I started work in Port Kembla in 1960 with John Lysaght Aust Pty. Ltd. (JLA). Their yearly million tons of sheet steel, mostly galvanised, was 25% of the steelworks output. In 1966 I went to Newcastle as a research scientist, in 1972 I came to Sydney to design steel factories, and I left in 1975 to teach at Sydney Technical College. I worked at the light gauge end of steel production, but in the 1960’s I saw the NSW steelworks at their manpower peak.
Modern automated steelworks are very different from the ones I knew. The Port Kembla steelworks now has 5000-odd employees; in the sixties it had 25,000. A similar number ran ancillary businesses, captive to the steelworks, so it gave work to 50,000. It was a town, with its own water, gas, sewage electricity, roads and railway stations, clubs and sports grounds. The suburb was called “Steeltown” in the thirties. Australia could not have been built without the annual 3 or 4 million tons of steel it made. Boon and bane, it also put vast amounts of pollution into the land and the water nearby. Slide 1 shows the current steelworks at Port Kembla, cleaner than in the sixties. The portside is red and black from coal and iron ore; the coke ovens area is black, the mineral processing areas white, the steelmaking areas red and black. These colours often feature in the songs.
In 2007 John Warner told me I was a primary historical source about the 1960’s high manpower steelmaking, and should collect my memories to write songs; maybe like one of MacColl’s “radio ballad” sequences. We are trying not for technical history, but to sing the feeling of the steelworks The songs are from my memories, from the people I called The Steelers after the name they gave their rugby league team.
1) “Steeler’s March” – Robin Connaughton
God help me, I was writing folk music in 1961! This was my second song, written for a University revue which never happened. I wrote the tune 46 years later.
2) “Ballad of Lovely Tom” – Robin Connaughton/John Warner
We are linking these songs with verses from “The Ballad of Lovely Tom”, a song about the life of a Polish migrant, coming to work at Port Kembla. Australia’s booming economy, with full time unemployment, (not how John Howard defined it) of only 2%, had a desperate need for workers. So many migrants came from post-war Europe they were nearly 50% of Port Kembla’s workforce. Britons came as “Ten Quid Poms” like me in 1955.
Tom gets called “Lovely Tom” because he had a face “like a hatful of broken bricks”. He would have been “Curly” if bald, or “Tiny” if big. A handsome man would have been called “Fugly”. Note Tom’s comments about Marxism later on in the ballad. Australia’s unionism and political development was greatly influenced by these migrants.
3) “We Made the Steel” – Robin Connaughton/John Warner
This song is anthemic for us, needing audience help to echo the solidarity and pride of work I found in the steelworkers. Slide 2 shows the fourteen story high Port Kembla No 5 blast furnace.
5) “Hill 60” – John Warner
The Darwhal people, Cringila’s original inhabitants, had lived round Koomaditchie (Cook called it Hill 60,) for countless generations. Since white settlement they had been catching and supplying fish for the Sydney markets, but were evicted in 1942 for the navy patrol boat and radar base out there to protect the steelworks. They were shifted some kilometres to Koomaditchie lagoon, where they remain. When I worked in Port Kembla, I never even knew they were there. Now their hill overlooks a red/black steelworks on the white coast and salt-marshes they used to forage. Slide 3 is this view. When John and I went there to look around and refresh my memories, we wondered what the Darwhal might think of it all, and he wrote this song.
7) “Red Kembla” – Robin Connaughton
The main steelworks road has had much landscaping and tree planting since 1960, but everything in the older areas round the back is still dull reddish-brown. In the 60s to save money, the dust-catching Cottrell Precipitators on steelmaking equipment were reputedly turned off at night (when the enormous red/brown dust plume they prevented was less visible). You checked the wind before hanging out washing, and never left it out overnight.
Slide 4 shows a converter making steel (and dust); and
Slide 5 shows the colour of “Red” Port Kembla in an aerial shot from the seventies. This song tells of a woman whose husband becomes a unionist. Iron dust turned his clothes pink on washday, but this is only the start of the story.
8) “Machinery versus Man” aka “The King of the Crane Drivers” – Robin Connaughton
This song opens up the analysis of the steelworkers’ identity, and spirit. We’ll have a few more before we’re finished. One of the first things I noticed was the way stories of a casual approach to the dangers of the steelworks (we would now call them urban myths) went round. Always full of facts, but never fully verifiable, they were a way of reinforcing the workers’ game image. This story, about a crane driver who escaped being burnt when a ladle of steel was spilt was everywhere in the 60’s, but I never saw the building.
