Walking with Port Kembla's ghosts

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Port Kembla, by Chris JohnstonThe box Brownie immortalises the school girls on Mount Keira lookout, and catches a glimpse of Wollongong, and the Port Kembla steel works far below. It's 1962, and we are over from Auckland to see Australia, whipping up and down the coast in aeroplanes and steam trains, to admire all that wealth for toil.

We are the baby boomers, and the world is our oyster.

Nearly 50 years on, from a second floor window of Wollongong's Ibis hotel, the world looks less for the taking. The hotel is a serviceable box of a place, its concrete legs straddling the top of Market Street, above the ramshackle town, which still looks, as D. H. Lawrence described it in 1922 'as if it had tumbled haphazard off the pantechnicon of civilisation as it dragged round the edges of this wild land, and there lay busy but not rooted in'.

And up behind this tumbled-off town looms the black, anvil-shaped Illawarra escarpment, with the lookout on top. To the 1962 buttoned-up school girls, Lawrence meant the Lady Chatterley trial. We didn't know or care that he had visited the Illawarra, or written a book called Kangaroo.

The reception area carries brochures about the Anglican Cathedral which occupies the land round the back. The brochures fold out like a triptych, and encourage a visit to the cathedral, via steps built up from under the hotel's legs. But, as is often the case these days, no matter how much I rattle the doors, they refuse to budge, and the woman in charge, witnessing this attempted break-in, pats her pockets and says she doesn't know what she's done with the key, but that I'm welcome to last week's Easter pew notes if I like.

So we hit the town. Market Street tips into Keira Street. Most of the buildings are dilapidated and jerry-built. Legal firms elbow one another upstairs, while too many shops at street level are To Let, For Sale or plastered in newspapers and promising no cash on the premises.

It's early Saturday morning, and the Mall is forlorn. A girl on a poster says she doesn't want to be a slave to heroin any more while a mum tells her nagging kid to quit bugging her, because she doesn't get paid till Tuesday.

The rest of the dispossessed just pile up listlessly in a place that is warm and dry.

We drive to Port Kembla, which, in 1962, was stoked with the dispossessed of the Old World, pouring steel back into the reconstruction of their war-ravaged homelands. Now it's virtually a ghost town. They're putting together an industrial museum, and that has an ominous ring to it.

No trucks, no people, just dead grass blowing against concrete constructions bearing hopeful brand names like BlueScope and Otis. The great, greasy conveyor belts, the wheels, the cogs and the buckets are frozen, like a backdrop for a Japanese manga comic, against a sea empty of ships.

The traditional green and ochre-tiled pubs welcome you into the main street, which then runs up past papered over, boarded up and caged shops, to the stunned, lifeless little houses being sold off at the top. In the coming week, ABC's Four Corners is to pan the same route, interviewing an under-employed wharfie who is fossicking for change and struggling to save his home, his family and his dignity.

However, all is not lost. The restaurants are holding out, and after a meal worthy of Sydney and a bill to match, we are sleeping the sleep of the righteous.

But towards midnight, the addicts, the drunks, the hoons and the hookers exact their revenge. Only a latter-day William Hogarth could record his Gin Lane meeting Smack Alley as the police shovel the jobless youth into the paddy wagons, and from there, on Monday morning, into the police station and law courts, beside the cathedral whose notice board still reassures them that Christ is Risen.

By this stage, we're beating a retreat, stopping off at Mount Keira for an obligatory 50-years-down-the-track photo. Then it's into the gentle, seaside resort of Thirroul, where we climb the headland, to catch a glimpse of 'Wyewurk', the bungalow that Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, rented in 1922. Here, D H sat on the grass round the back, leaning against the warm red bricks, and writing Kangaroo up in five nondescript exercise books.

At the end of the week, he swung down to the station and caught the little train to Sydney. The coal trucks trundling by would have been familiar to the collier's son who had managed to escape the mines in the English midlands. Like us, he was passing through. There weren't many years left to him. Just enough to write Lady Chatterley and to experience The Great Crash.


Eleanor MasseyEleanor Massey is a long time English teacher who now works casually in NSW schools. She is a freelance writer, with a number of published articles in such magazines as The Big Issue, Good Reading and Wet Ink.

