The battle for Leigh Creek.

The battle for Leigh Creek


After John Reid's death in 1924, very little work was carried out at the Leigh Creek coal mine. For most South Australians the mine was out of sight and out of mind. Very few wanted anything to do with Leigh Creek, or its coal until the Depression. On 19 July 1930, Premier Lionel Hill wrote to Prime Minister Scullen about the re-opening of the Leigh Creek coal deposit. His idea was to run it for the relief of unemployment in South Australia. He suggested that an investment of 14,000 would maintain an output of about one hundred tons per day and provide work for forty-five men, both underground and above. Hill also sought the Prime Minister's cooperation in referring his proposal to the Commonwealth Railways Commissioner to use the coal on the Commonwealth Railways.

Unfortunately for him, and South Australia, the Commissioner was not interested. During the remainder of the 1930s Depression, and the resulting change in government attitude towards South Australia's development, Leigh Creek once more became the talk of the day. At first most of this talking was done in parliament. One parliamentarian who did his share of talking was Tom Playford. As a backbencher, Playford had supported the development of agriculture and the pastoral industry. When elected Premier however, he soon realised that economic development, based on secondary industry, was one of the most important issues South Australia would have to address in its immediate future.

Leigh Creek Map

His early period as Premier was marked by enormous economic change and progress and it was Playford who, often in the face of intense opposition, even from within his own political party, became the dominant force behind the over-riding ethos of industrial development. Nowhere was this more evident than in his battle to establish the Leigh Creek coalfield as a profitable government enterprise and make it a part of the economic change and progress experienced in South Australia.

As a result of the Depression and its aftermath it became abundantly clear to several of the state's leaders that South Australia would have to change from its predominantly primary industry based economy, and develop much wider and stronger secondary industries. Most of the credit for this change has to go to such people as (Sir) Richard Butler, John William Wainwright, Essington Lewis, T.J. Richards, Edward Holden and John Darling. Several people, including Butler and Wainwright, were convinced that the key to South Australia's economic development was the decentralisation of industry and the securing of a local supply of electricity. Playford though, had the ability to grasp the good points in other people's schemes, and use them successfully to his own, and South Australia's, advantage.

South Australia was the only state in Australia in which the generation of electricity, for household and industrial use, depended entirely upon imported fuel. This fuel, in the form of coal, still came mostly from the mines of New South Wales and occasionally from those of Victoria, South Africa or even England. It was not just for industrial or household purposes that coal for electricity was needed. The South Australian Railways and the Municipal Tramways Trust also relied heavily on coal supplies, as did the suppliers of gas for Adelaide, Port Pirie and Mount Gambier. All these services depended on the supply of coal, which was unreliable, often irregular, and at times non-existent.

During the Second World War coal supplies were often interrupted, or stopped altogether, because of ships being sunk by Japanese submarines or prolonged strikes by the members of the Communist led Miners Federation in New South Wales. Frequently this resulted in the paralysis of badly needed war production in South Australia. Other industries, including the transport systems, were also affected during such times. When the coal supplies in South Australia ran out, for whatever reason, it resulted in the loss of employment for thousands of people, and created enormous havoc in hospitals and private homes.

Playford was well aware of the fact that when visiting business leaders realised that South Australia depended totally on imported coal, they would naturally be deterred from establishing their industries here. For these reasons Playford saw it as necessary for his government to prove, and develop as soon as possible, any local source of coal that could be used for electricity generation and so rid South Australia, once and for all, of its dependence on the strike-plagued coalfields of New South Wales. Playford was not the first politician to be concerned about the lack of South Australian coal resources. Even in the previous century the lack of coal in South Australia had already been mentioned, often with great concern.

Some of the reasons given by various people for not developing the deposit at that time were its poor quality, its geographical position, and therefore the cost of transporting the coal to consumers in Adelaide. Had the coal deposit been near a major centre of consumption it would most likely have been worked long before. Other people cited the lack of knowledge about this kind of coal or the lack of capital and consumers, as a reason for not developing it before. However the most important factors preventing development seemed to be the unwillingness and even restrictions of governments, railways and industry. They considered the coal to be of inferior quality and were unwilling to modify the design of their plant. None of them had any intention of changing existing equipment to accommodate this different type of coal.

During the First World War, Leigh Creek coal had been used for a short time by the Adelaide Electric Supply Company (AESCO) which had offered the South Australian government assistance with the testing of the Leigh Creek coal. The company had not been impressed by the lower heating value and higher ash and moisture content of this coal. Moreover its boilers were not designed to cope with this type of fuel. After the war, AESCO offered 'limited cooperation in the expense of proving any coalfield in South Australia which offered sufficiently encouraging prospects of producing payable coal'. The building of a power station at Leigh Creek to supply electricity to Adelaide had been proposed, but nothing eventuated.