Slides 6 and 7 show a similar “ingot run” at Newcastle; the crane drivers cab, bottom pouring ladle, side workers on the raised platform.
9) “Weevils in the Flour – Dorothy Hewett/Mike Leyden
Port Kembla introduced me to a unionised workforce, and its issues. This famous song, the only one here not by John and me, but way too good to omit, tells of Depression time work in the Newcastle Steelworks, shown in Slide 8. These were built on several islands in the Hunter River in 1915. In the 1930s, work was much more manual, the hours longer and the safety much lower than in the 60’s. This song shows how much Depression work conditions provoked the Union movement and its writers. The later strength of the steelworks unions was forged in these hard times.
The “Island in the River,” Ash Island, is not named, as I once thought, for the steelworks clinker which now covers it, but for the fine stands of native ash trees which used to be there.
Dorothy writes of pollution “poured on the water.” When I was a student in 1966 a friend of mine, a steelworks engineer, showed me a map of the steelworks effluent outlets to the river. He said there were twice as many as shown on Newcastle Council’s official map …
10) “Mt Ousley Breakdown” – Robin Connaughton
The transport infrastructure needed by a steelworks is enormous. 7 million tons a year of material enters, 4 million tons of steel leaves. Big stuff went by rail and sea, small stuff by road. However, road access to Port Kembla wasn’t as good as by rail or sea. The slow, twisty coast road couldn’t take heavy trucks; anyway, part of it regularly fell into the sea (until the 2005 bypass bridge). The highway was good, but you had to brave one of the passes to get down the escarpment to Port Kembla. Bulli Pass’s steep hairpin turns made it too difficult for many trucks; Macquarie Pass and Mt Keira further south were similar. Most traffic came down the slightly less steep Mt Ousley. Falling only several hundred metres in five km, it ended in a blind T-intersection with the coast road. It had some rock side walls, an s-bend, and one narrow 45 degree escape road. In those days control of truck standards and axle loadings was more lax, and runaway truck accidents were not uncommon. This song about a runaway truck carrying metal coils is an amalgam from accident photos and descriptions I saw at the time.
The Commer in Slide 9 was a common medium sized truck. Its unusual engine, with six pistons in three cylinders, had an odd engine beat, which earned it the nickname of “knocker”. Truckies called it “flat-chested” because of its short cab. These nicknames are easier to explain to decent people than that of “mermaids” for weighbridge officials. The Wilson pre-selector gearboxes, as in the song, sometimes locked out gears.
A truckie’s fear of coils coming loose and crushing him was well founded. Americans call stacking metal coils this way “suicide loading”. Slide 10 shows an accident with a coil loose from chocks and chains, only stopped from crashing right through the cabin of a bigger truck than a Commer by the “headache board”.
Slide 11 shows one of four copper coils partly loose and likely to unroll, just like the ones in the song.
“Australs” was Sydney’s copper and brass roller, Austral Bronze Pty Ltd. “ERS” was Electrolytic Refining and Smelting, Port Kembla’s copper alloy refiner.
12) “The Booze Fairy”– John Warner / Robin Connaughton
NSW in the fifties had the infamous “six o’clock swill”. Hotels closed at 6 pm to make men go home to their families for dinner, opening again at eight. Day-shift workers finished at 3.30, got to the pub by 4.00 and tried to get drunk by six. Cringila’s South Pacific Hotel, the closest pub to the steelworks, once claimed a world record for beer sold in 24 hours, a record disputed by the Corrimal Hotel further north. At 3.30 a queue of men occupied one lane of the highway, bought two schooners of beer and walked to the back of the queue. They finished their beers as they got to the front to buy two more. Middies didn’t last long enough.
How did several thousand men leaving afternoon shift at 11.30 pm get a drink if the pubs shut at 10? In NSW, until opening hours relaxed, the sly grog trade flourished. The migrant camps were a good sales point, but many town “clubs” sold drink “with a meal”, or “to members”.In Newcastle the Flamingo club, and the Acropolis, (with its owners who we called “two horsemen of the Acropolis”) made good late night money.
