Sunday History Photo / WA

Submitted: Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 08:56
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Wittenoom was a town located 1,104 kilometres north-northeast of Perth in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
The area around Wittenoom was mainly pastoral until the 1930s when mining begun in the area. By 1939, major mining had begun in Yampire Gorge, which was subsequently closed in 1943 when mining began in Wittenoom Gorge. In 1947 a company town was built, and by the 1950s it was the Pilbara's largest town. During the 1950s and early 60's Wittenoom was Australia's only supplier of blue asbestos, the town was shut down in 1966 due to unprofitability and growing health concerns from asbestos mining in the area.
Wittenoom was named by Lang Hancock after Frank Wittenoom, his partner in the nearby Mulga Downs Station. The land around Wittenoom was originally settled by Wittenoom's brother, politician Sir Edward Horne Wittenoom. By the late 1940s there was a need for a government townsite near the mine, and the Mines Department recommended it be named Wittenoom, advising that adoption of this name was strongly urged by the local people. The name was approved in 1948, but it was not until 2 May 1950 that the townsite was officially gazetted. In 1951 the name was changed to Wittenoom Gorge at the request of the mining company, and in 1974 it was changed back to Wittenoom. The mine closed in 1966, and the townsite was officially abolished by gazettal in March 2007.
In 1917 the Mines Department first recorded the presence of blue asbestos in the Hamersley Ranges. Hancock discovered Wittenoom Gorge in the early 1930s, and in 1937 started mining crocidolite (commonly known as blue asbestos) from Yampire Gorge. By 1940, he had managed to produce 364 tonnes of asbestos. Originally asbestos was taken from the hillside, crushed up in a tin shed Hancock had built on his property, put in sacks and taken by horse to the docks, 240 km away in Point Samson and sold for around £5 for a 100-pound bag. It took another five or six years for it to become an economic proposition.

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Until the Second World War asbestos was mostly imported from South Africa and Canada. The Australian market for asbestos before the Second World War was worth $1 million a year, and there was export potential. Hancock has promising talks with the British, who were desperate to use asbestos as filters in gas masks, and his partners had negotiations with Johns Manville in the United States. When the Second World War came asbestos was in high demand for use in tanks, planes, battleships, helmets and gasmasks. In 1943 the mine was sold to CSR Limited subsidiary, Australian Blue Asbestos Pty Ltd (ABA), where Hancock remained as manager until 1948.
In 1946, the Yampire Gorge mine was closed and subsequently Wittenoom Gorge mine was opened in the same year. Production to 1956 is estimated at 590,000 tons of ore from which about 20,000 tons of asbestos were recovered. In 1947 the town of Wittenoom was built to service the nearby asbestos mine. It was built ten kilometres from the mine and mill as there was not a suitable area available to expand the original residential settlement. By 1951 the town had 150 houses and a population of over 500.

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In December 2006, the Government of Western Australia announced that the town would be degazetted, and in June 2007, Jon Ford, the Minister for Regional Development, announced that the townsite status had officially been removed. The town's name was removed from official maps and road signs and the Shire of Ashburton is able to close roads that lead to contaminated areas.

The semi-precious Gemstone named Golden Tiger Eye was formed from Silicified Asbestos, most of what we get in Australia comes from South Africa.
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Reply By: Member - John Q (QLD) - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 09:39

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 09:39
Hi Doug,

Thanks for another interesting Sunday morning read. A lot of us certainly have much to learn about this great country.

just crusin & smelling the flowers

1. At Halls Creek (Is he really lost?)
2. East of Cameron Cnr

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Reply By: Mick O - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 09:52

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 09:52
Good piece Doug.

Passed through the remnants of Wittenoom this year. The first time since 1985. Even less remains now. A couple of photos from July.

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Cheers Mick
''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
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Reply By: Member - Doug T (NT) - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 10:03

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 10:03
You blokes are not having much luck with your Images.

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Follow Up By: Mick O - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 12:12

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 12:12
No were not are we. A gremlin in the machinery perhaps
''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903

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Reply By: Member - bungarra (WA) - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 10:28

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 10:28
Thanks Doug.........another great read and some nostalgia for us.

