a gas explosion on 31 July 1902. A devout Methodist and wowser, Vickery was a hard-nosed businessman well connected in the City of London, then the heart of the world financial system. When the Company was registered in Britain in 1878, Vickery was appointed chair of its Australian board, based at his Sydney chambers. The main board, including knights of the realm and members of the British parliament, sat in London where some 90% of its shares were held. Edina symbolised Vickery’s belief that God prospered the worldly affairs of those who worked hard and eschewed frivolous activities.

When Mount Kembla exploded in 1902 Vickery had a spiritual crisis. He called for the Reverend William Taylor to meet him in a private room above Vickery’s Sydney offices. In Taylor’s account, “The whole man was bowed and stricken with grief. In the midst of sobs that almost overpowered him he said, ‘Oh to think of this! Our one first and chief concern has always been the safety and the comfort of our men; and now to think of this!’ As we knelt side by side in that little room, it seemed to me as if I were permitted to see into the very soul of a good and of a great man.” Those qualities did not extend to Mount Kembla’s widows, orphans and injured workers. Beyond a brief and unwilling statement to a journalist who ‘doorstopped’ him in Pitt Street, Vickery never used his seat in the Legislative Council or any other means to express public sympathy for the bereaved. He never visited the mining village of Kembla Heights to comfort them. He never contributed a penny to the various relief funds established to raise money for them. In contrast, he donated his time and money generously to the Methodist cause, sitting on church bodies and contributing tens of thousands of pounds to tent missions, church buildings and church-related charities.


Edina’s ornate Italianate scale, materials, landscaping and garden statuary also contrasted brutally against the little wooden miners’ huts at Kembla Heights – built by the Company and rented to its workforce, which it could evict as a tactic in industrial disputes. When Vickery died in 1906 he was one of Australia’s richest men. His estate was valued at £483,354 (almost $70 million at 2016 prices, of which he willed about $1.5 million to various Methodist causes). His funeral procession, incorporating services at Edina and then Waverley Methodist Church, was led, fittingly, to Waverley Cemetery by those he sought to assist through his many donations to church charities, “a number of poorly-clad lads, members of the [Methodist] Lyceum Boys’ Club, who were marshalled by Mr. W.C. Kemp (secretary) and Sergeant-Major Lamont (instructor).”

Henry Lee


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Wollongong’s population soared after World War II, fuelled by immigrants from Britain and Europe to provide labour especially for the expansion of heavy industry at Port Kembla. Housing these people was not left entirely to the market. Without a big public sector investment, funded mainly by the Federal government and overseen by the NSW government’s Housing Commission, Wollongong would soon have experienced a massive accommodation crisis. By the end of 1952 almost 2,000 two- and three-bedroom houses for low income families stood in Housing Commission estates mainly in the district’s south, comprising one in seven houses in Wollongong. These were rented from the Commission for the lifetime of the tenants (later they could be purchased outright) and were allocated in a public ballot usually held in Wollongong’s Town Hall. On the same principles, in 1952 and 1953 the Commission proposed to build six blocks of flats in the town of Wollongong itself. The photograph, taken in August 2016, is of the foundation stone for one of them, Flinders Place. Built on Cliff Road and opened in 1952 it still stands in a prime ocean front location where older housing has progressively given way to more luxurious apartment blocks, symbols of the new Wollongong, and beyond the financial reach of most people today. Faded and chipped from weathering, the foundation stone is a memorial for an older Wollongong that took a great measure of civic pride in this public housing program. It bears the names of Clive Evatt, the NSW Labor Government’s Minister for Housing, who opened and named Flinders Court, alongside that of R.F.X. Connor, the Labor Member for the NSW Legislative Assembly electorate of Wollongong-Kembla.

Henry Lee


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6European occupation of the Wollongong district in the early nineteenth century brought with it the clergy and the churches of their various Christian denominations. Borne along by the rising population of white settlers and their voracious appetite for land, these rapidly displaced Aboriginal ceremonial and sacred practices that had dominated for tens of thousands of years. Christianity flourished, marked by the building of churches, religious schools and other institutions. Christianity’s religious rivals remained of marginal importance.