During 1939 several parliamentarians, and some members of the public, advocated the use of Leigh Creek coal. Some stated that the mine should never have been closed in the first place and that the far north of South Australia had been neglected by all governments for the past twenty-five years. It was mentioned again in 1941, but now from the viewpoint of safety in the event of war. The only signs of previous efforts at Leigh Creek were a rusty water-tube boiler in the centre of the field, several rusting driving wheels, twisted iron, James Martin's Cornish boiler and a short length of narrow gauge railway to the main line.

When the Second World War broke out the supplies of coal from New South Wales were even more in demand. Coal was needed in many of the new factories producing equipment for the war effort. However as a result of the strikes on the eastern coalfields, and a shortage of shipping, supply was highly irregular. Consequently, 'driven into a corner' the development of Leigh Creek coal became essentially a wartime emergency project, and Playford was fully prepared to take political risks in his attempt to have this coal deposit mined. The battle to achieve this objective was even more tortuous and hazardous than all the previous attempts, but Playford's final success assured him of his leadership and prominence, at least within his own party, for the rest of his political career.

In his efforts Playford relied on the advice and support of a group of loyal and able public servants, who were dedicated to industrial development. Robert Richards, leader of the Opposition, commended the government for its efforts to revive the Leigh Creek coalfield. He could see no reason why 'this state should not become more self-supporting in its basic need of coal supplies'. According to him it was 'imperative to develop Australia's natural resources to the utmost'. Another member stated that 'unless we develop our own coal supplies, we will have no means of obtaining industrial security in this state.

Serious work on the site was started by the Department of Mines and the Engineering and Water Supply Department (E&WS), in 1941. In June of that year a few men, and a wagon pulled by twelve donkeys, set out with a boring plant from Copley for the Leigh Creek coalfield to define the extent of the coal deposit. The initial exploratory drilling was carried out with a portable rotary plant constructed in the workshops of the Department of Mines. The drilling rigs, operated by a two-men crew were under the supervision of Doug Watson and Charles Duffield, both drilling foremen, but the decision where to drill was the responsibility of the resident geologist.

In one of the drill-holes a coal seam was struck at a depth of twenty-two metres with a thickness of more than fifteen metres. While the drillers were kept busy, another party of men was de-watering the old mineshaft. This shaft had been used in previous underground attempts and was now needed to mine a parcel of coal for testing purposes by the South Australian Railways. They soon found it impossible to continue their work as the shaft-timber had collapsed, making it very dangerous and expensive to mine from it. A new shaft was started nearby and coal sent to the Railways for testing. In August 1941 the Department of Mines made another attempt, but was unsuccessful until Keith Ward, the government geologist, suggested a different site. He reasoned from his observations of the dip of the coal seam in the old mine shaft, that it must surface somewhere between this shaft and where the department had been drilling.

This time their efforts met with success. Within a month Playford told the leader of the Opposition that he would be leaving for Leigh Creek to inspect the drilling operations and a deep waterhole at Aroona Creek. During his stay Playford willingly joined other members of the party in some pick and shovel work to assist with the geological survey which was in progress. The outcome of the bore samples would hopefully provide the information needed to decide if the deposit could be worked by the open cut method.

By the end of 1941 the South Australian parliament had passed the Supplementary Supply Bill, providing an extra 227,000 for further testing and development at Leigh Creek. When the extent of the coalfield was realised, Playford considered that this could easily offset the increased quantity needed to replace the superior coal from Newcastle. There would also be substantial savings on the heavy transport costs from New South Wales. Playford did not miss the chance of pointing out that Leigh Creek coal could be delivered at the Osborne power station for less than half the cost of New South Wales coal, which often came in foreign owned ships, charging exorbitantly high prices.

Playford used every argument and opportunity to push Leigh Creek's importance to both South Australia and Australia. Indirectly, continuous support for Playford and Leigh Creek was provided by the local newspapers. They reported in great detail the many strikes on the eastern coalfields, and the subsequent hardships suffered in South Australia where forty-nine different electricity suppliers were often desperate for coal. Due to these numerous strikes, which provided Playford with an effective weapon in his battle for Leigh Creek, and the shortage of war time shipping, New South Wales coal supplies to Adelaide, and major country centres, remained most unreliable, often resulting in the closure of munition and other war production factories.

What better opportunity could there have been for Playford to convince his own, and the Commonwealth parliaments, that effort and money spent on Leigh Creek was in the best interest of Australia and the British Empire? At times it seemed that the only issue important to Playford was the development of the Leigh Creek coalfield. He ensured that tests were arranged for the use of this coal in South Australian locomotives and boilers. Within a short time the coal became known as 'Playford's muck', or 'Playford's ready rub'. He visited the workings on a regular basis, pushed the sale of coal for household use in Adelaide, and badgered AESCO, and other big industrial users of coal, to convert to Leigh Creek coal. Near the end of 1941 geological maps of the field had also been prepared by (Sir) Ben Dickinson and Ralph Segnit of the Department of Mines, a shaft had been sunk and a parcel of coal was brought to the surface.

