Article by Jack Clark for magazine “People and Places Afloat”
P.S. lllawarra in Robertson Basin, with blue metal staithes on the left.
Even less well known than the Sixty Miler traffic of coal from Newcastle to Sydney is the
shipping of 'Blue Metal' from Kiama and nearby ports to Sydney. It surprises
many people to know that this trade, begun in the 1870s, is still going on.
The Kiama district had been settled from the 1820s, like most of the coastal inlets in New South Wales, by cedar Betters, and when the land was cleared, by farmers who sent their produce to Sydney in small ships. The principal activities were dairying and grain growing, and butter, wheat, barley and pork were the main exports. A public jetty was built in 1849, and extended when steamer traffic began to arrive in 1852.
The enterprising local community formed the Kiama Steam Navigation Company, and had the wooden paddlewheel steamer Kiama, of 104 tons, built in Scotland in 1855. Having their own ship made the local producers independent of the whims of ship owners, but bad weather, especially from the north-east, made the use of their little harbour very problematical.
The company soon proved to be not financially viable, and in 1857 it merged with the Shoalhaven Steam Navigation Company. But even this partnership could not survive in the increasingly competitive south coast trade, and in 1858 the Illawarra Steam Navigation Company absorbed a number of smaller local companies, including Kiama's. This larger company went on to serve the south coast well for another century.
By the 1860s the trade in dairy products, bacon and livestock had grown considerably, and concern was increasingly expressed at the lack of an all-weather harbour. Local farmers and businessmen lobbied for a sheltered harbour basin, and eventually this was approved by the NSW Government. The rival Belmore Basin at Wollongong was, however, given priority, and it was not until 1876 that the Robertson Basin at Kiama was opened.
Meanwhile, the basalt rock of the district had become a valuable commodity. From the beginning basalt boulders had been used for fencing and buildings, including the still standing Infants School, the Courthouse, and the Church of England, Christ Church. In 1870 a sample of crushed rock was taken to Sydney in the Princess Alexendria for use as a road base, since Sydney's sandstone was quite unsuitable. Encouraged by a positive report, enterprising local citizens brought in three stone crushers and set them up to crush the stone being removed from the Robertson Basin excavation. In 1871 the first commercial load of crushed stone went to Sydney on the Tom Whiffler.
Construction of Robertson Basin at Kiama, about 1871.
The first quarry for the basalt was at Pike’s Hill, on the western fringe of the town. The stone was crushed largely by hand, after it was blasted from the quarry face. Men with spalling hammers broke it up into ‘spalls’, then others with knapping hammers, or crushing machines, into the required size. The stone was then loaded manually onto drays, taken down the hill to the jetty in the harbour, shoveled by hand into wheelbarrows, and wheeled across planks to be tipped into the ships’ holds. This labor-intensive process, slow and inefficient though it was, served for many years.
The main use for the stone was in road base, and increasingly for railway and tramway ballast. Some was cut into cubes for road surfacing, rather than being crushed; the roads surfaced in this way were in the heart of Sydney, and the basalt replaced wood block paving that had been tried in some streets with little success.
The first railway in Australia was the Sydney to Parramatta line, opened in 1855. It was less than 20km long, but was the precursor to an extensive network that spread quite rapidly. The first steam tram appeared in Sydney in 1879, and within six years 48km of tramline had been laid, radiating from Circular Quay to several outlying suburbs. In 1893 the first electric tramway was opened, oddly enough not connected to the main system at all, but running along Military Road to the Spit. But by 1900 other electric lines had been opened, as far out as Rose Bay, and a total of 160km of tramway was operating. All of these required roadbed of south coast blue metal, and the little ships were kept busy supplying this need.
It was as road base, though, that the precious crushed basalt was most important. The Scottish engineer Macadam had discovered back in the 18th century that a stable base for a road could be made by breaking rock down into fist sized pieces, and layering these along the preferred route as road bed. On top would go another layer of smaller stone, and so on until a smooth and solid but well-drained surface was obtained. The south coast blue metal was ideal for this purpose, and it came from the crushers at whatever size the road builders required.
By 1880 Kiama blue metal had become the principal provider of the colony’s needs, and hundreds of tons a week were being sent to Sydney in the little ships that became known as the ‘Stone Fleet’.
