BLAST FURNACE SPELLS START OF THE STEEL INDUSTRY
On May 13 1907, the Lithgow Blast Furnace , built by William Sandford Ltd., was officially opened by the Premier of New South Wales, Sir Joseph Carruthers. It was essentially the birth of Australia’s steel industry, and a day of great celebration for the entire town. As the band played, the Premier broke a bottle of champagne over the front of the great furnace. The plant was christened by 20 tons of molten iron running into the moulds. More than 100 men were to be employed at the outset, a huge boost for the local economy.
Establishing the furnace was a courageous leap of faith by William Sandford. Unfortunately, it wasn’t long before he was in financial trouble, and the bank foreclosed on his mortgage. In 1908 the business was purchased by his friend Charles Hoskins, a self-made, autocratic entrepreneur who also owned the mine supplying the iron ore.
Although considered fair-minded and generous to those in need, Hoskins had little sympathy with workers complaining of poor wages and conditions, and conditions did leave a lot to be desired. Early in 1911 he summarily dismissed a miners’ union delegate and the workers went out on strike, The situation was inflamed when black-leg workers were brought in from Sydney.
On the evening of August 29th 1911, hundreds of unionists and their supporters assembled to watch the change of shift at the blast furnace. This had become a regular event over the months of the strike . As usual, the strikers were accompanied by a brass band, rather provocatively playing The Dead March. The band had also played outside the homes of the non-unionists.
The non-unionists came out to watch the proceedings. Some made sneering remarks and began to dance to the march, further antagonizing the mob. A group of hot headed youths rushed forward and began to throw stones, half bricks and pieces of coke. The non-unionists armed themselves and within minutes the situation had escalated to a full-scale riot.
Windows of the engine room were smashed and when police intervened, several constables were injured by missiles. The unionists forced their way into the free-labourers’ quarters and run amok. Food was thrown about, furniture destroyed, and bunks set fire to, then hurled into the nearby dam.
Meanwhile, Mr Hoskins’ cars became a target. One was smashed, but driven away by the chauffeur. The other, a brand new Renault, was torched.
By midnight there was an even bigger crowd, estimated at over 1,000. Mr Hoskins, his two adult sons, and the manager Mr Henderson had by now locked themselves in the engine room with the black-leg workers. There was little they could do until police reinforcements arrived by train.
Some of the leading unionists called for calm and an opportunity to talk with Hoskins, but others would have none of it;
Hoskins will have to come to our terms. We have him in there, and he will have to stop there. (Great cheering). Before he comes out of there he has got to come to our terms. (Cries of “Pull him out”.) He can hear me speaking, and if he is a man he will come out and make terms. If not, then we will stop here until the morning.
A local alderman tried to persuade the strikers to return home, but without success. The men began to hoot and to sing, ‘We Won’t Go Home Till Morning’ and ‘There’ll Be a Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight’. At one point, police aimed their revolvers at the crowd, who shouted, ‘Shoot! we might as well be shot dead as starve.’
It was sorry sight that greeted Charles Hoskins at dawn. Damage was estimated at £10,000.
SETTLEMENT – OF A SORT
It was not until April 1912 that a compromise was reach and the strike settled. There were serious repercussions for those judged the main antagonists among the strikers.
Within a few months The Death March would be played again by the Lithgow brass band. However, on this occasion it was at the funeral service for Charles Hoskins’ 19 year old daughter Hilda, who died after her car was hit by a train near her home.. The workers from the blast furnace attended, expressing their deep sympathy and respect along with the rest of the community.
Over the ensuing years there would be continuing industrial unrest at the blast furnace. There were also intermittent closures due to fluctuations in demand and problems with the supply of coke.
Charles Hoskins died on February 14 1926. He was 75. In his will he left money for the completion of the Hoskins Memorial Presbyterian Church, which opened at Lithgow in 1928. It had been built by Hoskins in memory of Hilda and of his eldest son. Guildford Hoskins had died in an explosion at the family estate, Eskroy Park, Bowenfels in 1916, aged 29.
Eskroy Park homestead is now the club house of the Lithgow Golf Club.
Competition from Broken Hill Pty Ltd eventually spelled the end for the blast furnace. It was no longer viable, and at the end of November 1928 the entire steelworks moved to Port Kembla where there were better transport links.
Since 2006 the Charles Hoskins Scholarship has been awarded to a student living in the Lithgow municipality.
There is another wonderful memento of the blast furnace. The Lithgow Stove was manufactured during the era of the Great Depression, by the Western Foundry. It was decorated with an image of the furnace. So far we are only aware of one in existence, but perhaps there are more somewhere. My sincere thanks to Peter for allowing me to use the following photo.
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