Several sly groggers supplied the steelworks. One we called “The Booze Fairy”. He dispensed beer from kegs and wine from flagons in a blue FJ ute. One night, when our party ran out of grog, I waited for him at the Cringila road intersection, and saw the incident in the song.
13) “Steelworks Blues” – Robin Connaughton,
With its excess men Port Kembla in the sixties was a “steelrush town”. The money was good, but the work could be unrelentingly hard. Unless you liked sport or pubs, it could be lonely; living in hostels, or boarding houses didn’t help. It was often a hard drinking culture, which many blokes found a trap. I knew a few like the one in this song.
A “doubler” was two 8-hour shifts back to back; a shower in between if you were lucky. Theoretically you then got a half-day break, but two doublers with an 8-hour break wasn’t unknown, thus working 32 hours out of 40. The money was good, time and a half, or double, but too many doublers made you permanently tired. I bought my first car with the winnings from putting several weeks of doubler overtime each way on a Melbourne Cup horse that ran second. (Comiquita out of Chiquita by Comic Court, for those who doubt my memory.)
Steelworks music came from the tearooms radio: Australian country music, copies of American and British pop – that was it. This song has gradually become a country blues in the hands of “The Roaring Forties”.
15) “The Sankey-Benson Press Shop” – Robin Connaughton
In WWII women often took over absent soldiers’ jobs, and not all happily left them after the war, losing status and independence. In Newcastle women worked on “lighter” and higher precision tasks in several workshops, including what later became the Sankey-Benson Press Shop. They stamped flat shapes from steel sheet as, among many things, parts for Australian Owen guns. After the war many kept their jobs. Twenty years later, men still walked warily through that shop, including me. Many were the stories about what women there did to youths straying into their domain, starting with engineer’s blue dye and their anatomy.
The small mechanical presses Sankeys used, painted metallic blue with gold lettering, were made by Heine, an English firm of long standing despite its German name. Slide 12 shows Elizabeth Quinn of Belfast making steel stampings there and Slide 13 shows the Sankey-Benson shop layout.
16) “The Strange Death of Georgie Bell” – Robin Connaughton
Possibly not as dangerous as coal mines, steelworks still had many risks. OH&S now classifies risks as “Hot, Sharp, Heavy and Toxic”, all four easily found in a steelworks. Modern steelworkers would look askance at the levels of safety we had.You could get burned by hot metal, or cut by the flash on a sheared steel edge. I still have a few scars from that. Cranes sometimes dropped things. When a cold mill had a “skid” (mercifully rare), the ground shook a hundred metres away and fist-sized chunks of broken roll or steel coil might fly out at 60kph. On the floor, sane men stood behind something solid. I’m told they still do.
In 1961we had a week with maximum daily temperatures over 38°C. It was 55°C in the crane cabs, and you got burnt at 70°C between stacks of hot annealed steel. Men went round with salt tablets and jugs of water. These buildings were nicely warm in winter, though.
Steelworkers made few songs, though jokes and stories were many. At work, they had the bravado and mateship common to many large unionised workforces. I think that the tantalisingly undetailed stories of horrific accidents often circulating came with the casually defiant attitude the workers had to avoid showing fear of the huge power in hundreds of tons of red-hot or molten steel, not to mention the machines that manipulated it. You had to be there to really know this fear. Such things as the. 250-tonne pouring ladle in Slide 14 frightened me. Slide 15 shows a Chinese worker similarly defying molten steel. Here artists inadequately protected by water-soaked wood and cloth make artwork by throwing sprays of molten steel into the air, from buckets. They’re mad, but I understand it.
Such stories laughed at gruesome things, men falling into a ladle of steel, or a furnace. This story where an unpopular foreman falls into a half-solidified ingot I heard in 1964. I thought it must be apocryphal until told by a modern steelworks manager that a few such deaths do occur.
Resisting all attempts to give it a tune, this story was determined to be poetry. So be it …
17) “The Steelworks Cat” – Robin Connaughton / John Warner
On a brighter note, there were always cats around, many more than you saw. Some steelmen loved and fed them, some didn’t. Occasional attempts to get rid of them were unsuccessful. but you could always find them behind the cafeteria in the afternoon, waiting for the unused milk. Slide 16 shows the steel “Muster Point” monument to the Newcastle steelworks, together with its bird-hunting cats.
