Lake Macquarie History

Arsenic Smelter at Blackalls Park

Arsenic Smelter at Blackalls Park

Research by Dulcie Hartley

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary and little known business ventures in Lake Macquarie was an arsenic smelter, which operated in bushland west of Blackalls Park from 1923 until about 1926.

The land was originally owned by Michael Steel who had a sawmill in the area supplying pit props to local mines. The land eventually ended up in the hands of Frederic Robert Croft in 1917. Croft had acquired many portions of coal bearing land in the Fassifern district early in the 20th century

photo: arsenic smelter, blackalls

In 1919 Frederic Croft opened up a new Colliery called Olstan, a combination of the names of his two sons, Oliver and Stanley. This was a small mine, only employing a few men and with never a large output. Croft also operated a gravel quarry on the land. This meant there was a coal mine and a quarry on the site when Walter Aldolphus Le Mesurier Pezet came upon the scene with the intention of building his arsenic plant. The Pezet family was originally from the Channel Islands but had migrated to California during the gold rush of 1849, then on to Australia.

Pezet had been involved with the production of arsenic in various parts of Australia, and at the time of establishment he was Managing Director of Arsenic Ltd. Labour troubles had rendered his smelter in Queensland unviable and it was soon after this that the plant at Blackalls was established.

It was reported in August 1923 that 'Arsenic Limited is erecting Works at Fassifern near Newcastle NSW for the production of White Arsenic. The ore is from Sundown Mine near Stanthorpe in Queensland'. This was certainly a great distance to bring the ore - perhaps Pezet had a financial interest in the mine.

It would seem that the nearby brickworks at Blackalls Park were established to produce the bricks for building the smelter, and electricity came via a power line from the Olstan Colliery. A light narrow gauge tramway was constructed to bring the ore and coke to the plant, and to ship out the finished product. During this era access for workers to this small industrial area was from a bush track in Blackalls Park which led to railway gates and a level crossing of the main rail line.

photo: arsenic smelter, blackalls

Commercial arsenic is formed by condensing the fumes produced when arsenic bearing rock is burned. The fumes condense and crystalise into arsenic oxide.There were many uses for white arsenic during the early years of the 20th century. These included sheep dip, weed killer, timber preservation, and tanning of leather. Arsenic was used for the fumigation of blankets and uniforms during WWI and was tentatively used during WWI for poison gas but was found not to be very effective. Other uses were to harden copper and to make projectiles shoot true. It was particularly successful in the treatment of termites.

Walter Pezet had formed the Camellia Chemical Company and in 1925 he purchased factory premises in Sydney in the suburb of Camellia. The factory produced Camellia Weed Killer, a fast selling product at the time, used for the eradication of prickly pear. NSW Government Railways used extensive quantities of Camellia Week Killer beside the railway tracks for weed control, and it was most effective in controlling blackberry infestation.

However, trouble was brewing at the Blackalls smelter. Fumes from the stacks were destroying the native vegetation, as well as wafting over the small settlements of Blackalls and Fassifern, causing the residents considerable distress. A public meeting was held at Blackalls to protest about the poisonous fumes and this eventually led to the abandonment of the venture by Pezet. Thus the plant at Blackalls had a very short lifespan, for according to anecdotal accounts, it was abandoned by 1927.

Even though the Blackalls Smelter was abandoned, apparently Pezet still had sources of arsenic ore as the Camellia Chemical Company continued to produce its Weed Killer for many years. After 1952 arsenic was imported as the price was more competitive. Walter Pezet died in 1943 and the family continued in ownership of Camellia Chemical Company until 1963, when it was transferred to James Hardie and Company.

A more detailed history of the smelter and it's operations may be found at the link on the right.