Fortress Newcastle: A Call To Action

Fortress Newcastle: A Call To Action

Lessons from History: Can Newcastle and the Hunter & Central Coast Regions help in the fight against COVID-19?


History repeats, and now is the time for our past achievements to help the world confronted with new challenges.  The Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association’s story of “Fortress Newcastle” is one whose time has come again.

Bob Kear, in his 2019 University of Newcastle Masters Thesis The Making of the Newcastle Industrial Hub 1915 to 1950 investigated how Newcastle, under Essington Lewis’ leadership, co-ordinated and re-engineered itself to make munitions and supplies for the war effort.

In these troubling times, can Newcastle industry, as it did in WW2, re-tool and manufacture what the world needs right now?

We are at war with a virus, and rather than shutting down, do we need to be tooling up to fight this thing instead?

The New York’s Governor Andrew M. Cuomo recently said they were “scouring the globe” to find medical supplies of face marks, ventilators, protective gowns, sanitisers etc.

Our infection rates are vertical, so what they need now, we will also need, so there is the market that may be able to keep people employed and occupied.

Can the Hunter and Central Coast Regions produce what is needed? Is there anyone locally that can produce these much needed medical supplies? What other things do we need to consider?

To help, the Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association have created the short video above. And Greg Ray has produced the following text below. Hopefully Newcastle can again lead the way!



By Bob Kear

This article charts the formation of the Newcastle Industrial Hub, (NIH), identifies the men who controlled it in its journey from Australian regional obscurity before 1915, to be the core of Australian steel manufacturing and technological development by 1950. This article begins with the question, “What is an Industrial Hub”? I argue that the Newcastle Industrial Hub was a collection of steel making, downstream steel fabrication, heavy engineering companies, together the necessary logistic support facilities to provide the sea borne and heavy rail transport facilities required to provide the ingress of raw material and the distribution of finished steel products. These logistic support operations included the provision of fresh water, electric energy and the technical education to required to develop a educated workforce.

The development of the Newcastle Industrial Hub began in 1909 with a letter written by the general manager of BHP, G.D. Delprat to the company’s board where he forecast the eventual closure of the Broken Hill mine, but promised a future more prosperous if the company turned to steel manufacturing. The board accepted Delprat’s proposal, sending him to the United States to identify the best steel making technology. During this journey he engaged the engineer David Baker to conduct a reconnaissance to assess the best location for the new steel plant. Baker advised that Newcastle, an existing coal port with good coking coal, suitable land to build the plant, fresh water and adequate labour force available. BHP accepted Baker’s advice appointing him to build the new plant, manage its start up and then to be the new plant’s manager.

Baker developed a plan for the new steelworks based on the latest American technology and the first Blast Furnace was blown in on 25 August 1915. By 1921 BHP had been joined by three new downstream steel fabrication companies, the Commonwealth Steel Co. which manufactured forged steel products, Ryland Bros. which manufactured wire products and Lysaght which manufactured flat steel sheet and corrugated iron products.

Led by Harold Darling, Chairman of the BHP board and Essington Lewis, BHP’s Chief General Manager, the steelworks and each of the downstream steel fabrication companies during the 1920s developed and consolidated their manufacturing and financial positions. In parallel with this growth the Newcastle based public utilities and heavy engineers which provided the underlying logistical support base for steel manufacture developed in parallel. A combination of organisational changes, government support in the form of tariffs and the introduction of improved technologies, lowered the manufacturing cost of steel manufacture and increased the Australian industries competitive position. This was a factor which enabled the NIH to survive and recover from the Great Depression of the early 1930s.

In May 1932 steel production reached its nadir of 179,312 tons, growing to 414,000 tons in May 1934, then growing to 1,000,000 tons by 1939. It has been argued that Australia’s economic recovery from the great depression was to a large extent was driven by the steel industry expansion, the great bulk of which was located in Newcastle. In 1934 the steel tube manufacturer Stewarts & Lloyds began operations in Newcastle and each of the other steel fabricators increased production of their products.

The great Depression was immediately followed by a boom in industrial growth in the Australian steel industry. In parallel with this manufacturing growth, from 1935 the NIH was progressively prepared for war. BHP installed a shell making plant in 1936 and in 1938 Stewarts and Lloyds purchased a shell making plant which was operational in February 1940. While the growth in the steel industry was welcome the scourge of unemployment still affected Newcastle and Australia for the remainder of the 1930s.

Expansion in the steel industry was matched by Newcastle’s public utilities which provided the logistic base on which the manufacturing centre had grown. Between 1933 and 1941 Electricity generation at the Zarra Street power station grew by 80 per cent to 57 mW. However, the most spectacular growth in public utilities was in Technical Education with the building of the Tighes Hill Technical College between 1936 and 1942.

The declaration of war in September 1939 found all elements of the NIH ready to manufacture and develop where necessary the wide range of steel products required for war. War encouraged innovation in the NIH with a number of special products, including armour plate steel developed by the BHP steelworks and Lysaght. However, the advent of war saw labour shortages develop and between 1942 and 1945 female workers were recruited to work alongside men in the steel industry.

While the advent of war encouraged innovation possibly the most spectacular product developed in Newcastle during the war was the manufacture of Tungsten Carbide tools. Turning, milling and drilling are among the most important and basic operations conducted in the engineering industry. Tungsten Carbide tools had first been developed in Germany during the late 1920s and their performance lowered machining times by more than 60 per cent, but the secret of their manufacture was tightly held. BHP tried unsuccessfully to gain access to the manufacturing secret in 1939, but given the war situation the company decided to develop their own. The development work began in December 1940 and by December 1941 Tungsten Carbide tipped tools were being made successfully. The success of this innovative effort conducted by a steel company in a city not recognised nationally as a research centre should be regarded as a manufacturing triumph.

