The battle for Leigh Creek (3).

The battle for Leigh Creek

(Part 3)


In a further effort to improve the quality of the coal, and make it more acceptable to prospective users, tenders had been called for a steam drying plant at Leigh Creek. Playford had managed to get an additional Commonwealth grant of 50,000 for this project. Although Playford was disappointed with the small amount, he admitted that it would help with the installation of this most expensive equipment. Near the end of the year a temporary crushing and grading plant was also installed and working satisfactorily.

Playford received more good news when tests, conducted at the Finsbury Munition Works, showed that the coal could be used successfully, without any additions, in normal boilers. A pilot plant, to steam dry Leigh Creek coal, to reduce its moisture content, established at the ICI works at Osborne, had also shown satisfactory results. With all these promising reports and developments, some South Australian politicians still remained concerned about the small amount of Leigh Creek coal being used. As only forty-four thousand tons had been sold up to July 1945 they proposed that a government department should be set up to push its sales. Even Playford was forced to admit that there was still considerable propaganda against the use of Leigh Creek coal.

Questions were again asked as to whether Leigh Creek coal would be the solution to the coal shortage. How much of the taxpayer's money had already been spent? And to what avail? When asked why more coal was not being mined at Leigh Creek, Playford had to admit that there were not many buyers. Although he had the power, granted under the Leigh Creek Coal Act, to make the use of this coal compulsory in South Australia, he was very reluctant to use it. Some industries did not have the right kind of boilers, whereas others did not want to buy them. Under war time conditions new plant, specially designed to burn Leigh Creek coal, was unobtainable. Thus if Playford had insisted, it would have left his government open to all kind of charges.

The resulting emergency eventually forced industry to change its attitude and modify its equipment in order to use the coal from Leigh Creek. Another reason why more coal was not mined was the limitation imposed by the Commonwealth Railways. As a result of the heavy use during the war, the northern railway line was in urgent need of repair. Late arrivals and derailments were common occurrences. As the locomotives had to climb several steep hills, they were simply unable to pull more than six hundred tons per trip.

Continuous strikes by miners and seamen during the latter part of 1945, had resulted in severe shortages of New South Wales coal in Adelaide. They were so crippling that power restrictions had to be imposed once again, throwing thousands of men out of work. By November, coal stocks around Adelaide were at a record low, and there was no chance of stockpiling for the Christmas period when no mining would be done in New South Wales. As a result, restrictions on the use of gas and electricity had to be imposed. In Adelaide, utter chaos over the Christmas period was avoided because the men at Leigh Creek worked willingly almost day and night. By supplying the power station at Osborne, they proved that Leigh Creek coal could be used at AESCO, and prevented major disruption of South Australian industry. Obviously it was not just South Australia which was affected by these strikes in New South Wales. The rest of Australia was also badly affected and it could well be argued that these strikes were one of the factors which caused Ben Chifley to lose the election to Robert Menzies.

Shortages of coal from New South Wales during these months had clearly demonstrated the value of Leigh Creek to the South Australian economy. On several occasions the Municipal Tramways Trust, burning only Leigh Creek coal, had been able to supply AESCO with power, thus preventing a calamity for Adelaide. It could not prevent the cancellation of the Adelaide-Melbourne express, nor could it stop further power cuts resulting in the closure of many factories. Had it not been for the Leigh Creek coal an almost total breakdown would have occurred. It had not been the first, nor the last time, that South Australia suffered as a result of strikes by the New South Wales coalminers.

Playford was certainly vindicated and a step closer to winning the battle for Leigh Creek. His next move was to try and secure a large and permanent customer for Leigh Creek coal. To be successful he needed a measure of control over AESCO, which was the biggest user of coal in South Australia. To justify his next actions Playford stated that the company's policies would lead to increased prices for electricity and slow down the process of industrial expansion. To protect South Australians from exploitation, he appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the company's operations.

With the Royal Commission's findings of August 1945, 'that the public interest might be better served by public ownership of the electricity supply than by a private company', Playford set out to achieve this 'socialistic' objective and thus guarantee a future for Leigh Creek. No doubt the Commission had been influenced by Robert Richards, the leader of the Opposition. He had earlier stated that the production and supply of electricity in South Australia should be under the direction and control of a commission. This commission, according to Richards, should have the power to control all phases associated with the production, supply and distribution of electricity, including the fuel used in the process.