SS Kiama loading blue metal at the staithes.
From the 1870s Kiama’s basalt was seen to be suitable for railway and tramway ballast, and for road base material and a significant trade in the crushed rock developed. Dozens of small ships carried the ‘blue metal’ 55 nautical miles to Sydney, and with the spread of roads and railways the traffic increased rapidly.
The growth in blue metal traffic caused increasing concern about the side effects on the town. Up to 30 dray loads a day took the crushed stone from the quarries above the town to the ships, and this stirred up an unacceptable amount of dust, and continually caused damage to the surface of the main street, Terralong Street.
In 1881 it was decided to build a 3 foot 6 inches (1067mm) steam tramway down Terralong Street from the quarries to the jetty, and tracks were laid and locomotives imported. For various reasons, however, the system chosen did not work effectively, and was abandoned. In conjunction with the tramway, two staithes for loading the stone into the ships were erected at Robertson Basin in 1881; these continued to be used by the drays, and enabled a much faster and cheaper loading operation.
Quarry at Pike's Hill, on the western edge of the town.
By 1883 the traffic in blue metal from Kiama reached 400 tons a day, and the phrase `Blue Diamond Trade' was coined to suggest the great economic benefit the district was receiving. The dust menace remained, however, until the tramway idea was revived much later.
Carrying the blue metal over even such a short distance as 55 miles was for the little ships a hazardous undertaking. The loose cargo had a habit of shifting in a sea, or when a sailing ship heeled, and many ships came to grief.
The earliest recorded stone fleet loss was the 89 ton schooner Northern Light. Loaded with blue metal, she collided with another ship, SS Easby, off Bradleys Head in March 1878 and was almost cut in two. She sank immediately, but her crew were saved by boats from the Easby.
Among other early wrecks in the new trade were the Bertha and the Franz, both in the same gale in September 1879. Bertha was an 87 ton schooner which went ashore north of Bass Point and broke up. Her crew was rescued by a local group of Aborigines. The Franz, a148 ton schooner, was wrecked north of Lake Illawarra in the gale after becoming unmanageable.
Then in 1881 the little auxiliary steamship Gosford Packet ( 50 tons) stranded on Five Island Point and broke up, her crew of five managing to get ashore safely. One of the earliest blue metal carriers was the 56 ton schooner Prima Donna, She capsized off Bondi in 1882, with six crewmen being lost and only the skipper saved. The twin screw steamer Pioneer (51 tons), with the same captain, was wrecked off Botany Bay in 1883, and later in the same year the schooner Merchantman came to grief on the Port Hacking bombora.
In February 1883 the brigantine Nile, loaded with 300 tons of blue metal, left Kiama, but had to return when she ran into a strong headwind. She struck a reef opposite the breakwater, and although many of the townspeople rallied to her assistance and hauled on ropes to free her she remained fast and became a complete wreck. Her anchor was salvaged in 1959, and is now in the local museum.
The 123 ton schooner Annie Powell with a cargo of blue metal from Kiama sprang a leak off Five Islands in 1886 and sank. All the crew landed safely at Wollongong. In 1888 the 40 ton ketch /no was wrecked at the entrance to Kiama harbour, and throughout the 1880s and 1890s, and into the next century, the losses continued.
In 1889 another ship came to grief at Kiama. The schooner Scotiaarrived and anchored, but dragged her anchors and struck rocks near the blowhole. The crew got ashore safely. The wooden steamer Resolute (144 tons) left Kiama in 1894 with 280 tons of blue metal, and off Five Islands sprang a leak. In a sinking condition she was eventually run ashore near Wollongong and broke up with no loss of life.
The problem of bringing sailing vessels into a small harbour like Kiama's, especially with a following wind, was met by stretching a heavy chain across the floor of the harbour entrance. As a ship approached, she dropped anchor so it caught on the chain, and the ship could be brought to a halt before hitting the wharf. Of course there were accidents in extreme conditions or when the skipper's judgment was not equal to the task. In 1881 the schooner Industry, with a heavy nor'easter behind her, missed the chain and hit the stone wharf; and a short time later the Mary Peveley almost ploughed into the Prima Donna at the wharf; her desperate second attempt with a stem anchor catching the chain just in time.
