Old Wittenoom Townsite

Author

Shire of Ashburton

Place Number

15372

Location

Wittenoom

Location Details

Includes: Wittenoom Fire Station, Fortescue Hotel, General Store/Bakery & Open Air Cinema

Other Name(s)

General Store/Bakery & Open Air Cinema
Wittenoom Fire Station, Fortescue Hotel

Local Government

Ashburton

Region

Pilbara

Construction Date

Demolition Year

N/A

Statutory Heritage Listings

Type Status Date Documents
(no listings)

Other Heritage Listings and Surveys

Type Status Date Grading/Management
Category
Municipal Inventory Adopted 17 Aug 1999 Category D

Statement of Significance

Old Wittenoom has historic cultural heritage significance. Without the story of asbestos mining in the Wittenoom Gorge the history of the Shire of Ashburton would not be complete. Local and State Governments actively discourage visitors, by warning them of the potential danger posed by asbestos remnants in the district.

History

The Wittenoom Townsite, located 288km inland by road from Roeburne, was once a thriving mining town. The town was established in the 1940's by Australian Blue Asbestos Limited, for it's workers. It is now thought, and in the process of being confirmed, that Wittenoom Gorge was originally named by the surveyor FT Gregory, when he led an expedition into the area in 1861. It appears that the Gorge was named after Reverend John Burdett Wittenoom, the first Chaplain to the Civil Establishment of Swan River Colony, who arrived in the brig 'Wanstead' early in 1830. Rev John Wittenoom's grandson, Francis Burdett (rank) Wittenoom, had interests in Mulga Downs in the early 1900's. In his journal Gregory reported the river flats as having rich pastoral potential. The area remained pastoral for many decades. Mulga Downs was in serious trouble between 1902 and 1915 when Frank Wittenoom employed George Hancock as manager. George was responsible for turning the property around. In appreciation Frank gave George a 25% share in the property and George then sold his share in Ashburton Downs, inherited from his father, to put the money into owning Mulga Downs. In 1935 George became a pastoral inspector for Dalgety, whilst his son, Lang Hancock took up managership of Mulga Downs. Though the West Australian Mines Department had known of the asbestos in the district since it's first discovery in 1908, no mining was carried out until the 1930's. At first mining was limited to surface exposures from which the fibre was won from benching, along an extensive northern sector of the range. Miners lived in tents. In 1938, Lang Hancock was involved in mining the first leases taken up in the Wittenoom Gorge. In 1943, Colonial Sugar Refineries bought out Hancock's Wittenoom Gorge leases and the mining industry expanded with the setting up of a subsidiary company, Australian Blue Asbestos Pty Ltd. By 1947, building of the town had commenced at the mouth of the gorge, which also gave the town Wittenoom it's name. From 1950 until 1966, Wittenoom Gorge was Australia's sole supplier if blue asbestos. In that time two schools, an open air cinema, hotel, churches and a myriad of both public and private retail and support services were established in the town. Asbestos tailings were used on some driveways and backyards, on the racetrack and in constructing roads and the airport. In 1966 the mine was closed owing to lack of ore reserves and high production costs. The history since the mine's closure, is now littered with stories of one of Australia's greatest industrial disasters. Of the thousands of men, women and children that lived and worked in Wittenoom, many have died of asbestos related illnesses and many more live in the shadow of potentially fatal lung cancer or mesothelioma. State Government policy on Wittenoom saw the town being declared a health risk. Since 1978-87 there have been various projects initiated to discourage continued settlement in that area. In 1987 buildings on 60 properties were demolished, followed by another 35 cleared in 1995-6. Before the 1995-6 demolitions took place, the National Trust of Austrlia (WA) completed a pictorial history of the remaining buildings with a grant from the Department of Trades and Commerce. Some of these photos are included in this place record form. The once thriving mining town is now virtually a ghost town but had not been entirely deserted. A few residents had stayed on at the town despite the large number of buildings that had been demolished and the reduction of community services. In 1999 there were approximately 30 people still residing in Wittenoom.

References

Ref ID No Ref Name Ref Source Ref Date
Bulletin 119;"The Iron Formations of the pre-Cambrian Hammersley Group WA ( with ref to Crocidolite)". Geological Survey
H Edwards;"Gold Dust and Iron Mountains:. WA 1993
Walkabout Australian Travel Guide
C Day;"Interview Lorraine Thomas (Councillor of the Shire of Ashburton". 8 Feb 1999
National Trust of Australia (WA);"wittenoom- A Pictorial Record". 1996

State Heritage Office library entries

Library Id Title Medium Year Of Publication
11637 Wittenoom Book 2018
11644 Archival record Wittenoom Townsite Archival Record 2018

Place Type

Historic Town or district

Uses

Epoch General Specific
Present Use MINING Other
Original Use MINING Other

Historic Themes

General Specific
OCCUPATIONS Mining {incl. mineral processing}

Creation Date

28 Jan 2000

Publish place record online (inHerit):

Approved

Last Update

03 Oct 2017

Disclaimer

This information is provided voluntarily as a public service. The information provided is made available in good faith and is derived from sources believed to be reliable and accurate. However, the information is provided solely on the basis that readers will be responsible for making their own assessment of the matters discussed herein and are advised to verify all relevant representations, statements and information.