With the support of both the Commission and the Opposition on his side, Playford introduced his Electricity Trust of South Australia Bill on 11 October 1945. Supported by the Opposition it was passed in the House of Assembly, but promptly defeated in the conservative Legislative Council by the casting vote of its President, Sir Walter Duncan. Playford's unsuccessful attempt to nationalise AESCO this time was only a temporary setback in his relentless struggle to secure a future for the mine and Leigh Creek.

While parliament debated, coal shortages in Adelaide were still the order of the day. Most of them were the result of seamen's strikes or strikes on the Newcastle coalfields where work was stopped at the drop of a hat. Therefore demand for Leigh Creek coal increased more and more. Nathan's, West End and Southwark Breweries all used it now for the generation of steam. Many of Adelaide's hospitals used increased amounts of Leigh Creek coal. According to the director of Glenloth winery at Reynella, 'Leigh Creek coal has been worth its weight in gold'. He was not the only one who was pleased. Playford said that the government appreciated the way in which the Municipal Tramway Trust had used large quantities of Leigh Creek coal during the strikes. This had relieved the coal shortages in general and allowed other consumers to have supplies of scarce imported coal.

Some months later, during another coal shortage as a result of yet another strike, it was Sir Walter Duncan, who as a director of BHP, stated that Leigh Creek was one of the State's best assets and its best guard against unemployment. Although he was against the nationalisation of a private company such as AESCO, he certainly could see the value of the Leigh Creek coal deposit.

During the winter of 1946 there was such a severe coal shortage in Adelaide, that O'Dea tried to rail some 150 tons of coal, from the Gas Company in Port Pirie, to Adelaide. During August of the same year newspapers carried headlines such as 'Power cuts on again', and 'Showers, but no baths'. A week later South Australians were assured by Commonwealth Coal Commissioner, Harold Williams that he was fully aware of the acute coal position in this State, but no suggestion on what he, or the Commission was going to do about it. Another issue which surfaced during this time and hopefully would encourage the use of Leigh Creek coal was the shortage of firewood for domestic use. As early as 1943 the use of Leigh Creek coal for household heating had been advocated as it would ease the drain on forest reserves and save an enormous amount of manpower. According to Playford the cost of wood had risen by leaps and bounds, and every year it was necessary to cart it a longer distance. Unless they adopted a policy of denuding the country, he said, they would be up against a most vital problem.

The South Australian Railways had increased the use of local coal to about one thousand tons a week. Some government departments were already using Leigh Creek coal and now schools would be supplied with equal quantities of this coal and firewood. Householders would be able to buy the coal for four shillings a bag. The Department of Education reported that most of the schools in the metropolitan area would receive a supply of Leigh Creek coal, which was to be burned in conjunction with the wood blocks already supplied. Head Teachers were instructed to take great care of the bags in which the coal would be delivered, as they were in very short supply and expensive, and were to be stored in a dry place for collection and re-use. Some years later it was even suggested to send Leigh Creek coal to Broken Hill to relieve the firewood shortage up there as well.

Playford made a second attempt to secure the nationalisation of AESCO in March 1946 when he introduced the slightly altered Electricity Trust of South Australia Bill. This was the most important, and final, gamble in his battle for Leigh Creek. He staked his political future on it. If the bill were defeated again 'the gathering legend of his invulnerability would be punctured, and the opposition to him from within his own party would be immeasurably strengthened'. It would also have forced him to resign as Premier. During the next few weeks Playford had the task of changing the vote of at least one member of the Legislative Council.

When the bill finally passed, it did so with a majority of only one vote. John Bice, who had been approached privately by Playford several times, had changed his vote. Bice was from then on regarded as a traitor and treated with contempt by most members of the Legislative Council. After the Governor's assent, both AESCO's office in London, and representatives for the stock and shareholders lodged petitions with the Dominion Office in London urging King George VI, not to give Royal assent. When this was given anyway, Playford's image was even further enhanced, although it was rumoured in some quarters that he had joined the Labor Party and become a Communist.

