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Decades of expansion for Whyalla were followed by decades of contraction. The steel making port city has seen optimism and idealism but also alienation and apathy, writes Peter Stanley.
With the steelworks under a cloud, Whyalla continues to fluctuate between hope and despair. Photo: Gary Sauer-Thompson/flickr, CC BY-NC
OPINION: Exactly 50 years ago, in the spring of 1966, my family left Pennington Migrant Hostel in Adelaide to drive up Highway 1 to Whyalla. Our destination, BHP’s Milpara hostel, was a full day’s journey away in a second-hand faded blue Ford Zephyr.
As recently arrived migrants from Britain, the drive would take us into an utterly unfamiliar landscape: the red-soil and saltbush country of South Australia’s upper Eyre Peninsula.
We were not alone. Whyalla was booming. BHP’s steelworks had opened the year before, the shipyard’s orders book was healthy, while ore from Iron Knob was being shipped from Whyalla in increasing quantities – my father was to work in BHP’s diesel locomotive repair shop.
The Stanleys – like many of Whyalla’s newcomers, working-class Britons (in our case Liverpudlians) – were optimistic about our future in a brand-new Housing Trust semi-detached in a dirt-pavement street on the city’s expanding western fringe: this was the new start in a new, sunny country for which we had left rainy, grey Liverpool.
We were surely not alone. Thousands of other migrants were arriving in the city. In our first year there the Housing Trust constructed over 600 houses. In the decade of the 1960s, Whyalla’s population doubled from 14,000 to 30,000.
The newcomers reflected an extraordinary ethnic diversity – booklets promoting the city to migrants spoke of 45 or more ethnic groups living there. The largest groups in the late 1960s came from the British Isles, from elsewhere in Australia and from Europe (mainly Germany, the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Spain and Poland).
BHP and the City Commission aggressively promoted the city’s advantages. A 1964 BHP promotional booklet extolling its climate, facilities, community amenities and lifestyle (one my family almost certainly read) ended:
This, then, is Whyalla: a place where a young community leads a busy, sunlit life, a city which is growing, always growing.
But the growth of the 1960s stopped in the following decade, when the population had reached around 34,000. In 1978, BHP launched the last of the 64 ships built in Whyalla, bringing to an end the 20-year boom begun with the construction of the steelworks. Between 1977 and 1983, the Housing Trust built only 120 houses. Whyalla began a gradual contraction, one that continues still.
In 1980, sociologist Roy Kriegler published Working for the Company, an analysis of “work and control” informed by his time as a labourer in the shipyard’s final years. He identified what he saw as an intractable dynamic of alienation among those who worked for BHP, a malaise of lack of commitment that infected the city as well as its industrial workplaces.
Kriegler, writing in the wake of the shipyard’s closure, ended his final chapter with a prediction: “Company Town to Ghost Town”. Reports of Whyalla’s demise were premature, but he was not alone in his pessimism.
The shipyard’s closure coincided with the growth to maturity of the children of the migrant generation of the 1960s like me. It became usual for young people to leave Whyalla. Among the 75 or so members of my own, very large matriculation class of 1974 many left Whyalla for work or study (as did I). At the 30-year reunion in 2004, no more than two or three still lived in Whyalla.
Many of those remaining found limited opportunities for work and little sense of fulfilment. A survey of drug problems in Whyalla by the Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia in 1985 found “no positive community feeling about Whyalla”, and that “the entire social life of Whyalla revolves around alcohol”.
Not surprisingly, one-quarter of the young people interviewed said they drank “because there is nothing better to do in Whyalla”.
I came to know several of Whyalla’s incarnations. I had grown up there in the boom years, had worked at the steelworks in vacations, and while driving taxis became closely acquainted with Whyalla’s pub and clubs. I also wrote a Litt.B. thesis about the town’s voluntary war effort during the second world war, which the council published.
Through that research I gained an understanding of both the earlier wartime boom and of the insular little community it had disrupted. And because I continued to visit the city, over the ensuing 40 years I saw it diminish.
