Until recently, the presence of large coal reserves under Sydney was a largely forgotten part of the city’s history.

This year the presence of coal has been in the news once more with the possibility of coal seam gas wells being sunk in the inner city suburb of St Peters. Many residents think that this type of heavy industry is not appropriate for the city, especially in such a densely populated part of it and are surprised to realise that a coal gas company would even have a license to search for gas under the city.

As is so often the case in Sydney, this is not the first time that coal has been searched for or even mined under Sydney.

In 1847, after coal had been discovered to the south at Coal Cliff and north at Newcastle, it was first seriously proposed that coal could also be under Sydney by amateur geologist Rev. WB Clark and was later confirmed by the NSW Government Geologist.

Following up on this, Mr RD Adams applied for a licence in 1874 and got mining rights for over 10,000 acres under Sydney Harbour. This covered virtually the entire harbour area.

To see if there was actually any coal, the first exploratory bores were sunk in Newington and Botany in 1878, then Moore Park in 1879 followed by Narrabeen and Rose Bay in 1880–none struck coal. However bore shafts at Helensburgh, Sutherland and Moorebank did strike coal, proving Clark’s earlier theory.

Sinking the drill at Cremorne 1891

Coal was an important component to 19th century industry and to have a supply in the centre of Sydney could cut down costs for transport and would be a huge benefit to local factories.

In 1890 a syndicate was formed to mine the seam. The Sydney and Port Hacking Coal Company Ltd first began boring for coal at Cremorne Point on Sydney’s lower north shore in September 1890, striking coal at 2801 feet, or about 850 metres below the surface.

Sadly this was poor quality and so a second shaft was sunk in 1893 nearby, hitting excellent quality coal for household and industrial use. It was estimated that there was over 113 million tons available, making it one of the largest possible mine sites in the Southern Hemisphere at that time.

The future of Cremorne as imagined by the Illustrated Sydney News, Dec 1893

However problems with the surface works, the depth of the harbour for shipping and a fierce local campaign against the development of the mine and the despoliation of the harbour setting in an increasingly upper class area saw the project abandoned and transferred in 1896.

The new site was on Balmain peninsula at Birchgrove. In 1896 work on sinking shafts and building the surface works began, with the newly renamed Sydney Harbour Collieries Ltd, opening the ‘Birthday’ shaft in 1897 and the jubilee shaft a few years later, both named in honour of Queen Victoria (for her birthday and her Diamond Jubilee).  The mine was ideally located on the end of the peninsula, with ships able to load coal direct from the pit. The coal quality was high enough for it to be used by the Australian Navy and by the Canadian Government shipping lines, amongst others.

Although the mine closed between 1915 and 1923, by 1926 it employed over 350 men, 200 who worked underground, although only a few of these actually worked at the narrow coal face, the rest being employed laying tramlines, timbering tunnels and other essential site works.  Work was hot, dirty and often dangerous, with a number of fatal accidents recorded during its working life.

Balmain mine workings 1926 with the poppet head, miners and props for the tunnels

The mine workings were run by electricity, with elevators to take the men up and down the 900 metre shaft, electric lights and battery lamps lit the underground brick tunnel entrance and the long tunnel that ran half a mile to the workings, with electrical motors driving the pumps and the tramway.

However close to the face, pits ponies were used to haul the coal-skips to the tramway. The ponies lived and worked underground, never seeing the light of day.

As an added bonus, the temperature down below was high enough that at least some of the miners were reported to work in the nude. As one reporter said in 1926 ‘what does it matter? There is no one to shock’.

Despite the location, the quality of coal and the liberal dress policy all good things come to an end. In 1930 the license was not renewed and the mine closed in 1931. In 1945 the mines were sealed for good and people forgot that Sydney is built on coal.