18) “The Galvanising Shop” – John Warner
Those verses from “Lovely Tom” refer to steelworks men he knew. The strange bravado of the men could show in a rough sense of humour. There were the usual jokes, sending apprentices to get a long wait, a can of zubric grease, a left-handed spanner, etc, but there was often a more casual attitude to danger than would be tolerated today. I learned (was taught) how to make nitro-glycerine in the chemical laboratory, and a mate blew up a rat infested dump with it.
Steel coils, and lengths were moved by cranes with chains and slings, or magnetic grabs. Slide 17 shows a smaller C-hook with a 10-tonne coil at John Llysaghts Australia. The drivers sometimes showed off phenomenal skills, touching a matchbox with the hook without crushing it, or getting their mate to put their lunch and tea billy on a 2 metre hook on the ground, The driver raised the hook, and then gave the crane a little nudge to swing it just enough that he could lean out and grab his lunch as it came within inches of smashing the cab. I saw the incident described in John’s song. Punishable by instant dismissal. Very funny, but not very safe.
19) “The Price of Steel?” – Robin Connaughton / John Warner
Steelworks produce enormous pollution. Port Kembla is currently licensed to emit daily 83 tonnes of dust, 62 kg of cyanide, 180kg of phenol, 39kg of ammonia. Forty years ago it was much worse. Unfortunately it still seems that cost reduces enthusiasm for pollution control. In the 1990’s community outrage occurred when four child leukaemia cases occurred in one year at the local school, ten in one peer group. NSW Cancer Council data showed a spiral of increasing leukaemia rates round the steelworks. Similar data patterns occurred at Newcastle steelworks and coke ovens north of Wollongong. Making coke from coal releases volatiles, a million litres yearly of BETX (Benzene, Ethyl Benzene, Toluene, and Xylene). Some escapes, and benzene is a known cause of such childhood cancers. In the 1960’s I used to buy it by the steelworks drum to add to racing car fuel!
Slide 18 shows Monkton steelworks coke-ovens (not Port Kembla) having “burst emissions”, maybe from poor roof seals. The yellow smoke is sulphur dioxide, the red/blue flame is flammable escaped hydrocarbons like BETX.
Illawarra Public Health Unit Task Force enquiry was given, atmospheric benzene levels to show that the steelworks had not released more than its license allowed, which isn’t really the question. The evidence for this was done in the 90s, because no monitoring had been done earlier when the kids probably got their dose. This evidence probably underestimated the levels of benzene the children might have breathed, for several reasons. These coke ovens were less than a kilometre from the local high school Mind you, I used to work a few hundred metres away. Makes you think. The monitoring station is somewhat further away, of course.
Slide 19 shows “Old Smokey”, the only coke ovens ever mentioned in Parliament for its infamous pollution. For some odd reason it was offline a lot during the monitoring, so not giving as much as it would normally to the emissions … Old Smokey appears to have been quietly decommissioned some while after this story broke.
I was appalled as this story unfolded in my research, and the song had to be rewritten several times, with John sensibly trying to tame my outrage from a savage, possibly defamatory pitch to a more artistic one, without losing effect
21) “George Talks to Steel” – Robin Connaughton
There is much truth in my saying. “Men turn work into a craft. Management turn it into a job”. The steelworks was no different. Men tended to turn routine work into skill, out of pride. Testers could feel differences of one twentieth of a millimetre in sheet steel thickness with their fingers. I knew a man who could tell the temperature of a furnace to within 20° from its colour. Many shift foremen appeared to control their machinery as well or better than the computers which replaced them, although, to be fair, computers were initially programmed only with the control knowledge that had been obtained from the men anyway.
Manpower reduction brought the Bluescope workforce down to 5000-odd and saw many technical jobs lost, possibly too many. My contacts tell me Bluescope recently lost $30,000,000 when two blast furnaces froze solid. With skilled technical control this should not happen…
Slides 20 and 21 show a converter like George’s at Newcastle in the 60s, loading and blowing, Slide 22 shows Fred’s John Lysaghts Australia cold rolling mill of the 1950’s, and Slide 23 shows a more modern version of Syd’s hot rolling mill.
These notes copyright 2012, 2015 Robin Connaughton. Email Robin with any enquiries.
Some more photos and information about steel making at Newcastle can be found in The Newcastle Herald’s photo archive entitled “BHP centenary of steel: Forged by fire“.