History of the Fitzroy Iron Mines

1 October 1948 The Southern Mail (Bowral)

A century ago there came along the Great South Road to Mittagong two men of somewhat undistinguished nomenclature who were, nevertheless, with their two associates, destined to achieve imperishable places in the records of Australian industrial fame as members of the far-seeing and courageous quartet which established the first iron smelting works in Australia, at the Fitzroy mine, but a few hundred yards from the centre of the township to-day. 

One of them was Thomas Tipple Smith, a son of the noted English geologist William Smith, who was born in England in 1800, and another, his brother, William Tipple Smith, who first saw the light of day at Halford, near Shakespeare's birth place, on October 12, 1803.

 In their childhood, the brothers subsequently educated at Eton and Greenwich College, listened spellbound to tails of New South Wales told as only he could tell them, by the famous Sir Joseph Banks, an intimate friend of their father's, and, when they reached maturity, their decision to seek their fortune here was largely motivated by memories of all he had told them years before. 

Thomas, a builder, came to Australia about 1826, and became well known at Glebe, where he leased certain St. Phillip's Church lands, whilst William, after some years with the Red Path Ironworks, arrived at some time prior to 1836. 

Associated with the Smiths in the epoch-making venture which was to be of such significance in the industrial progress of the colony were J.T. Neale, of Parramatta, and Thomas Holmes, and their operations commenced on part of 300 acres acquired on 13th September, 1848, impending sale of the area to that date having been announced in the Government Gazette of 3rd August, 1848. 

Work commenced almost immediately, equipment consisting of a small blast furnace of which no known picture exists, and two beam engines, and by 12th December, 1848.

The Sydney Morning Herald was able to refer to "Mr. Neale's iron mine at the Ironstone Bridge" and "specimens of manufactured articles lately exhibited in Sydney." 

Details of how and when the mine came to be honoured with the august   name of the Vice-Regal representative of the day, Governor Charles Augustus Fitz Roy, have not as yet been discovered. However, a later Herald report referred to the Governor's visit on 26th January, 1849, to what was then described as the "Fitz Roy iron mine," so that it seems that the name was probably conferred during the few intervening weeks. 

On this particular visit, Fitz Roy was accompanied by Mr. E. Dean Thomson, Mr. George Fitz Roy and Lieut. Master, and arrived on Thursday, 26th January, at Cutter's Inn, reputed to have then been the only house at Mittagong.

Next day the party set out for Berrima at 6 a.m., spending an hour in inspecting the mine, situated about a mile distant from the inn. 

When Fitz Roy had viewed the works and locality, the "enterprising   proprietors" gave him "an elegant   knife, containing twelve different in- [line missing] (mounted with colonial gold), the steel of which was smelted from the ore ... from the mine," whereat the Governor expressed his gratification and his satisfaction at the mine's progress, and the party, after drinking of the waters of the nearby chalybeate spring, travelled on. 

It is possible that there was an earlier official opening, and one, at present unverified, version of this alleged occurrence has it that "the presence of a real live Governor" in the locality was a notable event, arrangements were of "primitive splendor" and a great time was had by all, much jollification - some, no doubt, of an alcoholic nature - ensuing. 

What an unusual and inspiring sight it must have been in those distant days for travellers to come upon the furnace belching forth flame and smoke amid virgin bush, and hear the sounds of industry breaking its primeval silence; and how many hearts must have beaten the faster in anticipation of the riches to be wrested from the reluctant earth by human ingenuity and hard work! Actually, because of its entire dependence on road transport between the growing city and what was then  a comparatively isolated and sparsely settled locality (the railway did not pass through until 1867), the enterprise was to a certain extent handicapped, despite the admittedly high quality of the ore, coal at no great distance, and limestone reasonably accessible.  

The road, in fact, at one stage traversed the notorious Bargo Brush, a dark and eerie locality, scene of a constable's murder by convicts years later in 1866, which was the resort for many years of bushrangers and ruffians of the deepest dye.

Though nothing is known of any difficulties experienced by the company's representatives in the region, all those who had to pass through that then  sinister and secluded area did so with   the greatest trepidation.   

Misfortune soon frowned on one of the partners, William Tipple Smith, said to have been the only mineralogist in Australia at the time of his association with the works, for he was stricken, in 1849, with a stroke whilst at the mine, from which he ultimately died on 2nd December, 1852, and was buried in the Presbyterian section of the Devonshire St. cemetery.

In 1904 his remains were transferred to Bunnerong cemetery.

His brother, Thomas, another of the original partners, died in 1870.     

