Portland: The Town That Built Sydney

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.

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The Glen Museum, located in a recently restored building which had been an early hospital at the Portland Cement Works

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.

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Rear view of some of the remaining buildings of the Portland Cement Works

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.

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These cement silos were recently painted by Guido Van Helen and have become a popular tourist spot in Portland

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]

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Kandos Railway Station

The railway station was the nerve centre of a country town, both exit and entrance, export and import, off to adventure or homeward bound. People came to collect parcels or despatch goods, meet friends and relations or say goodbye, go on holiday or leave for school, enjoy the hubbub or look at the train. For trains, like brass bands, with their power and rhythm, touch a warm collective memory.

Colleen O’Sullivan, Discover Magazine, Nov 2017

I came across the above description of a country railway station in a small article in a local tourist magazine for the Blue Mountains and Central West of NSW. Like many small stations, Kandos has not been in use for passenger services for a long time, but there has been a spate of activity in the last year or so.

The station was opened as Candos Station in 1914; it was renamed Kandos the following year. Candos is believed to have been made using the initials of the first six directors of NSW Cement, Lime and Coal Company, which owned land near the railway line. There were a couple of other towns with similar names in New South Wales and South Australia, and so a name change was arranged.

Initially, the station was operated without a station master. In 1918, three swagmen took possession of the station on a Saturday morning, threatening anyone who approached the station until they were arrested by police from nearby Rylstone. The following year a station master was appointed.

There was a sense of pride taken in the presentation of stations, with staff establishing and maintaining gardens to brighten the platforms. In 1925 the station was specially commended by the area commissioner for tidiness and cleanliness. By 1927, the line was upgraded and Kandos was the fourth highest-earning station in the state, after Newcastle, Lithgow and Darling Harbour.

More recently, the Kandos Museum has taken over the lease on the old railway station and is in the process of relocating its collection. Late last year funding was granted to reopen the railway line between Kandos and Rylstone to establish the Kandos-Rylstone Rail Heritage Precinct. This will see the line repaired and upgraded and will provide opportunities for tourists and heritage lovers to visit the area and enjoy the history along with heritage train rides. In the future, this may connect up with the Lithgow State Mine railway.

Whilst the days of the railway station as the hub for small towns has largely passed, it is great to see community efforts for rejuvenation and repurposing of the old stations come to fruition.

[Photo: Capertee Railway Station, on the Gwabegar railway line towards Kandos and Mudgee]

Challenging the Boundaries between Art and Nature

There is something wonderful about having a sculpture exhibition in the area, and recently I went along to explore Sculpture at Scenic World at Katoomba. From mid-April to mid-May, 38 sculptures were on display along the winding boardwalk through the Jurassic forest. The location provides an amazing backdrop to some incredible sculptures, and the exhibition prides itself on having a 0% ecological footprint. There is much collaboration between the selected artists and Scenic World to manage the creation and installation of the works.

Access to the boardwalk is via the scenic railway, which was originally used for coal and shale exports. I had forgotten how steep the incline is (52 degrees – claimed to be the steepest passenger railway in the world) and it is a short but invigorating ride down into the valley. The layout of the exhibition along the boardwalk invites reflection and it was a delight to meander along and take in the wide variety of art installations.

One of the first pieces, Blind by Andrew Townsend and Suzie Bleach, is part of series using the figure of a horse to explore themes of the human condition. Forest Emoji by Aldo Bilotta explores the evolution of language. A number of the pieces resonate with the immensity of time and space. A recurring theme is sustainability and waste: several sculptures feature repurposed materials.

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One of the black cockatoos created by Barbara Hamilton as Casuarina Dreaming II

An example of this is Casuarina Dreaming II by Barbara Hamilton which features discarded umbrellas and recycled bottles fashioned into black cockatoos. Hamilton wanted to raise awareness of these endemic birds, who are relatively quiet when compared to the rowdy sulphur-crested cockatoos. The habitat for the glossy black cockatoos is under threat. I am fortunate to see them flying through the upper mountain skies with their distinctive, creaky calls.