However such technological triumphs were not matched in the area of industrial relations and between 1943 and 1949 industrial disputes were a burden for the steel and coal industries and for the city of Newcastle. In July 1943 munitions production began to slow and with the advent of peace the steel and heavy engineering industry had to struggle with change. A strike which encompassed the steelworks and all of the steel fabricators in 1948 saw government take a strong line against the union movement with troops being used in the coal mines.

By the beginning of 1950 most of the industrial issues were over, but in that year Harold Darling died and Essington Lewis retired. With the loss of these two men the Australian steel industry went to sleep, not waking again until the 1960s.

Bob Kear
26 March 2020

PDF Version: Bob Kear. The Making of the Newcastle Industrial Hub. March 2020


The following words are by Greg Ray:


“At first, when the war came, it seemed remote to most Australians.

After all, it was a long way away, in distant Europe. Australia sent troops to help in the fight against Hitler and fascism. The war forced Australia to begin re-gearing its industries and its economy to suit the new circumstances, but it was hard to persuade most civilians that they might have anything to worry about.

Then, suddenly, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and in a stunning advance they took the fortress of Singapore and soon bombs were raining on Darwin, submarines were sinking Australian ships and shelling East Coast cities.

Fortunately, some influential and powerful people had correctly foreseen the threat and the wheels were in motion to convert Australia onto a total war footing.

Making bombs – Photograph courtesy of Greg & Sylvia Ray

Total war meant exactly what it sounds like. Troops were brought home to face the immediate threat to Australia’s shores. The Government took control over practically every facet of life, from labour allocation, to prices, to communication. Winning the war became the only imperative.

Making aerial bombs – Photograph courtesy of Greg & Sylvia Ray

From a standing start Australia’s manufacturing industry developed almost overnight capabilities undreamt of just months before. Aircraft, specialised metals, complex machinery, weapons, textiles and delicate instruments were all suddenly able to be produced.

Making helmets – Photograph courtesy of Greg & Sylvia Ray

Wartime production was marshaled from the top of the government. Every available resource was considered and put into play. Tiny mechanic shops in small towns found themselves making obscure components for aircraft that were being assembled in big new factories far away. Women were called into the workforce in huge numbers and trained overnight to operate sophisticated machines.

Making shells – Photograph courtesy of Greg & Sylvia Ray

Labour was found to help undermanned farms sow crops and harvest them for the war effort. No expense was spared as the Government hurled everything at the task. The invader had to be thrown back, no matter what the cost.

The World’s Greatest Challenges Solved Here

The War Right Now Against COVID-19

Could something similar be done, on a local level, to face the threat of a viral pandemic?

If so, how could this begin in the absence of top-down direction from state or federal governments?

What should be produced? What resources will be vital? How should they be deployed?

Here’s a short and incomplete list, compiled on the basis of overseas experience:


1) Temporary COVID-19 hospitals or wards.
2) Masks, gowns and eye protection.
3) Effective sanitizing agents.
4) Ventilating equipment to help people breathe and keep their blood oxygenated.
5) Replacement disposables for ventilator equipment – perhaps 3D printed in home workshops by knowledgeable amateurs under expert guidance.
6) Test kits, for both virus and for antibodies.
7) Testing stations that minimise contact and risk.


1) Childcare for the children of vital healthcare workers. Immune people who have cleared the virus would be ideal in this role, if safety checks can be expedited to ensure no unsuitable people slip through.
2) Properly informed counselling services on tap, with expert advice available at the next level to those who need it.
3) People to deliver healthy food and other supplies to the elderly and vulnerable, who should be in isolation.
4) Telephone callers to make daily or twice-daily calls to the elderly and vulnerable. Roles 3 and 4 and 5 should be part of an interlocking service.
5) Administrators to compile the lists of those who need this help and those who can provide it, and to match those lists for maximum effect.
6) A centralised information hub to contain only reliable information and to debunk myths and dangerous rumours.

As the virus spreads and as more people become infected then clear the infection and gain immunity, as many of those people who are willing and able to help should be invited to take on some of the tasks listed above, and perhaps to help in health facilities.
In the near future, the immune portion of the population will be an extremely valuable resource.”

Greg Ray


Thanks to all, and hope we can create some inspiration in a troubled world right now.

Best Wishes, and keep safe

Gionni Di Gravio, OAM
University Archivist & Chair, Hunter Living Histories



“Push to Refocus Newcastle’s industrial resources to make products that are in short supply during COVID-19 crisis” By Matthew Kelly. March 29, 2020 5:00PM [Online Only]


Regional Development Australia Statement 25 April 2020 (Courtesy Director of Regional Development and Executive Officer The RDA Hunter Committee)

5 thoughts on “Fortress Newcastle: A Call To Action

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful article. Much needed at this time. These ideas need to be implemented now, and as swiftly as possible. Regards.

  2. Talking to a friend today who had been to a Mensware shop in Charlestown to pick up a suit. Owner said he had no other business but they spoke to the effect that he had plenty of material to make face masks which would keep him in business subject to the masks being of satisfactory to requirements.Either that or shut up shop was the comment

  3. Wartime stories abound about the making of ploughshares into swords. There were planning groups and they brought together industry people and government to transform production. It was very rapid in many cases. Plenty to think about in a time of Corona.

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