Industrial History

Quarry - Brick Pit 
               Photo: Sydney Olympic Park

From a land with moderately fertile soil and waterways that provided food and habitat for the aborigines, fauna and abundant birdlife, the industrial activity in the Homebush Bay area that began in the early 19th century led to far-reaching environmental change.

The first modifications began with the set up of the saltworks on the Blaxland Estate. Over the next 180 years, the following industries occurred around Homebush Bay:

  • Colonial Industry
  • State Abattoirs
  • State Brickworks
  • Chemical Industry

Colonial Industry

When emigrating to the colony, Blaxland brought out a superintendent from the Lymington Salt Works, one Mr Rutter, and a number of salt workers to construct 'a manufactory for salt' a venture pressed on him by the British Ministry. They set about building an embankment over the Parramatta River tidal flats to contain the incoming waters, the area now occupied by the northern part of Blaxland Common. By 1827 eight tones of salt a week was supplied to Sydney. A Board of Survey reported in 1831 that the colonial salt "was of the best kind".

[image] Map showing the area of the abandoned salt works in the north of Newington Estate, west of Jamieson Street.

Blaxland also set up a factory in 1816-17 for the 'manufacture of blankets and tweed'. Most of the large estates established such cottage industries in the name of self sufficiency, but Newington apparently 'employed a great number of spinners and weavers' to make 'a kind of serge out of the wool, dyeing it with indigo' which 'a tailor turned into clothes for Blaxland's workmen and Chinese and women servants,' his daughter records long after the event. There were also enough deposits of calcium carbonate to warrant establishing lime kilns at the site. As well as being the saving grace of mortar, shovelled into the kilns the shells of discarded meals were incinerated to create quick lime used for dressing soils with a low calcium or lime content, the failing of most Sydney soils.

In the late 1840s, a Sydney firm, Scott and Jolley, purchased the timber rights for a portion of bush on the Newington Estate, erecting a steam saw bench on the banks of Duck River on Blaxland land. With the building of the Sydney to Parramatta railway in the 1850s the same firm won the contract to supply railway builders with sleepers and heavy sawn timber. Subsequently the Australian Timber Company was formed in 1855 to exploit the remaining stands of timber here. After the opening of the 'iron-way' in 1858 wood was required to fire the first railway locomotive, and there was also strong demand for fire-wood in the growing settlements of Parramatta and Sydney.

State Abattoirs: 1907 - 1988

At the beginning of the 1900s, concerns that the public abattoir at Glebe Island was endangering the health of the general public were heightened following the outbreak of the plague in Sydney. A Parliamentary Standing Committee was appointed in 1902 to inquire into the proposal for a new abattoir. In 1906 the Committee recommended the establishment of an abattoir at Homebush. In March 1907, the Government resumed 367 hectares of the Homebush Estate, mainly for the establishment of the new State Abattoir. Construction began in 1910 and comprised the erection of 44 slaughterhouses, administration buildings, stabling, by-products treatment buildings, latrines, drafting yards and roadways.

[image] State Abattoir administration building c.1913

The Abattoirs were officially opened in 1913 however processing did not commence fully for a further 12 months. By 1923 the Homebush Abattoir was the biggest of its kind in the Commonwealth and employed up to 1600 men. It had a killing capacity of 18000 to 20000 sheep, 1500 cattle, 2000 pigs and 1300 calves per day. By-products of the works included tallow, dripping, fertiliser, oil, sinews, hoofs, hair, glue pieces, bones and horns, all of which were sold at profit. In the 1930s, algal blooms were abundant in Homebush Bay because of the dumping of waste material from carcases. In the early 1950s Auburn Council erected a sign at the nearby Silverwater Baths - 'Danger - Polluted Water - Sharks.' The baths were near the Silverwater Bridge and sharks were attracted there by effluent released into the river by the State Abattoir.