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Close-up of some of the beautiful glass balloons featured in Up! by Kayo Yokoyama

One of the works which delighted me was Up! by Kayo Yokoyama. This was inspired by a desire to transform a temporary object into a semi-permanent one to capture a moment. And there is something joyous about balloons, associated with celebrations and happy times. For Yokoyama, sagging or deflated balloons remind her of sadness. There is a universality to the memories and emotions linked by balloons, and I loved this piece.

Humour is evident in some of the blurbs which accompany the sculptures. For example, the description of Mega Pixel Power Plant by Tom de Munk-Kerkmeer advises that the creation is a close relative of Instaneous Gratificaticus and that perhaps it originated from the Silicon Valley area. The fruit resembles the sweet and rather addictive Licorice Allsorts.

Environmental awareness and climate change are recurring themes. Overconsumption is displayed clearly in Freya Jobbins’ #OTT. The link between memory and sculpture is touched on through several of the works, including memories of lost forests in a ghost tree exhibit. There is a stunning nod to both nature and a community’s ability to recover and regenerate following bushfire in Anastasis by Caitlin Hughes.

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Choking Hazard by Rochelle Quantock: bright toy bricks bringing an element of playfulness to the serious issues of sustainability

A wide range of materials are used, including wood, plastic, light bulbs, ceramics, umbrellas, bumper bars, crocheted and woven plastic bags, stone, steel, bottle caps, glass, porcelain, sticks, souvenir koala bears and salvaged hard rubbish. Some of the sculptures used sounds or mirrors to offer different sensory viewpoints.

Sculpture at Scenic World is an amazing annual event, with several of the works staying in my mind for quite some time afterwards.

When was the last time sculpture snagged your imagination?

[Photo: a glimpse of the stuffed toy roof in #OTT by Freya Jobbins]

Portland: Signs of Yesteryear

The above is dotted on signposts leading towards the town of Portland in central west NSW, and it is a case of accurate advertising. Portland, between Lithgow and Bathurst, has a population of 2,400 and a drive around its streets will result in many old-fashioned advertising signs being spotted along shopfronts, alleys and walkways throughout the town.

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Sunlight Soap is still around. The reward would have been a small fortune back in the day!

The signs advertise nostalgic brands. There are some products that are still around, and it is interesting to note that while some changes have inevitably taken place in the advertising world, some branding is still the same.

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Jaffas and Minties are still around too, even if ownership of the brands has changed.

Portland has an unusual history as it is one of a handful of company towns in Australia. Whilst people had been living in the area before the establishment of the cement works, it was the construction of the cement plant that resulted in the town’s development. There had been lime and quarry works in the area and in nearby towns prior to the commencement of the Commonwealth Portland Works, but the scale of the operation and its ongoing success was to dominate the identity and livelihood of the town for nearly a century.

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Uncle Tobys is still around. Interesting claim at the bottom!

In 1991 the cement works closed and the town began the slow adjustment to a life beyond the cement industry.

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A beautiful reproduction of a seed and bulb manual

A decade later, trade signwriter Ron Bidwell was joined by fellow signwriters known as ‘The Letterheads’. Together they recreated vintage signs from 1895 to 1945 and in doing so added significantly to the town’s aesthetic and tourist appeal.

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Some more wonderful signwriting work and in the bottom right hand corner, the artists have left their mark.

The signs are positioned throughout the town and encourage exploration on foot and an appreciation of the heritage shopfronts.

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One of the beautiful old shopfronts in Williwa Street, Portland

The signs featured here are a small sample of the many colourful reproductions of ‘signs of yesterday’. You can see more of them here.

 

The Kindness of Strangers

Kindness can be expressed in a number of ways, and it can be particularly powerful when it is unexpected. Whilst you may not always be able to rely on the kindness of strangers, it can really make a difference when you experience such a moment.

I have never been bothered by heights. I like the vantage points offered from lookouts and tall towers offering panoramic views. But then I had a moment when I felt suddenly and inexplicably overwhelmed by vertigo.