The shipyard’s closure hit Whyalla hard, but it went down fighting. Community workshops cast about for ideas to generate a sustainable economy. Ideas to diversify the city’s economy included rabbit farming, a ferry (or even a bridge!) across Spencer Gulf and exploiting the ever-elusive tourist dollar. None came to much.
From the 1980s, Whyalla became better known for providing a home for welfare recipients than for producing ships and steel – its Housing Trust stock allegedly enabled beneficiaries in Adelaide to be offered accommodation if they were willing to move to Whyalla.
With the arrival of Indo-Chinese, South American and East African refugees in successive decades, Whyalla maintained its ethnic diversity. This included a small community of Indigenous people, some Barngala, the region’s original inhabitants.
Looking back over the century since BHP renamed the little ore-shipping port of Hummock Hill Whyalla in 1914, we can identify cycles of hope and despair against the larger rhythm of expansion and then contraction.
For at least 50 years Whyalla has seen optimism and idealism but also, if not despair, then its close neighbours, alienation and apathy. The city has seen repeated contests between hope and pessimism. Both seem to be embedded in the city’s culture, in its people’s repeated responses to the challenges of their situation.
Whyalla had been a tiny company town until the late 1930s. It was simply an ore jetty and a railway workshop, loading iron ore from Iron Knob, 50 kilometres away in the Middleback Ranges.
In its first incarnation as a small ore-shipping port, Whyalla had been remarkably stable. The 1934 federal electoral roll, for example, listed some 800 voters, but the surnames of five families accounted for a tenth of residents. Whyalla seemed free of the sectarianism endemic to Australia 80 years ago – the town’s Catholic and Anglican ministers played in the town’s orchestra.
Premier Thomas Playford opens the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline in 1944, ending years of water shortages and enabling residents to plant gardens to make the town more pleasant. As the Murray River’s salinity rose, the water quality declined, becoming virtually undrinkable. SA Water/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
In the late 1930s, the Playford state government persuaded (and subsidised) BHP to build a blast furnace, and a shipyard followed in 1940.
The town’s expansion upset the old stability. During the second world war the town grew from fewer than a thousand inhabitants to nearly 7,000, most drawn from the economically depressed Eyre Peninsula and Mid North.
The war years brought hardship – many families attracted to the town by war work lived in tents and shacks in what was called “Siberia” – but also a sense of hope after years of worldwide, national and local economic depression. People built their own houses, bought them under the company’s scheme or sought Housing Trust homes – small, but well-built and secure after the rural poverty many had known.
But the war also saw tensions between old residents and new. Established residents dominated the town’s social organisations, especially its voluntary war effort. Newcomers were, however, active in pressing for civic improvements and for improved working conditions in the company’s shipyard and blast furnace.
Under the leadership of trade unions and groups such as the Housewives’ Association, newcomers pressed for price controls, new schools, bread and postal deliveries, telephone and bus services, cheaper water and better housing. They expressed a powerful idealism characteristic of a generation that fought and worked for a better world.
While established residents accepted the company’s paternalism, newcomers (almost all from rural South Australia) pressed for representative local government. BHP, reluctant to pay for the larger, more expensive town services but equally loath to relinquish control, engineered a compromise in the form of a town commission.
The commission, established by the state government in 1944, comprised three representatives each of company and residents, chaired by an independent commissioner, Charles Ryan (who held the position from 1945 to 1970).
BHP was ‘not very pleased with the results’ of the first town commission election – it later sacked an employee, Eric Stead, who had been elected as a residents’ representative. Trove/National Library of Australia
The commission reflected idealism, pragmatism and paternalism. The elections for the first town commission in 1945 revealed the extent to which many of Whyalla’s newcomers yearned for a better society. The three ratepayers’ representatives included Eric Stead, a member of the Communist Party and an embodiment of the “progressive” movements in the town.
“Naturally, we are not very pleased with the results,” the company’s director in Whyalla reported to head office in Melbourne.
Stead’s election reflected, of course, the Communist Party’s popularity generally at the end of the war. But it also disclosed the deep yearning for a better life among a generation traumatised by economic depression and war; Whyalla’s new houses and company-subsidised services could provide that life.
