The skyline of the southern NSW coastal town of Port Kembla will be forever changed when the iconic 198 metre Copper Smelter Stack is brought down by explosives. The State Government Planning Department has given final permission to remove the landmark, disused since 2003 but still a lingering reminder of the town’s industrial foundations, and visible from miles around and out to sea. For almost 50 years the stack has towered over the working class cottages of this city that hugs the rocky shelves of the Pacific Ocean, and is considered by many to be an icon of the area.
Certainly it is the most distinctive man-made object of the area, and one of the tallest chimney stacks in Australia. Whether it can be seen as beautifying or not, that is irrelevant in terms of heritage. Just because we may not think an object is attractive to the eye doesn’t mean its heritage value is not justified. On the contrary, heritage comes in many shapes and forms and the main point of reference is how it reminds us of how we once lived, worked, and grew as a nation. This constitutes true heritage, especially that of industrial heritage, where new techniques and ways of doing things are constantly evolving, thereby making redundant the old ways at regular intervals.
Steam locomotives, for example, are redundant as an effective means of transport, does that mean we should scrap all steam trains and not allow future generations the opportunity to lay their hands and eyes on them as we have had ourselves in the past? Many would argue that to see a fully working steam locomotive in the flesh is far more impressive than today’s electric equivalent. And there could be no arguement that this smelting stack in Port Kembla is similarly impressive.
The Hammerhead Crane at Garden Island is a recent example of redundant technology, and the sad decision made by the Federal Government to scrap this crane is a reminder of how out of tune we are with our industrial heritage, and how far we stand behind the rest of the world with regard to our dire lack of respect for heritage retention. With decisions like this being made time and time again here in Australia in the 21st century, we as a nation will be the poorer. When we erase these visible symbols of our industrial heritage, we erase the links to our past. The people who worked these things slowly disappear, their knowledge and workmanship disappears, and then the structures are taken away, we are left with very little to remember what once was commonplace.
What the powers-that-be are saying to us, by allowing demolition of our heritage items en masse, is that our heritage is not important. They are saying to us “we don’t need these reminders, we only want to look to the future, to growth, to prosperity, nothing else matters…” and that “it’s not important for our children to see these things, there is no relevance of these things anymore, they do not belong here and they add no value to these places…” I am one who disagrees with this philosophy whole-heartedly. I believe there is a place for these things, I believe they represent who we are, and where we have come from, and to lose them means we are losing an innate part of who we are, of our own identity, and we shouldn’t be allowing short-term financial decisions alone to govern how we treat these objects of our inheritance.
The copper smelter stack at Port Kembla represents Port Kembla… It is Port Kembla. Just as the Hammerhead Crane is Garden Island. When we strip these historic industrial places of their relevant monuments we are taking away something symbolic, and leaving behind a more generic display. Many people in Port Kembla and around the Wollongong area won’t feel a need to commiserate or even commemorate the loss of such an object. They may even be glad to see the end of it. But whether they like it or not Port Kembla is an industrial working town, a lively hub of coal and steel that has helped shape Australia’s eastern seaboard growth. And so the smelter, this towering concrete and brick edifice, deserves its place watching over the landscape, it deserves its rightful position as a centrepiece of heritage standing sentinel over the tapestry of south coast industrial workings it helped create.
A local lobby group known as Stack 360 would agree with me. They have the foresight to see that this industrial vestige can be much more than just a blight on the town as some believe. They have demonstrated what can be accomplished by lighting up the stack with sound and light displays, attracting the attention of locals and visitors alike, and turning the structure from an overdue relic into a tourist drawcard virtually overnight. With visions to go further and create viewing platforms atop the monumental tower (imagine the view), it seems that yesterday’s dirty industry can indeed be turned into tomorrow’s tourist industry as it has in many other countries around the world.