I had wandered off to explore the Woodford Academy. This was my first visit and it happened to be on an open day when there was a guided tour featuring several artistic installations. Whilst this was interesting, I had wanted to get an idea of the history of the place, and so I left the gathering group and took myself up a rather steep flight of stairs to the first floor to view the old bedrooms. There was a sign on the staircase, which was effectively carved into a corner of the building, advising that the stairs were very steep. I trotted up, only noting as I turned for the second flight that there was no bannister or handrail on the upper section.

I had a good look around the first floor, enjoying the view looking over the garden and onto the highway. It was nice to daydream and imagine some of the scenes that would have passed by, from the days of the gold rush and the arrival of the railways, to men travelling to Sydney as part of the Cooee March.

I could hear the guided tour downstairs and took the opportunity to look closer at the furniture and displays providing insights into earlier times. The crowd moved on and I decided it was time to go. But when I approached the staircase I felt a wave of dizziness at the thought of winding my way down the steps, especially the top section without a handrail. I turned around and went back into one of the bedrooms, unsure as to what to do next. I could hardly call out for help, as the guided tour had moved on. And wasn’t it my fault anyway for not heeding the sign? I moved between the rooms, feeling a bit trapped. Then I heard footsteps on the stairs.

An older couple appeared and looked through the rooms. They said hello and continued talking between themselves about a similar staircase that they had come across, and how tricky it was to navigate. I said nothing, thinking that perhaps I could just follow them down the stairs.

As they were getting ready to go, I mentioned that I was feeling anxious about getting back to the ground floor and without any fuss, the husband offered to guide me. His wife led the way, then he took the stairs down to the corner adjacent to the handrail and reached his hand out to me. It was a simple gesture which eased my panic. He made sure I arrived safely on the ground floor before nodding at my thanks and heading off.

When was the last time you experienced the kindness of a stranger? Or perhaps you were the kind stranger?

[Photo: The Company of Trees by Ro Murray and Mandy Burgess spotted at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre, Katoomba]

Lithgow Blast Furnace

Nestled at the base of the Blue Mountains with rich veins of coal, Lithgow has been an industrial town for many decades. It also played a part in the development of the nascent Australian steel industry and one of the defining images of Lithgow is of the ruins of the Blast Furnace Park, located on the Coal Stage Hill.

Blast Furnace Park

The remains of the Ferranti generator house (left) and Davy engine house (right) are now accessible with walkways throughout and around the ruins and signage providing additional information.

This wasn’t the first blast furnace erected in Lithgow. Iron smelting had commenced in Lithgow in late 1875 at the Esk Bank Ironworks, and the following year a blast furnace was providing over 100 tonnes of pig iron per week. The operation wasn’t financially viable at the time as iron was being imported cheaply as ballast for ships, although the venture continued on for a while as a cooperative.

The operation was taken over by William Sandford in 1886, and Sandford ended up buying the estate and expanding the ironworks. In 1900 he built the first steelmaking plant in Australia, and in 1907 he opened the Blast Furnace site. Sandford had been awarded a contract to supply the NSW Government’s iron and steel requirements. The new blast furnace was built to meet capacity, but Sandford was experiencing financial difficulties and the bank foreclosed on the loan. Operations passed to G & C Hoskins Pty Ltd, and Charles Hoskins oversaw the continued development and modernisation of the site.

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Some of the ruins on the Blast Furnace site

From 1908 until 1932, Lithgow produced thousands of tonnes of steel, including steel for the trans-Australian railway. The Blast Furnace was a major employer and producer, and it relied upon local resources including limestone from Ben Bullen and coke from Carcoar. Local coal production and established railway networks were also contributing factors to the success of the enterprise.

But the future lay elsewhere. In 1915, BHP had opened up a new steelworks in Newcastle and in 1921 Hoskins negotiated the purchase of a large industrial site at Port Kembla. By 1926, construction had commenced on a 300,000 tonne per year site there. From 1928 onwards, all usable buildings and machinery were moved from Lithgow to Port Kembla. The Hoskins Iron and Steel Works closed in 1932. Various factors contributed to the closure including increased railway freight charges, supply issues with good quality ore and the Great Depression.

