The industrial history of Portland is intrinsically linked with cement. It was the site of the first cement works in Australia which opened in 1902 and operated until 1991. Cement from Portland was shipped around Australia, and it played an integral role in the construction of Sydney in particular throughout the twentieth century.
The first European in the area was a surveyor called James Blackman who surveyed roads in 1820 through this part of Wiradjuri country. A lime kiln was built on 61 hectares of land selected by Thomas Murray in 1863, and in 1883 the railway arrived. The village of Portland was gazetted in 1894 and the name Portland is attributed to the limestone-rich Isle of Portland or for the Portland cement making process, depending on the source.
In 1902 the Portland Cement Works opened in the village. The Commonwealth Portland Cement Company Ltd had been registered in 1900 by Dr August Wilhelm Karl Scheidel on behalf of the New Zealand Mines Trust. Dr Scheidel designed the cement works and supervised their construction. He was regarded as a pioneer in industrial relations: he insured his employees against accidents, introduced eight hour work days at the site, and provided an ambulance service and accident ward which was shared with the town. Support was also provided for the construction of a hospital, built in 1913.
Recruitment of overseas labour in the early years was necessary due to difficulty in securing local labour, and it gave the village a cosmopolitan air. By 1912 the works were producing about 40% of Australia’s Portland Cement. Maximum levels of production were reached in 1928.
The works were nearly self-sufficient including water, coal, electricity and railway resources. The cement factory was a significant employer, and some families provided generations of workers. During the Great Depression there were massive layoffs and up to 80% of the workforce lost their jobs.
The old works site is classified as a historic landscape of approximately six hectares. It was the site of one of Australia’s most successful lime quarrying and cement manufacture enterprises, generating a product that was integral to the construction of many important structures in the state. It provided raw material from its own quarries “and a place for the long-term, large-scale production of world quality cement, using a succession of both local and imported machinery and labour.” (Source: NSW Office of Environment & Heritage)
Throughout New South Wales, Portland is significant in that it is one of the rare long-term single industry one-company towns. This relationship can be seen in the layout of the town and its civic amenities, including workers cottages, concrete roads and swimming pools. The scale of the operations, including powerhouse, boiler stack and various workshops provide significant links with industrial heritage.
The Portland Cement Works site is being progressively cleared for redevelopment under The Foundations Portland NSW. The proposal includes ecotourism, shopping centre, activity areas and artist precincts. It will be interesting to watch the site continue to evolve into the next phase of its development. Recently this has included the painting of murals on old cement silos by Guido Van Helten.
It is encouraging to see signs of life in an old industrial town – what does the future hold once the industry has moved on, technological changes take place and the workforce moves?
[Photo: part of the administration block in the Portland Cement Works precinct]