Enough evidence had been collected to prove the existence of a major coalfield worth developing as soon as possible. In January 1942, Playford began a two and a half year battle with the Commonwealth government to gain financial support for developing Leigh Creek. During this time he showed that he was shrewd, persistent and persuasive, as well as ruthless and cunning. Some people even called him a political rogue. Being convinced of the benefits Leigh Creek coal would bring to South Australia in general, and the North in particular, he never missed an opportunity to stress the advantages this development would have on towns such as Port Pirie, Quorn, Terowie and Port Augusta. With the Mayor of Port Augusta also being a member of parliament, he was assured of his support in the battle for Leigh Creek. Playford used the Opposition's help in parliament when it suited him, and was not easily impressed by economic dogma. He was also able to recognise a bargain when he saw one. By the end of his campaign the Commonwealth government had granted most of his requests.

At home he also had to fight his battles. Playford had introduced the short, but very controversial, Leigh Creek Coal Bill, prompting one member to remark that 'never had the House been asked in so few words to agree to give so much power to the government'. This bill provided for the government far reaching powers with few limitations. If passed it would grant the government the power to spend up to 200,000 to develop, and mine, the coal deposit that up to that time no private company, nor a previous government, had been able to develop profitably. It also provided the government with the power to sell, or otherwise dispose of the coal. In view of the important part that Port Augusta would play in the development of Leigh Creek, the passage of this coal bill through parliament was followed with keen interest by its residents. Eventually, after some lengthy debates in both Houses of Parliament, this rather socialistic scheme was assented to by the Governor on 5 November 1942. Playford had won his first round in the battle for Leigh Creek.

During the parliamentary debates, support had once again come from the Opposition, when it was pointed out that the project would help to decentralise secondary industry. Northern electors soon 'warmed' to the idea, since they had for a long time resented the predominance of Adelaide over the rest of the state, and were quick to see the advantages of decentralisation. They were happy with any kind of development in their long neglected electorates. This applied in particular to the supply of electricity, that they would not get from the privately owned

AESCO for many years to come. It was during discussions on the Leigh Creek Coal Bill that the question of a new power station was raised. Several times it was pointed out that it should be built in the country and not at Osborne. When, some years later, it came to a showdown in the Legislative Council over the nationalisation of AESCO, Playford knew he could rely on the support of the farmers and their representatives in parliament.

Away from all the talk in parliament, work at Leigh Creek was pushed ahead. The area around the coalfield, including Euro Well, Finke Spring, Puttapa Spring and the old Sliding Rock mine, was examined by a Public Works Committee in the hope of finding a reliable supply of water. Several local station owners were interviewed and asked for their advice. Amongst those who supplied useful information were W.B. Ferguson of North Moolooloo, V.C. Hirsch of Leigh Creek and W. Snell of Angepena.

In Adelaide, Gilbert Poole, from the E&WS, was given the task of working out the quantity of water needed for the mine. This was to be based on productions of four thousand and eight thousand tons of coal per week and a maximum population of 150 on the field. The Public Works Committee found that the only supplies of sufficient, and potable, water which could be obtained were at Sliding Rock. The Committee was well aware that this supply could be insufficient if production expanded at a later stage. As no other suitable water was found, and because of the coal shortages in Adelaide, it recommended that the Sliding Rock water supply should be developed, at a cost of 110,000.

It was during this time that Playford received a telegram from the Commonwealth Coal Commission urging him that the 'development of the Leigh Creek coal project be hastened'. The first tests at Sliding Rock were conducted during the second half of 1942 and early 1943. However, in March of that year the pump failed due to underground movement in the old shaft and increasing amounts of silt. In October 1942 the task of developing the mine was given to the E&WS which was more experienced than the Department of Mines in large scale mechanised excavation work.

Naturally this was both disappointing and resented by many employees of the Department of Mines who thought that they should be the ones involved in mining the coal. The E&WS appointed Gilbert Poole as its resident manager. Gilbert Graham Poole, OBE, BSc, BEc, FSASM, AMIEA, MAWI, was born in 1896 in Victoria. He completed his education at the University of Adelaide and started work for the E&WS in 1922. During his time with that department he had been involved in all kinds of major projects in places like Port Adelaide, Mount Gambier, Radium Hill and Leigh Creek where he spent five years developing the coalfield in the face of many difficulties. He was awarded the OBE in 1946.

In spite of advice from Interstate consultants, the local decision was made to produce about one thousand tons per week, increasing later to four thousand tons per week, from an open cut mine. As the project progressed, locating a reliable water supply became a priority. Development became easier for Playford when the federal Minister for Labour and National Service declared coal mining a protected industry in 1943. Declaring coal mining a protected industry, which meant that its workers could not leave to join the defence forces, did little to help Poole overcome the difficulties and setbacks inevitable when starting such a project in wartime.

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