|Ray Jerrems, Our Genealogist, Historian||
Revisiting Ray's Grandparents Hometown
Since writing the articles about my Sassall great grandparents (see Journals of March and April 2011) my wife and I spent several days exploring the Lithgow area to get the feel of my great grandparents' environment. The previous articles had been prepared from notes given to me, with my distant recollections; I had not been back to Lithgow for over 40 years. Most of the industrial areas which had been hives of activity have now gone. For someone like me who had seen the hustle and bustle of the steelworks and the railway shunting yards the silence is almost eerie.
The house and blast furnace
The house occupied by my great grandparents near the steelworks has gone, replaced by a commercial building. Fortunately all of the other little nearby cottages are still there, tucked together in neat little rows, their condition belying the fact that they are all well over 100 years old. Built from local timber which was in large supply at the time, they are on narrow blocks.
Starting about 50 metres behind the cottages, on a low rise, are the remains of the steelworks. This would have made a very convenient short walk to the steelworks for workmen, but the noise around the clock would have been tremendous. In addition to the periodic crashing of the giant furnace doors there would have been the thumping of the huge steam engines which forced air unto the furnaces, noises which I remembered from my visits to steelworks as a schoolboy.
The baker's run
The village is now a ghost town, belying the fact that in the 1880s there were 12 pubs, a school, stores, and numerous houses built by the Hartley Kerosine Oil and Paraffine Company on the 30 acre site the company had bought.
All that remains of the buildings are the Comet Inn (pictured below), built in about 1879, and a handful of very old cottages. Initially I guessed that the Inn might have been named after Halley's Comet, but in fact it was named after the Comet brand of kerosene produced at the time.
When my great grandfather first drove his bread cart into the village he would not have imagined that his wife-to-be (Susannah Druery) was a schoolgirl in the village, possibly in school at the time. Nor would he have imagined that in one of the small valleys nearby her father and brothers were shale miners in a little-known operation that forms a significant part of the history of New South Wales.
I will describe the shale mining operation first, and in a later article I will take you on a historic trip following the footsteps of my great grandmother Susannah.
Shale oil refining
The production of shale oil and its by-products represented a major advance in technology which was to have a significant effect on many countries in the mid to late 1800s. Prior to its discovery households relied on tallow lamps burning animal fat or whale oil for lighting. Heating was provided by wood or coal fires. The discovery of shale oil changed this completely.
The potential of oil shale (now known as torbanite) was recognised by an immigrant in Canada named Abe Gesner just prior to 1850. He discovered that shale oil could be obtained by heating torbanite (a fine-grained sedimentary rock), and valuable by-products could also be obtained. High temperatures were required for the heating, and the resultant gas had to be distilled, requiring quite complex processes (see later). Also, coal fired furnaces were required to produce the necessary heat. For these reasons it took quite a while for the technology to be developed and adopted, and further developed over a number of decades.
Shale oil itself was similar to modern oil, which could obviously be burnt for industrial purposes, but for the proverbial "man in the street" the huge impact was provided by the by-products of kerosene and paraffin. Kerosine provided a low volatility source of lighting and (in the 20th Century) heating. Unlike petrol or methylated spirits it did not did not readily catch on fire and could therefore be quite safely used in homes. Paraffin was used to make candles, which were used in every household.
Australia seems to have been comparatively slow in embracing the new technology. In New South Wales Port Kembla, Hartley Vale and Joadja (near Mittagong) were probably the first areas, in the 1860s, followed over 30 years later by works at Newnes (north of Hartley Vale).
Stumbling blocks for shale oil production
Production of the shale oil
In simple terms the shale was "cooked" in furnaces called "retorts" and gases were produced. The draw off of the gases occurred at different points up the retort, depending on the 'fraction' or specific gravity of the gas at that point to thus yield different products (e.g. naptha, heavy oils etc). Initially the retorts were horizontal but later they were vertical, allowing far greater heat to be generated.
Mining the shale and coal
Here is where miners like the Druery family made their contribution to this industry. The mining of coal was well established, and the techniques were equally applicable to the mining of oil shale. They both occurred in horizontal seams in the Hartley Valley which were accessible from the floor of the valley.
The book "A Light in the Vale" owned by our reader Graham Harmer tell us that:
"Shale miners were generally paid more than coalminers. They worked the shale seams with picks, bars, hammers and wedges, chasing the deposits of shale until they reached ridiculously small thicknesses. Oil shale had a tendency to fracture with razor-fragments flying out from the face. Quite a few miners suffered very severe cuts from flying shale...Many a man lost an eye or severed part of a limb. You would find them with great scars on their faces...".
The inhaling of dust by miners was also a major concern, three of my mother-in-law's four uncles died from "dusting" as the result of gold mining in the Ballarat (Victoria) area before the First World War.
Popularity of kerosene and candles
No doubt the comparative safety of using kerosene for lighting (and later for heating) was a big factor in its adoption. Candles were also an essential item for lighting, the difference being that candles were much easier to light and extinguish than kerosene lamps. My mother-in-law, who turns 100 this year, says that her father left a kerosene lantern burning in the kitchen all night. Each of the numerous children had a candle which they could light in their bedroom and blow it out when required.
In the cities gas and electric lighting was introduced in the 1880s and 1890s, but in the country (representing over half of the households at that time, possibly half a million) kerosene lamps and candles were used for many decades. The size of the market was huge.
The production costs for shale oil were high, and the equipment was very expensive to construct, leading to the adoption of use of mineral oil for most purposes (including the production of kerosene) from overseas after the First World War. It was significant that the Joadja works and the Hartley Vale works ceased production in the early 1900s. Production of shale oil made a brief appearance during the Second World War at Glen Davis, but then vanished.
Life in Hartley Vale
In the next article we will continue our journey from the Hartley Valley along Fred's bread carting route to the historic "Rosedale" inn, where Fred met Susannah.
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