Briquette Factory Explosion 1953 by Kevin Brogan

Briquette Factory Explosion

1953 was my first year at School. The most vivid memory I of have of that year (apart from the vague recollections of my first year at St Therese’s) was the walk home from school on Friday 27th of March 1953 (I needed the help of the Internet to find the date – ironic as in 1953 I was using a slate and slate pencil for school work).

I was trudging along my usual route home from school (we lived in Boola Crescent, so my standard route home was along Office Place, across the Picture Theatre concourse, over past the Presbyterian Church Tennis Courts, past Mrs Huddy’s Dance School Building, across over to St Johns and then along Church Street, over Westbrook Road, up through the lane that connected Church Street to Coach Road/ Strzelecki Road and then finally up Coach Road to home).

I had just crossed over to the Tennis Court area when a massive explosion occurred (I guess it was around 3:40pm). The whole area seemed to shake. I turned in the direction of the blast and I could see a large cloud of black smoke and dust over in the Briquette Factory direction. Not long after, fire sirens and other various “alarm noises” started going off. I decided to take a closer look and headed around to my Grandparents house at 32 Railway Avenue (immediately opposite the Briquette factory). As I walked along Railway Avenue, ambulances and fire engines were rushing towards the Briquette Factory. Thick black smoke was bellowing from the Factory, and I could see patches of flame through the trees. My Grandmother and some others were standing in front of their houses watching the events. I didn’t get the opportunity of watching proceeding as my Grandmother wasn’t pleased that I was there and sent me scurrying home.

My broader recollections of the details of the explosion are limited ( although I do remember that a least one person was killed and a number of people were burnt and badly injured), so I resorted to the Internet to find the following information:
The Explosion was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, Hobart Mercury and Canberra Times.
The Hobart Mercury Headline was “MAN DIES, 13 INJURED IN BIG YALLOURN BLAST”. The Report provided the following detail:
•A man was killed and 13 others injured, four seriously, when one of the worst explosions in Victoria’s history almost wrecked the State Electricity Commissions, briquette factory at Yallourn this afternoon.
•The dead man was John Henry Lonstaff, 48, of West Camp, Yallourn who died of extensive burns shortly after admission to Yallourn Hospital. (The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “he staggered out of the wrecked building naked and with all his hair burnt off”)
•The blast smashed scores of windows and tore tiles off roofs in the nearby Yallourn Town and rocked the township of Newborough five miles away.
•People in the nearby shopping centre, only a short distance from the factory, panicked and fled when the deafening explosion rocked houses and caused the ground to shake about 3:50pm
•Three Ambulances from Morwell and two from Yallourn rushed to the scene to take the injured to Hospital
•Four Men were admitted to Hospital with burn, cuts and abrasions. They are Herbert Norman Clark of Richard Street, Moe; Reginald Daniel Cullenane of North Road, Yallourn North; Nathaniel Frederick Lucas of Morwell Bridge; and Albert Llewellyn Vickery of Hazelwood Crescent Yallourn. The remaining 9 were treated and allowed to leave.
•The explosion occurred only a few minutes before 250 workers were due to arrive for the afternoon shift change. Had it happened 10 minutes later scores would have been killed, police believe.

The other major headline in each of these Newspapers was “ Body of Queen Mary to Lie in State before Funeral on Tuesday”.
The Canberra Times also reported that “ U.S. Seventh Division troops completely abandoned the strategic peak of “Old Baldy” on the main invasion route to Seoul, early today after three days of suicidal Communist assaults”.

My Mother (Marj) also remembers another explosion at the Factory which occurred (she thinks) in the early 1930’s. A near neighbour of her family was killed. The person’s name was Mr Stack. Marj believes that he was a “specialist” in the briquette industry and came from Switzerland. The Stacks lived over the back fence (in Southway) and had a Swiss Mural painted on the Lounge Room wall.

Marj also remembers the earlier Yallourn days when No 1 Oval was in the Briquette Factory area (where Fuel Sales and then Salvage were later located). She recollects the Annual Circus visits to Yallourn. The Circus cavalcade used to travel by train to the Yallourn Station, disembark and then parade down Railway Avenue on the way over to the No 1 Oval area.

The Briquette Factory was always a place of interest to myself. It was clearly visible from our home in Boola Crescent. On occasions I used to stay overnight with my grandparents in Railway Avenue and the two things that are still vivid memories are the relentless “thump, thump, thump” as the briquette presses punched out briquettes and the Sodium Vapour street lighting along Railway avenue. The lights emitted a strange (almost eerie) orange light.

Often when I was at my Grandparents, we would stroll over the railway bridge and head down South End Road. In those days the Fuel Supply offices were on your left as you approached the Briquette Factory Gates, the Army Drill Hall was on the right. Straight ahead took you into the Works area. South End Road veered around to the right and you went past the SEC Bus Barn, the Brickworks, I think there was a “small bore” indoor shooting range next, then some construction huts and finally the Band Hall and Dog Pound.

“Dad” Brewer established the Brick Works. During my primary school days I believe the Brick Works was run by a Mr Knight, his sons Russell and Perry went to St Therese’s. They lived in Banksia Street. On one occasion Perry showed me a ‘secret’ way into the Brickworks and we went in one Sunday afternoon. The place was shut down so we weren’t disturbed. Underneath the ground were excavated air tunnels (vents) that provided air flow to the bottom of each brick firing kilns, we got into these tunnels and crawled on our stomachs around the place. Not the smartest thing to do in hindsight.

