I was most perplexed when I read that my great great Uncle Henry “Harry” Thomas Hicks Jnr had been in Joadja Creek in 1898. I’d camped at Joadja years ago and always thought it was a remote place, with few services and facilities, and a most unimaginable place to give birth to one’s first child. But long ago it was a very busy place with 100’s of miners and their families there.
Uncle Harry probably spent perhaps less than two years there at Joadja Creek after his 1898 marriage to Eva Kate Bottomley in Newtown. For most of his life until 1940, he lived in the Northern Illawarra at Thirroul and Austinmer. But for that brief time Harry, must have left Thirroul, as daughter Elsie E Hicks’ birthplace is listed as Joadja Creek. And of course there were the WWI years in Europe, when he served as a Captain in the 34th Battalion on the Western Front.
But firstly, who was Harry Hicks ? Harry was born 28th April 1877, at North Bulli (Austinmer), the 4th son and 7th living child of Henry Thomas Hicks Snr, and his wife Mary Ann (nee McKenzie) – there were 14 children in all, but only 10 survived to adult-hood. On his WWI enlistment form Harry stated that he had attended a Superior Public School. Possibly this was initially at North Bulli, and later Thirroul Public School, where his father had presided over the Official Opening on 25.5.1889. Harry was also one of more than 77 grandchildren of Northern Illawarra pioneers James and Margaret Hicks, who at one stage had bought and owned nearly all of Austinmer, before James’ death in 1895. Father Henry Thomas Hicks was the eldest of James and Margaret 13 children – all 8 sons and 5 daughters survived to adulthood.
So what had attracted young Harry Hicks, and wife Eva Kate to Joadja ? These days it seems more like a ghost town but in the 19th Century, things were different.
In the 1870’s Joadja Creek began to be known for its shale kerosene – in 1878 there were 100 men employed at the Joadja Creek Shale Mines operated by Messrs Lamb & Knox, and there was a six mile tramway connected the mine with Mittagong Railway Station – by 1879 the tramway extended for 9 1/2 miles of the 17 or 18 miles from Mittagong. In 1879 the Joadja Mine was described as follows :
“ THE JOADJA KEROSENE MINE. To any one interested in the industrial progress of this country, a visit to the Joadja kerosene mine would prove highly interesting. The works are distant about seventeen or eighteen miles from the Mittagong railway station ; and for about nine and a-half miles, commencing from the mine, the company have constructed a light tramway, which at present in being worked by horses ; but small locomotive engine has recently arrived, which will soon be brought into use.
The road for about five miles between the shale depot and the main road in in [sic] a dreadful condition—much worse, it may be presumed, than the commissioner for roads is aware of. This piece of road forms a serious impediment to the operations of the company; and it is to be hoped that in the interests of the country it will soon be remedied.
The mine is situated in a most picturesque valley, through which runs a considerable stream known as Joadja Creek. The valley in almost completely sur- rounded by high mountains, access to it being only at present obtainable to foot-passengers by means of a path down a very deep descent, down which for the purpose of hauling up the shale, & a tramway has been constructed. The mine is situated near the top of one of the hills ; and close by a seam of very good coal is being worked for local purposes.
There are about four hundred people, young and old, on the place. The miners, mechanics, and others are provided with very comfortable cottages. There is a store belonging to too company, a post- office, butcheries, and bakeries, and the first steps have been taken to provide a school. Altogether the village bears a busy, cheerful aspect.
The operations consist of shale and coal mining,extracting oil from the shale and refining it, timber- sawing, erecting buildings, and all the mechanical operations necessary to carry on the works. There is a great deal more to be seen at Joadja than at any Similar mine in the colony. The processes of extracting and refining the oil are particularly interesting, even to the uninitiated, and to the lovers of grand scenery the locality has scarcely a rival.
A very large sum of money has already been expended, and doubtless a great deal more will be required before the company can hope to receive the rich reward which is unquestionably before them, and which by their spirited and unostentatious enterprise they have so well carried. The expenditure of such a large amount of capital and the consequent location of a large and industrial population will have a most beneficial effect upon Mittagong and the surrounding districts; and it is to be hoped the people whose interests will thus be affected will wake up from their chronic drowsiness to some sense of appreciation of what is literally being done under their nose without their being aware of it.
The whole works are under the superintendence of Mr. Fell, a gentleman who seems to have been specially adapted by nature for the post, having had, in addition to the possession of a strong, vigorous mind and body, the advantages of travelling nearly all over the world, and being engaged in similar works in many places previously. There is little doubt that as soon as Joadja Creek (an ugly name by the way) becomes better known, it will have many visitors, and they will be well re- paid.” – Source The Goulburn Herald and Chronicle – 5.7.1879
In late 1880 the tramway extended almost the full 17 1/2 miles length. By late 1881, the Joadja Creek Shale mine was supplying Gas to Goulburn. And there was also Mittagong Iron Mine and Berrimal Coal in late 1882. In 1882 there was a school at Joadja, and a telephone fairly close handy – by 1883 there was a Joadja Cricket Club. In early 1884, Joadja was supplying 23,000 tons of gas to the Sydney Market. Soccer (Association Rules Football) was being played in 1888 ; and the Masons were present. In 1893 things still seemed to be to be flourishing at Joadja and an evening school was announced.
However by mid 1894 the Depression’s effects were being felt, and so the once 400 strong workforce had dwindled to only one caretaker. But by 1896, things had been looking up again and the Mittagong Ironworks was being re-started, although 30 men got their notice at Joadja Creek Shale Mine that year – and in 1897 things didn’t sound any more promising. Shale Oil production from Joadja in 1898 was 5486 tons, compared with the 23,000 tons of 1884.
And Shale Oil mines at Hartley, Joadja and Jenolan districts employed a total of 246 men across these districts in 1898, where once over 400 men were employed at Joadja alone – the industry was described as tapering off. So perhaps no surprise that in 1899 there was industrial disputation between the miners and management at Joadja, and by October 1899 the Shale Mine had shut down throwing 70 men out of work, some of whom had worked there for 15-20 years. Within a few weeks the issue was resolved and by the end of October 1899 the Joadja Shale Mine had re-opened.
In 1900 the Post Office had closed and the Masonic Lodge had been amalgamated with another. There seemed to be a cycle of opening and closing of the Joadja Mine, in 1901 it was re-opening after several years of closure; in 1903 a permanent closure of Joadja Shale Mine was announced.
Tariff policies were being blamed in 1903 for the shale kerosene’s demise : “Some tariff facts : Under the Parkes scale of duties a flourishing oil industry was being built up in New South Wales (Joadja Creek alone gave employment to 1100 men). The Reid tariff practically destroyed the industry, and the Federal tariff continues the crime. A return to the Parkes scale of duties on kerosene oils would build up another great industry in New South Wales.”
And in 1904, Joadja’s economy was moving towards processing of dried fruits, nevertheless the closure of the Shale Oil Mines had dramatically impacted not only Joadja where a bank closed in 1905, but also Mittagong and Berrima; then hope in 1906, 1907 & 1908 – but by 1911 the Australian Kerosene Oil and Mineral Company was in liquidation – and in 1914, Joadja was described as a “vanished village”.
And in 1965, Joadja was written up as a ghost town in the Canberra Times , then in 1967 a Womens Weekly story on an American woman Pat Lee who had bought the Joadja Valley, and hoped to restore the township. During the early 1970’s oil crisis years, mention of shale oil as still a possible energy source in the Canberra Times. However in 1988, Joadja was on the market again. It remains a ghost village in a beautiful valley.