Info Blue Mountains Railway Pages
Kerosene Shale
3 Sisters, Blue Mountains, Australia.
Oil shale / torbanite mining & refining in the Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

Blue Mountains Australia, History

Early to Bed, Early to Rise

In the early days of the colony, the only available fuels for illumination were whale and seal oil, which were burned in smoky glass-chimneyed lamps, and candles made from tallow and other fats. The masses generally relied on light from their cooking fire, and retired to bed early.

The invention of Kerosene and Paraffin (used for making candles), was a major step forward in technology, impacting the everyday lives of the entire population.

Kerosene Shale Discovered

From 1813 to 1824, William Lawson was engaged in the construction of a by-pass road, to avoid the steep gradients associated with Cox's road down Mt York (on the western escarpment near Mt Victoria). This road followed a gully called Long Alley, now known as Lawson's Long Alley. Lawson reported, to the Governor, finding a three-foot seam of "coal".

Kerosene shale looks like coal, but is much lighter in weight. It can be black or dark green in colour, has a silky sheen and is greasy to the touch. It consists of bituminised mud or clay, whilst coal is carbonised plant tissue. The term "oil shale" is, today, applied to any rock which produces oil on heating, whilst high grade oil shale is called torbanite. Torbanite was named after Torbane in Scotland, which came to be associated with the Boghead deposits discovered in 1844. At the time, the mineral became known as Boghead Mineral.


Extraction & Refining Processes Invented

In 1846, a Canadian, Dr Abraham Gesner, patented a process for retorting an illuminating liquid from oil shale, which was given the trade name "Kerosene". Gesner also invented a kerosene lantern. In 1850 a Scotsman, James Young, patented a different retorting process, which appears to have been adopted in New South Wales, with modifications to suit local conditions.

When torbanite is heated, gases are produced. From the condensed liquid, a synthetic crude oil can be produced. Further refining produces petrol, kerosene, lubricating and fuel oils, paraffin wax, tar, acids and pitch.


Gesner_lamp.gif (8415 bytes)

Blue Mountains Region


  • Airly and Torbane, north of Lithgow.
  • Glen Davis and Glen Alice, north of Newnes.
  • Joadja, west of Mittagong.
  • Mount Kembla, near Wollongong.
  • Murrurundi, upper Hunter Valley.

Associated with the mines were various industrial facilities. These included retorts, coking ovens, refineries, and candle factories. It is hard to imagine, today, that places such as Hartley Vale once contained mines and refineries.

Kerosene and candles were exported to Asia and the Pacific. High grade ore was exported to the U.S.A. and U.K. prior to being refined, a situation which contributed to the eventual demise of the industry in 1931. Other factors included high extraction and processing costs, and increased overseas production of natural crude oil.


Industrial ruins at Newnes.
These igloo shaped brick kilns were built in 1907 for making coke from coal, and were used until 1911. Some remain in excellent condition.

Photo: D. Martin, 1979.

Coking oven ruins, Newnes, Blue Mountains

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Blue Mountains, Greater Western Sydney, NSW, Australia

Updated: Grant Robinson — 28 March 2016
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