Birthplace of the Iron Industry in Western Australia
The Birth of Wundowie 
in charcoal, iron and steel 

1942:  A committee appointed by the Government inquired into the feasibility of establishing an iron and steel industry in Western Australia. It reported that the major problem, the absence of coking coal in the State, could be overcome by using hardwood timber to produce charcoal, and that the charcoal would produce steel of an even higher quality than coke. A pilot plant was established to test the process of distilling wood for charcoal, and when it proved successful the committee recommended that a full-size plant be constructed. It was desired to establish a plant capable of producing up to 50,000 tons in the south-west of the State, but as such a project was not feasible in wartime it was decided that initially there be a 10,000 ton plant at Wundowie, near Northam. Wundowie was chosen because of the iron ore deposits and forest resources in the area, and its proximity to the railway, Great Eastern Highway and Kalgoorlie water pipeline. The proposed plant was to be unique and completely integrated, combining a sawmilling industry for building timber and joinery, the waste products from which would be processed by dry distillation to produce charcoal and pyroligneous acid. The acid would be refined to give acetic acid, methanol and other products, and the charcoal to be used with the locally mined iron ore to produce pig iron.

1943:  The necessary legislation was passed in 1943 for the State to set up the plant and to build a new town. Funds were provided and approval given to establish a blast furnace and wood distillation plant in the South West, adjacent to port facilities and extensive forest areas.

1943: Building of the charcoal, iron and steel plant commenced.

1946: Three staff houses were erected. One was then occupied by the first Manager of Works, Mr Harris.

1947: A model town was designed and during 1947 the new Wundowie was carved out of the bush, the building of the town commenced and the State Housing Commission erected 40 houses. By the end of 1947, construction of the plant was finally completed.
February 1948: (4 years after commencement) Wundowie Charcoal Iron and Steel started production and supply of pig iron to meet the needs of local foundries. It was officially opened 15 April 1948 by Mr Hawke, the Minister of Industrial Development in Western Australia.

The original Coates iron-ore pit located can still be seen from Coates Road Wundowie (see photo). It was from here that the first ore was mined from the Wundowie Charcoal Iron and Steel industry from 1948 until the early 1950's.

The original iron-ore pit

Early 1950's: The locally mined ore from Wundowie and Coates proved to be poor, so high quality ore was brought by rail from Koolyanobbing, north of Southern Cross. This made possible the production of exceptionally high quality pig iron, recognized as among the best in the world because its smelting with charcoal gave it very low amounts of sulphur, phosphorous and other trace elements.
Wundowie School Infants/Std 1 1950
Wundowie Primary School 1950 
Infants & Standard 1 

Courtesy of Mrs Betty Hislop
1955: After demonstrating profitable returns to the Government and high demands from overseas countries, a second (larger) blast furnace was approved. Demand for the iron grew, and production increased from 771 tons in 1947-8 to 12,324 tons in 1955-6.
The construction of a new charcoal producing plant was also undertaken. A French designed Lambiott retort was finally built. Employment at this time exceeded 400 persons and the population of Wundowie grew to more than 1,000. Wundowie was able to supply all Western Australia's needs and began exporting. 

The French-designed retorts which still stand on the original Wundowie Charcoal, Iron and Steel site, serve as an ongoing symbol of the birth of  the Iron and Steel industry of Western Australia.

Wundowie Retorts

1957-58:  The capacity of Wundowie was to be trebled to bring it to full commercial output rather than to establish a new plant in the South-West as had been originally planned.

Early 1960's:  In the early 1960's the Wundowie enterprise was employing 400 people and the population of the town was over 1,100. The Liberal Governments which held power in the 1960's looked less kindly upon the State-operated enterprise at Wundowie than had Labor. In the middle of the decade a recession in overseas markets, where ninety per cent of pig iron had to be sold, caused the plant to run into losses.

1966: The Government was not prepared to spend the necessary money to expand the plant to make it more efficient, but in 1966 negotiated to sell Wundowie to a private firm, though the deal subsequently fell through. Wundowie was retained as a Government project through the next period of Labor administration.

1974: The newly named Wundowie Iron and Steel operation was was sold by the Liberal Government to Agnew Clough Ltd.  The foundry that had been initially established along side the blast furnaces to produce castings for the Charcoal, Iron and Steel operation was upgraded and expanded into other industries such as mining.

1979: A shortage of timber had caused the closure of the saw mill and the distillation refinery although charcoal was still being produced for smelting pig iron. 

1981: Pig iron production ceased. Wundowie Iron & Steel Industry's cycle of existence was over. 

Wundowie Charcoal Iron and Steel had been the only completely integrated plant of its kind in the world and established itself as a producer of high quality pig iron. At its peak the plant was producing high grade pig iron. Acetic acid and methanol were produced from dry distillation of local wood. 
  • Wundowie Foundry Pty Ltd. booklet
  • Northam An Avon Valley History - D Garden. Northam shire - 1992
  • Lets keep the history of Wundowie alive.
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    An AKC Publications service to the community.  January 2005