Site Name: Mount Kembla Pioneer Kerosene Works
Address: Cordeaux Road Kembla Heights
GPS Coordinates: H 298897 E 6187702 HSL 200 metres
Site Access: Public Access/Viewing only of plant. Retort standing beside the roadway

The First Shale Kerosene Plant in Australia

The kerosene works was located on the Illawarra escarpment midway between the villages of Kembla Heights and Mount Kembla. While evidence of the plant has long since disappeared the site has of historical importance as it was the very first shale works in Australia.


(From the collections of the Wollongong City Library and the
Illawarra Historical Society)

In 1853, the Reverend W.B. Clarke, a man of the Church and a noted Geologist, presented a Technical paper on the results of his 1849 geological investigations, and samples of oil bearing Shales and Coal he had gathered behind and below Mount Kembla.

John Graham was the son of John Graham Snr., who owned a farm at Avondale. He was also the owner of the property on which the shale had been was discovered and was in business with a Commission Agent based in Sydney. Samples of the shale were gathered by him and submitted to the Government Analyst where it was found to produce 50 gallons (227litres) of oil per ton of shale. The analysis results were passed on to an initially reluctant John Graham and also attracted the attention of a Mr. Hammil an American oil refiner. Hammil approached Graham about the matter and this led to a decision to enter into a joint venture to erect a plant for refining the shale to extract the oil.

The Shale Oil Plant

A plant was duly erected by Graham and Hammil at a cost of £4,000 and oil was produced in quantity for the first time in December 1865. By 1870 the product had attracted a wide customer base for the lighting of private homes and businesses, and the successful operation of this relatively large plant attracted great attention from the press. A chronology by Michael Organ of events and press reports of the day may be found here.

The process plant itself consisted of externally fired retorts, multiple stills, and product washing. The retorts were robust steel containers capable of being sealed with cement. Nests of five retorts were heated by a furnace fired with coal mined adjacent to the shale mine.

A Retort from the Plant, standing upright

(Installed horizontally in the working Plant)
(Mineral Heritage committee collection)

The vapors driven off were condensed in a still, before being further distilled in separate stills, with condensate from those then being washed with water containing sulphuric acid prior to being packaged. Overall the facility comprised twenty three retorts of two different shapes, three stills, the acid wash tank, and miscellaneous ancillary equipment including packaging plant. Its production capacity (based on two twelve hour shifts per day), was variously described as being between 1200 and 1800 gallons of crude oil per week, plus smaller quantities of tar and naphtha.

Reports of the time described the first stage liquid as having "..a most horrible smell, something perfectly indescribable...". Descriptions of the plant in operation suggested it presented a dramatic sight particularly at night, with the area and adjacent trees lighted by the flames from the furnaces and the retorts being charged.

Price Competition

In 1874 Graham sold his interest in the plant for the reported sum of £20,000. A change in both ownership and management followed and in 1875 operations at the plant were suspended until 1876 when shale works at Kandos in the Lithgow area were able to offer a comparable product at a lower price.

A Final Fire

In 1877 a fire caused by sparks from a plant chimney set fire to hay stored in the stables, totally destroying the stables and burning a horse to death. This followed several fires that had occurred earlier but without such major consequences. This incident coupled with the competition from kerosene product produced and/or supplied from other sources spelt the end for the plant, and it ceased operating in December 1878.