Cornwall Coalminers' Heritage Park

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The "wheeler" and his pit pony were an important part of the early days of coalmining


The Contract Miners were the Life Blood of
the Coal Industry until the first Joy Continuous
Miner arrived at Cornwall in 1950


The humble skip
The only way it could be stopped was to put a
sprag in the wheel
This was a job that took a lot of practice


Cornwall Coal Mine opened in 1886



St Patricks Head District, which is the eastern end of the Fingal Valley in Eastern Tasmania, was first settled as a farming community in the 1820’s, mainly by settlers from the British Isles who were granted pieces of land. Convicts were brought up from Hobart Town to work as labourers and later many were given “tickets of leave” and became tenant farmers on their Master’s land. In 1855 the population was enhanced when a ship called America carrying some 300 German immigrants arrived in Van Diemens Land. Twenty families from its "Cargo" came up the East Coast to Falmouth and ended up in the "Cullenswood" District and played a large part in the building of the valley communities.
1886, however, saw a new way of life for the area begin when the railway was completed from Corners (Conara) to St.Marys. This saw the first productive coal mine opened at Cornwall near where a farm hand from a nearby property "Woodlawn" found coal in 1843, after his dog dug a hole in the bank in search of a badger.
A camp of rough huts and tents sprung up around the mine site, which gradually evolved into a town. It was named Cornwall after a number of Cornish tin miners, from the County of Cornwall in England, arrived to teach their mining skills.
Although the first major user of coal from Cornwall was the Tasmanian Railways for their steam trains, a number of Launceston business men secured a contract with the Victorian Government to supply coal for their railways and domestic use; hence a company was formed and appropriately named Cornwall Coal Company.
The Cornwall Coal Co. went from strength to strength and whilst the Victorian contract did not last long, domestic and industrial usage of coal in Tasmania was at a steady increase and as Cornwall the Company grew, so did the town.
A township was surveyed and blocks were given to miners on what was termed at the time as Miners Leases. Cottages sprang up everywhere, some built with milled timber, but many were made from round bush spars carried from the bush, barked, shaped and put into place by men who, in most cases, had not even built a shed before. The roofs were of split shingles, hence the reason for the steepness. In later years corrugated iron was nailed over the shingles.
The interior walls were covered with split palings and then layers of newspapers until a top coat of patterned wall paper was pasted on using a paste made from flour and water. Finally the room would not only look neat, but be warm and cozy with the help of a coal fired grate. Some rooms even had dirt floors, but made neat and comfortable with chaff and potato bags.
Very few houses had an interior bathroom or laundry; they were in a shed away from the house. The toilet was a long drop, usually in a small outhouse some fifty metres or so form the house. Later, a service called the night cart was introduced, This was the can system where the cans would be emptied once a week by a man with horse and cart, at night. As time went by the horse and cart was replaced by a motor vehicle but the night cart remained in operation until 2003.
As the demand for coal increased, the town of Cornwall grew and by 1950 there were close to a hundred houses, a post office, two shops, a butcher and a daily bread delivery. There was a Salvation Army Hall with a resident officer, a community hall and an Anglican church, plus a school with a tennis court, playground and recreation ground with a row of huge pine trees on the western and northern sides. Each tree represented a miner who had gone to World War One. Legend has it that the trees planted for the miners who did not return, died.
But alas, the late 1950’s saw cheap oil being dumped on the world markets, leaving the coal industry with no hope of competing, and in 1964 with only one major customer left, Cornwall Coal Co. sadly closed the Cornwall mine. This put hundreds of miners out of work, with many moving away from Cornwall to find work, leaving the town to slowly die as houses became almost worthless. Year after year houses were pulled down, shifted or burnt, shops closed through lack of business, churches were sold and pulled down, and finally in the mid nineties the post office closed.
Houses were sold for as low as a $100 and many were brought and rented out to all kinds of people, many of whom gave the town a bad name. But in recent years the town has seen a new breed off people move in from the Mainland, bringing with them new ideas and generating a new vision to the locals. A vision that Cornwall not only has beauty in its surrounding hills, magnificent valley views and natural bush land, but it is a unique little town with a coalmining heritage that has significant value and should be preserved in a way that generations to come can see, feel and appreciate how the forefathers of Cornwall lived, worked and built an industry and a town with a history so colourful and unique that it should never be forgotten.
Let us pause a moment and think of the brave men who, in the second half of the Nineteenth Century, tunneled their way in to the Mt. Nicholas Range with only a pick, shovel and a stick of dynamite and began to carve an industry that would be the life blood of the Fingal Valley for a hundred and twenty two years.
We remember 1890 when the Nation's Coalminers went out on strike, Mt Nicholas joined in but Cornwall went on working causing the Mt Nicholas miners to come to Cornwall looking for a fight. Fists and stones were thrown, sticks and tools were used as weapons and even an odd gun was fired, but at the end of the day Cornwall Miners continued to work.
But coalminers are forgiving people and within a year they had moved on. All miners, including Mt Nicholas and Cornwall, joined a union that would become one of the strongest in Australia. The coal mining communities of the Fingal Valley became united and moved forward. The Union grew with the industry and saw production reach 100,000 tones per year by the turn of the Twentieth Century
But it was not always beer and skittles, there were more strikes. Then World War One where the youngest and strongest were dragged off to fight. The depression and Scab labour of the thirties was a trying time for all. Then came the Second World War and the long strikes of the late forties, both of which were trying times for all.
The early fifties saw conditions improve for the miners and with good markets the industry looked stable, when all of a sudden the world was flooded with cheap oil. In no time, as customer after customer turned to oil, the coal industry was brought to its knees and in 1964 when Cornwall was forced to close; only Duncan Colliery at Fingal was left with a staff of less than forty. But one customer, Australian Newsprint Mills at Boyer, remained loyal and the industry was able to hang on with the skin of its teeth until the seventies when the oil price went back up. This brought most customers back to coal and the industry was soon back in good shape again. By 1982, when Cornwall was reopened at Blackwood, two kilometers west of the old tunnels, production was back to 300,000 tones per year.
But the heritage of this industry should never be forgotten. The blood, sweat and tears that went into the miners’ daily work carried on into the community in their building of churches, community halls and recreation grounds. They worked hard, played hard, but they were full of love for their families and their communities. Their contribution to the Fingal Valley and indeed the Tasmanian community is important, to say the least, and should be preserved for ever.
The township of Mt Nicholas along with two thirds of Cornwall is lost forever. The majority of houses along with the churches, schools, tennis courts, shops, butcher, baker, post office and the old original coal mines are only a heap of rock or broken concrete and those who hold on to the memories are fewer each year.
But Cornwall is holding on with forty houses, all of which date back to a time quite different when people knew no other life but to work hard, be devoted to their families and contribute to their community in a sharing, loving way. Where a shake of the hand, or a man's word, was law and children jumped to their father's commands. People lived, worked, loved, fought and played without the dreaded word "public liability". Sunday was when everyone found their best clothes, went to church, sat around the family table to a roast dinner and shared a fellowship that was as genuine as the coal smoke that hung over the town.
The people of Cornwall are working hard to hold on to what is left of Cornwall. They know the walls of the remaining houses are full of memories and stories that should be sought out, told and preserved. If not the heritage of the Tasmanian Coal Industry and, indeed, the town of Cornwall, both of which has played a significant role in Tasmanian history, will end up lost in a pile of rocks and broken concrete, like the homes, shops and churches so loving built by their forefathers. They will fight to the end to save their town. They will not let it be pushed into a heap and burnt like the pine trees that once stood so proud in the centre ot town in recognition of their war-time heroes.

Jim Haas