Topic tags: wollongong, port kembla, steel works, industry, industrial museum, global financial crisis, d. h. lawrence

 

 

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As a resident of Wollongong since 1982, and hence almost a local, I find this article repeats the usual rubbish written about the area by people who pop in for a weekend and think they know all about the place.

The Ibis hotel is in the middle of market street, not at the top. Of course the mall is forlorn early on a Saturday morning - they all are - all over Australia, everything is closed. As to most of the buildings in Keira street being jerry-built; well no, they are not. It's a city of 250,000 people, Keira street is actually a vibrant restaurant strip and 'Chinatown'. The well preserved Regent theatre in Keira street is probably the best art deco theatre in NSW. And honestly "a latter day William Hogarth could record his Gin Lane meeting Smack Alley" - hyperbole; like any big city CBD there are drunks and junkies late at night, essentially no more or less.

As to Port Kembla itself; yes, it is forgotten little backwater - been that way for the 27 years i have lived here. It is also the centre of a thriving arts community with strong links to Wollongong University's acclaimed creative arts faculty.

And Thirroul is not "a gentle seaside resort"; it is a busy suburb with many residents commuting to Sydney for work. It hasn't been a gentle seaside resort since DH's overblown visit for six weeks in the twenties.
chris gow | 18 May 2009


A thought-provoking and moving piece. Lucky kids to have an English teacher like Eleanor Massey!
Joe Castley | 18 May 2009


You would think to read this article that the Port Kembla Steelworks was closed, and that the City of Woolongong was a poverty-stricken ghost town inhabited only by the unemployed, "the addicts, the drunks, the hoons and the hookers".

Could it be that Eleanor was only in town for one day, and that a Saturday when the businesses are closed and at night any public drunkenness is at its worst?

It may surprise you to know that Bluescope still runs the largest and most efficient Steelworks in Australia at Port Kembla and employs thousands of locals. It recently was responsible for the largest and only significant water recycling scheme in NSW, in cooperation with Sydney Water.

The "meal worthy of Sydney and a bill to match" contradicts your thesis in that it shows Woolongong Cuisine is top class, and that the local economy is bouyant enough to support Sydney class restaurants: You can't have it both ways. Try and look a little more at what is really there: a City which is prettier, more dynamic and livelier than you give it credit for.
Al Black | 18 May 2009


It was at Port Kembla that the Wardell brothers helped Evo Owen of Wollongong to produce his Owen Submachine gun, 47,000 of them which because it was mud and sand proof was superior to British and US submarine guns. The Owen saw service in the Malayan emergency, Korea and finally in Vietnam. Owen himself was prevented from sending his gun to the Middle East by General Thomas Blamey then bankrupted by taxation and died and died at age 34.
Harry | 18 May 2009


Oh, joy and bliss to be able to write like this.
For my money, Lawrence got it right and Eleanor Massey reminds us why.


Patrick Williams | 18 May 2009


Wollongong is a fascinating city - once just a big country town, now a gritty mix between beach culture with a mining heritage, a satellite city for commuters who travel to Sydney - a University town with fantastic restaurants, outdoor opportunities and rich cultural experiences, multicultural and indigenous. It really is a beautiful place. It has its problems - and many good people and individuals working to support those people described in the article. Wollongong is a symbolic rich tapestry of Australian society and culture. Well worth spending more than a day or two - to get to know the people and their home.
Leonie Flynn | 18 May 2009


I feel sorry for Eleanor and her wasted weekend. Possibly a touch of spleen trouble? I have visited Wollongong many times over the last 20 years and found it a wonderful town and a thriving one.
Monica Szalla | 20 May 2009


Empty main streets are often more the result of poor planning decisions than population loss or impoverisation. Wollongong has several shiny malls in its suburbs, one around the corner, so to speak, from the charmingly located and now run down old strip shopping street of Port Kembla. Suburban malls suck the lifeblood from the old town centres. Elenor could have waited an hour ot two, visited any of the local malls, and found them full of activity. On weekdays, she would have found the main street of Wollongong, closed to traffic, workin well as a town centre. Just like many towns and regional cities.
Anna | 27 May 2009


i don't think shes ever even been there by the sound of it, she says the names but doesn't actually speak of the places.
samantha | 12 February 2010


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