The Victorian Electric Light Company was formed in 1880 to light Melbourne’s Eastern Market and the Athenaeum Hall. Between 1892 and 1894, Melbourne City Council established 20 dynamos and four boilers at Spencer Street and, on the 7th of March 1894, streets in the centre of the city were lit by electricity.
The two smallest states led the way in developing high-voltage transmission, setting up central power authorities (Tasmania in 1916 and Victoria’s State Electricity Commission in 1921), and utilising their natural resources. In 1924, Victoria started transmitting electricity from the 50,000 kW Yallourn Power Station in the Latrobe Valley the 160 kilometres to Melbourne. So how did we get to this day in history?
Since the late 1870’s a German, Frederick Taegtow, living at Williamstown, had been requesting the government to test his theory that vast black coal deposits lay underneath the Werribee plains by sinking a bore. As a result a local group formed “The Williamstown (Taegtow) Coal Prospecting Co. Ltd.” on the 29/9/1881, and sank two bores near the east boundary of Wyndham (Maddox Road, between the Geelong railway and Kororoit Creek Road). They found four thin seams of brown coal but no black coal, so the company went out of existence on January 14, 1884.
In 1891 a syndicate was formed to prospect for coal at Point GelIibrand in Williamstown, and in 1892 formed “The Williamstown and Newport Coal Prospecting Co. Ltd.,” and took out mining options on large areas of Williamstown, Wyndham, Port Melbourne and West Melbourne. After sinking a bore in 1892 and encountering four small seams of brown coal a shaft was commenced near Newport Freezing Works in 1893. In the same year “The Ross Freehold Coalmining Co. N.L.” (No Liability) was formed and commenced sinking a shaft on Ross’s property near the former site of the SEC Coal Depot in Altona North. After sinking the shaft 23 feet deep, serious difficulties with water stopped work and the company went out of existence in 1895.
Meanwhile, another group of businessmen leased Cherry’s Seaford Estate, and plans were made to bring iron ore from near Bacchus Marsh to Altona, and to refine it using Altona coal, but this venture seems to have failed.
In early 1893 Hosie’s syndicate sank a bore at Altona and found brown coal, 29 July 1893. Another bore put down under government supervision in 1894 at the site of the present Kooringal Golf Course, Altona West, found a bed of brown coal 70’4″ thick at a depth of 350’4″.
Late in 1894 Hosie commenced sinking a shaft near the present Wren Street in Altona West and struck a 69 feet thick bed of brown coal 324 feet below the surface. He extracted an unrecorded quantity of coal, but when he attempted to explore deeper by sinking a bore beneath the bed of coal he struck the underlying Port Phillip subartesian basin and the workings were flooded. Soon after this Hosie abandoned mining.
In 1894 the Mines Department put down bores at Newport and in 1902 at Werribee, Altona and Skeleton Creek.
In 1899, a new shaft was installed a few hundred yards east of the flooded first shaft. The rail line was extended from Altona Station to the site. Several companies, including the Victorian Electric Light Heat and Power Distribution Company with R A F Murray as a director, took up and then withdrew from the challenge of a commercial operation while much negotiation took place with municipal councils to gain monopolies on supply of electric power from the Altona area coal deposits.
Work at the site did not resume until January 1905. The wooden poppet head was renewed, and equipment upgraded, but negotiations with the Government and municipalities through to 1908 did not provide American (with Herbert Hoover as mining consultant) and British entrepreneurs with assurance of long term coal supply. Mining did not resume at this stage.
In 1906 a mining group “The Altona and Morwell Coal Development and Option Co. N.L.” put a small shaft down where Harrington Square, Altona West is today, but after some work the company went out of existence in 1908. Later in 1908 the Melbourne and Altona Colliery Company N.L. enlarged this shaft and extracted at least 31,160 tons of brown coal between 1910-19 from a 69 feet thick bed 324 feet below the ground. However, due to marketing difficulties and the SEC decision to develop Morwell in preference to Altona, the mine closed in 1919.
The Melbourne and Altona Collieries NL was formed in 1908 and in late 1909 took over mining in the 1899 shaft. By November 1910 it had a production capacity of 50 tons per day from two shifts with excavation from drives into the top of the coal seam. From 1911 to 1919 this company extracted 26,332 tons of coal.
In 1911, a London Syndicate offered to develop the Altona deposits if the Government would grant it a monopoly over power supply in the Melbourne area. This offer was declined but significant political and business advocacy continued through to 1920 to have the Altona deposits worked by private enterprise rather than have a government owned integrated large scale mining, power and briquetting complex in the Latrobe Valley. At 1912, it was announced that ‘the property containing the brown coal deposits at Altona Bay has been sold to an American and British Syndicate’. However this announcement was premature and negotiations continued until the outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914.
In 1913, the Government had called tenders from private companies for electric supply of five to 25 MW for railway electrification to supplement supply from Newport Power Station then under construction. No action resulted due to the onset of war. Mining from Altona continued with a skeleton workforce through the war years, some lower level drives were worked, and coal was sold at a profit in war time fuel shortages.
On 25 November 1915, Altona Beach Estates purchased a large portion of land previously intended for underground coal mining. Subsequently in April 1920 this land development company absorbed the remaining undeveloped land in this area of potential mining.
At 1918, local hopes in the Altona area were centred on post war prospects of briquette manufacture without necessarily abandoning grander thoughts of power generation. By 1919, political and technical preference had swung towards advocacy for large scale development of the Latrobe Valley brown coal deposits rather than the smaller scale potential of the Altona-Newport deposits in spite of their location advantages close to the consumption centre of Melbourne.
It is interesting to note the comparative cost assessments for the Altona and Latrobe Valley coal supplies.
A cairn erected by the Altona Council on behalf of the Altona Laverton Historical Society now marks the site of the mine shaft at Harrington Square, Altona West.
Image above: Melbourne’s last Coal Mine, Altona West, about 1930.
In 1920 a report was undertaken to determine where the first production of electricity should be. The two potential sites were Morwell and Altona hard to believe but true and whilst initial the proximity to Melbourne puts is at an advantage and the cost of transmission from Morwell is initially high the ease of extracting the coal, the coat therefore, the quality and the reduction in danger of open cut to shaft mining which made Morwell the clear favourite and ultimate winner. However, environmentally this made Altona the clear winner.
In 1928 the Altona Beach Estate Co . Ltd sank a new shaft west of Maidstone Street, Altona West, but after some work it closed in 1931 due to lack of markets.
The brown coal bed underlies most of Altona and reaches a maximum of 140 feet at the south-west corner of the municipality at Skeleton Creek. The seam is thought to run westward to Bacchus Marsh and south eastward to the Latrobe Valley deposits. Beneath Altona alone it is estimated there lies 200,000,000 tons of brown coal.