Early Hydroelectric Installations in Colonial Australia


While major Australian hydroelectric developments in the twentieth century (particularly the Snowy Mountains Scheme) have received considerable attention from historians, this short essay looks at the earliest colonial hydroelectric instal­la­tions.1For social histories see Brad Collis, Snowy: the making of modern Australia, Palmerston, 2002; Noel Gough, Mud, sweat & snow: memories of Snowy workers, 1949–1959, Moonee Ponds, 1999; Siobahn McHugh, The Snowy: the people behind the power, Pymble, 1995. For Tasmania see Marilyn Quirk, Echoes on the mountain: remarkable migrant stories from the hydro villages of the Tasmanian central highlands, Heybridge, 2006. To keep the survey manageable I’ve limited it to the first six examples which were all built for electric lighting purposes in the 1880s. By modern standards, the earliest lighting instal­la­tions would be classed at the lower end of micro-hydro electrical generation, having capacities of 5–10 kW or so in original form. The first of what might be termed industrial-scale commercial hydroelectric plants in Australia weren’t built until the mid 1890s (Gara River, near Hillgrove, New South Wales [1894] and Duck Reach, Launceston, Tasmania [1895]).2See Denis Gojak, ‘Gara River: An Early Hydro-Electric Scheme in Northern New South Wales’, Australian Journal of Historical Archaeology, Vol. 6, 1988, pp. 3–11; Miles Pierce, ‘An Australian Hydroelectric Milestone—the 1895 Duck Reach Power Scheme’, Australian Journal of Electrical and Electronics Engineering, Vol. 3, 2007, pp. 259–72. None­the­less, all the earliest instal­la­tions are quite significant from a historical per­spec­tive. A couple seem to have been largely forgotten while a substantial amount of mis­infor­mation surrounds some of the others (par­ticu­larly in relation as to which was the first hydro­electric instal­la­tion in Australia). While I can’t remedy all these issues here, the most misleading claims (particularly in published research and heritage documentation) do need correction.

Each installation is discussed in order by date of first reported operation (including trials). I don’t claim that this overview is definitive and I’ve excluded adapted water motors (which were usually powered by retic­ulat­ed water supplies and could be coupled to a small generator to produce electricity). However, I have taken some care to delineate when each instal­la­tion began operation as far as extant primary sources allow, and most are briefly placed in a state or national cultural heritage context. Wherever possible, links to digitised primary sources are provided in the footnotes.

1. Mount Bischoff Tin Mine, Waratah, Tasmania (1883)

Three of the first four hydroelectric systems in Australia were built in northern Tasmania and, at a national level, count as one of the major technical and engineering innovations associated with the colony. The first began operation in June 1883 at the Mount Bischoff Tin Mine at Waratah, north-western Tasmania.3Launceston Examiner, 28 July 1883, p. 1. This was then one of the larger tin mines in the world (and Waratah effectively was a company town supplying the mine’s labour force). The extensive ore processing machinery was powered by hydraulic means and in June 1883 an electrical generator was connected to one of the waterwheels to power Swan incandescent lights.4See generally Keith Preston, ‘Mount Bischoff Tin Mines: Pioneers of water power in the Tasmanian mining industry’, Journal of Australasian Mining History, Vol. 8, 2010, pp. 148–71. Initially, these were installed in the mine’s ore dressing sheds located at Waratah Falls (see the photograph below). Newspaper sources and company reports give few details about the nature of the original plant but the generator had a ’50 light’ capacity while the carbon filament incandescent lamps each had a light output of 20 candle power.5Sydney Mail, 17 January 1885, p. 117. By 1887 another generator had been installed and capacity increased. Daily Telegraph, 1 February 1887, p. 3; 30 April 1887, p. 2. These figures suggest that the original generator had a rating of about 5–10 kW. Early operation was subject to exper­i­men­ta­tion and operational difficulties— which isn’t surprising given the historical context and Waratah’s physical isolation.6Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1885, p. 3.

Historic photograph of Mount Bischoff Tin Mine Dressing Sheds, Waratah.
Figure 1: Undated photo of Mount Bischoff Tin Mine Dressing Sheds at Waratah Falls. Source: Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office.