One of them, Judaism, established a synagogue for the small South Coast Hebrew Congregation, at 9 Foley Street, Gwynneville in 1963. At the 1961 census almost 90% of the Greater Wollongong Municipality’s 132,000 inhabitants identified as Christians; just over 0.1% (156 people) adhered to a non-Christian religion, 91 of them to Judaism. By the early 1980s most of the district’s Jewish families had moved to Sydney and the South Coast Congregation was absorbed by the Illawarra (now Southern Sydney) Synagogue at Allawah in southern Sydney. At the 1986 census the growing but still very small non-Christian religions accounted for just over 2% of the municipality’s population of nearly 169,000, with the Christian proportion having fallen to 79%, reflecting Australian society’s increasing secularisation. By then the Foley Street synagogue had been acquired by a Pentecostal congregation - a tiny but faster growing form of Christianity - and became a church. In the early 1990s that congregation moved elsewhere in Wollongong and in 1994 the Foley Street church re-opened as a non-Christian place of worship, the Omar Mosque. This reflected decades of a more open and multicultural Australia whose immigration program had by increments turned from Britain and Europe to Asia and the Middle East.


The 1996 census recorded a small decline in religious adherence, with 78% of Wollongong’s near quarter of a million inhabitants nominating themselves as Christians; the proportion of non-Christian adherents remained almost static at a little over 2%. More than half of the latter (almost 3,100 people) were Muslims. As a ‘micro example’ of Australia’s largely uneventful post World War II transition to a multicultural society, the transition from the Jewish Star of David to the Christian Cross to the Crescent of Islam (photographed in April 2017) over the doorway of 9 Foley Street, Gwynneville between 1963 and 1994 is an exemplar. There are some places in the world where such changes would not occur as a series of quiet, almost obscure, and routine commercial transactions.

Henry Lee


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Giovanni Pasotti arrived in Sydney by ship from the port of Genoa, Italy, in 1927. His wife, Alice, and their three young children remained in their home town of Brescia in northern Italy, while Giovanni established himself in Australia. Employed as a labourer at the Australian Iron and Steel company’s Port Kembla steelworks where his brother Mario also worked, Giovanni (“Joe” to his Australian workmates) was one of a few hundred Italians living in the Wollongong district. His life ended abruptly on Friday, 15 November 1929 when, on nightshift, he handled a live electrical wire. Had Giovanni been simply an immigrant labourer who came to Australia to make a better life for his family, the only trace of him in the public record would have been a note of his name and the circumstances of his death in the local newspapers. Giovanni Pasotti, however, brought to Wollongong the ideology and organisation of the fascist movement that was emerging in Europe and that, ten years after Giovanni’s death, would draw Australia into Britain’s war with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy.

Giovanni was one of Mussolini’s fascists and a committed one who sought to sustain the movement in his new community. Consequently, the funeral procession that wound its way from Wollongong Hospital to St Francis Xavier’s Catholic Cathedral and then to the Catholic Cemetery was more political than personal. For Wollongong, as the South Coast Times noted, it was “unique”. Accompanied by a large Italian flag, the coffin was smothered in flowers and wreaths, from Giovanni’s relatives, friends and workmates, and from several fascist organisations (the Sydney Fascisti Association, the Wollongong Fascisti Association, and the Fascisti of the First Hour). Four fascists in their black shirt uniforms were both honour guard and coffin-bearers. At the grave site prayers were followed by a speech from one of his fellow fascists who ritually called the name of their departed comrade a final time whereupon all present called “Here” and raised their right arms in the fascist salute.


Giovanni’s death was investigated by the NSW Department of Labour and Industry and ruled accidental with no liability attaching to Australian Iron and Steel. Through the Italian consulate in Sydney, Alice Pasotti sought compensation of £875 (about $67,000 at 2016 prices) for her husband’s work-related death. The NSW Workers’ Compensation Commission awarded her £625 (a little under $50,000). To what use Alice put the £625 when it arrived in Brescia or what difference it made to her and her children’s lives when Mussolini’s Italy was shattered in World War II, we do not know. Similarly, we do not know where Giovanni’s body is interred in Wollongong’s Catholic Cemetery (was he disinterred and taken home to Brescia for reburial?); there is no record of a grave site in local cemetery indexes and a search of the Cemetery’s Catholic section reveals no headstone. Either would be an important physical reminder of the ceremony at his grave site, representing a moment when three ideologies - democracy, fascism and communism – were edging toward their terrible global conflict.

