The battle for Leigh Creek (2).

The battle for Leigh Creek

(Part 2)


Shortages of labour and equipment, government bureaucracy, unreliable transport of material, and later coal, dogged his efforts. On 20 August 1943, Norman Michell, Chairman of the Commonwealth Coal Commission, wrote to the Prime Minister, My Commission is of the opinion that the development of the coal at Leigh Creek should be encouraged in every possible way... As you know, there are two prime difficulties in meeting South Australia's maximum demand for coal. One is the lack of production to meet the general demand throughout Australia, and the second is the lack of shipping transport to carry the coal to South Australia.

In his endeavour to get Leigh Creek established, and the many doubts associated with it settled, Playford sent several public servants interstate and overseas on fact-finding missions. Hugh Angwin, Chief Engineer of the Public Works Department, and responsible for all the work done at Leigh Creek so far, and F.H. Harrison, Chief Mechanical Engineer of the South Australian Railways, went to America and Canada to study the drying processes of coal and methods used in open cut mine workings. Rapid progress on the coalfield was hard to achieve as heavy mining equipment, such as draglines and trucks, was difficult to obtain due to war shortages.

Determined to push on, Playford was not averse to using second-hand equipment if necessary. Early in 1943 he visited the Penfield Munition Works and arranged for several E&WS men, and their trucks to be sent up to Leigh Creek. Although second-hand, some of this equipment was in use for many years and only scrapped because it had become outdated, rather than worn out. A 1942 Mack-Fowler crane for instance, of 10-ton capacity, was bought in 1948 from the Defence Department Disposals. With a war-time engine, for which spare parts were unavailable, it was used on the field until 1971 before it became outdated and was replaced by more up to date equipment.

With the government firmly committed to developing Leigh Creek, attention was directed to two pressing needs. These were accommodation for the mine workers, and the securing of large and permanent customers for the coal. Both matters were dealt with simultaneously. A model mining town, the first of its kind in Australia, was designed, well away from the mining site, to provide quarters for single men and houses for families. As it turned out, further drilling by the Department of Mines subsequently revealed that this model town was built over a useable coal seam, and had to be moved within forty years.

On 22 March 1943, Playford appointed the Electricity Supply Committee, consisting of Judge Herbert K. Payne, Henry Moss and Balfour Woodfull. These men were given the task of establishing whether it would be in the public interest to build a power station at Port Augusta, or elsewhere outside the metropolitan area, for the generation and transmission of electricity to Adelaide and the country districts. The Committee sent questionnaires to numerous providers, and users, of electricity, both in South Australia and the other states, including the Commonwealth Railways Commissioner, Commonwealth Coal Commission and several interstate Departments of Mines. The Committee obtained written and oral evidence from AESCO and the recently appointed Leigh Creek Coal Advisory Committee, comprising Hugh Angwin, James Burnside and Keith Ward.

Questionnaires were also sent out to the South Australian Railways Commissioner and several representatives of boiler manufacturers operating in Australia. In order to obtain first hand information, some Committee members visited both the Leigh Creek and Yallourn coalfields. Inspections were made of the Sliding Rock area, Port Augusta, Port Pirie, Port Wakefield and AESCO's power generating station at Osborne. When the Committee finally handed down its report, in October, it recommended that it was not desirable in the public interest to leave by far the greater part of the State's electricity supplies dependent on AESCO. It also recommended that work should begin as soon as possible on a new power station well away from Osborne. It helped Playford's case by stating that Leigh Creek coal could and should be used, both in the new power station, and at AESCO's present power station.

Most of the other recommendations were written into the Electricity Act of 1943, which established the South Australian Electricity Commission. Its three members, Hugh Angwin, F. Harrison and J.W. (Jim) Harrod, had the power under the Act to conduct a survey of coal deposits and any other source of fuel within South Australia. They could also investigate the purpose for, and the methods by which, such coal and fuel could be used. The Act further stated that all mining, boring, assaying, testing or any other operations which the Commission required for the purpose of the investigations should be carried out by the Department of Mines, unless the Minister directed otherwise.