Mount Bischoff Tin Mine’s status as the first hydroelectric instal­la­tion in Australia seems beyond dispute. However, it’s sometimes asserted that Waratah was also the first Australian town to have electric street lighting (supposedly in 1886).7See, for instance, H.H. McFie, ‘Duck Reach—The First Significant Hydro-Electric Power Development in Australasia’, Sixth National Conference on Engineering Heritage, Hobart 5-7 October 1992, p. 38; a similar claim is made by Pierce, ‘Duck Reach Power Scheme’, p. 270; in the same vein see ‘Waratah, Tasmania‘, Wikipedia, accessed 8 February 2018. This is incorrect: by May 1885 the mine’s electrical lighting had been extended from the dressing sheds to its nearby offices and also the residence of the mine manager H.W.F. Kayser; in 1889 the Anglican church’s interior was similarly lit.8Daily Telegraph, 30 January 1885, p. 3; 25 May 1885, p. 3; Launceston Examiner, 23 April 1889, p. 2. The question of electric street lighting was certainly discussed in 1885–86 but the Mount Bischoff mining company declined to provide the service. In the absence of municipal government Kayser and the company directors did have social obligations to their workers, but in this instance legal impediments and capital expense were cited to justify the decision.9Daily Telegraph, 27 October 1885, p. 3; 1 February 1886, p. 3; Tasmanian, 6 February 1886, p. 21. Waratah’s streets were not lit by electricity for some years (by 1910 six lamps reportedly were in operation, all part of the company’s electrical plant, which by then was powered by a dedicated hydroelectric power station).10Daily Telegraph, 23 June 1910, p. 7. This brief report refers to the addition of an arc lamp: possibly, the other five then in operation were the same type. See Preston, ‘Mount Bischoff Tin Mines’, pp. 167–68 for the hydroelectric power station. The first municipal electric street lighting in Australia began operation at Tamworth, New South Wales, in November 1888—some years before Waratah.11 Sydney Morning Herald, 10 November 1888, p. 12.

2. Scone House, Perth, Tasmania (1885)

What appears to be the first hydroelectric system in the world was installed in 1878 at a large country house named Cragside, near Rothbury, England, by the armament manu­fact­urer and hydraulic indus­tri­alist William Arm­strong. In 1885 a wealthy Tasmanian, William Gibson, installed a similarly powered system to light Scone House, his Ital­ianate mansion at Perth (near Laun­ceston).12Daily Telegraph, 20 August 1885, p. 2; Launceston Examiner, 19 October 1885, p. 3. The original 10 kW generator was driven by an overshot water wheel supplied by a race diverting water from the nearby South Esk River.13For a description of the Scone House instal­la­tion see Daily Telegraph, 1 November 1886, p. 3. Gibson was technically minded and designed part of the race and magnetic light switching apparatus himself. Unlike the bright arc lamp used (initially) by Armstrong in Cragside’s library, Gibson utilised incan­descent globes which were much more suitable for indoor domestic use.14In December 1880 Armstrong replaced the original arc lamp installed in his library with recently developed Swan incan­descent globes. For his comments upon the superiority of the latter see T. Davison, ‘A visit to Cragside II’, British Architect Vol. 15, Iss. 21, 27 May 1881, pp. 71–72.

Historic photo of Scone House and South Esk River.
Figure 2: Undated photo of Scone House and South Esk River. Source: Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office.

The son of a Vandemonian convict, Gibson died in 1892.15Launceston Examiner, 28 June 1892, p. 3. Scone House still stands and in modified form now houses a community health centre named Eskleigh. The centre’s website states ‘it is believed that the home was the first private dwelling in the Southern Hemi­sphere to be elec­tric­ally lit’—but, as we saw earlier, this claim is also incorrect. Even in an Austra­lian context, Henry Kayser’s house at Waratah (which also still stands) predated Scone House by some months.

3. Yarra Falls Roller Flour Mill, Abbotsford, Victoria (1888)

In the late nineteenth century high pressure hydraulic distribution was a more practical source of power than infant hydroelectric technology and the first commercial hydraulic power service in Australia commenced operation in Melbourne in early July 1889.16Argus, 5 July 1889, p. 6. However, a hydroelectric lighting system was a feature of a substantial flour mill built the previous year at Dights Falls, Abbotsford (in inner-city Melbourne). This appears to have been the first hydroelectric instal­la­tion to operate on the Australian mainland.

