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Thomas Hale (1818–1883)

By the death of Mr. Thomas Hale, aged 65 years, at Grafton, on the 16th instant, there departed from this life the man who pre-eminently above all others did the most to make the superiority of the Illawarra coal known to the commercial world. For several years after his arrival in this colony, Mr. Hale carried on in Sydney the business of watchmaker and jeweller on a somewhat large scale. In course of time he amassed a considerable amount of money by this means, but his health failing, he disposed of his business. Meanwhile his attention was attracted to the coal deposits of this district, which then were just becoming known to a limited extent by the exertions of Mr. Shoobert at Mount Keira. At this time Mr. Hale had no previous or special knowledge of coal or coal working, but being a man of keen perception, good information, with a strong and ardent spirit of enterprise, he saw that in the coal measures a source of immense wealth lay dormant in our mountain ranges, only awaiting capital and well-directed labour to develop it. These ideas were given rise to in his mind at first by merely seeing some pieces of coal from Mount Keira, while he was on a visit to Wollongong. So conscious did he soon become regarding the untold value of the Illawarra coal seams, and no lively an interest did he take in the matter, that in 1857 he entered into an arrangement with the late Mr. Henry Osborne to open a colliery on the latter gentleman's property at Woonoa. The spirit of the enterprise with which Mr. Hale entered upon that undertaking is well remembered by those still remaining in this district who were residents here at the time. It is asserted by persons who profess to have known much about Mr Hale's private affairs at that time, that he then had £30,000 capital of his own. However, he possessed no small amount of money, and very soon the whole of it was invested in the speculation into which he had entered in connection with the Illawarra coal trade. The village of Woonona sprang into existence as if by magic where previously there was scarcely a house or human being to be seen; the colliery was opened; a tramway was laid there from to Bellambi, where a substantial jetty–the first on the Illawarra coast–was erected for the loading of coal into ocean-going vessels, which were soon attracted thither in no small numbers for that purpose. All this meant the employment of a large number of men, who, with wives and families in many instances, added considerably to the population and commerce of the district. All this great and advantageous change in connection with the coal trade and progress of Illawarra was effected by Mr Hale. But this was not all that was done by him in the same direction. Not only did he enter upon the development of the colliery with an amount of enterprise never before attempted here, but he did more; he set intelligently about making the superior quality of Illawarra coal known far and wide beyond the colony. He sent samples to England and had them tasted by the highest authorities in connection with the Admiralty there. In course of time he received official certificates testifying to Illawarra coal being a little inferior to best Welsh coal for steam purposes. He also sent coal to China for the first time, and so worked it into the markets that llawarra coal became the favourite article there. Cargoes of coal were sent to California as well, and by the energy and tact of the same gentleman, Illawarra coal became better and more favourably known in Melbourne and Adelaide than it was before. Nor was this all. Mr. Hale further succeeded in inducing Her Majesty's ships of war on the Australian station to use Illawarra coal, and from the engineers of these vessels he obtained certificates as to the superior quality of the said coal–a circumstance which tended most materially to remove the prejudice that previously prevailed against it in many quarters. But although Mr Hale deserved success in an eminent degree, like many other such enterprising spirits he fell short of commanding it. Adverse circumstances overtook him thick and fast. He lost heavily in one way and another, including the wreck of more than one vessel laden with his coal. Eventually he became involved, and finally had to relinquish the enterprise, virtually a ruined man. All through life afterwards he never ceased to maintain that had the late Mr. Henry Osborne lived, he (Mr. Hale) would have been enabled to surmount all his difficulties and become a wealthy man within a reasonable number of years by working the Woonona Colliery. As it was, however, that mine was closed when necessity compelled him to cease working it about the end of 1863, and from that time to the present it has remained shut. Several years afterwards, Mr. Hale opened a colliery at Catherine Hill Bay, on the Sydney side of Newcastle, for a company, and more recently he opened and successfully carried on for a time, for the Coal Cliff Coalmining Company, the colliery at Clifton. Altogether, Mr. Hale deserved well of Illawarra, although the fickle wheel of fortune did not favour him in his connection with the district. In addition to his enterprise in carrying on the Woonona colliery as he did, he made a bold attempt to establish a rival line of steamers on the coast, against the I.S.N. Company. Many of the older inhabitants here and at Kiama will well remember the steamer Rapid, which was run for a considerable time by Mr. Hale between Kiama and Sydney and the intermediate ports, and which was not run off by the I.S.N. Company without a long and strong effort on their part. Mr. Hale took an intelligent and active interest in all public matters connected with this district, and was the first to discover in connection with his jetty at Bellambi the superiority of turpentine over all other timber to withstand the cobra in sea water.

Original publication

Additional Resources

  • death notice, Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), 20 March 1883, p 2

Citation details

'Hale, Thomas (1818–1883)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


Kent, England


16 March, 1883 (aged ~ 65)
Grafton, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.