Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Would-be Coal Baron

The Queensland coal industry began modestly on the south bank of the Brisbane River at Redbank in 1843. The entrepreneur John Williams, who emigrated from England in 1832, was involved in many enterprises initially in Sydney and then in Brisbane after the district was opened to free settlement in 1842. He built a tavern in Brisbane and operated a cross river punt to and from Kangaroo Point.[1]

Kangaroo Point and Brisbane River Brisbane 1865
(State Library of Queensland)
Coal seams had been seen in the banks of the Brisbane and Bremer Rivers by the early explorers such as Cunningham and Lockyer. Williams had some experience with coal mining in England and decided to exploit the coal seam in the riverbank.

An article in the Moreton Bay Courier in 1851 described the beginning of the mine.

It was early in the year 1843 when Mr. Williams opened the first coal-pit ever worked on the Brisbane, and the first supply of coal was sent down under contract with Mr. Francis Clarke,   then manager of the Hunter River Steam Navigation Company, for the supply of the steam packets Sovereign and Jamas Watt. This pit was on the south side of the river, about four miles above the station of the Commissioner of Crown Lands.[2]

Mining a coal seam on Mr Shields property at Moggill Brisbane in 1928
(State Library of Queensland)
The mine operated for four years but fell victim to the regular floods of the river system. Williams decided to try his luck on a more elevated site on the opposite side of the river at Moggill.

The coal was worked there for about four years, at the end of which time the pit was flooded by the rising of the river, as the entrance was from the river bank, and the coal dipped downwards. The mine was therefore abandoned, and another opened on the opposite side of the river, in the parish of Moggill, about twenty-nine miles from Brisbane.

Here the upper seam, which is three feet six inches thick, has been worked ever since, turning out abundance of good coal, with which the steamers and some of the sailing vessels have been constantly supplied.[3]

Steamer driven paddle steamers began operating between Brisbane and the river port of Ipswich in 1846. Williams found a steady market for his coal refuelling boats as the passed his mine.

Paddle Steamer on the Brisbane River
(State Library of Queensland)
A major problem for the mining operation was the general incompetence and truculence of the workmen. Many were ex-convicts released on a ticket-of-leave and assigned to an employer. Some ended up before the courts on charges brought by Williams.

REMANDED CASE.-Thomas Gates, a prisoner by the Mountstuart Elphinstone, is in custody on a charge of having refused to perform his duty, and been grossly abusive to his employer Mr. Williams. The prisoner has been remanded until Tuesday next for the evidence of Capt. Allen, of the Eagle, pending whose examination we withhold the statements of the other witnesses.

ASSAULT.-John Ward, a ticket-of-leave holder, by the Mountstuart Elphinstone was brought before the Brisbane Bench on the 10th instant on a charge of having violently assaulted a fellow workman named John Shields, at Mr. Williams’ coal-pit. After a preliminary examination, the prisoner was remanded until the following Tuesday, when, the case having been clearly proven, he was sentenced to be kept for fourteen days in solitary confinement in Brisbane gaol.[4]

Two miners in an underground coal mine, 1920
(State Library of Queensland)
Flooding continued to be a problem and Williams sold out in 1854 to try his luck elsewhere, closer to Brisbane. Unfortunately Williams was moving in the wrong direction for the major, still undiscovered coalfields lay to the west.  After investing heavily in test shafts Williams eventually admitted defeat.

Mr. Williams has made five or six other essays, in various places,, during the last six or seven years, in the hope of finding the coal abundant nearer to Brisbane and to the mouth of the river. In these attempts he did not meet with the expected success, having only found thin beds of coal, from six to nine inches through, and masses of fossil decayed by the action of water.

 In one of these attempts a shaft was sunk fifty feet, and in another eighty feet deep, the shafts being eleven feet in diameter. In the deepest shaft the work was stopped by a spring of water, and, as there was no engine to pump it out, the enterprise had to be abandoned.

 In the course of these adventures, the outlay, loss of time, and other contingencies, have entailed serious expense, and probably Mr.Williams’ own estimate of £1000 is not far from correct, as the cost of his unsuccessful attempts to open the Brisbane coal mines.[5]

Despite his best efforts to exploit the natural resources of the nascent colony, John Williams never became the coal baron he aspired to. In the years to come there would be coal barons in Ipswich as what became known as the West Moreton Coalfields began to yield up its wealth.

The Hilltop Mansion of the Coal Baron, Lewis Thomas at Blackstone, Ipswich, 1940s .
(Picture Ipswich)

© K. C. Sbeghen, 2013.

[1] Australian Dictionary of Biography
[2] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 26 July 1851
[3] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 26 July 1851
[4] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 19 January 1850
[5] The Moreton Bay Courier Saturday 26 July 1851

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