I was fortunate enough to be able to work at the Briquette Factory during the final two and a half years of its life. Dave McNicol (Barbara McKellar’s Uncle) had been the Electrical Engineer at the Briquette factory for many years. However, with the impending closure of the Factory he was transferred to the position of Electrical Workshops Engineer, so I was offered the opportunity of undertaking the role until the Factory closed. Jock McKean ( Sherri, Carol-Ann and Fiona’s father) was the Electrical Plant Engineer and oversaw the electrical maintenance and operations activities at both Morwell and Yallourn Briquette works. Jock was based in Morwell and was my immediate Boss.

Ted Bell was the Briquette Production Superintendent at the time and Harry McLaren (lived in Morwell) was the Assistant Briquette Production Superintendent. Norm Taylor was the Operations Engineer, and Jim Robinson was his assistant. Harry Butt was the Mechanical Maintenance Engineer. The Administration Officer was Bill Fleming (Ian’s Dad) and Karen Bavinton (Robin's wife) was the Typist.

The Electrical Group consisted of two functions – Electrical Maintenance and Electrical Operations. Jack Thorpe was the Electrical Operations Supervisor. Jack had been employed at the Factory for the majority of his working life. Jack looked after two groups of people, the Shift Electricians and the Electrical Operators. The Shift Electricians at the time were: Ted Austin (Maureen, Pat, Helen and Geoffrey’s father), Len Rawson (Eastern Hostel), Fred Kalb (Moe), Henry Heller (Moe) and Jan Mellups (Moe).

Keith King (Yallourn North) was the Electrical Maintenance Supervisor. Previous Supervisors had been George Kimberley (Doug, John and Erna’s father) and Jack Eves (Jacqi and ?’s father). George and Jack had previously transferred to Coal Production in Yallourn as it was known that the Factory was going to close.

Electrical Tradesmen working in Electrical Maintenance at the time included Joe Ascolese (Hernes Oak), Laslo Lovassy (Trafalgar), Dick O’Reilly (Willow Grove) and Ernie Davies. Ernie was a well-known Yallourn Footballer and Cricketer. Ernie always wore a battered hat and peddled his bike from his home at 68 Church Street to the Briquette Factory each day. Unfortunately Ernie passed away during the period I was working at the Factory.

Other Yallourn people that worked at Yallourn Briquette Factory during my time there were;
•Roy (Flossy) Davis – Roy was in charge of the Transport Drivers
•George Whitelock – George was a Driver. George was the brother of golfing legend Betty Hebb.
•Sam French – Sam was a Driver. Sam was the father of Brian, Carole, Graham and Anne.
•Charlie Crooks – Charlie worked in the Electrical Group as a Trades Assistant
•Harold Smith – Harold was the Supervisor in charge of Mechanical Maintenance
•Arthur (Paddy) Dearman - Paddy was the Mechanical Maintenance Foreman
•Jim Watkinson – Jim was an Operations Supervisor
•Mick Sullivan - Mick worked in the Operations Group. Mick was the father of Brian, Maureen, Max, Jim and Terry. Mick was also the Brother–in-Law of Ernie Davies. Mick and Ernie’s wives were sisters.
•Tom Knight- Tom worked in the Operations Group. Tom was a Yallourn Football Club legend and the father of Bruce and Darryl.

A wide range of notable people worked at the Factory over its many years of Operation, but I guess (from hearsay) three of the more memorable people would have been Kevin Comber, George Donnett, and “Bayley” Henderson (Bayley’s grandson is the well-known AFL Footballer and Coach –Gary Ayres). It is “rumoured” that these three gents were more than willing to help other Employees have an “interest” in race meetings. There was no TAB’s in operation in those days, so these three men were kind enough to help interested Punters out. There was a story “floating” around that the Gaming Squad got wind of “something going on” at the Briquette works. In an attempt to “check out” the story some undercover men were employed at as workers at the Factory. I am not sure what the outcome was. George Donnett went on to become a Licenced Bookmaker after leaving the Briquette Factory.

Smoking was prohibited with the grounds of the Briquette Factory. This was due to the highly dangerous environment caused by fine dry coal dust, however, enterprising smokers managed to sneak away for a quick “puff”. Selected toilets were identified as areas for a “quick works meeting” – it was potential suicide if any worker decided there was a need to use the toilet for the designed purpose. The men at the “meeting” got extremely upset.

There are numerous stories of new Yallourn Housewives finding that their washing was covered in coal dust. This coal dust came (predominantly) from the Briquette Factory. The Factory had “electrostatic precipitators” installed to minimise the quantity of dust exhausted to the atmosphere. The “machine” that was used “charge up” the precipitators was called a “Rotary Arc Rectifier”. This type of machine created considerable high powered electrical sparking. A number of the “Senior” Briquette Factory Officers lived reasonably close to the Briquette Factory. The problem with high powered electrical sparking was that it had a tendency to interfere with Radio and (later) Television Reception, particularly if you live close by. One way to overcome this was to turn the source of the interference off. At night time the dark coal dust discharge was basically invisible and besides the Senior Officers had a night free of radio /television interference. While this is only a rumour, it may explain while there always seemed to be an extraordinary amount of coal dust around in the morning, when compared with what was around late in the afternoon.

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From Lance White:
Can remember clearly the day the briquette factory blew up. 1953. I had just come from school, met my mum and Mrs Albert Vickery in the bus shelter in the town square (where the “new” library went) And “ BANG!”. The whole place shuddered. In hindsight, I felt Mrs Vickery seemed to sense something sinister was on – when immediately she broke into tears - soon she was to learn that her husband Albert was seriously hurt - but thank god he survived- but not before he endured a lot of rehab. He was seriously scarred for the rest of his life.
As Kevin rightly said they lived in Hazelwood Crescent. A day I will never forget. I was only 9 years old at that time but can still “see it clearly”. Happily 99% of days in Yallourn were great.
Lance