In the annals of coal mining in Queensland, Ipswich maintains a privileged position as the birthplace of the industry and is referred to as the 'cradle of coal mining in Queensland'.
The discovery of coal in Queensland dates from 1825 when outcrops were observed by Major Edmund Lockyer on the banks of the upper Brisbane River. Two years later the presence of coal was noted between Limestone (Ipswich) and Settlement (Brisbane) by Captain Patrick Logan. The renowned explorer Allan Cunningham, in reporting to Governor Darling, marked several outcrops on the Bremer River on his survey map the following year. In 1842 the Moreton Bay penal colony was opened up for free settlers who quickly established properties around 'Limestone' and entered the Darling Downs. The following year Governor Gipps formally named Ipswich, and small amounts of coal were mined from that time at Redbank by John 'Butty' Williams, in response to the demand for coal supply by steam packets operating between Sydney and Brisbane, as well as the pioneer Brisbane - Ipswich steamer, "Experiment".
In 1848 Williams moved downriver to Moggill where he continued operating for a further six years. By 1852 he had established the first 'mine to door' coal delivery service for Brisbane inhabitants at the inclusive rate of sixteen shillings per ton. Other mines opened up in the Ipswich area, the most successful being Walter Gray's in 1855, and by 1860, the year following separation of the new Colony of Queensland from New South Wales, the total output of coal for the year was 12,327 tons worth 9,244 pounds. In 1883 more than 100,000 tons of coal was produced and by the turn of the century this figure had increased to nearly 400,000 tons with an approximate value of 150,000 pounds. A small amount of coal was also mined during this period in the Darling Downs and at Maryborough.
The rise of Ipswich to prominence as the railway and manufacturing centre of the State of Queensland by the early 20th Century owes much to the readily accessible coal which attracted industry. The three major series of coal mined in the area were Tivoli in North Ipswich, Bundamba and the Walloon-Rosewood series to the west of Ipswich. The operating collieries supplied coal for gas production, the State railway workshops, steamship bunkerage, electricity generation and local industries. The output of the West Moreton field over half a century grew slowly from 665,039 tons in 1910 to 1,651,110 tonnes in 1960, about 60 per cent of the total State production, from 51 collieries with 2000 employees. Additional collieries were engaged in small-scale operations in the Darling Downs and at Burrum in Maryborough.
Much of the coal mined in the early days was hand-mined by small groups of miners, working outcrops in partnership. Coal was extracted from seams by pick and shovel and conveyed by basket, sledge or tram to the surface by manpower and later by horses. In shaft mines, coal was hoisted to the surface by rope or chain. The introduction of mechanisation in underground mining occurred in the 1930s but it was not until 1963 in Queensland that production from mechanised mines exceeded the amount hand-mined. Working conditions were harsh and the mining fraternity confronted continual danger and discomfort, often working shifts of 10 hours a day. By 1940, miners had been granted a 40-hour week, higher pay and better working conditions.
By the end of the 1960s, South East Queensland coalfields were producing 2.25 million tonnes per year mainly for domestic consumption. Despite the loss of the railways trade to diesel fuel, power generation coal requirements accelerated with the commencement of Swanbank Power Station (at that time the Queensland Government's most ambitious electrical power project) and a clear indication of the importance placed upon Ipswich and its coal.
The 1970s held mixed fortunes for the West Moreton collieries, reduced to nine company operations with 1000 employees. The Box Flat disaster of 1972, massive flooding in 1974 and a restricted market kept production basically at the same level. Safety factors, working conditions and environmental restoration greatly improved under the strict control of the Government Inspectors.
During the 1980s, more than two million tonnes of coal were produced in the West Moreton District, realising over $40 million in revenue, most of which was spent or re-invested in Ipswich. It was estimated at the time that over 4,000 residents of Ipswich depended on coal for their livelihood with many thousands indirectly benefiting through allied industries.
The early 1980s saw the commencement of coal exporting from the Ipswich region, with New Hope being one of the first companies to successfully obtain trials of Ipswich coal into the Japanese market. New Hope's first export shipment, 17,332 tonnes of Bundamba coal, was aboard MV "Floret" which sailed from the Maynegrain grain terminal at Pinkenba on September 10, 1980. Increasing export coal business dictated the need for a dedicated coal terminal, so a joint venture between New Hope and TNT Shipping and Development was formed to develop a coal loading facility at the Port of Brisbane. Queensland Bulk Handling (QBH) was commissioned at Fisherman Islands in 1983.
In 1984, 13 underground and eight open cut mines were in operation in the Ipswich region. Total production from these mines, which employed just over 1,000 people, was 2.9 million tonnes for the year.
Exports continued to increase to the point where, in 1986, New Hope's market mix had about-faced to 90 per cent export and 10 per cent domestic sales. Despite the district's increase in exports through QBH, which reached 1.6 million tonnes, the reduced requirements for the Swanbank Power Station and cessation of supplies to the Brisbane power stations resulted in a drop in production of close to 12 per cent. Total production from the Ipswich area was 2.8 million tonnes (1.54 from open cut mines and 1.28 from underground operations). Two mines, Westfalen and Box Flat were forced to close due to the termination of their supply agreements with the Swanbank Power Station.
The increase in exports played a major role in restructuring the workforce in the district, with open cut mining being more cost effective to compete on the world market. By the beginning of the 1990s, only 230 underground miners remained employed by the underground mines of MW Haenke No. 2, New Hope Western Leases Nos. 1 and 2 and Oakleigh No. 3. Further decline in the profitability of underground mining meant the closure of the last underground mines in the district by mid 1997, leaving three companies in the Ipswich area operating four open cut pits.
At the end of the last century, the declining export market and Australian dollar increased pressure on the local mining operations, forcing further restructure. All facets of the operations were investigated to find cost-effective solutions. One of the results of this cost cutting exercise was the cessation of barging coals along the Bremer and Brisbane Rivers with the last barge sailing April 30, 1998. It was the end of an era; coal had been barged to various sites on these rivers, the last of which was QBH at Fisherman Islands, since the 1840's.
Further information about the Australian coal industry may be found at the Australian Coal Associations website www.australiancoal.com.au