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Looking through the Davy Engine House ruins with ‘Bosh iron skull’ in the background

The importance of the site was recognised by the town and it has been largely preserved in the decades since it fell silent. In recent months there has been considerable work completed to improve the access and information around the site. It has long been a popular photographic backdrop, and is particularly striking at sunrise and sunset.

This clip provides a tour of the site using a mixture of photos and video footage.

Lithgow lead the way in producing steel, laying the foundations for the steel industry in Newcastle and Port Kembla. While the finishing touches are still being put in place following the site redevelopment, it is great to see the effort put into acknowledging an integral part of Australia’s industrial heritage.

[Photo: signage at the Blast Furnace Park, Lithgow]

John Clarke on Nature and Walking

I think one of the useful things about an interest in nature and in walking and looking is a loss of the self. To completely lose yourself is a great pleasure especially if what you do for a living is put yourself up in some way which is psychically tiring. One of the principal joys of birdwatching is that you are being responsive to the world, you’re just another creature. You are the tool of the world. You are not mastering it, or moulding it to your image or any such piffle, you are reminded of what a pipsqueak you are.

John Clarke 1948-2017

There is a link here which shares some of John’s amazing photos. Also check out this link to his website.

When was the last time you lost yourself in the natural world?

[Photo: superb blue wren spotted in Canberra]

Following the Warada Track, Field of Mars Wildlife Refuge

It is a testament to the community spirit that this area exists at all, tucked alongside creeks in urban Sydney. The Field of Mars was part of a large land grant given to soldiers in 1792 by Governor Arthur Philip, originally taking in the entire area north of the Parramatta River from Dundas to the Lane Cove River. Over the decades the surrounding area had been carved up and allocated, and part of the reserve had been used as a tip. Moves to redevelop the remaining pockets of bush were challenged by local groups, and since 1975 the site has been available for the public to enjoy as well as being a sanctuary for animals, birds and other wildlife.

There is an Environmental Education Centre in the reserve, and it is a popular destination for school groups offering excursions along several tracks. The Visitor Centre, open each weekend, is supported by volunteers from the Ryde Hunters Hill Flora and Fauna Preservation Society who provide friendly assistance and knowledge in regards to the various tracks available. Walking tracks can also be downloaded from the Ryde Council website.

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Along the track

Upon arrival, I was greeted by a brush turkey. It paid little attention to me although when I was leaving another one appeared and seemed keen to follow me home. These birds are famed for the huge leaf-litter mounds which are maintained by male birds for up to nine months each year. They are up to five metres in diameter and one and a half metres high. The mounds are constantly turned over, waiting for a female turkey to come along, test the temperature and lay a clutch of eggs.

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Australian Brush-turkey (young/immature)

The Warada track is named for the Aboriginal heritage of the area, and the track’s proximity to the only known waratah plants in the reserve. They would be a spectacular sight in springtime – the one below was spotted in the upper Blue Mountains last October.

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Waratah (telopea speciosissima) spotted in upper Blue Mountains, Oct 2017

The track climbs upwards with sandstone ledges acting as steps in some parts. There are Sydney red gums throughout the walk, their roots holding tight onto the sandstone until the stone eventually crumbles. Some of the trees are marked with sap; this indicates that the tree is being attacked by insects, but it defends itself by exuding gum, called kino.

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Sydney red gum with kino – gum – exuding as it defends itself against insects

Banksias and scribbly gums appear along the path, along with hakeas and boronias. There were several large termite nests along the way, perched high up in the trees. The path turns, winding away along a ridge before snaking down towards Strangers Creek. According to field notes, the creek was named as there were homeless people living in the area until the 1950s, with local residents and farmers warning children not to venture near this creek alone.

