The "wheeler" and his pit pony were an
important part of the early days of coalmining
The humble skip
Cornwall Coal Mine opened in 1886
CORNWALL: The Town
St Patrick's 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 and convicts to work as labourers and
servants. Later many convicts 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. They played a large part in the building
of our community, as well as being the founders of a lucrative cheese
1886, however, saw a new way of life for the area begin when the railway
was completed from Corners (Conara) to St Marys and the first productive
coal mine was opened at Cornwall. This was where a farm hand from the
nearby property "Woodlawn" had found coal in 1843, after his
dog had 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 and named Cornwall after a number of Cornish tin miners,
from the County of Cornwall in England, arrived to teach their mining
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
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
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, then hessian and 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 cosy with the help of a coal fired grate. Some rooms
even had dirt floors, made neat and comfortable with chaff and potato
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 at night by
a man with horse and cart. 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. Of course there was
the school with a tennis court, playground and recreation area with a
row of huge pine trees on the western and northern sides, each one representing
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, putting hundreds of miners out of work. Many had to move
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 the last decade or so has seen a new breed of people move into the
town 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 with 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, tunnelled their way into 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 four years.
We remember 1890 when the Nation's coalminers went out on strike, Mt Nicholas
joined in, but Cornwall went on working causing a rift between the two
neighbouring towns and Mt Nicholas miners came to Cornwall looking for
a fight. What a fight it was; 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
and 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 and grew with the
industry. By the early 1900’s production reached 100,000 tonnes
per year and continued to grow.
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 1940s
was more than most could bare.
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 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 and most customers
came back to coal, bringing the industry back in good shape again. By
1982, when Cornwall was reopened at Blackwood, two kilometres west of
the old tunnels, production was back to 300,000 tonnes 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.
Let us all hold on to what is left of Cornwall because the walls of the
remaining houses are full of memories and stories that should be sought
out, told and preserved because 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 our forefathers,
or pushed into a heap and burnt like the pine trees that once stood so
proud in recognition of our war-time heroes.