Selling the Wittenoom dream

Kellie Abbott
Friday, 21 October 2022

The stunning ochre and blue-banded Wittenoom Gorge in the Hamersley Range, dotted with spinifex and mulga, has been described as ‘harshly beautiful Namatjira country’. Within the gorge lies rich seams of the mineral crocidolite, commonly known as blue asbestos.  In the valley below, the town of Wittenoom was built on the dream of a natural resource worth more than gold.

A rich resource

The presence of blue asbestos in the Hamersley Range was known from the 1910s. However, it was not until the late 1930s that Lang Hancock, owner of Mulga Downs pastoral station, recognised the potential for asbestos mining and processing on an industrial scale. 

In 1943, Hancock and his associates sold the mining and milling enterprises in Wittenoom Gorge to Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd, a subsidiary of Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). With support from the Western Australian and Commonwealth governments, the company developed the mining operations. A company town, Wittenoom, was built to service them. 

Asbestos was in high demand in the post-World War II economic boom. It was used as insulation, fireproofing and as a building material. In 1952, Australian Women’s Weekly claimed that ‘the amount of asbestos on the Wittenoom field alone is worth … more than all the gold ever taken out of Australia’.

Selling the Wittenoom dream

Australian government photographers made several visits to Wittenoom in the 1950s and 1960s. Photographs preserved in the National Archives, along with their original descriptions, captured the optimism of the blue asbestos industry. They also helped sell the town of Wittenoom to potential workers and their families. The images showed an idyllic and prosperous town with sun-drenched streets, tropical-style homes, and a laid-back atmosphere. 

Dangers exposed

In reality, poor working conditions in the mill and mine meant that many employees stayed only months or even weeks. Asbestos dust was everywhere and inescapable. Tailings – waste products left after the asbestos fibre was separated – littered the roads, playgrounds and yards of the town.

The dangers of asbestos were recognised as early as 1900, and the disease asbestosis, which was usually observed in factory workers, was named in 1927. The first case of asbestosis in Australia was recorded in 1933. Asbestos was later linked with lung cancer and mesothelioma.

Despite increasing recognition of these dangers, CSR closed its Wittenoom operations in 1966 because of declining profits, not health concerns. At least 1,200 former residents and workers of Wittenoom have died from illnesses linked to asbestos exposure. Many more live with the fear of developing asbestos-related disease. For many, the dream of Wittenoom has become a nightmare.