Against all odds, Playford overcame the treasured belief of his LCL government in the freedom of private enterprise, and had nationalised a private company. He had won the battle for Leigh Creek and the admiration of Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley. The Bill included provision for the State to take over the privately owned AESCO, which at that time provided electricity to 118,262 customers. The takeover became effective from 1 September 1946, costing the State more than 13 million. The administration of the coalfield would be placed in the hands of an Electricity Trust, under the direction of a board of five members.

The first board was headed by Hugh Angwin as chairman and Sir Richard Butler, the former Premier who had helped initiate South Australia's industrial drive, as deputy chairman. The other two members were F.H. Harrison, and J.W. Harrod. A late surprise appointment on 30 August was that of Alexander Downer, city solicitor, returned prisoner of war, and son of former Premier Sir John Downer, K.C. All five members would be paid 500 per year for their part time duties. Playford attended the very first board meeting of the Trust but did not attend another one until he was himself appointed to the Board by Steele Hall in 1969. With the change of government, Playford was reappointed by Don Dunstan in 1973. ETSA's first general manager was F.H. (Fred) Wheadon, who had for nearly fifty years been in charge of Adelaide's electricity supply. After a long and distinguished career Wheadon retired at the end of 1946, at the age of seventy-four.

The Bill also included the promise of electrification of country districts and the establishment of regional power stations. This was much appreciated by country voters who stood to gain the benefit of reliable electricity and the decentralisation of industry. Playford had pointed out several times that a private electricity supply could not justify to its shareholders any uneconomical extensions into country areas, whereas a public company could do this. Earlier, he had said that scant regard seemed to have been paid to about half the population which lived outside the metropolitan area.

When the Electricity Trust of South Australia Bill was passed in April, and amended in November 1946, it established the Electricity Trust of South Australia (ETSA), which would carry on the operations of AESCO. As it soon became apparent that the electricity supply industry would be by far the largest user of coal, as a fuel for power generation, it was decided that ETSA would also operate the Leigh Creek coalfield from 6 February 1948. The Leigh Creek Coal Development Scheme at that time had assets of 587,381. In addition the Treasury held an account for this scheme of 309,126. Total expenditure on the field up to date had been 556,650.

Before the takeover of the field by ETSA it was operated under the Leigh Creek Coal Act of 1942. The actual work was carried out by eight different departments. It must have been an administrative nightmare to coordinate the Treasury, E&WS, the South Australian Railways, the Department of Mines, the Factories and Boilers Department, the Chief Storekeeper, the School of Mines and finally the Electricity Commission. Somehow it was done! Playford paid a tribute to all the E&WS workers for their work in pioneering the field, with Gilbert Poole as its successful general manager. Full scale development of Leigh Creek was now assured. The commitment to extend electricity to country areas, was honoured when special Treasury grants were made to ETSA to supply consumers in sparsely settled areas. One of the first connected was Wirrabara. Within two years ETSA had bought up several privately operated electricity undertakings in country towns and was hard at work extending its lines further into rural areas. By 1996 ETSA directly supplied ninety-nine per cent of all electricity users in South Australia.

Soon it was stated by both parliamentarians and businessmen that the Leigh Creek coalfield would be South Australia's biggest and best insurance against unemployment in the next twenty years. Leigh Creek was to prove its worth sooner than anyone had expected. Once more there was an acute shortage of coal from New South Wales just before Easter 1947. Appeals had to be made to the public to use their electricity sparingly for the duration of the New South Wales coalminers' strike. Workers on the Leigh Creek field agreed to work up to eighty hours a week, including Easter, to avoid a total shutdown of gas and electric services in Adelaide.

Admiration and fame in relation to the coalfield and its workers had spread as far afield as Western Australia. There it was reported that design engineers and tradesmen were pushing ahead with an extension program that would result in the production of one million tons of coal a year. Another report stated that South Australia had 'deservedly earned itself a reputation for initiative and independence' which had been brought about by ending the humiliating dependence on the Eastern States for various essential products and, to a still greater degree, on the whims and fancies of those union leaders who control the distribution of those products, particularly coal.

