05 May, 2015

Wormbete Creek - powering Victoria's industry

Last week I took a look at The Powerhouse in North Geelong. Originally this was the Geelong B Power Station, built in 1954 from a package plant shipped from the USA and which operated until 1970 when it was decommissioned.
Construction of the Geelong B Power Station, image held by Museum Victoria
In its day, the station featured the largest steam-driven plant outside Yallourn, capable of generating 30,000 kilowatts of power which was then fed into the state grid. The plant was fuelled by brown coal and in its earliest years of operation, it burnt coal mined from the Wensley Brae Coal Mine, located on the west branch of Wormbete Creek in the Winchelsea South area of Western Victoria. It is this mine which provides the link I was seeking between the power station and the Barwon River.
The east and west branches of Wormbete Creek flow down from the Otway Ranges, meeting at a point about 9km south of Winchelsea and about 4km south of the creek's confluence with the Barwon. Today, the Wurdale Landcare group are working to preserve the Wormbete Creek catchment area through revegetation, salinity and erosion control measures and the establishment of riparian zones.
Wormbete Creek west branch from Coal Mine Road, below the site of the
Wensley Brae coal mine
In the early days of European settlement however priorities were different and the district was surveyed to establish the presence of mineral resources. Some information suggests that coal deposits along the west branch of Wormbete Creek were mined on a small scale as early as the 1850s, however this is uncertain. What is known is that during a drought period in 1914, coal was discovered along the west branch of Wormbete Creek by Bert Armistead and Ken Strickland who were sinking wells.
With plentiful timber available as a fuel source and the difficulties inherent in transporting coal from a relatively remote area, mining activity in the region was minimal and so it was not until 1921 that the Wensley Brae Coal Mine - also known as the Wensleybrae, Wensley Bray, Wensleydale, Winchelsea South or Bambra Coal Mine - first opened. The initial owners were the Western District Coal Mines Pty Ltd who initially drilled small exploratory tunnels to access the coal seams, however operations were soon taken over by the Otway Coal Company Ltd and the venture switched to open cut mining which continued until 1934.
View of the "Wensleydale" Mine taken c1949-1951, image taken from
Coal from the mine was sold to local industries in the Geelong area including the Fyansford Cement Works which were previously dependent on an unreliable supply of coal from New South Wales. The Ford Motor Company also purchased coal from Wensley Brae as did most of Geelong's woollen mills. With the completion of the Geelong B Power Station in 1954, this facility also used coal sourced from Wensley Brae.
The coal was initially transported to Geelong by road using trucks, however in 1925 a ropeway was opened which carried the coal from the mine to a purpose-built siding at Wensleydale railway station. This was the head of a short branch line running from Moriac Station on the Geelong-Port Fairy (now Warrnambool) line. The branch had opened in 1890 to carry gravel and timber.
Map showing the site of Wensley Brae mine in relation to the Wensleydale
branch line. Crosses mark the ropeway running between the mine and the station.
Image taken from
During its first phase of operation, only about 16,000 tons of coal was mined from the site before operations ceased in 1934. The following year due to continued pressure from mining interests in New South Wales, the company went into liquidation and the mine sat idle for eight years until 1943.
When the mine reopened in 1943 under the ownership of Wensley Bray Coal Mine Pty Ltd, operations ramped up considerably, but the ropeway - which was damaged in the 1939 Black Friday bushfires - was never used again. By 1947 production stood at 1,400 tons per week and it was anticipated that the purchase of two new excavators from the Philippines by the State Electricity Commission (SEC) would increase production to 8-10,000 tons per week. Numerous newspaper reports in late 1947 indicated that the equipment was destined for use removing overburden at Wensley Brae.
 In June, 1948 however, a political stoush developed when then Victorian state opposition leader John Cain claimed that the government of the day was withholding the equipment purchased by the SEC. The government responded that at no time had it or the SEC guaranteed that the machinery would be made available specifically to the Wensley Brae mine and that it would deploy the equipment where it saw fit. It also indicated that servicing the equipment was problematical as there were not enough spare parts to keep this and other large machinery in the state operational at the same time.
Production it claimed was now at 70 tons per week but that this would increase to 4,000-5,000 tons per week using proper equipment. It also indicated that if the privately-owned mine could not increase its output then the government would probably buy the site. The same month, the mine proprietors entered into a deal with Melbourne company Roche Bros Pty Ltd to ramp up production which they claimed stood at 1,500 tons per week at that time - more than double the amount claimed by the Minister for Mines. Under this new operator, the coal was transported to Winchelsea where special coal trains carried the coal to Geelong, parts of the western district, Melbourne, Ballarat and Bendigo.
A coal seam running down the wall of the quarry looking from Coal Mine Rd
By August, 1948 the government was keen to show its support for the local coal industry and floated a raft of measures aimed at supporting the industry in the face of competition from New South Wales. These measures included providing housing for workers, subsidies for Victorian coal which was in any case selling much cheaper than NSW coal, money to purchase earthmoving equipment from the USA and the provision of the promised equipment to Wensley Brae.
Remains of mining activities? Near Coal Mine Rd
The support was ongoing and in July, 1950 the government indicated that it would provide additional prefabricated housing for miners working at Wensley Brae amongst other measured designed to treble the 4,000 ton per week capacity at which it was operating. The increased demand for brown coal at this time was in response to a state-wide move to brown coal from black.
At the same time, the government backed away from plans to buy the mine outright, despite an offer of sale in August by the owners who indicated they would sell to the government for £135,000 under a deal which would see Roche Bros Pty Ltd continue to operate the mine for a royalty of 2/ per ton.
By April, 1951 however, Victoria was facing a fuel shortage and the government had another change of heart and purchased the mine for £150,000 with the intention of having the contractors pay a royalty as suggested. It was estimated that the mine would produce a minimum of 400,000 tons of coal per year.
In late March, 1952, the mine nearly met with disaster when it was threatened by a 500 acre bushfire which came within a few hundred metres of the open cut. It was turned back at the last minute by a wind change and fire breaks which had been ploughed by five bulldozers from the mine which also had its floor covered with water to prevent embers from setting the valuable coal alight.
The mine continued to operate until 1959 when it was decided that coal deposits at Anglesea could be more easily mined than those at Wesley Brae which was then closed down. At its peak, production reached 10,000 tons per week and the mine employed 200 men. In total, there were estimated to be about 4 million tons of coal in the deposit. By the time the mine finally closed, up to 2.5 million tons (some estimates say 3 million tons) of coal had been extracted. Further details of the mine can be found here.
Views of the lake from the direction of Coal Mine Rd
Following its closure, the mine was flooded to a depth of 60m, forming a lake. I am unsure who currently owns the site but it would seem that the lake is still used for water sports today.

Views of the lake from the direction of Coal Mine Rd
Glimpses of the lake can be seen from Coal Mine Road.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic article! I visited the coalmine in the early 50s as a Wurdi Bolac State School (No 1556) excursion