A SHORT HISTORY OF NEWNES

  What is on this page:
1. Early Days 2. The C.O.C. Period 3. The Fell Era 4. Later Ops. and Glen Davis 5. The Last 70 Years
Go to the bottom of this page for links to other pages on this web site.
Click here for pictures of old Newnes Click here for pictures of the oil shale works
(This brief history was compiled by Allan Watson from a number of sources.)

Early Days
The rock art galleries at "Blackfellows Hand" near Wolgan Gap remind us that there once was an Aboriginal presence in the Wolgan Valley. This part of history is dealt with on the "Aboriginal Wolgan Valley" page.
European settlement arrived in the 1820s when James Walker of Wallerawang set up a pastoral out-station in the Wolgan Valley. More land was taken up in the 1860s and 70s, particularly by Walker's son-in-law, Edwin Barton. These included several isolated blocks in the Newnes area, including the present hotel site.
Prospectors had located oil-shale in the Wolgan Valley in the 1860s and by the turn of the century several individuals and companies had started work (of sorts) on the main Capertee-Wolgan deposit. Most of these were actually located in the Capertee Valley, north of the Wolgan. However, very little was actually accomplished until the Commonwealth Oil Corporation, Ltd., started work in 1906.
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The Commonwealth Oil Corporation Era
The Commonwealth Oil Corporation, Ltd., (usually referred to as the C.O.C.) was formed in London in December 1905 and started work on a grand scale. They acquired mining leases covering most of the Capertee-Wolgan oil-shale deposit and, based on the Wolgan Valley rather than the Capertee Valley, developed mines, works and associated plant.
A major oil-shale mine with two headings was started on the north side of the river, opposite the works. It was intended to tunnel through the mountain to meet up with some earlier workings in the Capertee Valley as mining conditions in the Capertee were regarded as being much better than in the Wolgan. However, mining difficulties and the generally low quality of the shale in this area meant that mining became concentrated on the No.2 mine and work on the No.1 mine was eventually abandoned. Although construction of a tunnel linking the Wolgan Valley with the Capertee was proposed on numerous subsequent occasions, it was to remain an elusive dream.
The No.2 mine was established on the southern side of the river, east of the works. This mine was to provide most of the oil-shale for the working life of Newnes.
The main works site was established in a sweeping bend on the south bank of the Wolgan River and extending up the adjacent talus hillside. These works consisted of retorts, various distillation areas, oil storage tanks and washers, plant for the refining of the various finished products, a power station, workshops, etc., with provision for future expansion. They were built in a substantial manner, as attested by the extensive ruins that stand to this day. Although construction commenced in 1906, it was not until 1911 that the initial stage was completed and the retorts charged for the first time.
In the meantime, other works were under way. A town, named after Sir George Newnes, the chairman of the C.O.C., was established adjacent to the mining leases. The company built 50km of railway from the main government railway south of Newnes to their works through very difficult country, particularly where the line descended into the Wolgan Valley from the plateau above. The company established brickworks adjacent to the refinery area where most of the large number of "common" bricks used within the plant were made. (All firebricks, however, were made off-site at Torbane and Bulli.) The company also started a coal mine to provide coal for use within the plant, but since this was found to be a good coking coal, coke ovens were built and a trade in metallurgical coke was established.
However, and most importantly for the company, the C.O.C. bought out its only opposition, the New South Wales Shale and Oil Co., Ltd.. With this purchase, the C.O.C. obtained working properties at Hartley Vale and Torbane which were to prove useful for the C.O.C. during the start-up period at Newnes. The purchase price of this going concern was only £50,000 and this valuation should have signalled a warning to the C.O.C. in view of the much larger amounts that they were spending on their as yet untried properties at Newnes.
By late 1911, the C.O.C. had expended some £1.6 million in capital and debentures. But the company was experiencing trouble with their Pumpherston retorts, a Scottish retort that had been designed for treating the relatively poorer grades of oil-shales in that country.
Expensive modifications were needed to correct the problem, but an attempt to raise the necessary funds by another debenture issue failed. The C.O.C. went into receivership and, with industrial unrest complicating matters, work at Newnes stopped in February 1912.
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The Fell Era
During 1914, the C.O.C. entered into a joint venture with John Fell & Co., Ltd., a family company with a background in the oil industry, including Australian oil-shales, going back into the 19th century. With Fell as the operating partner, the retorts were modified and operations resumed.
Fell avoided new developments at Newnes, concentrating on using and improving what was already available. The coal mine was reopened in 1916, but the coke ovens remained idle.
In 1917 Fell decided to experiment with in situ retorting, that is, retorting the oil-shale without mining it. The old No.1 mine was prepared and an exhausting plant set up near the old No.2 adit. Although successful to a degree, there were problems and nothing further was attempted. Also the government and mining unions were unsympathetic to the whole scheme as it eliminated mining jobs. However, the concept is an interesting one and is still being investigated by modern oil-shale developments in the U.S.A..
At the end of 1922, costs forced Fell to close the oil-shale mines. In 1923, he started processing imported oils at the Newnes plant, but needed coal to work the power station and some of the plant. The mining unions promptly declared the Newnes coal mine and the refinery "black" until such time as oil shale mining also resumed. Fell had no choice but to abandon Newnes.
