Newport Quarries –A lesson in how to lose friends and annoy people


    By Dominique Hes

    The history of the former Newport Quarries provides a key lesson about the importance of involving community in planning developments to ensure they feel a sense of agency in decision making processes.

    In the early 1900s significant changes in operations at the Newport Quarries had led to a loss of both community goodwill and support from the Williamstown City Council.

    The quarries had transitioned from local, craft-based labour, producing beautiful stone blocks for proud, sturdy buildings, roads, and seawalls, to a mechanised process run by anonymous corporations with little regard for the community.

    As quarrymen left to serve in WW1 the resulting labour shortage incentivised investment in mechanical quarrying methods. A government-guaranteed demand for crushed bluestone to stabilise the nearby Power House on the Maribyrnong River’s muddy banks provided the means to invest in that machinery.

    The improved technology included more powerful gelignite, steam and air-powered drills, mechanical crushers, conveyor belts, and the increased availability of automobiles. This reduced the need for skilled labour and those returning from war found they no longer had work.

    The quarries’ takeover by private companies was the final straw. Though this enabled the investment to mechanise, it also led to pressure to increase returns for shareholders. The Great Depression put further pressure on the need to reduce costs and improve the rate of extraction.

    What followed was an increase in complaints to the Council, a series of petitions and finally the threat of legal action. During the 1950s newspapers relegated the issue to the middle pages with amusing headlines such as ‘Newport Upheaval – Milk shook out of tea,’ ‘Shaken to pieces,’ ‘Rock through the wall,’ and ‘Municipal Volcano’. The headlines became more serious during the 1960s; ‘Council helpless on Quarry issues’, and by 1965 criticism of the quarry companies from the State Mines Department was front page news.

    By 1968 the quarry operations ceased. The quarry companies and the Council had lost the social licence to operate them. No longer would residents hear the one-minute siren warning them to go indoors.

    The lessons here are that change is inevitable, but that community needs to be central to any decision of how that change affects them. The Council, companies and the community spent a lot of energy, time and money fighting each other. All these resources could have been used to support a smooth transition, instead of a protracted battle that continued after the quarries closed until 1986 when the decision was finally made to create the Newport Lakes Reserve. But that is a story for another edition. 

    Dr Dominique Hes is the Zero Building Carbon Lead at the City of Melbourne. Dominique mixes theory and thinking, with doing and testing to discover how we can best contribute to the well-being and thriving of place, people and planet.

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