February 3 - 9, 2013: Issue 96


 Balmain Colliery from across the Harbour by John Henry Harvey, 1855-1938 photographer, courtesy State Library of Victoria.

By George Repin

When he arrived in Sydney in October 1925 Ivan Repin could not work as a mining engineer because his professional qualifications were not recognised in Australia.  It would be a further 5 years before he opened his first café in 1930 starting a successful chain of coffee shops which in the nineteen thirties were popular and a feature of the Central Business District of the city. 

In the meantime, however, he had to find work. Through Daniloff, a miner who had worked for him in the coal mines of the Don Basin in Russia, Repin was employed in the colliery at Balmain.  Few people in Sydney know of this mine which started operations in 1897 and was the deepest ever worked in Australia.  It ran under the harbour from a site to the north of the Birchgrove Primary School. 

Location and extent of the Balmain Coal Mine

Ivan Repin lasted in the job for three months – his services “being dispensed with owing to the partial closing down of the Mine”.  This probably was not a bad thing for him in the long run as working conditions in the mine were poor and it suffered several disastrous accidents.

The Balmain mine was never a commercial success.  Apart from the cost of the site, bought in 1895 for $15,000, considerable expense was incurred in sinking two shafts each 18 feet in diameter and fully lined, using over four million bricks. Other heavy expenses were the cost of surface machinery and buildings and the reclamation of a 580 foot wharf which provided 26 feet of water at low tide.

Balmain Colliery Pithead c. 1907

After five years of “sinking”, coal was eventually struck at 2880 feet but was split into several seams, the largest being only 2 feet 4 inches. Further out under the harbour the seam improved to an average of 4 feet 6 inches but the company never managed to produce enough coal to get a cash flow sufficient to offset the huge capital costs. It ran out of cash and work stopped in 1915.  The mine was reopened in 1924 but after continuing industrial and financial troubles the operating company was liquidated in 1931 and coal mining at Balmain ceased.

Throughout its operations working conditions in the mine were poor. It was hot, dusty and gassy.  Because of the depth of the mine and poor ventilation the temperature, at over 90 degrees F., was too high for dust to be settled by water sprays as the humidity would have been unbearable.

Miner underground working a 30 inch coal seam in very wet conditions

In a letter to the “Labour Daily” in 1924 a miner described conditions working in the mine, including a graphic description of walking from the shaft bottom to the coal face. “We start in single file – a stream of men about 70 in number.  The dust begins to rise from under our feet and we are in a cloud due to horse refuse and stone dust” …..”After the best part of an hour’s walk under beautiful Sydney Harbour we reach, in a half-dazed state, the coal face”. The whole letter is reproduced in the publication cited at the end of this article.

The property was sold in 1955.  Each shaft was filled with fly ash from the White Bay Power Station and concrete seals were placed on the shaft heads by 1957.

The description of the Balmain mine in this article is based substantially on the following publication:

PRIMEFACT 556 dated February 2007 issued by the NSW Department of Primary Industry

Balmain Coal Mine - from the ages of the past

The sinking of the Jubilee shaft at the Sydney Harbour Collieries at Balmain is progressing satisfactorily, and-is now down 2820ft. It is expected that In the course of a fortnight the coal seam struck at 2880ft in the Birthday shaft will be reached. The drives from the Birthday shaft have now reached about 600yd from shaft, and about 100 tons of coal weekly is being raised, for which there is good local demand. The seam has widened about a foot in the drives, and the future prospects are encouraging. j In the annual report for 1905 of the Mines Department, which has been issued.

Senior- Inspector Humble states:— The work at Sydney Harbour Colliery is proceeding satisfactorily. Good progress has been made , in the sinking of the Jubilee shaft, which at the close of the year _ was -down about 2440ft.-. and bar accidents should reach the seam at 2880ft .in May .next (this month). Last July, while sinking through hard grey shales and sandstones at a depth of 1830ft. an outburst of gas was met with. This ignited at the open acetylene lamps then in use, and slightly- burnt three of the sinkers. The amount of ventilation supplied was about 5090 cubic feet of air per minute/ ~ Since, the accident, safety lamps have been used. From time to time gas is liberated and fired by the gelignite charges fired electrically. The two drives in the coal seam 'from the Birthday shaft are upwards 'of 450yd from the shaft bottom, and considering all the circumstances, are making fair progress. The ventilation, amounting to 5000 to 7000 cubic feet, is coursed to the face of each place by air boxes, the cut throughs being 44yd apart. ' Gas is troublesome, but not more so than it was months back, when ; the distance from the shaft was less ] than one-half it now is. At that time the men had frequently withdrawn by reason of emissions of gas fouling the air current; but this trouble has not been so prominent of late. When the Jubilee shaft is connected with the workings there will be abundant ventilation, and better progress will, doubtless, be made; and it is to be hoped the seam will increase in thickness, and give the plucky company a return for the work done and money expended!' The Jubilee shaft, the sinking of which will shortly be completed, will be used as a ventilating shaft, and enable the management to put on a large number of men to develop the work, as well as raise more coal.