Water powered flour milling had been undertaken at this site since the early 1840s.17Launceston Courier, 5 July 1841, p. 2; Port Phillip Gazette, 16 April 1842, p. 3. The new mill built in 1888 (during the the city’s great land boom) had substantial hydraulic power requirements and these were met by a 400 kW horizontal twin turbine which enabled the production of 500 tons of flour per week; two generators located in the mill’s basement were also connected to the turbines to supply electric power for a 100 light system, suggesting a lighting generation capacity of about 7–10 kW.18Age, 6 June 1888, p. 6. Note the large discrepancy between the mill’s hydraulic and hydro­elec­tric power capacities typical of this early phase of the latter’s devel­opment.

The new technology was implemented to displace gas lighting, reduce costs and improve fire safety.19Argus, 6 June 1888, p. 6; Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, Workrooms, and Shops, Victoria, 1888, pp. 7–8. Nonetheless, the mill was destroyed by fire in the early morning of 22 May 1909.20Argus, 24 May 1909, p. 5. Newspaper reports indicate that the first intimation of the fire was provided by the ‘erratic action of the electric light, which became very intense’ owing to circuit damage and overload.21Argus, 24 May 1909, p. 5; Age, 24 May 1909, p. 8. As far as I can ascertain (after inquiry with the Victorian Public Record Office), coronial investigation records for this fire do not appear to have survived. The warning helped enable night shift workers flee the building, which was soon engulfed by fire, unscathed.

The horizontal turbines installed in 1888 can still be seen at Dights Falls Reserve and in 1999 the mill site was added to the Victorian Heritage Register. Somewhat ironically (at least given the level of misinformation that exists on the subject generally) this particular hydroelectric instal­la­tion has not received the attention it deserves as the first to operate in mainland Australia: in fact, its status in this respect is not even ack­now­ledged in current state Heritage Register documentation.22Heritage Council of Victoria, Dights Mill Site, Victorian Heritage Register Database Report, No. H1522, accessed 25 February 2018.

4. Waverley Woollen Mills, Launceston, Tasmania (1889)

The final Tasmanian example under discussion was built at Waverley Woollen Mills, near Launceston, and began operation in July 1889. This company had been founded by Peter Bulman in the early to mid-1870s and Bulman also oversaw the introduction of electric lighting to the mill and his nearby residence.23Malcolm J. Turnbull, ‘The Bulman Brothers’, Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Vol. 41, No. 4, December 1994, pp. 201–07. A pioneering Tasmanian electrical engineer, William Pousty, designed and built the system for Bulman; about this time Pousty also made improvements to the electric lighting equipment at the Mount Bischoff mine at Waratah.24Launceston Examiner, 15 December 1890, p. 2. As we have seen, details of the specific machinery first used at Mount Bischoff aren’t all that clear but in the case of the Waverley Woollen Mills contem­por­aneous newspaper accounts were comparatively detailed. In the late nineteenth century the entire mill complex was hydraulically powered from the fall provided by nearby Distillery Creek and, initially, electrical power was generated by a 25cm Leffel turbine which had a 15 kW output. The turbine was connected to an Anglo-American Brush Company ‘Victoria’ dynamo with a maximum output of approximately 7 kW. About 60 incandescent lamps (rated at 17 candlepower each) were distributed in Bulman’s house and the mill’s spinning and weaving sheds, utilising about half of the available electrical power. Each lamp was switchable and the 100 volt circuit fuse protected. Reportedly, the exposed lighting wiring could be touched without inviting injury.25See descriptions of the instal­la­tion in Launceston Examiner, 29 July 1889, p. 3Daily Telegraph, 29 July 1889, p. 3.

Historic photo of Waverley Woollen Mills.
Figure 3: Undated photo of Waverley Woollen Mills. Source: Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office.

