Tucked away between Bells Beach and Point Addis, the Ironbark Basin is a beautiful bushed inland basin that runs down to the beach. The basin is part of the Great Otway National Park and its shoreline forms part of the Point Addis Marine Park. The soaring orange cliffs are spectacular in the early morning as the rising sun hits them. Many walkers on the trails among the Stringybark woodlands and ironbark forest will spot honeyeaters, fantail finches and wattlebirds, as well as echidnas, kangaroos, wallabies and the odd snake. These days some deer have been spotted crossing the Point Addis Road. Walkers also enjoy the spectacular views from atop the cliffs as part of the Surf Coast Walk and many may be surprised to hear that in 1920, a busy mine was operating here, extracting jarosite as a source of Iron oxide pigment. I wonder how many walkers and surfers know the story behind the “old paint mine” and just exactly what went on during its operation.
The traditional owners of the land are the Wathaurung people, and the connection to their ancestral land here is strong. The Wathaurung people have a long tradition of gathering the red ochre found in the basin to use for body paint for ceremonial dancing. Body paint has a deep spiritual significance for the aboriginal people and is an important part of their culture. Uncle Bryon Powell, from the Wathaurung Aboriginal Corporation (trading as Wadawurung) says his ancestors probably came across the Ochre supplies when they were walking across country. They were possibly looking for food or for wood for fires or spear making. They would have marked the site and returned for the supplies of the rich red ochre when it was needed. The tribe would mix the ochre with echidna, goanna or mutton bird fat and keep it for special occasions.
The ochre from the ironbark basin is a very good quality and still valued by the members of the Wathaurung people today and according to Bryon, it is still gathered for ceremonies.
In 1909, George Stephen Affleck, a geologist and a weekend prospector who may have been looking for gold, found some Jarosite mineral deposits at the foot of the cliffs on the beach near Point Addis. He discovered jarosite rich beds up to 3 meters thick and some three kilometres long in the rocky outcrops of the cliffs.
Affleck saw the possibilities of using this material. By 1922 he had teamed up with financier, Archibald Victor Nobelius and a consulting chemist, David Avery who had experience with mining and development companies. The men formed a company called Jarosite Products Limited, leased 223 acres of land from the Crown with the intent of mining an immense deposit of double sulphate Jarosite.
Thing’s moved slowly. A prospectus was issued and shares sold to the public. There was a long list of investors from the Geelong area. It was not until 1925 that the mine site was ready to run. A lease was obtained for the crown land and access was only possible by turning off the Geelong Road and driving through John Calvert Bell’s land, roughly where Jarosite Road is now.
Buildings were erected for staff and mining requirements. Machinery, including a 20 horsepower crusher, roasting ovens, settling tanks, and grinders were brought in by horse and cart , and a small laboratory was established.
A dam was constructed and timber supplies for fuel were felled from the surrounding bush. A small seam of coal was found nearby which would serve the needs of the smithing forge. A diesel generator provided electric power.
The Jarosite Products Company aimed at manufacturing red oxide. Mixed with suitable drying oil the pigment was the basis of a rust red paint, which was used to protect galvanized iron roofing and also to paint rolling stock of the states railways. It was also in demand for colouring cement work, pottery and floor products. The mine was also expected to produce supplies of sulphuric acid, sulphate of iron and potassium sulphate fertilizer, although the production of these products seemed very speculative. The lease of the land included the rights to any shale oil that may be found.
The jarosite was mined from near to the cliffs. By 1926 the company had installed a tramline from the beach, up a steep incline, to the plant atop the cliffs. A trolley, hauled by winch and cable was horse powered, and travelled along the tramline to the three-sectioned mine building. Here the raw material was crushed, roasted in a special oven, then filtered after being washed in water from the dam. It was then dried to a powdered form. This was loaded onto a horse drawn wagon and hauled from the gully to a loading ramp at the corner of Jarosite and Geelong Roads. From here, horse transport carried the Oxide to Geelong. Regardless of hearsay, sea transport was not used.
Despite talk of lofty profit to be gained by investors in a very short period of operation., warning bells were ringing about the operation. Only seven months into 1925 a new plant manager advised better equipment was needed, and only two years later in March 1927 they reported the company was in fact not profitable. A parliamentary report at the time showed that Jarosite Products Ltd won only 49 tons of red oxide pigment valued at £699 and showed the mine was employing only 2 men. A meeting in November that year voted to wind up the operation and the liquidation was complete by 1931.
When it started its operation The Jarosite Products Limited was optimistic that there was strong support for an Australian product. It seems however in hindsight many things were stacked against the little company.
By the mid 1920’s the country was starting to feel the effects of what would become the great depression. Clients were only buying small amounts. Sales were reported to the Tramways and Country Roads Board and the Melbourne Steamship Company. Despite the commonly held belief that much of the red oxide from Jarosite went to the Victorian Railways there is not substantial proof that did in fact happen.
Water for washing the roasted ore was vitally important to the operation but the water catchment was small and several lower than average rainfall years, and high evaporation, impacted the operation. Dams built into the clay in the area are notoriously subject to seepage. The directors even tried mixing the dam water with salt water from the ocean. Professor Ian Rae, historian and chemistry educator at Melbourne University maintains that the lack of water was the most significant factor in the failure of the mine. The furnaces on the site were burning 24 hours a day, six days a week and the local coal supply was limited.
Another significant factor was the death of director George Affleck in August 1927, but probably the biggest contributing factor was the lack of capital. The Prospectus initially indicated a request for a paid-up capital of £20,000 (40,000 shares of 10/- each). On application to buy from the prospectus you were required to pay only 1/6th and another 1/6th on issue of your successful application. The balance was at call. The company was not successful in achieving a fully subscribed offer but the operation still went ahead. When early success was not achieved it seemed investors declined to continue supporting the venture.
It is almost 100 years since the mine at Jarosite opened in the Ironbark basin. The bush has regenerated but some relics of the plant are to be found in the scrub. There are remains of a possible water tank, concrete blocks and the raised embankment of the tramway can be recognised . The dam is still there though full of reeds and far from it’s original size.
Many now enjoy the beautiful Koori walk through the basin. Most locals and visitors are largely unaware of the somewhat fanciful plans of a geologist, a financier and a chemist that was so short lived, but had the potential to dramatically impact our beautiful coastal environment.
Perhaps their lack of good fortune and poor planning was very much to the benefit of our generation. An Industrial development so close to our beaches would send shivers down our spines these days and maybe we should all breathe a sigh of relief for it’s failure.
Braden, Lindsay, Unpublished manuscript, Anglesea Historical Society
Williams, M. and Rae, Ian D. Mining and processing of jarosite near Torquay in the 1920s. Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 68, No. 1, Apr 1997: 54-63
Wynd, Ian, (1992) Barrabool Land of the Magpie
Jarosite Products Limited Prospectus
Bryon Powell, Wathaurung Aboriginal Cooperative (Wadda-Warrung)
conversation with Professor Ian Rae, Melbourne University