In February, 1849, it was reported that a stone quarry and brickfield had been started to permit erection of proper buildings, and work continued on a small scale until September, 1851, when the Fitz Roy Iron Mining Company acquired the land from the syndicate, all except Neale becoming shareholders. 

Far more space than is here available would be necessary to tell the subsequent history of the mine in detail.

Briefly it may be summarised as comprising the formation of company after company, huge capital in- vestments involving, literally, hundreds of thousands of pounds, money spent like water - much of it unwisely, -extensive plant acquisition, and a procession of managers and experts, some from England, one of those who, at one time, inspected the deposits being the famous Rev. W. B Clarke.     

Despite the most intensive efforts,   misfortune seemed to dog the financial trail of those who sought to profit by exploitation of the ore, concerning which professional reports were consistently eulogistic.

One substantial factor militating against success was the unsuitability of the adjacent anthracite coal for smelting purposes, and the resultant excessive cost of securing suitable fuel elsewhere. 

In fact one writer went so far as to refer to the mine as "a huge, dismal monument of ruined hopes, irretrievable loss, reckless expunditure, mismanagement and incompetence," adding that speculators' fingers had been systematically burnt by it, and that it had swallowed up fortunes nearly as large as that of Croesus.

The surroundings had an innocent geological appearance, with  virgin iron "in any quantity protruding above the ground in rugged  seductiveness," said this scribe, going on to attribute the failure of all efforts to make a success of operations partly to the intractable nature   of the ore and partly to incompetence and wild speculative extravagance. 

Said another writer: "Taken altogether, its discovery was a misfortune.

But then, the sad discovery was inevitable, for the old road from Mittagong to Berrima cut right through the deposit, and its rich, ripe redness shouted for notice."

Actually, discovery of the deposits is credited to Surveyor Jaques, in the course of his arranging a road deviation in 1833.

This writer added that, even if the color was not a danger signal to investors, the ore had "a peculiar capacity for keeping its riches to itself and still flaunted its ancient red flag by the roadside," and that, "whilst good, it cost more than it was worth." 

The 1866 view of the excellence if the then-existing company's product may be gauged from the statement that it was "far superior to any but the finest Swedish steel" but could not compete with imported iron in the complete absence of governmental protection or assistance.

An abortive attempt, of nine months' duration, was made in 1866 by William Sandford, later deservedly famous as a pioneer of Eskbank Iron Works, to manufacture sheet iron and carry out certain railway line work for the Government, and operations of any kind terminated in 1896.

The blast furnace (second on the site, the original furnace having been demolished with the beam engine in 1859), which was 49 feet in height, was pulled down in 1927, after standing for some 82 years, and to-day nothing remains except slight signs of the original foundations. 

A temporary revival, upon which, no doubt, the shades of the two Smiths and Messrs. Neale and Holmes smiled with benevolent approval, came in March, 1941, when Australian Iron and Steel Ltd. commenced operations there because of Japan's treacherous entry into the war, and Australian shipping losses, in order to replace shipment defi- [line missing] South Australian sources.

Quarrying, however, ended in December, 1941, ore of satisfactory grade being exhausted, the total removed having been 14,100 tons with an ore content, of under 50 per cent. 

Three historical facts concerning articles manufactured from ore produced at the mine are noteworthy.

On 3rd July, 1850, Hon. Mrs. Stewart, daughter of Governor Fitz Roy, turned the first sod of the Sydney Parramatta railway, first to be commenced in Australia, with a spade made from metal smelted from Fitzroy ore; the first of more than 50 piers for the Gundagai Bridge was cast on 23rd February, 1865, at the works, in the presence of Governor Sir John Young, Lady Young and a large party; and the girders for Vickery's Chambers, 80 Pitt Street, Sydney, demolished some years ago;  were manufactured at Fitzroy. 

When Governor Northcott tomorrow unveils the commemorative cairn on the site of the mine, whereon tribute is paid to the memory and achievements of the four courageous principals in the venture which, although foredoomed to failure, was nevertheless the genesis of one of the most vital factors in Australia's present-day national economy, he will be the third of the King's representatives to be chronicled for posterity as having been associated with the Fitzroy mine.

[For facts and quotations used in the preparation of this article I   acknowledge my indebtedness to R. j Else Mitchell's authoritative paper in   the R.A.H. Journal on 'Mittagong and District,' the Bowral Free Press, 'Iron and Steel Industry in Aus- tralia' (Essington Lewis), The Mitchell Library staff, and Mr. W. Smith  (Hurlstone Park), a grand-nephew of W T. Smith.]