Drays loading blue metal at the quarry,
Despite the hazardous nature of the voyage, which caused the loss of many ships, the ‘blue metal’ trade little ships bringing crushed basalt from Kiama and nearby ports to Sydney for road and railway building grew rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s as the colony’s roads and railways expanded.
Quarries had been opened up at sites outside Kiama, notably at Bombo, and further north at Bass Point and behind Shellharbour. A jetty was completed at Bombo in 1882 and steam powered crushing machines installed at the quarry.
Although Bombo was not as reliable a port as Kiama because of its exposed position, considerable quantities of blue metal were taken from there in the 1880s and 1890s.
In the early days many of the quarry workers at Bombo lived in tents, and the whole area, with great clouds of dust blown across the camp, had the appearance of a frontier gold mining town. A number of fatal accidents in the first few years, and the riotous nature of the sole drinking establishment, gave the place a bad name that it never quite lived down.
In the early nineties the colony's railway department took over the Bombo quarry to provide for its own blue metal needs, and extended the railway from Port Kembla to the little settlement. From that time on, the jetty was rarely used, finally falling down some years later.
Large quarries behind Bass Point and Shellharbour, especially at Dunmore, also became important, especially after the railway was extended to Bombo. This was far from the end of the stone fleet, though, as the little ships remained the cheapest and most effective way to move the `blue diamonds' to Sydney. Even when the rail link was extended to Kiama in 1888, the blue metal ships continued to carry the bulk of the basalt.
Some of the quarry companies even bought their own ships so they had control over scheduling and pricing; this was a form of vertical integration, as it is now called.
The proprietors of the Dunmore quarries owned a series of blue metal carriers named Dunmore, the best known of which was the one that collided with a naval longboat off Mrs. Macquarie's Point in January 1909 (see Afloat March 1993). This tragic accident caused the drowning of 15 young naval ratings from HMS Encounter.
The 1909 Dunmore was a small wooden steamer of 277 tons, typical of those engaged in the trade, and operated from Shellharbour to Sydney.
Priorto the 1909 accident, however, she had collided off Little Bay with the steamer Kelloe. Though the Dunmorewas only 277 tons, and the Kelloe 501, the smaller ship struck the larger on the port quarter, and sank her almost immediately.
Dunmore gave assistance, but was taking water so fast she had to be beached for repairs in Botany Bay. Dunmore was involved in yet another collision in 1918, when she came into contact with the tug Champion off Botany Bay, and had to return to Sydney for repairs. Other accidents involving blue metal ships remained all too common
Locomotive with load of blue metal coming down Terralong Street.
In 1907 the 211 ton steamer Resolute - a different one from that of the 1894 wreck - struck the Bellambi reef while carrying blue metal to Sydney. Though the sea was calm, she moved further onto the reef as the tide rose, and could not be salvaged. Then in 1924 the 272 ton wooden steamer Kiltobanks, loaded with blue metal, grounded at shellharbour during a north-easterly gale. She soon broke up, but her crew were saved.
The Annie M. Miller, newly arrived in Australia for both the Sixty Miler and blue metal traffic, foundered off Macquarie Light in 1929. She was bringing blue metal from Shellharbour, and six of her crew of twelve in one lifeboat were saved by the pilot steamer Captain Cook, while the others in a second boat were not seen again. Built in 1928, Annie M. Miller was a 707 ton iron steamship.
The wreck of the Belbowrie in 1939 led to a dramatic rescue of her crew. She was a wooden coastal steamer of 218 tons, and was carrying a cargo of blue metal from Shellharbour when she ran onto rocks near Long Bay in heavy south-easterly weather.
The sole lifeboat was smashed, but one man in a lifebelt managed to get over the reef, and with his help the crew struggled ashore hand-over-hand on a line held taut above the sea. The Captain was the last to leave, and fell into the sea, but was rescued by the others.
In 1911 the New South Wales Government bought the Kiama Road Metal Company, and sought to improve the delivery by reviving the tramway idea.
This time a gauge of 2 feet (610mm) was chosen, and the construction was completed in 1914. Two locomotives were used at any one time, and the wagons they towed Lass O'Gowrie being loaded at the staiths enabled a considerable increase in the amount of stone brought down to Robertson Basin, as well as greatly reducing the dust menace.