Fell had several problems with Newnes. Work restrictions had limited the supply of oil-shale from the mine to a point that made operating the refinery uneconomic. Changing technologies and the increasing demand for motor spirit had also made the Newnes plant obsolete. After an unfruitful appeal to the C.O.C. for funds to jointly develope a modern refinery in Sydney using a cracking plant imported from the U.S.A., the joint venture between Fell and the C.O.C. was finally dissolved and assets realised. Title to most of the mining leases was allowed to lapse, although Fell, who had a mortgage over the C.O.C. property at Newnes, retained certain leases covering the works and railway.
Fell raised the extra capital he needed, by the public issue of preference shares and built his new refinery at Clyde. Some boilers and stills, notably from the fine-oil section of the Newnes plant were removed and used at Clyde. In 1927 most of the assets of John Fell & Co., Ltd. were sold to the British Imperial Oil Co. (Shell) and John Fell & Co., Ltd. was wound up. John Fell himself died in 1955.
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Later Operations, Government Involvement and the move to Glen Davis
By the late 1920s, the mining leases at Newnes were held by a Mr. A.E. Broue. A company, "Shale Oil Investigations Pty. Ltd." which was backed by several Broken Hill mining companies, was formed about this time and acquired title to the oil-shale works. However, it soon became apparent that the new company was mainly interested in "investigations", rather than actual production. As a result, Broue, who had to fulfil labour conditions to retain his mining leases, decided to go it alone. Unfortunately he had no capital base and quickly got into financial trouble after only a short period of mining.
This was the time of the Great Depression and pressure was mounting on the Commonwealth Government of the day to do something about unemployment. A bill was passed out of which £93,000 was set aside to support unemployed miners in New South Wales. It was decided to use £43,000 of this appropriation to reopen Newnes.
This work was undertaken by the "Shale Oil Investigation Committee" and its incorporated successor the "Shale Oil Development Committee Ltd.". Work commenced in mid 1931 using the No.2 mine and the workable sections of the oil refinery. The bulk of production appears to have been sold as a gas oil to gas companies, although both motor spirit and kerosene were extracted and sold separately.
Following a change in government, emphasis changed back to "investigation" rather than production and yet another committee, the "Newnes Investigation Committee" was formed. Work ceased at Newnes in March 1932, although an attempt was made to transfer the operation to private enterprise. Unfortunately, Messrs. Treganowan and Chambers, the successful tenderers, were unable to secure sufficient financial backing and this attempt failed.
The Newnes Investigation Committee's comprehensive report appeared in 1934. Among other things, it recommended the abandonment of Newnes and the establishment of new mines, works and town in the Capertee Valley. Although it did consider using parts of the Newnes works and railway, it suggested that new works in the Capertee Valley and a pipeline to transport the main finished oil product - motor spirit - would be more cost effective in the long term. After some delays, work commenced on these recommendations in 1938 at what came to be called "Glen Davis".
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The Last 70 Years
With the decision to establish Glen Davis, most of those people who still lived at Newnes finally left. Many parts of the Newnes works, particularly tanks and machinery, were recovered and shipped to Glen Davis for re-use. The Newnes railway was pulled up and a petrol pipeline laid in its place. In 1946, what was left of the works was sold for scrap. Most of the privately owned buildings had been removed by their owners, while the old company buildings were readily sold due to the short supply of building materials during and after World War II. Buildings were removed to Lidsdale, Portland, Lithgow and elsewhere where some can still be seen today. Recovery of material continued into the 1950s, while a few buildings still stood until the early 1960s. The old Newnes Hotel is the last surviving building at Newnes belonging to the mining period.
During the 1940s, the Newnes Hotel carried on business with some of its trade coming from weekend visitors from Glen Davis who had hiked "over the hill". The abandoned town was also used as a set for at least two films made in this period.
By the late 1950s, increased usage of the motor car and better roads led to more visitors coming to Newnes from Sydney and elsewhere, particularly at weekends. Newnes, with its quaint, old-time "pub" was becoming a popular camping spot.
Unfortunately the hotel was located on the bank of the Wolgan River and was flood prone. Over the years, a number of floods had damaged the area, but in 1986 during a large flood, the river changed course and undermined the hotel structure. To survive, the building was moved by voluntary helpers in 1987, but it sold its last beer in October, 1988 and since then has been operating as a kiosk open only on weekends.
In 1978, Wollemi National Park was formed. This included most of the land surrounding Newnes, including all the old mining leases, the mines and the works. In 1994, extensions to the park saw further areas at Newnes taken up, although the hotel and some land north and south are still privately owned. The existence and expansion of the park only serves to emphasise that Newnes is slowly returning to the bush from whence it came.
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  Links to the "historical" pages on this web site:
Aboriginal Newnes History of Newnes Oil-shale Processing Bibliography Movies at Newnes Allan Watson at Newnes
Names - A to C Names - D to G Names - H to L Names - M to R Names - S to Z Employee list, 1932
Return to HOME PAGE for links to other pages on this web-site.

This page last updated 15Mar2011