We first visited Wittenoom in 1972 when the town was still functioning and enjoyed a cold beer on the grass at the pub...........climbed through most of the gorges oblivious to any asbestos issues

my girlfriend at the time (now wife) got a dose of tonsillitis whilst there and the resident Dr Oxler sorted her out. there is a lookout and I believe a gorge named after him

Thanks and keep the Sundays going..first thing I look for each Sunday morning
Life is a journey, it is not how we fall down, it is how we get up.
VKS 1341

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Reply By: Member - DickyBeach - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 11:27

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 11:27
Interesting, as usual, Doug.

A related topic is the dreaded disease mesothelomia which featured heavily in the courts recently with claims against James Hardie.

What was not publicized in those court cases was that the industry knew, as far back as 1910 that asbestosis was a deadly disease and, indeed, US and Canadian insurance companies would not provide workers compensation insurance to asbestos employees.

Worse, in 1932, a letter from U.S. Bureau of Mines to asbestos manufacturer Eagle-Picher stated, in relevant part, "It is now known that asbestos dust is one of the most dangerous dusts to which man is exposed.”

Read Asbestosis and see how duplicitous the Asbestos companies were in the 30s - 50s.


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Follow Up By: Member - joc45 (WA) - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 15:49

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 15:49
Yes, not only the companies mining the asbestos duplitcitous, but the state government.
The working and living conditions at Wittenoom were extreme back in those days, and it was difficult to get staff to work there. This problem was solved by getting freshly-arrived migrants to work there (who didn't know better), often the only employment the government would offer. They were quick to discover how badly they had been treated.
While the Wittenoom mine was operating, the health department had issued many warnings over several years for the mine to improve the asbestos dust problem. Despite the many warnings, the state government never enforced the directives, and the problem continued. At the time, the WA govt was desparate to promote any mining industry in the state, and were loathe to force unprofitable remediation issues on mining companies. Unfortunately, the workers' compensation insurance was run by the government (SGIC), the government therefore had a vested interest, and the compensation court cases invariably ran on until the claimant died, whereupon the case lapsed. It took many years before a claimant actually managed to outlive the court system, and a test case was finally won, in no small part due to the assistance of the Asbestos Diseases Society, who worked tirelessly to support the claimants. The Society were broken into several times, and files stolen, but fortunately, separate copies of the files were kept off-site.
Aboriginals were often used in the transporting and loading of the dusty bales of asbestos at Port Samson, and were a forgotten part of this story for many years.
And while the disease of mesathelioma was not discovered for some time, the problems associated with asbestosis had been reported since the late 1800's, and this was apparently dismissed or conveniently ignored by the government and mining companies.
A very shabby episode in the history of this state.
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Follow Up By: 1arm - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 16:40

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 16:40
A Blue Murder by Ben Hills tells the story. It also says that the Romans knew of the deadly effects of Asbestos. My mother in law died of Mesothelioma so I have read this book. Not a nice product at all.

This is a brief synopsis of the book

A long time ago in the wild north-west of Australia a prospector stumbled across a seam of one of the world's rarest minerals, blue asbestos. He pegged a claim, dug a mine, and began a rush that would lead to the building of a boom town out in the desert, a place called Wittenoom.
Sixty years later that town is dead, and so are many of the men, women and children who lived and worked there. Doctors expect that eventually 2000 people will die or be disabled because of their exposure to the deadly dust of Wittenoom. It is the world's greatest industrial disaster - and it could all have been prevented.
Long-hidden documents prove that the men who ran that mine, one of Australia's largest public companies, were aware from the start of the terrible dangers of blue asbestos. They did too little, too late, to protect their workers, as did the government which should have been the watchdog. It was a conspiracy of silence.
Blue Murder tells the story of the mine, the migrants who were press-ganged into working there, the warnings that were ignored, the export of Australian blue asbestos all over the world. And it documents the long fight for justice for the Wittenoom survivors, a fight which is still not over.
Blue Murder was published in 1989 by Sun Books, a division of Pan Macmillan Australia. It is out of print, but may be found in public libraries or bought through online second-hand book sites such as
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Follow Up By: Dasher Des - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 21:09