Playford was able to gain the support not only of the Opposition, which applauded the efforts of the government to develop the Leigh Creek coalfield, but also of his own party. Some of his own ministers, and several backbenchers, had at first been opposed to the idea of nationalisation of private enterprise. Indeed some never changed their opposition to this particular measure but Henry Dunks, member for Mitcham, complimented the government on its efforts, and Elder Whittle in particular hoped that it would mark a further advancement of the industrialisation of South Australia.

Regardless of the Commission's findings, AESCO had no intention of using Leigh Creek coal as its existing plant was not suitable. Its coal supplies were obtained mostly from New South Wales. Interested tenders were called annually, later every three years, with the successful contractor in all cases being Howard Smith Ltd. In April 1944, AESCO called in the services of Dr Hyman Herman of Melbourne, a world-wide expert on brown coal, to report on the characteristics of Leigh Creek coal as a fuel for power house purposes. His opinion was what AESCO wanted to hear, that Leigh Creek coal could not be burned economically for the generation of electricity.

Despite the expert's advice, Playford persevered with his efforts to prove that Leigh Creek coal could be used. While parliament had been busy talking, Leigh Creek coal was extensively tested by BHP at Whyalla. On this occasion the tests were inspected on site by Playford and an official party of federal and state parliamentarians. There was no doubt about the impression the tests made on the visiting members of parliament. One member remarked that to him it was no longer a question of proving that the coal could be used, but of those opposed to it proving why it should not be used. At the Municipal Tramways Trust at Port Adelaide, tests had also shown encouraging results.

The Advertiser quite rightly made the point that Leigh Creek coal would always be infinitely better than Newcastle coal, when there was no Newcastle coal to be had. Playford's perseverance was admired by many South Australians, and on one occasion he received an anonymous gift of 100 for the development of the coalfield. A covering note stated, 'As it is through your perseverance and enthusiasm that Leigh Creek coal has received publicity and proved its value to South Australia, I should like to show appreciation of your efforts'. Playford replied that the amount would be used for the purpose indicated, and would be shown on the account sheets for the field. Playford had certainly displayed admirable patience and persistence, often in the face of serious discouragement and ridicule, even from some members of his own party.

When production finally started, during February 1944, commentators hailed it as a landmark of the Playford government and an event that would mark 1944 an outstanding year in the industrial history of South Australia. Even so there still remained many difficulties which had to be overcome. One of these was the inertia, or even antagonism associated with developing the field. This feeling was no doubt the result of repeated disappointments experienced during the last sixty years. The location of the field did not help either. It was often referred to as 'The Centre', where tomorrow is as good as today, and the calendar is more favoured than the clock.

Within a month from the start of production, coal was delivered at Copley, where the baker used it in his oven and was enthusiastic about the results. Other deliveries were made at Port Pirie and Adelaide for household use. A few months later, bagged coal was delivered to the Royal Adelaide Hospital and other government institutions. Soon more than twenty industrial customers were using Leigh Creek coal. By the end of the financial year it was reported that 'the methods of mining at Leigh Creek had realised the primary object of ensuring early production'. By the end of June 1944, a total of 8,955 tons of coal had been produced and delivered to consumers hundreds of kilometres from the field. Finding additional, and preferably large, customers turned out to be much more difficult.

AESCO was again approached about the possibility of using the coal at its power station at Osborne, but was reluctant to do so. This was not really surprising as AESCO had never liked the Leigh Creek coal, and had recently installed new boilers which could not use this type of coal. Better news came on 8 June 1944 when Playford received a letter from the Prime Minister's Department informing him that, 'the Government has recently given consideration to the question of the development of the Leigh Creek coalfield in South Australia and it has been decided that such coal is to be used in Commonwealth undertakings in South Australia to the maximum extent possible. Action of this nature will not only assist in the development of the field, but will also improve the general position and reduce the demand for New South Wales coal'.

At Leigh Creek the work force increased to more than 150 men. This in turn meant that work at the newly planned town was started in earnest. One of the most important jobs was building houses for all the people who were living in tents, without amenities such as water, electricity or sewerage. These early workers and their families had to endure all kinds of hardship. They endured extremes of weather, and went without medical facilities and the comforts of city living, but not without their tobacco. When the tobacco supply ran out and none was forthcoming, the men went on strike. More than one hundred men stopped work over the tobacco shortage.

