Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Introducing the Australian Agricultural Company

Note to readers: This post is a work in progress, an introduction to the Australian Agricultural Company. I have quite a lot of material on the AA Co, but at this point it is easiest to put up a slightly expurgated version of the Wikipedia  entry on the company. I will amend as I go along. As I do so, I will add  related posts at the end of this post. 

The Australian Agricultural Company (AA Co) is one of New England and Australia’s most fascinating companies. Founded in 1824 through an Act of the British Parliament, with the right to select 1,000,000 acres (4,047 km2) in New South Wales for agricultural development, it is one of Australia's oldest still-operating companies. Its main New England connection finished in the 1920s, but by then it had had a major impact on New England’s history.


The Company’s main purpose was the production of fine merino wool with the addition of crops not readily available in England. Merino sheep were preferred because there was an abundance of land at the time and because the mild winters meant there was no cost for housing or handfeeding stock.It would also provide workers for the Colony at no cost to the Government and also employ a large number of convicts.

Amongst the principal members of this company were the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General of England, 28 Members of Parliament, Governor, Deputy Governor and eight of the directors of the Bank of England; the Chairman and Deputy-Chairman and five directors of the British East India Company, besides many other eminent bankers and merchants of England.

The area selected under the founding charter extended from Port Stephens, embracing the Karuah River valley, to the Gloucester flats, and to the Manning River, including most of the northern shore of Port Stephens, extending to 464,640 acres (1,880 km2). However, it soon found that better land was available and, in 1830, a communication from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Governor Darling notified the latter that the company was to be permitted to select land in the interior of the colony, in lieu of an equivalent area at Port Stephens, but retaining mineral rights to the latter.

After an inspection in 1833, the company decided on two new areas. These were the Warrah Estate of 249,600 acres (1,010 km2), west of Murrurundi, and Goonoo Goonoo estate of 313,298 acres (1,268 km2), along with the left bank of the Peel River to the south of present-day Tamworth, New South Wales. The township of West Tamworth adjacent to the present city was the original company-owned business centre for the area. In 1856, Arthur Hodgson was appointed general superintendent of the company. The pioneering settlers of the area were ordered to leave and paid little from the company for their properties.

Convicts soon became the companies largest type of employee, although those who had served a sentence, aborigines and indentured servants on seven-year contracts were also employed with the later making up the bulk of initial employees.[4] The AAC attempted to exploit convict labour to generate a profit. When the supply of convicts was facing potential limits in the mid-1830s, company directors attempted to source convicts from the city-state of Hamburg.

The colonial government was not able to manage coal production efficiently. On 3 May 1833 the company received land grants at Newcastle totaling 1,920 acres (8 km2) plus a 31 year monopoly on that town's coal traffic. The company became the largest exporter of coal from Newcastle for many decades. They also bought 1,280 acres (5 km2) of freehold and 3,131 acres (13 km2) of leasehold land on the South Maitland coalfields at Weston, near Kurri Kurri, where they built the Hebburn Colliery. Because of drought and depression during the 1840s mining created more profit than wool production did.[3]

By December 1903 the pit was sending a fully loaded train away each day. By 1912, the output exceeded 2,500 long tons (2,540 t) per day and a large overseas trade had developed from this mine. In May 1906 the company purchased a half-share in the Aberdare Junction to Cessnock railway for £40,000 which, already owning the other half, placed them in full ownership of the line. With the post-Great War slump, the company ceased its coal-mining activities in the early 1920s, sold their assets therein, and moved on into the cattle industry.

Australia's first railway

n 10 December 1831 the Australian Agricultural Company officially opened Australia's first railway, lLcated at the intersection of Brown & Church Streets, Newcastle, New South Wales. Privately owned and operated to service the A Pit coal mine, it was a cast iron fishbelly rail on an inclined plane as a gravitational railway, described as follows:

Once raised up the shaft, the coal was yarded or emptied into wagons; each of 1 t capacity. Loaded wagons were run in pairs down a self-acting inclined plane railway (two loaded wagons going down hauled another two emptied ones up). They were then pushed by hand, assisted by gravity, along a graded wooden trestle. It crossed a sandy area, now occupied by Hunter Street and the Great Northern Railway, to a loading staith at which small ships could berth while coal was tipped into their holds.

