Architecture, Cement History, Local History

The Harder You Fall

Kandos has its white elephant – a copper refinery.

It all began when Kandos was in its first heyday. At that time, only four years after the company was formed, only two years after the first land sale,  and with World War I on-going, the cement works, quarries and mines were in production, employing more than 200 in a burgeoning town of more than 1000. Businesses were opening, houses were going up and Kandos had four profitable industries: coal mining, cement making, cinder brick making and lime burning. 

In June 1917 rumours began circulating that the Cornish Scottish and Australian Mines (CSA) intended opening a smelting works at Kandos to refine the copper ore they mined at Cobar. CSA was already in negotiation to lease land from the cement company – a V shaped area between the main railway line and the company’s siding. It gave them access to transport, power, water, coal and limestone. The Mudgee Guardian was effusive in its conviction that Kandos would one day be a great iron making and steel making centre. Its destiny, they predicted, was to be “one of the greatest industrial centres, not only of the state, but of Australia”. 

It is not surprising that the cement company encouraged another industry to join them at Kandos. Not just for the rental. A copper industry would add to the industrial impact of Kandos, increase the workforce by 90, grow the town and make it more commercially viable. What’s not to like? The cement company increased their investment from £200,000 to £500,000 and issued £46,000 bonus shares.

By mid-1918 it was full steam ahead for the CSA refinery at Kandos. The site was a hive of industry under the management of Harold Schroder (later to become manager of the cement works) and the building contractor Country Concrete Constructions (chosen no doubt because the manager of the cement company was also general manager of CCC). Ground was cleared, trial holes sunk, trenches excavated, gravel delivered, and tons of machinery unloaded (much of it purchased from the Great Cobar smelting plant at Lithgow). Buildings sprang up, including the manager’s and foreman’s houses, offices, storehouses and refinery. And finally the concrete smoke stack in October. This 150 feet high imposing white painted structure weighed 425 tons, contained ten tons of steel, including three and a half miles of steel rods, and cost 2000 pounds. Said to be the fourth ferrocement stack in Australia, it was built to withstand a 100 mph gale. It didn’t go up without a hitch though, according to Bob Schroder. At the fifty foot level it was discovered to be nine inches out of plumb. The error was corrected in the next thirty feet and a bit of strategic plastering did the job.

In the meantime the people at Cobar began to realise that this new-beaut refinery at Kandos was “of no benefit to the people of Cobar”. Employment, business and livelihoods would be affected. Questions were asked: Why did the Government invest £40,000 in the Great Cobar company to supposedly make it the smelting centre of the west? Why didn’t CSA use it to refine their copper? Was there something underhand going on? A deputation led by council approached the premier. Not all the directors were happy either. Why invest £32,000 in another refinery instead of paying dividends to shareholders? 

Agitation was met with assurance. At the shareholders meeting in December 1918 the chair of CSA, Mr Blakemore, outlined the benefits of his grand vision. The CSA refinery at Kandos would produce electrolytic copper which was in greater demand and earned greater profits. CSA would not be beholden to the company at Port Kembla who had a monopoly on electrolytic refining methods. CSA, having contracted an excellent lease with the cement company, now had an asset in a central position in the NSW rail network. Much of the money used would otherwise have been paid in War Time Profits Tax. This decision would benefit shareholders. Be assured!

Ads began appearing in local and Sydney papers in December 1918 – Wanted in January for CSA Mines Kandos, Refinery Men, Roaster Captains, Mates and Tank-house Men. But even before the workforce was in place, there was devastating (though perhaps foreseeable) news: “the prices for copper came down with a crash on the London Metal Exchange”. The war was over, bullet casings were redundant and the price of £150 a ton for copper had fallen dramatically and continued to fall for years. The Kandos refinery was in caretaker mode for much of 1919. Production began again in September. But now the production process changed. Matte copper, produced at Cobar, was railed to Kandos via Merrygoen, Dunedoo and Mudgee, to produce blister copper, then railed to Port Kembla to produce electrolytic copper!

The CSA board faced further devastating news when a fire broke out in their Cobar mine on 20th March 1920, a fire it was thought (by the directors at least) to have been purposely lit. The fire brought CSA’s mining and smelting operations to a standstill. It brought Kandos to a momentary slump with land values falling, businesses closing and families leaving. The directors hoped for a turn-around. They approached the government to take over the smelting works. That was refused because copper production was “worse than unprofitable”. CSA shares fell in 1922 to one shilling and ninepence (compare the price of £1/12/- in 1917). In 1925 the company sold off the plant and buildings at Kandos. The shed which housed the furnaces was demolished and the timber was used in construction of the cement company’s new store building. The stack and one of the refinery buildings lasted till the 1980s. The company’s cottages might still be there, having been used by the cement company for decades. At the end of 1926, or soon after, the company went into liquidation.

CSA is a story of expectations unfulfilled. It was also an uncomfortable reminder to a town in its infancy, that a great industry can be built on wobbly foundations.  

G H Blakemore chairman of CSR centre seated
Image from Hidden Copper: The Early History of the Cornish, Scottish and Australian Mine, Cobar, NSW, Ken McQueen, Journal of Australasian Mining History, Vol. 4, September 2006
CSA Refining Works at Kandos
The stack can be seen to the right
(photo courtesy Bruce Fleming)

CSA was a story of great expectations unfulfilled. And an uncomfortable reminder to a town in its infancy, that a great industry can be built on wobbly foundations.  

6 thoughts on “The Harder You Fall”

  1. There are no straight lines when researching a topic! Good writing about history brings everything out in the open, just as you continue to do every month. Thank you for unraveling Kandos history. Love it.

    Like

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