Many of those attracted in wartime moved on after 1945, but those who stayed formed an enlarged “old Whyalla” – notably loyal to the paternalist BHP (naturally, known to residents simply as “the company”). That stability was disrupted once more from the late 1950s. Again supported by a state government (still Playford’s), BHP built a steelworks at Whyalla. This created the boom that brought the Stanleys and tens of thousands of other newcomers to the city.
Whyalla’s sense of itself as a community – as distinct from the dismal catalogue of deprivation on a range of socio-economic indicators – has never been clearer than in the Australian Frontier report of 1973, at the height of the second boom.
Produced by a Melbourne social research consultant in response to a request by the new Whyalla City Council (which supplanted the commission in 1970), the report investigated the “Factors Influencing the Stability of Whyalla”. It drew on a “Community Self Survey” co-ordinated by a Congregational Church social worker, Don Sarre, notable because it reflected the views of residents rather than planners.
Sarre’s report documented two contradictory themes. One was of physical or social hardship and deprivation. It noted the concern of doctors and nurses at the incidence of boredom, isolation and depression, and that at least half – and perhaps two-thirds – of respondents had no firm intention to remain in Whyalla.
Sarre identified the “inadequacy of the nuclear family” as a key cause of instability – most newcomers to the city (over half migrants or their Australian-born children) had no extended families and the support they could offer.
But among those who remained (which included some of the Stanleys), people expressed yearnings for facilities and conditions that would enable them to make a home in a place not immediately seen as hospitable, or even (at the height of summer) habitable.
They valued “the ease of making good friends” in the city and its healthy climate, and they had aspirations and desires. Their wishes expressed a powerful positive vision. They wanted better educational opportunities for their children, more parks and gardens and, above all, better and more local control over their community.
Don Sarre, reflecting on the report 40-odd years later, recalled that the aspects that most struck him in retrospect were the energy with which Whyalla’s newcomers built a community and the quality of community leadership evident in the city’s expansionary period.
For example, teachers staffing the dozen primary and four high schools were often graduates, “bonded” or posted to the country and bringing a quality of youthful, professional enthusiasm that matched the aspirations of their pupils’ parents.
Despite this idealism, by the 1990s the city had slipped to be the state’s third-largest city (after Adelaide and Mount Gambier). This was a reflection of Whyalla’s decline rather than growth elsewhere.
Visiting at least annually, I observed how shops closed, shopping centres became increasingly shabby and houses and then entire blocks of Housing Trust houses fell derelict and were then demolished.
Signs of Whyalla’s decline were everywhere: driving in from the airport, my mother’s litany would be “there’s another Trust house knocked down”; but she’d also express pride at “the new leisure centre” or “the new Harvey Norman’s”.
The local newspaper, the Whyalla News, begun in 1940 as a weekly, went to twice weekly in the 1950s and thrice weekly in the 1970s. It then declined, losing pages, advertisers and readers. It now appears once a week again, like many country newspapers permanently on the brink of closure.
The decline of the city’s human infrastructure can be seen in the case of its Protestant churches. In the early 1970s, nonconformist congregations supported half-a-dozen clergymen and several other social and community development officers. Now the Uniting Church has one minister in the entire city, though arguably the need for the social and spiritual support that churches represent could not be greater.
On virtually any socio-economic measure in the 1990s, Whyalla scored more poorly than other cities in South Australia, even in the state’s “iron triangle”. Whyalla’s Department of Community Welfare office, a 1990 study revealed, had the highest per-capita number of “clients” in the state.
On an index of “relative socio-economic disadvantage”, Whyalla at 911 was below Port Pirie and its lead residues (at 921), Port August at 943, Mount Gambier at 957 and genteel Victor Harbour at 1,011.
The study also revealed shockingly high levels of domestic abuse, as suggested by the numbers of women seeking shelter. One area of just eight streets around Jenkins Avenue produced 201 “clients” (though a similar-sized area in the city’s east produced just one).