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Termite nest remnants

The bush was alive with various birds including magpies, white cockatoos and rufous fantails. On the path leading back towards the Visitor Centre, alongside a stretch of mangroves, a pair of white ibis birds were foraging about. A short distance away, a kookaburra rested on a branch, watching the ground for any treats.

It was a delight to spend some time in this reserve and it will be worth revisiting during different times of the year to see various wildflowers and shrubs in bloom.

Have you taken a different track lately?

[Photo: Field of Mars Reserve, East Ryde]

A Community Collected

One of the current exhibits at the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre is Blue Mountains Portraits. It features a range of artworks representing people from the local community, from well-known local personalities to the quiet achievers.

Many of the works are by local artists, which further adds to the authenticity of the collection.

One of the joys of the exhibition is getting to know the backstory behind the portraits, learning more about some of the people who live in the mountains and who bring their skills and personalities to the region. The story behind the portrait selection is also provided, often revealing a deeper connection between the artist and their subject. There is a selection of the portraits recently featured in the Blue Mountains Gazette here.

There are people who contribute to the vibrant art and music scene in the mountains, collaborators who get behind festivals and events that appeal to locals and tourists alike. There are people who work tirelessly in community organisations, making a huge difference to many people in a myriad of ways. These include firefighters and environmentalists, teachers and advocates. There is a father and son business partnership, along with some of the colourful characters who bring something unique to life in the mountain villages.

The range of artistic representation is also impressive across the forty-plus artworks. There are photographic and traditional painted portraits as well as people represented in mosaics, drawing and collages. From familiar faces to the unknown, the range of styles encourages a celebration of the local community.

The exhibition is on until 18 March 2018.

[Photo: glimpse of sculpture on the viewing platform of the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre]

A Walk Around Lake Pillans, Lithgow

Named for the first Labor mayor of Lithgow, Lake Pillans is located near the Blast Furnace park area in Lithgow. I recently came across it quite by chance whilst looking for something else. It was my intention to take some photos of the blast furnace site, as it had been a year or so since I had been out around the area. But there are extensive works underway and there is limited access to the ruins.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I took the turn to Lake Pillans and followed the track around to a parking area. This urban wetland was constructed in the 1990s with a number of functions in mind. It provides a place for recreational and educational activities, along with beauty and solitude. It also cleans and filters water as part of the larger ecosystem of the area. And it provides a place for wildlife, including frogs, birds, reptiles and fish.

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Wetlands views with Blast Furnace park in the background

The lake is also a great example of repurposing an old industrial site. It was created in 1911 by the construction of a weir across Vale Creek to provide cooling water for the Hoskins blast furnace. From its early days, it was used for recreation and was a popular swimming and boating venue. The site fell into disrepair when the steelworks relocated to Port Kembla around 1928 and it became an industrial dumping site.

In recent years, a mixture of local and state government funding has contributed towards the establishment of pathways that link the wetlands and the Blast Furnace park.

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One of the walkways around Lake Pillans

This link provides another viewpoint as it touches on the experience of one of the engineers involved in the creation of the wetlands project in the 1990s.

A quick aerial tour of the lake can be seen here, and there is a great photo of the lake in its earlier years in a blog post by Pauline Conolly featuring some Lithgow characters here.

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Looking towards one of the lakes with a sculpture in front

Walking around the lake is an absolute delight, from the wetlands and reeds to the water thrumming with tadpoles. Pathways circle the lake and nearby wetlands, and one path winds up towards the Blast Furnace park. There are a couple of metal sculptures along the way, including one which I think looks like an elephant. There is a boardwalk over part of the wetlands and there was a rustle of reeds before I realised that the birds darting about were purple swamp hens. There were also ducks and brown thornbills, magpies and peewees, to name just a few of the birds around the lake.

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Purple swamp hen at Lake Pillans

I’m very pleased to have found Lake Pillans and will return many times I’m sure to enjoy the walk around a pocket of nature circled by the history and modern realities of an industrial town.

Have you stumbled across a hidden treasure recently?

[Photo: wetland views]