Henry Lee

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In 1904/5, Courtney Puckey, an English immigrant who came to Australia in 1892, bought land north of Fairy Creek at North Wollongong. This area soon became known as Puckey?s Estate. Puckey, who had a chemist store on Crown Street, Wollongong?s main street, was also interested in producing salt. His first venture, in the mid 1890's, which was situated at the southern end of North Wollongong beach, immediately on the right of the cutting on Government land, largely failed. Not to be deterred, he used his new land purchase to construct a larger works. He used the Thorn Graduation Process. A large windmill pumped water from the sea up to a cistern on the top of a high wooden tower (approx. 9.15m high). The sea water then trickled down over the framework and tightly packed Tee Tree bushes to settle in large vats at the bottom. Water reaching the storage vats had a very high concentration of salt, due to partial evaporation. The water was then boiled, causing it to evaporate, leaving pure salt in the bottom of the boiling appliance.


But is that what really happened? Puckey's salt works however is not without controversy. Wollongong historian Dr Joe Davis argues that Puckey was not producing salt but distilled water and that salt was a mere by-product of his venture.

Parts of Puckey's salt/distilled water and/or industrial folly can still be seen from walking trails through seaside flora and fauna.

Glenn Mitchell

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The image is of a page written in February 1923 by Rex Connor, then a 16 year old student at Wollongong High School, in his English exercise book. It was part of a short essay titled ‘Wollongong (With Improvements)’ in which Rex imagined, twenty years ahead, a Wollongong no longer the mining town he knew, of narrow, kerb less, uneven and unpaved streets bordered by uninspiring little stores and buildings. Instead, he strolled down a broad, clean and brilliantly lit Crown Street to the ocean. There, the sea front had been transformed with a sweeping promenade fronted by grand hotels and shops. Back in the town itself, its new-found glory was capped by an impressive town hall of gleaming marble in which the Aldermen had just voted £1 million (almost $80 million at 2016 prices) for Wollongong’s further beautification. This dissatisfaction with things as they were and a fascination with transforming his town and his nation were central to Rex’s political career, as an Alderman on Wollongong Council from 1938 to 1944 and then representing the district in the State and Federal Parliament from 1950 until his death in 1977.

He rose to national and international fame as Minister for Minerals and Energy in the 1972-1975 Whitlam Labor Government. The Government’s economic nationalist policy sought to reduce foreign ownership of Australia’s mineral resources, by regulation and bringing the nation’s resources as much as possible under public ownership. As the driving force of this policy Rex earned the hatred of mining corporations and the opposition Liberal-Country Party Coalition. To his supporters he was a visionary using the power of the national government to develop Australian resources and keep the wealth they created in Australian hands. That wealth was to fund the ambitious educational, health, urban development and other programs of the Whitlam Government, to combat growing economic and social inequality. To his enemies Rex was a dangerous ideologue whose ‘buy back the farm’ policy was discouraging investment in the resources sector. Both his friends and his enemies, though, never doubted that he was an uncommon politician, who brought to government a visionary desire to reshape Australia and its role in the world.

He and the Whitlam Government were undone by the 1974-75 Loans Affair as the media and the Opposition chased Rex’s role in a plan to secure a huge low interest loan from oil rich Arab nations to fund the Government’s minerals and energy projects. It was an unconventional approach to raising government loans, via Tirath Khemlani, a little known Pakistani commodities trader, and bypassing traditional financial institutions in London and New York. It became mired in the Loans Affair, culminating in Connor’s resignation as Minister in October 1975, the Governor-General’s dismissal of the Whitlam Government in November 1975 and finally Labor’s crushing defeat at the December 1975 general election. The Loans Affair, a consequence of unconventional but not illegal practice, broke Rex’s health and ended his vision of a new Australia. He seemed fated to dream and be disappointed. When he resigned from Wollongong Council in 1944, about 20 years after he wrote his school essay, it was with some disgust for what he saw as the narrow-minded parochialism of many of his fellow Alderman. He described the Council subsequently as a “pot-hole council with a pot-hole administration” with “little men in big jobs.”

Henry Lee

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In December 1970, the NSW parliament passed the Clutha Development Pty Ltd Agreement Act. The Act gave legal approval to Clutha, an American company owned by billionaire Daniel K Ludwig, to build a private railway line from the Burragorang Valley to a large coal dump on Maddens Plains above Coalcliff. The line would be 64 kilometres and the dump would hold more than one million tonnes of crushed coal. The coal would then be transported down the Illawarra Escarpment to the jetty. The jetty would begin on the Coalcliff shore and extend more than 1.5 kilometres into the Pacific Ocean. The Act set aside more than 10 square kilometres of ocean for the jetty and mooring facilities for large Clutha tankers.