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 21:09
We too travelled through the area several years ago. The scenery around there is stunning. We camped in the township and I was aware of the dangers of asbestos dust. I felt very nervous there that night..
As a footnote, a friend died yesterday from the dreaded disease and his wife passed away a number of years ago from asbestos related cancer, He was a builder and she was his right hand "man"
From my previous work using asbestos, it is always at the back of your mind and you feel like a time bomb just waiting to go off.
Life goes on.
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Follow Up By: Member - Dunworkin (WA) - Monday, Feb 07, 2011 at 12:29

Monday, Feb 07, 2011 at 12:29
Hi Dasher, l know how you feel, when I was a young teenager my Dad built our house using, of course asbestos, us girls use to have to cut the sheets of asbestos to fit in corners etc so yes I think of it regularly. I had a test done last year, my exrays showed a very small shadow, I was sent off to a 'specialist' who said he didn't think it was anything and went on to advise me "not to worry about asbestosis as there is nothing that can be done anyway" just what I wanted to hear lol.



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Reply By: Wilko - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 12:28

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 12:28
Thanks Doug,
Interesting as always,

Cheers Wilko
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Reply By: Member - Joe n Mel n kids (FNQ - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 13:25

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 13:25
i was lucky enough to work at the Shire of Ashburton and got to do some "road inspections" i have some (packed away) photos of old mine shafts, big generators and water pumps, some old buses that were driven in, wheels removed and used as accomodation for surveyers, we got to camp up some of the gorges and drive up some roads and tracks that are now all gone, an absolutly stunning spot with water, pools, gorges and now all sealed off, tis a shame but for the better i guess, my wifes aunty lived there for many years ....

Interesting to note that the "Road Crew" where never real keen to work on and grade the roads around there as it was quite common to dig up bags of asbestos that had fallen off the carts back when it was first carted to the ports, they are spread from Wittenoom down to the coast along the sides of the roads
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Follow Up By: Old Dave - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 14:44

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 14:44
Hi Joe n Mel

I worked on the roads for the West Pilbara Shire (now Ashburton) in the 70s & 80s,
We would cart waste from the mine (picture 2) to the creek crossings after cyclones, and pump water from Yampier Gorge creek for drinking water for the camp.

Regards Dave.
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Follow Up By: Member - Joe n Mel n kids (FNQ - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 16:49

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 16:49
Hi Dave,
"Bob" was not around then was he, sorry i cant remember his last name but he had been part of the "roads" for years up there ....
I have some relics from the days of "West Pilbara", some ali drink coasters with West Pilbara on them, some stickers with the emblem, Ashburton Pea??? from memory and some other stuff ...
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Follow Up By: Old Dave - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 19:53

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 19:53
Hi again

Was it McAulley?

We have also mementoes such as coasters and sheilds bearing the West Pilbara

crest, we were working there at the changeover of name.

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Follow Up By: Member - Joe n Mel n kids (FNQ - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 23:59

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 23:59
Dave, i cant for the life of me remember his last name, he lived at Para when i was there and had an aboriginal wife, he had worked for the shire for a long time and was still there 8 years ago i think ...... McAully does not ring a bell though ......
It'l come to me some time you see..
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Reply By: Old Dave - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 14:50

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 14:50
Hi Doug

Thanks for the memories had some great times up there, with new crew guys

the first thing we did was show them the gorges and to go round the mine


Regards Dave.
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Reply By: Member Boroma 604 - Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 17:32

Sunday, Feb 06, 2011 at 17:32
Lived at a boarding house in Perth in 1963 where a lot of blokes went up there for a few months to try to make a Quick Quid, and came back with lots of stories. Fortunately I did not have to head to there.
Drove through the town (or what's left in September 2010).
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Reply By: Muntoo - Monday, Feb 07, 2011 at 00:08

Monday, Feb 07, 2011 at 00:08

My old man worked at Wittenoom for a year or two.

Actually got his license there from the copper at the pub. Didnt even have to sit the test, as the copper knew he could drive as he had been driving around for weeks before hand.

Always wanted to know more about the joint, alot of his stories involved Wittenoom.

Would love to visit there and see what it was like.
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Reply By: The Explorer - Monday, Feb 07, 2011 at 00:23

Monday, Feb 07, 2011 at 00:23
More info relating to Wittenoom on Wikipedia, bit of repition but dont suppose that can be helped....

Wittenoom, Western Australia

I sent one final shout after him to stick to the track, to which he replied “All right,” That was the last ever seen of Gibson - E Giles 23 April 1874

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