Waverley Woollen Mills continued to operate at Distillery Creek until recently (as of 4 December 2021, the firm’s website states the complex is closed for refur­bishing and upgrading). While it is regarded as the last woollen mill to operate in Australia, it sometimes has been claimed to be the first hydroelectric instal­la­tion in the country. In the late 1950s, for example, F.C. Green asserted:

Tasmania probably produced the first hydro-electricity in the southern hemisphere. It was a small and insignificant beginning, which took place in 1888, when the Waverley Woollen Mills in Launceston were lit by electricity.26F.C. Green, ‘Hydro-electric development in Tasmania’, Papers and proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1959, p. 3.

Although published in a scholarly forum, the obvious factual errors in this brief excerpt tend to typify the lack of rigour evident in the study of early Australian hydro­electric generation. As we have seen, at least three other instal­la­tions were operational prior to the introduction of hydro­electric lighting at the Waverley Woollen Mills (and two predated the latter by a number of years).

5. Mount Sheba Mine, Nundle, New South Wales (1889)

Gold mining began at Nundle in Northern New South Wales during the first Australian goldrushes of the early 1850s. As noted earlier, the nearby town of Tamworth was the first in Australia to be lit by electric street lighting (1888); the wider New England region also boasted the first commercial hydroelectric development in Australia (Gara River, near Hillgrove and Armidale ([1894]). By the late 1880s, gold production at Nundle had fallen and was relatively insignificant compared to the deep lead mines in Bakers Creek gorge at Hillgrove; however, new hydraulic sluicing techniques were introduced at the Mount Sheba Mine at Nundle in an attempt to reduce labour costs and increase the mine’s economic viability. In this case water dammed on the Great Dividing Range was carried by races over a total fall of about 150 metres and used under high pressure to blast and wash hard gold-bearing ‘cement’ from the side of mountain gullies.27Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1889, p. 7.

From early November 1889 this hydraulic supply was also used to power the electric lighting of night shift operations at Mount Sheba. This appears to have been the first instal­la­tion of its type in New South Wales and the second to operate on the Australian mainland (the first being the Yarra Falls Roller Flour Mill in Melbourne [1888]). At Nundle a small Pelton wheel was powered a Crompton dynamo that supplied arc lights and some incandescent lamps.28Australian Town and Country Journal, 8 February 1890, p. 24Sydney Mail, 24 May 1890, p. 1168. Con­temp­o­ran­eous accounts do not state the plant’s electrical output but it is likely to have been similar to the other early instal­la­tions (in the range of 5–10 kW).

High pressure hydraulic sluicing was something of an innovation in terms of the mining technology used in New South Wales and the Mount Sheba mine was inspected by the Minister for Mines, Sydney Smith, soon after the lighting system was completed. Smith had the opportunity of wielding one of the large high-pressure hoses during his visit and was surprised by the power it unleashed. His test went without incident but another operator was catapulted into the air when the nozzle suddenly broke (luckily, he survived his hydro-powered flight unharmed).29Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1889, p. 7; Evening News, 5 November 1889, p. 3.

Historic photograph of pressure hose at Mount Sheba mine near Nundle NSW.
Figure 4: One of the high pressure sluicing hoses used at the Mount Sheba Mine. Source: Australian Town and Country Journal, 8 February 1890.

The introduction of hydraulic sluicing at Nundle did not prove a long-term success.30New South Wales Department of Mines, Annual Reports, 1890, p. 42; 1891, p. 111; 1893, p. 23. In 1892 the electric light was still being used to facilitate night shift work but the mine’s environmental impact was considerable and had even came under notice for polluting Tamworth’s water supply.31Evening News, 22 April 1892, p. 2; Australian Town and Country Journal, 19 November 1892, p. 17. By 1894, the water supply race had been removed altogether.32NSW Department of Mines Annual Report, 1894, p. 30. The two main supply dams built in the late 1880s remain in situ and are used for public camping/recreational purposes (Sheba Dam, near Hanging Rock, Nundle). In terms of identified historical significance, the Mount Sheba mine seems similar to the Yarra Falls Roller Flour Mill in that they are both relatively unknown early examples of the implementation of hydroelectric technology in mainland Australia. However, Mount Sheba has correctly been acknowledged in heritage research as probably the first to operate in New South Wales.33Joanna Boileau, ‘Thematic History of Nundle, Manilla and Barrabra’, Tamworth Regional Council Heritage Based Studies, 2007, p. 45, accessed 22 February 2018.