The proposal attracted widespread criticism and protest. One of the first groups formed to oppose Clutha’s plans was S.C.O.O.P. – the South Coast Organisation Opposing Pollution. It began as a small committee, formed in September 1970, based in the Hughes Federal Electorate Council of the Australian Labor Party. It later expanded to work with other groups opposed to the proposal such as the National Trust, the Total Environment Centre and the National Parks Association which came together as the Clutha Committee.

On 8 February 1972, Clutha abandoned its plan and SCOOP disbanded later that month.

Glen Mitchell

In 1932 an annual fixture was established between leading Sydney rugby league team, South Sydney, and Group 7 comprising players from teams in the Wollongong, Jamberoo, Kiama, Gerringong and Nowra districts. The program is for the fourth game, played in June 1935 at Bode’s Grounds near the present day North Gong Hotel in North Wollongong. Boasting a grand stand and pavilion, it was a major local sports venue and one of the best in country NSW. The annual game attracted big crowds to watch a team of country lads drawn from Wollongong’s mining and industrial centres and the dairying areas to its south take on some of the metropolis’ finest players. The 1935 game was a rout, South Sydney winning 62-10. The local press was scathing of the Group 7 selectors’ and players’ relaxed and amateur approach. Not all the Group 7 players as advertised took the field. For some, carrying injuries from recent games, it was unavoidable but a few simply did not turn up, forcing the coach to find last minute replacements and reorganise the team so that some played out of their usual positions. It is worth noting the “Early Game” at the bottom of the program, between Wollongong’s Christian Brothers’ College B “old boys” side (they also had an ‘A’ side in the same third grade competition) and one from the nearby Mount Keira mining centre.

Henry Lee

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In 1965 the Electrolytic Refining and Smelting Company of Australia (ERS) built a 198 metre tall stack at Port Kembla. Erected at the height of Australia’s post World War II manufacturing boom, it stood for almost half a century, a symbol of the heavy industry that dominated the region’s economy from the opening of the Port Kembla steelworks in 1927. ERS began operations in 1908 as the biggest copper smelter in the world outside the United States. Until World War I much of its copper went to Germany, home to Aaron Hirsch und Sohn, joint owner of ERS with the Melbourne-based Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company. In Germany the copper was turned into electrical and communications components, weapons and munitions.

For decades the smelter’s toxins poured into the atmosphere, the surrounding community’s health of little corporate or governmental consideration. The stack stood just 50 metres from Port Kembla Primary School.

Rising community concern about lead and sulphur dioxide emissions forced Southern Copper which bought the plant in 1990 to cease operations in 1995. In 1996 a four company Japanese consortium – Port Kembla Copper (PKC) – reopened it, subject to strict pollution controls. Local environmental activist Helen Hamilton led a fight in the NSW Land and Environment Court against the State government’s decision to grant an operating licence. The Carr Labor Government, however, pushed special enabling legislation through Parliament. PKC consistently failed to meet the environmental standards. Finally, in 2003, dogged by community anger and poor publicity, PKC closed.

In 2008 inspection of the stack revealed that it too was a victim of its contaminants. The degrading concrete structure was scheduled for demolition in 2010 but concerns about the release of toxins caused postponements. The stack was demolished on 20 February 2014 by controlled explosions. Local opinion was divided. Some did not lament the passing of an industry detrimental to public health. Some wanted the stack repaired and preserved as a marker of the district’s industrial heritage, to become a tourist attraction with perhaps a viewing platform at the top. Others, since the start of deindustrialisation in the 1980s desired a gentrification and reimaging of the district. They welcomed the erasure of a symbol of some 120 years of a mining-industrial working-class and its trade union movement that shaped much of twentieth century Wollongong. The photograph is of the stack a few hours before its demolition on 20 February 2014, looking north along Reservoir Street, Port Kembla.

Henry Lee

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Published as a supplement to the Illawarra Mercury of 13 December 1887, the plan proposed a new port in Wollongong’s south. It was the brainchild of local businessmen organised as the Wollongong Harbour Trust, led at the height of the 1880s economic boom by William Wiley, real estate speculator, financial entrepreneur, would-be coal mine proprietor and mayor of Wollongong. Throughout the 1870s they campaigned to have the NSW government build the Illawarra Railway, linking the coalfield with Sydney’s deep-water port facilities. That, they believed, would remove the big obstacle to the coalfield’s development, the lack of a large deepwater port for ocean-going vessels. The Railway would bypass the little Belmore Basin coal port, opened in 1868, and the ocean jetties that made loading unsafe in heavy seas. Railing coal direct from the mines to ships’ holds at Sydney for export to world markets was to be the magnet for drawing more British mining capital to Wollongong.

