Lithgow and this Blast Furnace record the beginning of the iron and steel industry in Australia. The furnace was established in 1886 by William Sandford and operated until 1928 when production was moved to Port Kembla.
The site has now been converted into a park around the remains of the pump house and the furnace foundations. This site offers a self guided tour of the remains of Australia's first steel works. There are ruins of original brick machinery rooms as well as remains of the minerals storage and processing structures.
There is a pleasant walk around Lake Pillans Wetland adjacent to the park. Lake Pillans was the former cooling dam for the Blast Furnace and has now been developed as a filtering wetland with picnic and walking facilities.
Distance & direction from Sydney: 143 Klms W NW
Inch Street, Lithgow
Tel: (02) 6351 3557 Website
Information courteous Lithgow History Avenue: Website
On 24 April 1901 William Sandford organised a gala dinner to announce that he and his son Esk had successful tapped the first viable quantities of steel produced in Australia at the Eskbank Ironworks. Sandford had been working Eskbank since the 1880s, and although tapping steel was a triumph, he was nearly exhausted by it. He felt iron and steel were basic commodities and needed to be boosted, and he tried every which way possible to protect and support his venture. While Lithgow’s coal miners were free traders, iron workers and their bosses were protectionists so, to advance his cause, Sandford ran as a protectionist against Joseph Cook in the 1901 federal parliamentary election. He then tried to convince the NSW government to take over the works. Finally, when a tender for steel and iron supply became available he bribed three parliamentarians, including William Holman, to win the contract. Part of that deal included the construction of a blast furnace, to enable production of pig iron for steel. Sandford complied.
The Blast Furnace was ‘blown in’ on 13 May 1907. It was Sandford’s proudest moment and won him the title of father of the Australian steel industry. His relations with workers were relatively harmonious and beneficent and the Eskbank estate was, to him, a satisfyingly noisy and smoky place. However, behind the scenes, Sandford was financially and mentally strained. He could not raise capital but was unwilling to cede his management to external investors such as John Lysaght Ltd, and although Charles Hoskins and his brother George looked at the plant, they pulled out when they saw the state of the books. The Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, which had underwritten the operation, foreclosed on the ironworks on 9 December 1907, although it kept the Blast Furnace running. With 700 out of work, the Premier invited the Hoskins brothers to take over the Lithgow iron and steelworks. Although the complicated deal ensured Sandford’s debts were paid and he received enough money to guarantee his financial security, he was devastated and felt deceived by Charles Hoskins. His parting with the Lithgow community was sad for him, his wife Caroline, and the workers and their community.
Although Sandford got the ball rolling, it was the Hoskins family who would define the steel industry in Lithgow. They were clearsighted about the technological problems of the steel and ironworks, and the labour issues, and had considerable business acumen, but Charles Hoskins was impatient and imperious and provoked industrial unrest as soon as he set foot in Lithgow in 1908. Hoskins was also a protectionist, and although his negotiations with government over tariffs were never entirely successful, he did manage to get the Eskbank enterprise onto a solid footing before the surge in production caused by World War I.
Charles Hoskins brought an entirely new mentality to Lithgow when he took over the Blast Furnace from the financially beleaguered William Sandford in 1908. As his son Cecil put it, his approach was blunt. The works had:
… for almost a generation operated on the basis of small entrepreneurs contracting to do work with the owners or lessees of the Works plant, engaging their own labour and deciding the method of distribution of the profits which might arise … [this had led to] the development of a type of labour which was fiercely independent and very proud of the right to maintain its own opinion.
As Hoskins was used to dealing with workers on fixed wages, Cecil Hoskins said ‘industrial misunderstandings between management and men’ were inevitable. However the Hoskins also felt that part of the problem was the Labor movement’s ambitions to become a major political party, ‘in effect looking for a position as a master’, and threatening nationalisation of manufacturing industries. Still, even Cecil Hoskins had to acknowledge that standards at the Blast Furnace were low:
There were no washing or showering facilities, no septic system, no provision of transport to the plant, no shelter for outside workers, and of course no issue of overalls or protective equipment, and a complete absence of change rooms and lunch room, and, according to the whim of the proprietor smoking was not permitted during working hours.
From the men’s point of view, their work was hot, heavy and dangerous, with flying sparks, molten metal and noxious fumes and they deserved fair compensation and the right to have a smoke at work. The smoking dispute was fixed when Hoskins agreed men could bring cigarettes to work, as long as they rolled them in their own time. However, other issues were harder for the men and unions to live with. The Eskbank Iron and Steelworkers’ Association had always gotten on well with Sandford, and its members were now outraged with Hoskins’ belligerence. Tensions never settled. Wages were not rising and the cost of living was high. As well as that, workers’ expectations had been raised locally by the election of a Labor state government and an overwhelmingly Labor council, headed by union leader and former ironworker Robert Pillans. Workers struck for better pay at Hoskins’ Carcoar operations, and in February Lithgow workers went out. Not even the Labor MP, James Dooley, another future premier, could negotiate a settlement. The strike dragged on, despite interventions from NSW Ministers G.S. Beeby and King O’Malley.
Boilover was inevitable, especially as the company moved to bring in non-
The strike was not settled until 17 April 1912, but Hoskins prosecuted Pillans and Dixon. Dixon and two others were jailed. The union’s right of access to the site was guaranteed, but it was a pyrrhic victory as wages were cut. Still, Hoskins and the unions were beginning to realise they were inter-