The Adelaide branch secretary of the Australian Workers Union (AWU), Clyde Cameron, was told that the Leigh Creek storekeeper had not received tobacco supplies for the last seven weeks. He contacted Playford who personally intervened to make sure that the AWU was able to supply its members the rationed tobacco without delay so that work could be restarted. It was not the first time, nor would it be the last time that Playford had intervened in union matters. A few weeks later, dragline operators, members of the Federated Engine Drivers and Firemen's Association, (FEDFA) received an increase in their wages of twelve shillings a week. With their six shillings war loading and 1 to cover the general living and working conditions on the field, their wages were now 7.13.0. Although a Liberal, Playford told Clyde Cameron that he would assist him in obtaining an award wage for all workers on the Leigh Creek coalfield.

Meanwhile, several men were producing hollow concrete blocks, with hired machinery from Victoria, for the new houses to be built. The machinery was returned to Melbourne in August 1946 when it had produced more than one hundred thousand building bricks. By using local material, an enormous amount of money was saved in transport costs. Bricks did not have to be transported from Adelaide or even Port Augusta, only cement had to be brought in. Several other men were busy blocking the Leigh Creek itself, to stop it from flooding the mine, and re-routed it for more than two kilometres. A wood and iron mess hall, which had been used during the construction of the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline, was dismantled, and re-built at Leigh Creek. Simultaneously work on the pipeline from Sliding Rock for the water supply to the mine and fledgling township was also hurried along.

As the number of workers on the field increased daily, the AWU wanted a Post Office and Savings Bank established for its members. At the same time it approached the Commonwealth Railways Department about the possibility of The Ghan stopping at Telford. This would make weekly shopping trips a lot easier for the Leigh Creek residents. Most of them did their shopping in Copley but did not have access to any form of transport. The union also pushed for the doctor from Quorn to visit the field on a monthly basis. Up to now all cases of illness or accidents were treated, at government expense at the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) Hostel at Beltana, or on advice of the Sister in charge, at the hospital at Hawker or Quorn. Serious accidents were attended by the Flying Doctor Service.

More work was in progress at the Telford railway siding for which the government had approved an expenditure of 7,000 to prepare it for the increased traffic of two train loads of coal per week. One member of parliament suggested that its name should be altered to Playford Railway Siding. At Terowie, modern coal handling equipment was installed, including a tippler to transfer the coal from the narrow gauge railway system used in the North, to trucks used on the broad gauge line for transport to Adelaide. When completed it could lift three trucks at once, taking only five minutes to complete the whole process. All these developments, in particular at Leigh Creek, attracted a constant stream of official visitors whom the management at the mine was obliged to show around the workings.

During 1944 Playford made several visits to the Leigh Creek coalfield and the surrounding area. His first trip for the year was just after the hottest part of summer was over. Accompanied by the Deputy Government Geologist Ben Dickinson, the mine's manager Gilbert Poole and some others, he visited the mine's water supply at Sliding Rock and its half-finished pipeline. At the coalfield they had the satisfaction of seeing the mine in actual production. They observed a five-ton 'rooter' coupled to a 130 hp diesel tractor, ripping off the shale overburden (top soil) and exposing the coal seam.

Despite the heat and dust, wrote an accompanying newspaper reporter, 'there was an atmosphere of bustling activity, which proves that South Australia's first coal mine has at last emerged from the hesitancy and timidity which blighted its development for more than fifty years'. He went on to say that, from the open-cut rises the roar of diesel motors, the clang of dragline excavators, the clatter of air compressors, the chatter of drills, and the purr of lorries mingling in a cacophony strange to a region where a few short months ago there was only the caw of crows and the screech of galahs. Nearby, he wrote, the skeletons of permanent buildings are rising. They will include a men's change and shower room, a garage, tool room, power house, petrol store and refinery for the recovery of oil from the engines.

Unfortunately, despite all the hard work of every one concerned it was not until the winter of 1944 that the first two concrete buildings for the single men and eight houses for families were completed, and the first families could move in. More than ten years were to pass before the last people were able or willing to leave their tents.

