Monday, March 25, 2013

Shale Oil Works at Newnes

Newnes, in the Wolgan Valley, was the site of a large scale shale oil production facility which operated between 1906 and 1937. The plant exploited deposits of oil shale or torbanite which were exposed in the sides of the Wolgan Valley associated with coal deposits. The deep valley exposes over 300m of Narrabeen group sediments and underneath this are the Illawarra Coal Measures which had a mixture of coal seams and a seam of oil shale about 60m below the start of the Illawarra Coal measures (i.e. c360m below the top of the valley sides). This seam is found in the Wolgan Valley and in the neighbouring Capertee Valley where the Glen Davis shale oil works were found.


Looking into the Wolgan Valley

Although there was some earlier mining and exploration in the Valley, it was not until 1906 when the Commonwealth Oil Corporation began operations that the shale oil began to be commercially exploited. The Commonwealth Oil Corporation bought the New South Wales Shale Oil Company in 1906 who seem to have had some works erected at Newnes and moved its operations from its site at Torbane and erected an elaborate works and a 51 km long tramway from the Main Western Line at Clarence. The company erected a larger plant at Newnes in 1907-09 with the shale being treated at its Hartley Vale plant from 1906 –1909.

From the start the project was plagued by labour issues (one strike lasted seven months) and lack of capital. There was also the question of imports of “foreign oil” which the company wanted “tariff protection” from. There were also technical problems with the retorts when they were finally completed in July 1911.

Solving the technical problems and continuous industrial problems put an end to the Commonwealth Oil Company as it simply ran out of capital. However the receivers under the technical leadership of Mr John Fell modified the retorts and production slowly was resumed in late 1915.

Production continued until 1922 when the the works closed again this time for good.


The coke ovens of which there were 90 were a success supplying metallurgical quality coke to the Great Cobar refining works and the Hoskins steel works at Lithgow .


This is the remains of the Paraffin sheds (quite what they did I haven't discovered as yet). This was clearly a substantial structure with a reinforced concrete floor.


These are retaining walls around the site of the retorts. the retorts were removed and re-erected at the Glen Davis site.


These are remains of the Naptha plant



The site is owned by NPWS and there is a walking trail and interpretation provided. Here we see members of the Institution of Engineers, Heritage Section reading the sign!!

Where we went

In company with other industrial heritage enthusiasts I inspected the site on the 23rd March 2013 and the site plan shows our track. There is quite a bit to see and lots to understand about the processes on the site. It was a bit difficult to take it all in on one visit especially as it rained just as we got to the site.

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