[image] State Abattoir complex in 1969

Maintenance of the facility was a constant problem for the Abattoir administrators and following the Second World War, the State opted to decentralise slaughterhouses and a number of new abattoirs were established in country areas. In the 1960s at the commencement of meat exports, the facilities were modernised. This modernisation program between 1965 and 1976 saw the fitting of new machinery into old buildings and the patching and repair of degraded structures. $27,000,000 was spent upgrading facilities, although it appeared to be badly directed and wasted as the management appeared to lack clear direction and forward planning. In 1979, the facilities were assessed and found to be near the end of their economic life and all renovation work was ceased. The constant repair of aged buildings was stopped and export licenses were relinquished in 1980. The economic viability of the Abattoir declined until it was inevitable that it should close. A review of the operations of the Abattoir was undertaken in the early 1980s and it was decided to redevelop surplus land for industrial use. The area to the east of the administration buildings was endorsed as an Advanced Technology park at the beginning of 1984, previously known as Australia Centre. The Abattoir officially closed in June 1988.

State Brickworks: 1910-1988

In 1910, the Minister responsible for Public Works, put forward a proposal to build a brickworks to supply the Department of Public Works. This had arisen from a monopoly control of brickyards by the Metropolitan Brick Company, which fixed prices and controlled distribution. The Minister's inquiry into the feasibility had found that the annual requirement for Public Works was 36,000,000 bricks and 75,000 tons of metal (stone) and a saving of 50% on public construction costs could be made if the government set up their own brickworks. In 1911 9.5 hectares of land was resumed from the State Abattoir for the State Brickworks. By 1925, the site comprised 23.5 hectares. There were difficulties in constructing the first kiln at the Brickworks, caused by the refusal of private manufacturers to sell their bricks for this purpose. Bricks made during the early years of the site were transported by barge to a depot in Blackwattle Bay from where they were loaded for road transport to building sites.

[image] Stockpiling at the State Brickworks

During the period 1927 - 1930 the Brickworks showed a declining profit margin and in 1930 - 1933 there was an increasing deficit. At the same time the output of the works dropped from 60,300,000 bricks in 1927 to 11,000,000 in 1933. A change in government saw the Brickworks sold to Brickworks Limited in 1936, but production still declined. The site was closed in 1940 and in 1942 was taken over by the Naval Armament Depot to be used as a munitions store.

After World War II the Government passed an act to enable the re-establishment of the State Brickworks at Homebush Bay. Resistance was met again by private manufacturers and the Government was forced to produce its own machinery to replace that which had become unserviceable. Post-war a building boom increased the demand for bricks, with a peak in production reached in 1969. During the 1970s the facility operated at a loss, but a process of rationalisation made the operation profitable again in the late 1970s. The brickworks ceased trading as a government enterprise in June 1988, although sandstone was still removed under royalties until 1992. The Clay pit ceased clay excavation much earlier and operated as a municipal waste depot from the 1960s.

[image] An aerial view of the Claypit in 1957, now Wentworth Common.

Following cessation of the quarrying activity, the Brickpit developed in a freshwater wetland. When bidding for the 2000 Sydney Olympic and Paralympic Games a number of possible uses for the brickpit were put forward, however, once the Green and Golden Bell Frog was found, the site was developed as water storage and frog habitat.

Chemical industry in the Homebush Bay area

In 1928, Timbrol, one of the first chemical factories to locate to the Rhodes peninsula commenced the manufacture of timber preservatives from coal tar oil. In 1955, Union Carbide purchased the Timbrol factory and commenced the production of pesticides, including DDT. Dioxins were produced as an unwanted byproduct. Nearby, the ICI facility commenced making paint, pigment, resins and phthalates in the 1940s.

In 1966, the Maritime Services Board granted approval for the use of parts of Homebush Bay as a shipbreaking yard. The facility dismantled and scrapped a range of vessels, with several partially broken up ships remaining in Homebush Bay today. Wilson Park, located on the Parramatta River adjacent to Silverwater Road, was once the site of the Petroleum and Chemical Corporation Australia Ltd (PACCAL). This company operated from 1953 to 1974 and produced town gas for AGL. PACCAL also produced other petroleum products, solvents and a variety of tar-bituminous products. A by-product of the manufacturing process was tar sludge, generated at the rate of three tonnes per day. This sludge was contained in three ponds located adjacent to the Parramatta River. By 1974, PACCAL was facing significant problems finding suitable off-site disposal tips for the accumulating tar sludge. The State Pollution Control Commission was proceeding towards another prosecution of the company for breaches to the Clean Air Act. Meanwhile, natural gas had been discovered in South Australia. These factors led to the cessation of PACCAL's operations in that year.

[image] Smoke from the PACCAL factory in 1969, as seen from north of the Parramatta River in Ermington.