Unfortunately they may not get the chance. The site’s Japanese owners have declared they will not be saving the structure, which they claim suffers from concrete cancer, and demolition day had been set for 5 September. Port Kembla Copper had tossed up alternative techniques to demolish the stack after alarm was raised over the safe removal of asbestos within the expansion gaskets throughout the tower, and slower piece by piece removal was seen as a safer option to explosives. However explosive detonation was put firmly back on the agenda this year when a breakthrough occurred which could allow separate and safe removal of the expansion gaskets. Even now at this late stage, safety is of major concern for the Department of Planning & Infrastructure, the EPA, WorkCover and Wollongong City Council, who have stepped in to postpone the date of 5 September until all safety requirements can duly be met. “No demolition will occur until the Government is satisfied the work is safe, the methods are appropriate and all relevant concerns and issues have been fully addressed,” a joint statement said.
So for Port Kembla’s historic smelting stack, and industrial icon, the end, though not defined, is clearly near… Soon, maybe in September 2013, the stack will be felled and fall into a massive pile of rubble. Soon after that, the people who wanted it gone will have to find something else to talk about that they want gone. And soon again, after that, a meaningless business development will rise form its ashes. And then, when visitors ask the question, “what is there to see in Port Kembla?” where once we could have proudly replied “there’s a pretty impressive giant copper stack, one of the biggest in the country” now we will only be able to scratch our heads and throw up excuses. And not long after, this giant chimney will start to fade from our memories and we will even start to forget that it ever existed… Such is the way of the world.
Main image Pic by Andy Zakeli, illawarra Mercury.
I call it ‘heritage hate’, when a certain entity or governing body decides that there is nothing worth working towards with regards to the heritage of an identified item or area. It is not seen as important enough to warrant the necessary study, funding, or interest by the governing body needed to maintain and protect that heritage to an acceptable level. It is simply wiped from the agenda, and given the lowest possible afterthought despite the public’s perception, wants or needs regarding these matters that really belong to us all, and concern not only ratepayers of today but the children and grandchildren of generations to come.
The current state government led by Barry O’Farrell is an exponent of heritage hate. It seems as though now filtering down from the Liberal political machine at state level, that many Liberal councillors also share that sentiment at the local level. The heavily Liberal dominated Sutherland Shire council led by Mayor Kent Johns have embarked on a campaign of heritage hate soon after coming to power, writing a draft LEP that is so geared toward developer interests and non-protective of the shire’s great assets that it has prompted a backlash of over 2000 submissions, with many residents now wondering what lies in store for the future of their beloved Shire.
Heritage hate shows itself in many forms. One significant item that came up in the news recently is a cottage of Thomas Holt estate. The historic house at 5 Evelyn St. North Sylvania, formerly known as ‘The Gunyah’, was built in the 1870s as part of the original Thomas Holt Sutherland estate. It was one of three workers’ cottages and is the last remaining building of the historic estate, and one of the oldest houses standing in the Sutherland Shire. Thomas Holt himself was undoubtedly one of the most important figures in the Sutherland’s history, having accomplished numerous watermarks within his lifetime. The fact that this is the very last remnant of his famous Sutherland Estate makes it an extremely vital link to the history of the area and the early days of the colony south of Sydney.
The cottage is actually owned by Sutherland Council, being bought by a much more forward-thinking council back in 2003, for the purpose of future restoration and preservation as a living piece of local heritage. Now they have announced they will not be restoring, nor preserving the cottage. They won’t even be giving other potential buyers a chance. Instead, they have opted for the self-professed ‘document, demolish and sale’ procedure (which could be interpreted as ‘take a few photos, send in the bulldozers, and cash in’), truly an astonishing course of action considering the council at the time of sale enforced heritage listing on previous owner Jan Buchanan (whose family owned the house for 70 years) and eventually bought the house for a sum of $610,000. “When I sold it, the council told me they had grandiose ideas about its restoration. They promised there would be a caretaker to look after it, but the last time I went to visit it was vandalised and run down. I had to walk away” she told Fairfax reporters.