The Australian Agricultural Company constructed a total of 3 gravitational railways: the second was in 1837 to service B Pit and the third was in mid-1842 to service C Pit. The gravitational railway from B Pit connected with the 1831 railway. The gravitational railway from C Pit, which made use of the last of the Government’s offer of cheap convict labour, feed onto an extended gravitational railway to reach the port. It is presumed that when the A Pit mine was exhausted in July 1846 its railway was directly transferred to form the C Pit railway, although no hard evidence can support this thought.

Short-lived coal monopoly & providing land access: disputes with James Mitchell

In 1828, 3 years after commencing their 31 year lease, the Australian Agricultural Company was accorded a monopolistic position after the company received a grant of 2,000 acres of coal land in the centre of Newcastle. Further, it was feared that the company may have had control of the entire coal supply in the Colony had the Crown Law Officers responsible for the substitution of a grant for the lease not objected and an alternative agreed upon.

Between 1835 and 1850, the Australian Agricultural Company was involved in significant Australian historical law events relating to monopolistic coal mining and private railway access.

In 1835 James Mitchell purchased approximately 900 acres of coastal land extending from the far side of Merewether ridge to Glenrock Lagoon and named the property the Burwood estate, which was later extended to 1,834 acres. Not long after Ludwig Leichhardt’s visit to the Burwood estate in 1842, Mitchell announced the planned commissioning of tramroad tunnels, Australia’s first two railway tunnels, through Burwood ridge (or bluff).

Whilst Leichhardt visited the Burwood estate he drew up the stratigraphy of the coastline. It is speculated that Leichhardt may have established the extent of the coal seams under Mitchell’s property. Mitchell claimed the construction of the tunnels was to allow access to Burwood Beach in order to build a salt works. It is further speculated that Mitchell actually sought to destroy the Australian Agricultural Company’s legal monopoly on coal mining. Prior to these events Mitchell had already approached Governor Gipps seeking:

  1. a repeal of the Metallic Ores Act;
  2. Newcastle be made a free port; and
  3. that he be permitted to mine and use coal from Burwood estate as fuel for a copper smelter.

Mitchell was unsuccessful with only his request to use coal as fuel in a copper smelter.

Although Mitchell had no legal use of coal, the commissioned tunnel project commenced in 1846 with the cutting line being directly into a coal seam. Between 2 and 3 thousand tonnes of coal were extracted but unusable owing to the Australian Agricultural Company’s monopoly.

Whilst Mitchell’s operations were going on, a number of small illegal mines operated in the district in defiance of the monopoly. A mine near East Maitland operated by Mr James Brown undercut the Australian Agricultural Company’s price to supply coal to steamships at Morpeth which lead to prosecution.

The Government’s legal advice after this case was that they would have to individually prosecute every illegal mine, which Governor FitzRoy believed the cost of the prosecutions should be paid for by the Australian Agricultural Company. In 1847, the NSW Legislative Council created the Coal Inquiry and appointed a Select Committee to investigate the matter. Both Mitchell and Brown gave evidence; Mitchell in relation to his tunnel and Brown in relation to price cutting. Before the Committee could issue any recommendations the Australian Agricultural Company relinquished its monopoly. Mitchell proceeded to lease out the coal rights on the Burwood estate, with five mines being quickly established by J & A Brown, Donaldson, Alexander Brown, Nott and Morgan.

Because Australian Agricultural Company owned the land between the Burwood estate and the Port of Newcastle the company refused to allow Mitchell to transport coal by rail across its land. Mitchell successfully lobbied the Government again by having New South Wales’ first Private Act of Parliament titled, Burwood and Newcastle Tramroad Act 1850, passed, that specifically allowed Mitchell to carry coal through Australian Agricultural Company lands.[

Also in 1850, the coal mining monopoly ended with the peal of the Metallic Ores Act as promised by Governor Gipps, allowing copper to be brought into NSW duty-free. After the monopoly ended, Mitchell established the copper smelter in 1851 until its closure in 1872. In 1913, salvaged bricks from the site were used to cap some of the old mines.

[i] Unless otherwise specified, the background material in this piece is drawn from Wkipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australian_Agricultural_Company - accessed 17 February 2014.

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