In May 1944, Playford, accompanied by an exceptionally large party, whose names read like a 'Who's Who' of parliament and private business, visited the coalfield. He never tired of showing off his pet project and praising the progress it would bestow on South Australia. His biggest challenge now was to convince the leaders of industry that the coal was suitable for their requirements and that it could be delivered regularly and, more importantly, at a lower price than the unreliable supply from New South Wales. After this visit, the Broken Hill Associated Smelters at Port Pirie ordered ten thousand tons of coal for extensive testing in its boilers.

Great plans were also being made in Adelaide for all the possible uses of the coal. These plans, some more serious than others, ranged from power plants at Leigh Creek, Port Augusta or Alice Springs, to the establishment of freezing works, first proposed in 1920, and again more seriously in 1938, in some of the main northern towns. Electrification of the main north-south railway line was not forgotten either. Few of these plans came to fruition.

In June 1944 Playford received even more encouraging news. This time it came from America where Australia's order for coal mining machinery had been moved to the top of the list, with most of it earmarked for Leigh Creek. While in Canberra for talks with Ben Chifley, the then federal Treasurer, Playford received a promise from the Commonwealth government of possible assistance. Crushing and screening plant would be given the highest priority, enabling Leigh Creek to treble its production. On his return to Adelaide, Playford went to Leigh Creek with the federal Ministers for Munitions and for Labour and National Service. Both were impressed with the rapid progress made on the field, at Sliding Rock, and in the town. They had nothing but praise. Considering the short time since work had started, the results were commendable. The fact that water for the town and mine had been brought such a long distance made the achievement even more amazing.

They found the existence of modern homes, built for the workers from locally made bricks, evidence of an enterprise which was transforming a desert spot into a refreshing and thriving industrial community. The ministers assured Playford that they would report favourably to Chifley on their return to Canberra. To impress the ministers even more, Playford made sure that they witnessed him turning on the water supply from Sliding Rock, which had just been completed. Unbeknown to Playford it was Cavenett, the foreman, who had already unofficially opened the pipeline when it was completed. After the official ceremony the first trees were planted by some of the visitors as part of a tree-planting scheme. Playford's efforts and showmanship were not wasted: within a month Prime Minister John Curtin announced a grant of 100,000 for the further development of the coalfield. Cabinet had agreed that the development of the Leigh Creek coalfield would be an important factor in making South Australia self sufficient in coal.

Development was boosted even more when a large dragline excavator arrived on the field. This second-hand machine, with a 2.5 cubic metre bucket, bought from a Dutch construction company in Melbourne, was dismantled, completely overhauled, and re-assembled at Leigh Creek. As a result of the continuous development taking place at Leigh Creek, Playford was again able to convince the Commonwealth government that more financial assistance for the project was warranted. This time it was 50,000 for the construction of an airfield to improve transport and communications between Adelaide and Leigh Creek. His request was granted by the Commonwealth in February 1945 on the condition that South Australia would provide the land free of charge and provide connections for water and power. The Commonwealth also wanted two houses provided for its staff at the airport on a rental basis. All of them had to be at a reasonable rate. When agreement on all demands was reached work was started immediately. Some of the building materials used in the construction came from the RAAF station at Port Pirie. When the airfield was completed, nearly five years later, and taken over by the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), planes on the Adelaide-Darwin run would stop at Leigh Creek rather than at Mount Eba as had been the practice previously. The airfield, about two kilometres north of the town, had two graded runways of about fifteen hundred metres.

To accomplish this a large creek had to be diverted and the old creek bed filled in. About two hundred thousand tons of overburden was used for this purpose. The contract for the sealing and paving of the runway was awarded by the DCA to Kellor in February 1950. The inaugural flight to Leigh Creek was made by Trans Australia Airlines, (TAA) from Parafield on 26 September 1950. Within a year about six flights per week passed through the town. Air services with the rest of the country proved to be very expensive. Travelling by air to and from Leigh Creek meant paying the highest fare per air kilometre in Australia. Not only that, it could at times be quite hazardous. Before some of the pilots got used to the new facilities one of them tried to land in the open cut, having mistaken all the lights for the landing strip. It was only at the very last moment that he realised his mistake and avoided a disaster.

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