In 1887 as the Railway neared completion the businessmen changed tack. They feared that their businesses would also be bypassed. Would it not be better, they reasoned, to have the Railway connect the mines with a new deepwater port near their town? That would bring the dual benefit of more consumers as new mines brought more workers and their families to the district plus the economic activity created by a busy port.

The problem was funding it. They had compelled the government in 1881, after several failed attempts, to raise a loan of £1,020,000 (about $200 million at 2016 prices) in the London capital market to finance the Railway. That came after the proposal attracted support from commercial interests in Sydney that saw sufficient benefit in the Railway for them. They had no interest, though, in raising another public loan for Wollongong’s latest private and purely local project, even if the first phase of the Trust’s scheme came in at a relatively modest £262,650 (about $35 million at 2016 prices), though probably around triple that amount with future extensions.

In 1889 the businessmen secured the Wollongong Harbour Trust Act. It gave the Trust, a consortium of private interests – mining, shipping and local business representatives – control of port development along the district’s seaboard and authority to borrow up to £250,000 in London to finance it. Basically, the government gave the Trust a financial reference only, for the former would not be financially liable if the scheme went bust; that would be on the Trust’s Commissioners.

And bust it went. Economic depression ended the dream. A few preliminary works were completed but the London loan was never raised and the government dissolved the Trust in 1895. Wiley’s speculative excesses brought him disgrace well before that. One of the original Commissioners, he went bankrupt in 1890, disqualifying him from sitting on Wollongong Council and on the Trust.

Had the scheme succeeded, Wollongong’s ocean front would look very different. Access to South (now City) Beach and Coniston Beach would have been cut, requiring bridges for pedestrians and vehicles. A channel, 24 metres wide and 6 metres deep, would run almost 2.5 kilometres in a shallow arc from Brighton Beach to Tom Thumb Lagoon. Slicing through the middle of Brighton Beach and present day Endeavour Drive it would have swung east of St Mary’s High School at the foot of Market Street and then the Wollongong Entertainment Centre and Five Islands Brewery at the foot of Crown Street. WIN Stadium, home of the St George Illawarra Dragons, might have been collateral damage. Continuing south it would have cut through Harbour Street at its junction with Glebe Street, then through Beach and Swan Streets, removing part of what is now J. J. Kelly Park until it reached Tom Thumb Lagoon where the Port Kembla Steelworks sits. There, the channel would have opened into a new 14 hectare port with an 805 metre long wharf. That was phase one, with the port eventually to double in size. By comparison, Belmore Basin and the tidal basin fronting Brighton Beach – comprising the current Wollongong Harbour – had a total extent of about 9 hectares, or about 5% of the Trust’s proposed port.

Henry Lee


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In 1981, as news’ headlines around the nation proclaimed Wollongong’s agonising unemployment crisis, local business interests launched a promotional campaign that named the area ‘The Leisure Coast’ and announced that the Illawarra was ‘alive and doing well’. In response, the young unemployed members of punk graffiti group YAPO (Young and Pissed Off) sprayed on the main symbol of the Leisure Coast, the North Beach International Hotel, “It’s unemployment not leisure”. While a picture of that graffiti, which featured on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald, is unavailable, this is what YAPO sprayed on a wall directly facing the entrance of Wollongong’s Social Security office in Market Street.

At the beginning of the 1980s, twenty five thousand people worked for BHP Steel and thousands more worked in the coal mines, many of which were owned by BHP. The mass sackings of the 1980s would see the closure of three quarters of the mines and the steelworks’ workforce eventually reduced to below five thousand. Unemployment and especially youth unemployment skyrocketed. The city’s unemployment crisis brought out a collective response of militant action by many of its residents. Young unemployed people, for whom no jobs were available, were especially angry and active.

YAPO was one manifestation of youth radicalisation and a growing punk scene in Wollongong at that time. The region has a long history of class struggle, which created a strong sense of community and spawned a high level of social activism focused on the problems of the working poor and the unemployed. So, it’s no surprise that Wollongong’s punk scene and youth rebellion were often overtly political and anti-capitalist.

Today only a faint outline of this graffiti remains, fading from view like the plight of Wollongong’s young jobless; while unemployment in Wollongong remains higher than the national average, with the youth unemployment rate officially over 15% and increasing. The real figure is significantly higher.



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