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New book published on Australia’s coal history

Published by
World Coal,

The Australian coal industry has been the subject of many books, papers and university theses, but there has been no recent book to bring together the overall story of the development of the industry in the two major coal exporting states – New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland. Denis Porter’s book, Coal: the Australian Story, now does this in a way that the general reader, as well as those acquainted with the industry, will find informative and highly readable.

The coal industry, as those who have worked in it will know, has been characterised by its ups and downs and industrial turmoil, but has emerged from its turbulent past as a strong and competitive industry, competing on the world stage with other major producing countries. While it is now the leading exporter of metallurgical coal and the second largest exporter of thermal coal, the industry had humble beginnings in Newcastle with convicts mining the coal under horrific conditions. Porter traces the development of the industry through the 1800s to the time of Federation and the early 1900s, through the dark years of the 1920s and 1930s and World War II and the following two decades. The industry emerged from World War II in a poor condition and with negligible exports, but by the 1960s was facing the challenge of becoming a major supplier to the Japanese steel mills, competing with the US producers who were the dominant suppliers. The competition between the underground producers in NSW and the emerging open cut producers in the Queensland Bowen Basin was also beginning and would become more intense during the 1970s. By the end of the 1960s, the Australian industry’s future as the leading supplier to the Japanese was by no means assured, but as the title of this book indicates, that decade can be seen as the time which marked the birth – or perhaps the re-birth – of the coal industry we know today.

Coal: the Australian Story – from convict mining to the birth of a world leader is a story which deserves to be better understood by all Australians. It is a story, not only of turmoil, but also of perseverance, major reforms and restructuring, and a story which involves an industry which has been of fundamental importance to the Australian economy for most of the industry’s life.

The coal industry today faces major challenges, with thermal coal in particular under the spotlight and with many questioning its long-term role in power generation. Those challenges will be resolved over the coming years, but they should not detract from Australians having a better understanding of the industry’s rich history.

Here’s a brief insight into what the book covers:

Colonisation and the 1800s

Newcastle is discovered; John Platt – the region’s first miner; John Bigge recommends mines be privatised; the Australian Agricultural Company monopoly; British miners recruited; coal market starts to grow; the struggle between miners and owners begins; the Illawarra and Lithgow areas start to develop; Queensland’s early coal history; regulation of mining begins; the birth of the coal mining union movement; a bitter dispute wrecks the union; new companies Scottish and Waratah enter; Newcastle producers combine to form the first vend; Lithgow vend commences; Newcastle vend collapses; AACo fails to destroy the district union; Bulli – Australia’s first major coal disaster; new Act takes years to pass; major disputes followed by the 1890s depression.

Federation to World War I

The industry at the turn of the century; Sydney’s dependence on coal; a growing coal export trade; Newcastle a bustling mining and port city; Ipswich coalfield dominant in Queensland; Wollongong and Lithgow: coal towns; safety standards were poor and mining technology was primitive; a decade of growth begins; the Mt Kembla Disaster; gas and naked lamps a potent combination; the Mt Kembla inquiries; mine manager becomes the target; chief inspector’s efforts bear fruit; the South Maitland coalfield starts to boom; the Newcastle mines experience tough times; Queensland mechanisation begins; industrial relations enters a new era; strikes become political; Queensland miners’ union finally gets set; the Vend: the infamous northern district coal selling cartel; nationalisation and state-owned mines; Queensland Labor’s agenda starts in earnest; Minmi – an early enterprise bargaining agreement; the Commonwealth becomes a coal industry regulator; birth of Australia’s steel industry.

The lost years: between the wars

The 1919 Royal Commission; Commonwealth passes new industrial legislation; Bellbird disaster and the 1926 Royal Commission; Queensland State mines – one failure, but also some progress; the Northern lockout; Davidson Royal Commission; Great Depression devastates the nation; Queensland moves to regulate the industry; the union war to oppose mechanisation fails; the new guard at the Miners’ Federation; the curse of intermittency; national strike of 1938; Royal Commission on safety and health; companies go backwards.

World War II: the industry fails to meet the challenge

Union’s big wins on compulsory retirement and miners’ pensions; Menzies meets the striking miners; first national coal board; Japan now a direct threat to Australia; Government strengthens controls on the industry; Curtin rejects Federation proposals.

The industry at the end of World War II

The mines and companies; housing and mining communities; miners’ health was poor; contract mining system a blight on the industry; a brief profile of some of the larger mines; working arrangements.

The Joint Coal Board and Queensland Coal Board era commences

Davidson Inquiry finds an industry in crisis; mixed reactions to the Davidson report; Chifley Government rejects the Davidson model; Joint Coal Board’s strong powers; the Joint Coal Board makes its presence felt; Queensland goes its own way; expert review of Queensland industry; Blair Athol report stimulates interest in Queensland.

Post war industrial relations

Miners win gains in wages and conditions; a strike like no other; Queensland dispute level better than NSW; the psychology of the striking miners.

Mechanisation the Catchcry: the 1950s

Mechanisation in NSW now full steam ahead; industry mission looks at mechanisation overseas; Queensland Coal Board maps the way forward; pillar extraction breakthrough achieved; industrial relations improve; JCB and CIT have a positive impact; impact of incentive schemes and mechanisation also positive; Queensland mechanisation proceeds slowly; Australia forced to import coal; coal prices, subsidies, taxes and profits; Menzies and McEwen open trade relations with Japan; Australian coal industry grows while Japan’s falters; Japan steel companies now look to Australian coal; the coal crisis – the decline of the Greta seam mines; Queensland underground job losses and quotas; power station plans give hope to the NSW industry; mine workers’ health gets greater attention; mine site amenities improve.

The Queensland giant comes alive

Sir Leslie Thiess – Queensland coal pioneer; Utah explores the Bowen Basin; Utah begins to mine; Utah’s massive Goonyella and Peak Downs contracts; other Bowen Basin developments also taking shape; pressure on NSW to nationalise the industry; NSW ports prove a major bottleneck; Queensland Government exits coal mining; Coal and Allied Industries is born; US billionaire bursts onto the scene; NSW industry starts a reorientation to the export market; Wonthaggi colliery finally closes; Miners’ Federation open cut ban lifted; continuous miners spread, early longwall trials fail; Queensland underground mechanises, many mines close; concerns emerge over export prices to Japan; coal regions – some grow, some struggle; the next 50 years.

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