The Metropolitan Water Sewerage & Drainage Board Workers Camp (Balts Camp)
2018 and 2019 would have marked the 70th Anniversary of one of the first group of displaced persons, the Balts, to be brought to Wollongong under an agreement Australia made post World War 2 with the International Refugee Organisation. This hopefully goes some way to commemorate the 70th anniversary and to ensure recognition of their service to Wollongong, and where they lived, is not forgotten.
At a Wollongong Council meeting held in July 1948, approval was given to the Metropolitan Water Sewerage & Drainage Board’s (the ‘Water Board’) proposal to erect hostels for the housing of their Balt workers with the stipulation that they be removed when the Water Board works were finished.
The Water Board was to start an extensive programme of renewal and amplification work. Work on the South Coast water supply had ceased during the war, but once the war was over, the South Coast water supply needed considerable amplification. This amplification was needed on the Northern Trunk Main, Berkeley Inlet System, Springhill Road Main and Mt Nebo-Berkeley Main. After World War 2 migrant labour had been particularly valuable in Wollongong because of the industrial work located in the area. The Water Board found it almost impossible to secure men for their public utility work on the South Coast having to compete with the Steelworks and the Coal Industries for its labour.
The Water Board was among the first employers in the Illawarra region who employed Displaced Persons migrants as soon as they became available in 1948. Displaced Persons were resettled in Australia under the International Refugee Organisation Agreement of 1947 and were predominately people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (referred to as “Balts”), Jewish and non-Jewish from Poland, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia and other parts of Europe such as Russia, Belarus, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. The Commonwealth Government had promoted the Balts as particularly good type of migrant to the Australian public and therefore there was a tendency to incorrectly call all Displaced Persons “Balts”. Hence the Water Board migrant camp in Coniston became known locally as the ‘Balts Camp’ although many different nationalities lived at the camp and worked on the South Coast water supply works.
The Water Board initially established migrant camps to accommodate their Balt workers at Potts Hill, Hornsby, Warragamba Dam, Woronora Dan, Manly and Coniston (South Coast). Some Water Board migrant workers camp, like the one at Potts Hill, were tents. The migrant workers camp at Coniston were erected in a barracks style of accommodation.
The Migrant Camp at Coniston was located near the Brickworks and according to the map above from Sydney Water dated 1952, near Coniston Railway Station. The Brickworks was situated on the north western side of Old Springhill Road. When the Brickworks was operating Old Springhill Road ran past the old Integral Energy Building crossing Bridge Street on its way through Coniston Public School grounds joining what is now Fox Road and then onto Kenny Street. At about the same time Tom Thumb Lagoon reached as far as the end of Corrimal Street. The Brickworks, which had belonged to Newbold General Refractories Ltd, had a 140 feet stack that had been a landmark at Coniston from 1935. The Brickworks was demolished in August 1965 to make way for railway extensions from Coniston to the Port Kembla Inner Harbour.
The Balts camp comprised of two-men huts at a cost of £8000. Initially the Balts camp at Coniston accommodated 38 migrants. By 1949 further extensions were already in progress. It was enlarged in two stages to provide accommodation for a total of 176 men. A recreational hall was also added at some point during this time.
In February 1949, the City Council expressed its dissatisfaction with the location of the Water Board’s migrant camp at Springhill Road Coniston. The Deputy Chief Health Inspector had inspected the camp and reported that it was occupied by 19 Balts, who were single men and were considered particularly good types. They ranged in age from 20 to 45 years. The accommodation was assessed as reasonably good. Therefore, there were no breaches of health regulations under which to have the camp removed.
Residents of Coniston had also protested to City Council against establishing a Balts camp near the Coniston Brickworks. This led to Council setting up a meeting with the Water Board in connection with the situation of the camp.
In the meantime, it was said that the Balts Camp at Springhill Road Coniston were a happy family with a number of accomplished musicians amongst their numbers who were able to provide themselves with good entertainment at night. Others were qualified in trades and professions such as school teachers, students, electricians and mechanics. The Balts were laying the Berkeley main, which was to boost the water supply to Port Kembla. Most of them had been in Australia less than are year. Some were ex-servicemen, some of them fought with the underground movements, some served with the British forces. Several had also been prisoners of war in Germany. Many of them spoke English. They all expressed pleasure at being in Australia and were delighted with the beaches in Wollongong. However, in this article one Balt was quoted as saying “This pick and shovel work is heavy”.
The migrant workers did not perform specialist tasks such as electric field welding and cutting of pipes, but carried out all other work such as excavation, pipelaying, backfilling and concreting. By 1951, a gang of 18 men was employed on the Springhill Road main, twenty six men were engaged on the Mt Keira Inlet main and 133 men, divided into five gangs on the Mt Nebo-Berkeley main.
In March 1949, members of the Water Board and City Council aldermen met where Council complained about the slow rate of progress of the Water Board’s projects in the district and the establishing of a migrant camp at Coniston without properly consulting Council. The Council had wanted the camp placed north of the petrol depot on the Port Kembla Road and that the Coniston location put to Council had been rejected. The Council objected to camps being established in built-up areas such as Coniston. The Water Board representatives said they felt sure that the Council had been consulted and had been assured that a plan for the camp had been confirmed definitely and emphatically as satisfactory by the Council and that Council was quite agreeable to the camp being established at Coniston. The Water Board had tried to acquire land near the petrol deport or lease it but the owners, AIS, informed them they were not prepared to negotiate as the land was required in their development programme. The Water Board was unable to agree to Council’s request to transfer the Balts camp at Coniston elsewhere. The Water Board’s view was that the present site was an ideal one because it was handy to transport, electricity, water services and a store as well as limited population on one side of the camp.
In June 1949 the Water Board had decided to enlarge its camp at Coniston to accommodate 75 men despite Council’s previous opposition and request not to enlarge the camp if the Water Board was bringing more migrants to work in the area, rather the Council wanted the Water Board to establish a second camp in another locality. The extra men were needed to make an impact on the large projects of work for the water supply on the South Coast which had fallen behind because of labour and material shortages.
By 1952 the drying up of Displaced Person migrant sources and progressive termination of employment contracts, the Water Board had to look at local men to employ. But still the camp remained known locally as the Balts Camp. Some of the Balts migrant workers whose contracts had finished remained working for the Water Board as part of Water Board normal labour force. In the same year, the Water Board suffered funding problems which placed restrictions on the Water Board activities.
The Water Board last mentioned the migrant workers at the Coniston camp in their 1952 Sydney Water Annual Report. Therefore, the Balts Camp at Coniston was operating in 1949 and most likely ceased operating about 1952. Although, the unoccupied huts that were used to house the migrants, were still standing in October 1960.
Despite the valuable contribution the migrant Balt workers made to the growth and expansion of the water supply in Wollongong after World War 2, there is little, if nothing, remaining to mark where the Balts Camp was located nor is there any commemoration of their efforts. To be able to ascertain the location of the Balts Camp one must rely upon documentation from archival sources and try to match them against today’s maps.