A town subdivision plan displays a developer’s dream. But rarely the outcome. Albert John Swan, an accountant with “nothing more than intelligence, energy and an abiding faith” (in himself at least) was the visionary who founded the Standard Portland Cement Company in 1924; established the workings of a cement industry over the next two years; and conceived a township to house its workers. Charbon was to have concrete streets, be electrically lit, have a school of arts, recreation sites and a number of businesses, including a hotel.
Swan did better than most managing directors could hope to do, having secured, even before the company was floated, a three-year government contract to provide 150,000 tons of cement. Charbon, by the way, is the French word for coal, a practical naming, since the cement works were built beneath a mountain of coal. The streets too have practical names, as befits an accounting mind perhaps: Charbon Road, Cement Avenue, Standard Avenue, Mountain Street, Reedy Avenue (it was never formed but named after the creek that filled the dam) and Station Street.
The cement industry closed in 1977, half a century after it started, but the village of Charbon remains, if somewhat diminished. While the first subdivision plan of business and home sites (auctioned 14 May 1927) provides an interesting point of comparison, Charbon’s history is more accurately discovered through photos and memories, news articles and archives, paddocks and plantings, signage and structures. So let me take you on a tour.
The Charbon I first discovered, when I drove along Cooper Drive and turned left across an overhead bridge into Cement Avenue, is a village of workers’ cottages. There are today less than thirty houses in this part of Charbon though one hundred and eight lots can be seen on the subdivision plan. In a way this is the youngest part of Charbon. After a forced closing during the war, the company realised they could only re-open if they attracted skilled workers and migrants by supplying housing, so quickly erected seventeen pre-fabricated steel houses with corrugated fibro roofs and fibro walls. In 1925 A J Swan had imagined a hotel in this part of the township. Despite lining up a Sydney brewery and enlisting a Sydney barrister, the application for a hotel license failed and Charbon became a dry town, except for the bottles carried back from Kandos or the secret still in someone’s back yard.
If we drive south down Charbon Road we pass a flattish piece of ground on the left with two friendly white horses. There is nothing to be seen except a driveway entrance, but here was the first accommodation, a boarding house for men building the works’ infrastructure. In March 1925 the Mudgee Guardian announced that it “accommodates 60 men for half of whom sleeping quarters have been provided” (The other half were presumably in tents). Lynette brought it to life with a diagram based on her early memories of the fifties and sixties. There were two separate boarding house buildings with numerous small bedrooms, garages, car ports, dining rooms, outside toilets and showers, and a donkey hot water system. It seems to me a boarding house keeper didn’t have an easy job. Those who ran the Charbon boarding house included Walter Harris (1925), Fred and Nellie Aylett (1927), Mr Davis and Mrs Funk (1929), Mrs Angus (1930), Mr Burrows (1933 – he sold the contents and the complex appeared to close till after the war), Mr Connor (1949), Mr and Mrs Cass (1954) and Thelma and Ned Morton.
Station Street I suspect was liveliest street in Charbon; and the prettiest, going by its avenue of camphor laurels. It has some of the first private houses in the village, “very nice looking cottages, built in most cases of concrete”. On the corner of Station Street was the two-teacher and sometimes one-teacher school; and beside it a tennis court. You can still see the entry on the corner, but there is not much sign of the prize-winning garden. A 1929 photo shows thirty-nine children, a 1939 photo shows 49. The school building was eventually moved to Kandos Public School.
Across the road, I was assured, had been the railway station. I have to rely on railway archives to imagine a timber-framed waiting room clad with corrugated steel, sixteen by ten feet, with a single pitched roof; the platform wall made of pre-cast concrete units. A railway station, no matter how humble, is a hub of activity at certain times of the day. Consider too that this little section of Charbon had a post office and general store and at least one other shop.
Station Street was in view of the manager’s residence as were most parts of this centre of industry. Maiala was set in lush gardens (two gardeners at one time) and approached by an imposing avenue of trees. Its longest and most memorable occupants were Christopher and Lee Saville, the two people who ensured the creation of Henbury Golf Course. Maiala is a pretty name, but I can’t imagine Lee Saville would have been so proud of it if she had known it is Tuscan slang meaning whore and bitch. This once beautiful home is now abandoned and being eaten by termites. In the same vicinity is “The Lodge” which provided accommodation for visiting big wigs like A J. It too is abandoned; and trashed.
Charbon Road leads down to the cement works, towering beneath a towering mountain, now owned by Sibelco but not operating. The works are best seen from the staff section, further along and up a hill. Here were the substantial homes of management, such as Henry Meredith, chief chemist. The houses are still there, though not as sparkling, in a parkland setting, with outdated bowling green, tennis court and children’s playground, a reminder of seclusion and privilege.
I noted as we drove through Charbon, that it, much more than Kandos, was a place established on class lines, whether intentionally or just to fit its geography. Overwhelmingly though, I felt a sense of sadness for a once-thriving village. Men walking and cycling to and from Kandos and down Charbon Road to the works; children climbing the mountain, pushing and shoving through the school gate, and playing on railway tracks; women chatting at the Post Office, hanging out washing and tending their gardens.
But that I guess is the story of our industrial age. Towns are conceived, grow and diminish.
The featured image of Charbon School 1929 is with permission of NSW State Archives.
To download the first subdivision plan click below:
Charbon Township copy