Two years later, during Australia's worst coal strike on record, nobody doubted the value of Leigh Creek any more. In the House of Assembly it was stated that: We are now passing through one of our blackest periods because of the lack of coal. It is a tragedy that Australia must import coal. I pay a tribute to the Premier for his foresight in opening up the Leigh Creek coalfield. The use of this coal makes it possible for industries in South Australia to carry on. It was said that the value of coal production at the field has reached 1,000,000, but that is not the full value. We must take into account the fact that it enables industries to keep going at this time. Without it they would have to close down. I pay a tribute to the workers at Leigh Creek and to the transport men who handle the coal. Without their valued assistance we would not be in our present favourable position.

Having won his battle Playford pushed on with the development of the coalfield and the town. Early in 1946 he was in Canberra trying to obtain another grant of 50,000, this time for a new dragline. He reminded Chifley that it would result in increased production and reduce disruption of industry and loss of employment for South Australia. Playford also reminded Chifley that New South Wales received substantial subsidies for its coal production. It took only a month for his request to be granted. Production increased as more and more customers in Adelaide lined up for Leigh Creek coal. Mumzone Products Ltd. at St Peters had installed a new boiler plant designed to burn Leigh Creek coal exclusively. When completed, it was officially opened by Playford in February 1948. Country customers for the coal were the South Australian Railways at Peterborough and the Laura Ice and Produce Company.

Later that year, a group of seventy-two members visited the coalfield and the town including three Supreme Court Judges, six members of the Legislative Council and nineteen members of the House of Assembly. Among the others were representatives of the South Australian Gas Company, Municipal Tramways Trust, Adelaide Chamber of Commerce, Department of Mines, South Australian Railways, Tourist Bureau, The News, The Advertiser and the State Coal Commission. While at North Field, the visitors were amazed to find a huge open cut from which already more than forty thousand tons of coal had been removed. They also witnessed lines of trucks backing up to a relatively small shovel and being filled with coal in just under four minutes. Maybe the greatest single factor contributing to their conversion to Leigh Creek coal was the sight of three long two-engined trains loaded with coal leaving Telford railway siding for Terowie and Adelaide.

By the end of 1948 Leigh Creek coal was used successfully for the first time by a River Murray paddle steamer. Captain Robert (Bob) Reed, master of the Renmark, had changed from wood to coal. Running pleasure trips from Goolwa he had given up waiting for wood and paying high prices for it. More than two hundred small companies were now using Leigh Creek coal. Total sales had doubled during 1948 and about ten per cent of South Australia's coal needs were supplied by Leigh Creek. During the 1949 prolonged coal strikes in the Eastern States, South Australia escaped most of the blackouts, rations and other disruptive effects of coal shortages suffered by the other states.

In a letter to the Advertiser E.M. Whetstone of Christies Beach summed up his, and most likely many other readers' feelings by saying, Leigh Creek is what God provided and these are the workers he sent to show us the way to utilise it. It is a well-worked industry. Without it we would be in a far worse plight and many thanks are due to the boys and domestic staff at Leigh Creek who work night and day that not only industry, but the aged and sick and small children can be provided for. Not only do I say God bless Mr Playford for his foresight but God bless all at Leigh Creek.

Although operating costs so far had shown an accumulated loss of 14,806, the benefit to the state had been enormous as there had been no major collapse of South Australian industry as a result of the many strikes and shortages. By 1952 however, the loss had been turned into a surplus of 65,169. Playford's relentless efforts had paid off. By winning the battle for Leigh Creek he had secured an adequate and continuous supply of electricity for the rapid industrialisation of South

Australia. He also had re-opened the northern parts of the state, brought electricity to its people, and helped to attract and decentralise industry. When Playford was defeated in March 1965, after a long and distinguished career, Leigh Creek had become a profitable government enterprise, paying its way, and maintaining a model town. Once a dry, barren and dusty plain, Leigh Creek had become an oasis, where almost every variety of fruit tree seemed to flourish, under the care of nearly one thousand residents in about two hundred houses and flats. For Playford, who was personally opposed to gambling, this gamble had paid dividends. The battle for Leigh Creek had certainly been worth fighting.

But, why not get your own copy of Leigh Creek, an oasis in the desert. It is a hard-covered book of 640 pages, with 245 pages of photographs and documents. It has a comprehensive bibliography, index and a chronology of the period.

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