As a result of the agitation of yachtsmen and others, the Government has signified its Intention of resuming, at a cost of about £6000, that portion of Parsley Bay on the southern side of Sydney Harbour, which has always been a favourite resort for boating parties. The shaded portion in the above plan indicates the parts to resumed. BALMAIN COAL MINE. (1906, May 2). Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), p. 6. Retrieved fromhttp://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article114324273

Sydney is the only capital city in the world which has a coal mine underneath it. After lying idle for eight years the Sydney Harbor's Colliery's mine at Balmain has been reopened. Many tons of coal have' already been raised, and the first of it has just been put on the market. 

OUR prosaic earth holds very few places where you can let ships sail and sharks swim over your head without the discomfort of a diving dress. Sydney Harbor is one of them. | Between Bullast Point and Goat Island or Ball's Head you can walk at ease with over half a mile of solid rock and anything up to 60 feet of salt water-above you. To do this you have to drop 880 feet down the shaft of the Sydney Harbor Colliery, Ltd., at Balmain, and walk along an underground Pitt-street a for a mile or more. There was much talk some time ago about a tunnel under the harbor. There is already a tunnel there. Carry it a little farther, put a shaft at the other end, and run electric trains along it with lights at each end, and why bother about a North Shore bridge?

....(much more)
HALF A MILE BELOW THE HARBOR (1923, October 28). The Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1910 - 1954), p. 15. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article222680406

Previous Reflections by George Repin 

The Nineteen Thirties  Remembering Rowe Street  The Sydney Push  Saturday Night at the Movies  Shooting Through Like A Bondi Tram  A Stop On The Road To Canberra  City Department Stores - Gone and Mostly Forgotten  An Australian Icon - thanks to Billy Hughes  Crossing The Pacific in the 1930s  Hill End  The Paragon at Katoomba  Seafood In Sydney  How Far From Sydney?  Cockatoo Island Over The Years  The Seagull at the Melbourne Festival in 1991  Busby's Bore  The Trocadero In Sydney  Cahill's restaurants Medical Pioneers in Australian Wine Making  Pedal Power and the Royal Flying Doctor Service  Pambula and the Charles Darwin Connection  Gloucester and the Barrington Tops  A Millenium Apart  Have You Stopped to Look?  Gulgong  Il Porcellino  Olympia  Durham Hall  Sargent's Tea Rooms Pie Shops and Street Photographers The Ballet Russes and Their Friends in Australia  Hotels at Bondi  Alma Ata Conference - 1978 Keukenhof - 1954 The Lands Department Building and Yellowblock Sandstone  The Goroka Show - 1958  A Gem On The Quay  Staffa  The Matson Line and Keepsake Menus Kokeshi Dolls  The Coal Mine At Balmain  The Hyde Park Barracks  The Changing Faces Of Sydney From Pounds and Pence to Dollars and Cents Nell Tritton and Alexander Kerensky  Making A Difference In Ethiopia William Balmain  J C Bendrodt and Princes Restaurant Azzalin Orlando Romano and Romano's Restaurant  Waldheim  Alcohol in Restaurants Before 1955  King Island Kelp  The Mercury Theatre   Around Angkor - 1963   Angkor Wat 1963  Costumes From the Ballets Russe Clifton at Kirribilli  Chairman Mao's Personal Physician  The Toby Tavern The MoKa at Kings Cross  The Oceaographic  Museum  in Monaco  The Island of Elba  Russian Fairy Tale Plates  Meteora  Souda Bay War Cemetery Barrow, Alaska  Cloisonné  Tripitaka Koreana Minshuku The Third Man Photographs and Memories  Not A Chagall!  Did You Listen? Did You Ask?  Napier (Ahuriri, Maori) New Zealand  Borobudur  Ggantija Temples Plumes and Pearlshells  Murano  University of Padua  Ancient Puebloe Peoples - The Anasazi   Pula  The Gondolas of Venice Cinque Terre  Visiting the Iban David The Living Desert Bryce Canyon National Park   Aphrodisias   The Divine Comedy Caodaism  Sapa and local Hill People  A Few Children  Cappadocia  Symi Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre   Aboriginal Rock Art on Bigge Island    ANZAC Cove (Ari Burnu) 25 April, 1997  Hotere Garden Oputae  Children of the Trobriand Islands  Page Park Market - Rabaul  Rabual   Kotor, Montenegro   Galleries of Photographs I   Lascaux  Galleries of Photographs II   The Cathedral of St. James – Šibenik, Croatia  Ivan Meštrović  - Sculptor   Delphi   Gallery of Photographs III  The Handicrafts of Chiang Mai Raft Point  San Simeon - "Hearst Castle"  Floriade - The Netherlands - 1982  Russian New Year  Mycenae  "Flightseeing" Out Of Anchorage Alaska  The White Pass and Yukon Route  Totem Poles  Tivkin Cemetery  Krka National Park - Croatia   Tavistock Square and the BMA  Orthodox Easter  Wieliczka Salt Mine  A Walk on Santorini  Indonesian Snapshots Ephesus - The Library of Celsus  Ephesus - Some Places Of Interest  Waimea Canyon and the Kalalau Valley United Nations Headquarters 1958  A Miscellany of Flower Images Gardens Bath St. David's In Wales   Zion National Park Nicholas Himona - Artist  Kraków  Lilianfels  Collonges-La-Rouge  Gingerbread Houses   Cape Sounion   Delos  Wroclaw  Colonial Williamsburg  Gruyères   Strasbourg  Coventry Cathedral  The Roman Theatre at Aspendos  Turkish Carpets