Lass O’Gowrie been loaded at the straiths.
Hoppers for loading the blue metal into the ships were constructed along the eastern side of Robertson Basin. The tramway wagons ran up on top of the hoppers and dropped their loads ready for the ships.
The success of the system can be gauged from the fact that three ships all arriving after midnight one day in the twenties were loaded and on their way to Sydney before daylight.
Through the twenties the blue metal trade continued to grow as demand rose from the expanding rail, road and tramway systems. The arrival of electricity in Kiama in 1923 enabled production to be increased, and new quarries were opened.
To carry the increasing quantities of metal the state quarry had a new SS Kiama built in Scotland. She was a steel screw steamer of 358 tons, and replaced the Civility, which the company had run for many years, but was now considered to be too small and too slow.
The new Kiama arrived in 1920. In four days in 1925 four ships, including SS Kiama, took over 2600 tons of crushed basalt from Kiama to Sydney. Some ships, including Kiama, were capable of making a round trip each day. SS Bombo in 1937 made ten trips in fourteen days, moving a total of 6500 tons of metal.
The prosperous days of the twenties were followed by the depression of the thirties, and the trade declined rapidly as road and railway building and maintenance were scaled down. Then in 1940 and 1941 most of the usable ships were taken over by the Allied forces for war duties, and the sea traffic in blue metal virtually stopped. The last ship to go into war service was the Bombo in 1942. At this point the Kiama quarries closed and the tramway down Terralong Street ceased to operate.
When the ships returned after the war, there seemed little need for them. The blue metal trade had now adjusted to rail and road carriage, and only a few of the ships - Kiama, Bombo and Dunmore among them - remained in service.
Sometimes the colliers from the Sixty Miler fleet were directed to fill a gap in this diminishing service, and the 640 ton Birchgrove Park was one such. She capsized four miles south of Broken Bay one night in 1956 with the loss of ten of her crew of fourteen. Bombo had been lost in 1949 when her cargo shifted in rough seas. She was a steel steamship of 540 tons, built in 1930 for the blue metal trade, and was carrying a full load of 650 tons from Kiama to Sydney. Off Bull the cargo in one of her holds shifted and made her list dangerously. She headed for safety in Port Kembla, but the list increased, and she turned over and sank. Some of the crew clung to wreckage, but they soon disappeared; only two of the crew of fourteen survived.
Then Kiama, carrying a cargo of coal from Newcastle after bunkering there, foundered off Tuggerah in 1951.
Another stone fleet ship, the Paterson, sank off Norah Head later in the same year. At length only Dunmoreand Bass Point were left, and Shellharbour and Bass Point were the only places where blue metal was shipped out. In1960 these last ships also ceased to run. Kiama is now a tranquil holiday resort, and Robertson Basin is a haven only for fishing boats and cruising yachts. The town, however, is very conscious of its `blue diamonds' heritage, and its story is included in all its tourist literature. The visible traces of the story are given prominence in the town's tourist walks, and provide for the visitor a valuable insight into the workings of the stone trade.
Portions of the tramway tracks can still be seen in Terralong Street in front of the Presbyterian Church. On the south-eastem side of Robertson Basin, high up and best viewed from the opposite side of the basin, are remnants of the loading bins for the blue metal. In Collins Street, between Terralong Street and Minamurra Street, a row of terrace houses has been preserved. These were built in1886 tohouse quarry workers, and served that purpose until the quarries closed. Now classified by the National Trust, the houses have been converted to shops, mainly to cater for the tourist trade. And Bombo Point quarry has been preserved as the quarry workers left it by a permanent conservation order, and demonstrates the moonscape nature of basalt rock mining. The district still produces blue metal, of course, most of it now moved by road and rail. Just one ship still operates. This is MV Claudia, a bulk carrier of 5050 tons, which loads from a jetty at Bass Point and makes regular runs to Blackwattle Bay in Sydney Harbour to provide crushed stone for the Pioneer Concrete works there. At present in Singapore for maintenance, she will soon return to the blue diamond trade.
The tradition of the little ships that braved the difficulties of unpredictable weather, exposed jetties and shifting cargoes, and too often lost their fight against the cruel sea continues.