The reasons given by council for erasing this valuable piece of local history are, of course, financially motivated. Originally it was estimated to cost around $200,000 to restore the weatherboard cottage. However that has now blown out to $495,000. Liberal Mayor Kent Johns said “In its current state it is derelict, it would be irresponsible to invest more council funds in this property.” Now I’m not sure exactly who quoted Kent Johns and his council half a million dollars to fix up a weatherboard cottage, but I love to see the speedboat their accountant gets around in.
This seems to be another case of heritage loss by pre-empted neglect. The fact that council is putting a questionable restoration cost onto this project when in fact the house was paid for years ago for the very purpose of restoration raises serious concerns over the current spending patterns of Sutherland Council. Ratepayers, who deserve better, are being taken for a pack of dummies by this irresponsible council who see fit to strip the area they represent of a very significant piece of its visible history. And the case of council acting as owner, development applicant, judge, jury, and executioner, is always a situation that is questionable by its nature.
Sutherland Shire should be well and truly proud to maintain a little piece of Thomas Holt’s legacy in the shape of this house, not looking to simply cash in to fill up a short term budget hole. Absolutely disgraceful…
Even the Sutherland Historical Society have something to answer for. Strangely, for an organisation that would normally be considered the guardians of local heritage, they have remained fairly quiet on the situation of potentially losing one of their oldest buildings, seemingly adopting the ‘lay low and see’ attitude. Questions posed by myself and others including historian and honorary life member Edward Duyker, and editor of Doryanthes arts journal Les Bursill OAM (also a life member) have not been fully answered. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Mayor Kent Johns, that proven purveyor of local heritage hate, is also patron of the Sutherland Historical Society.
Some members are questioning whether Mayor Johns is indeed an appropriate patron, and wanting to know exactly why the Society is not jumping up and down about this issue. Edward Duyker and others have also questioned the council’s negative stance on heritage moreover, after reading a passage in the draft LEP that slated the removal of a number of items that no longer meet the threshold for heritage listing. “What exactly is the changed threshold and what are the new criteria and what are the heritage items to be removed? Perhaps it is whatever suits local developers” Mr. Duyker notes… These questions remain unanswered.
The story of the Thomas Holt Estate cottage echoes that of another recent cottage demolition nearby, that of Bedford Cottage (otherwise known as ‘the Gardener’s Cottage’), located inside the Royal National Park at Heathcote, by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. The Royal National Park is quite an historic park in itself, being the first designated National Park in Australia, and the second oldest in the world, behind Yellowstone in the USA. How a historic cottage could be trashed within this environment is a wonder. What codes of heritage preservation do the NPWS actually adhere to?
This building was built between 1909 and 1915 for James Toyer, an important gardener in the St. George area who married the daughter of the first Royal National Park manager. It was the site of the depot for the first horse drawn and later motorised buses in the Shire, and was renowned for its intricate herringbone brickwork. It was one of the earliest brick buildings in the Shire.
Despite years of neglect by the NPWS, the foundations were sound, according to Heritage Building Consultant Gary Waller, who estimated $250,000-$300,000 to restore the cottage with a new roof and re-lined walls. A twenty year campaign by local historic groups came to no avail, including one proposal by local radio station 2SSR to set up the house as a broadcasting station back in 2006. They were told by Minister the signal may be detrimental to the flora and fawna in the park, which they found “a bit strange as Australia’s first official military signal came from the park.’’
What a missed opportunity this could turn out to be. Restoring and transforming the historic cottage at the entry of the Royal National Park, right near the Loftus Tramway Museum, into a museum of early bus transport as well as an interactive radio broadcasting museum. Its close vicinity to the Loftus Tramway Museum with trams in fact running right by would have added to the experience. So there you have it, another wonderful piece of history lost, an opportunity lost and a beautiful cottage reduced to a pile of smouldering rubble. Now that’s a fine legacy for the National Parks and Wildlife Service to leave behind in Australia’s most historic park. And Sutherland Shire Council wants to follow suite…