Cornwall Coal Mine opened in 1886
CORNWALL: The Town
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
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
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
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
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.