6. Jenolan Caves, New South Wales (1889)

Jenolan Caves west of Sydney are a major tourist attraction and the best-known of the sites where early hydroelectric instal­la­tions were deployed in Australia. The Caves’ website states that they were the first in the world to be lit by electric light (by battery, for experimental purposes in 1880). The website also claims that subsequent permanent electric cave lighting (built c. 1887 and converted from steam to hydro power in late 1889) was the first hydroelectric system in Australia. The Jenolan Caves Historical and Preservation Society’s website makes similar claims. Of course, these assertions are ludicrous given the existence of five earlier instal­la­tions stretching back to 1883. In this case, the mis­infor­ma­tion extends all the way to the doc­ument­ation supporting the place’s 2004 listing on the NSW State Heritage Register (which provides legally binding protections in accordance with the New South Wales Heritage Act, 1977) as well as subsequent con­ser­vation manage­ment reporting.34For the most recent conservation management documentation available online see S. Davies et al., ‘Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve Conservation Management Plan’, Volume 1 (Report), August 2009.

The man primarily associated with electric light experimentation and the permanent lighting of suitable caves at Jenolan in the 1880s was Edward Cracknell, the colony’s Super­intendent of Telegraphs. However, it was Mines Minister Sydney Smith who super­vised the conversion to hydro power in late 1889. Jenolan Caves then came under his ministerial res­pon­si­bil­ities and a couple of weeks before his previously mentioned trip to the Mount Sheba Mine at Nundle Smith also visited the Caves, accompanied by a hydraulic engineer, with a view to replacing the vertical steam engine which then powered the lighting dynamo (see Figure 5 below).35Katoomba Times, 19 October 1889, p. 4. In mid December the Government electrician reportedly was about to test the instal­la­tion Smith had settled upon.36Evening News, 13 December 1889, p. 6. This was operational by Christmas 1889 and utilised a Leffel turbine which powered a Crompton 100-light dynamo.37Sydney Morning Herald, 25 December 1889, p. 5.

Historic photo of steam powered generator at Jenolan Caves.
Figure 5: The steam powered electrical generator at Jenolan Caves, c. 1889. Source: National Library of Australia.

Like all the other earlier electric lighting schemes discussed in this survey, the original Jenolan Caves system had a comparatively small electrical output falling in the range of about 5–10 kW. The discovery of new caves, the building of larger accommodation facilities and increased visitor numbers led to the construction in 1908 of a larger dam (now called Blue Lake) to increase the system’s storage capacity. During the Great War a 40 kW hydro­electric station was also built nearby.38Bathurst Times, 31 July 1917, p. 3. According to the Caves’ Draft Conservation Management Plan completed in 2009, this enlarged (200 kW) power station was then still oper­at­ing.39S. Davies et al., ‘Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve Conservation Management Plan’, Volume 1 (Report), August 2009, pp. 46–47. While the Jenolan Caves locale has no claim to being the first hydroelectric instal­la­tion in Australia, it does have a significant history of this form of electrical generation.

Concluding Remarks

Perhaps inevitably, competing claims have been made as to the first hydro­electric instal­la­tion to operate in Australia. However, it’s clear that the first was the Mount Bischoff Tin Mine Dressing Sheds at Waratah—not pre­ten­ders such as the Waverley Woollen Mills or Jenolan Caves. Hydro-powered electric lighting was in operation at the Mount Bischoff mine a full six years before either, and other pioneering colonial instal­la­tions predated both. Fallacious claims about the hydro­electric lighting of Jenolan Caves in promotional and heritage management docu­mentation seem particularly ill-informed although I doubt that ack­now­ledgement of the truth would lessen the site’s evaluated cultural heritage status (because of the long usage of this form of electrical generation on site, its appli­cation to an early tourist attraction etc). None­the­less, it would be preferable that legally binding heritage recognition (partic­ularly Jenolan Caves’ State Heritage Register listing) was based upon accurate research.

© 2018–2023, Andrew Messner. All rights reserved.