In the face of these grim realities, Whyalla had its boosters. The council remained resolutely positive, even though most initiatives failed to deliver the benefits promised. The Whyalla News seemed to have a generic news story permanently set, ready to be deployed, beginning with the headline “[insert name of company] plans will bring jobs”.
Sue Scheiffers’ privately published 1985 history of the city, A Ribbon of Steel, though appearing a decade after the shipyard’s closure, was sub-titled Whyalla Surges Ahead. Her book catalogued a relentless succession of development, urban amenities and civic progress.
As a serial grey nomad, in the 1980s and ’90s, my mother became a one-woman travelling embassy for Whyalla, persuading dozens of fellow caravanners in parks all over Australia that, regardless of its reputation, Whyalla was a paradise.
High rates of chronic illness keep Whyalla Hospital busy. SA Health/Government of South Australia
Of the migrants of the 1960s who remained, the environment in which they lived now actively harmed their health. Epidemiological surveys by the state’s Department of Health in 2005 established shocking figures of chronic illness.
Whyalla’s residents manifested significantly worse health than people in comparable towns. Rates of lung cancer were “significantly higher” – more than 50% greater – as were chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (77% more), alcoholic liver disease (70% more) and chronic hepatitis (330% more). The report had been prompted by long-standing concern about the red dust emitted from the steelworks, and especially its iron ore-processing “pellet plant”.
Nevertheless, the early 1990s brought yet another wave of consultants’ investigations, facilitated workshops and strategic planning, again with wildly optimistic outcomes. The report of a planning weekend among city council elected officials and employed officers in 1991 came up with extravagant ideas, such as developing a resort for Asian honeymooners and redeveloping the local racecourse and golf course to attract international punters and players.
The workshop considered several scenarios for Whyalla in 2001. While accepting its remote, hot and dry location and its “dirty” industry, participants nevertheless foresaw it at worst becoming a “pleasant backwater”. They even then thought that “ghost suburbs” might generate visitors.
One positive scenario for an “innovative, entrepreneurial, attractive human and humane” city sketched out a “green, almost tropical environment” based on recycled water and tourist attractions (such as a large sculpture park) that would, naturally, “put Whyalla on the international tourist circuit”.
Despite the city’s unpropitious situation and its precarious economic base, its people – and especially its city council – remained doggedly optimistic. In the 1990s, after two decades of decline, a brief and, as it turned out, almost fruitless movement aspired to make Whyalla an exemplar of the new “ecocity” movement.
The council, in association with the Adelaide-based Centre for Urban Ecology, endorsed plans to generate power from Whyalla’s abundant sunshine, creating a “green city”: a paradoxically enticing vision for a place that received only 270 millimetres of rainfall but over 300 sunny days annually.
An “eEcopolis”, as its proponents called it, involved “creating vibrant human settlements … shaping a healthy economy in keeping with ecological principles [and] promoting social justice and wellbeing”.
The ecocity push reflected Whyalla at its most optimistic. In Whyalla Why Not?, sustainable city theorist Paul Downton espoused the visionary idea that Whyalla could become “internationally renowned as a centre of the global solar industry, as well as being a major tourist destination”.
Downton wrote a short story, set 25 years in the future, painting a bold vision of a solar-powered city living in harmony with its environment and enriched by “green” industries. The ecocity idea set out to “reinvigorate the city, not only in environmental terms, but economically and culturally”.
The Whyalla of 2021 it envisaged would have “a seriously major rock music industry” and would have made multiculturalism work. Its population would have doubled but its jobless rate would be the lowest in Australia.
The vision of Whyalla as an ecocity offered an idealistic vision, as passionate as the boosters’ prophecies of growth 30 years before. It failed, killed by lack of investment. Its only reminder is a water-recovery plant near the city’s racecourse, its bare red-earth berms giving no idea of the passion that inspired it.
That the would-be ecocity’s economy remained fundamentally dependent upon mining and processing minerals, using coal-generated power and water brought from the ecologically failing Murray River, remains a sad and tragic irony.
In the early years of the 21st century there was a further burst of optimism, based on the promotional slogan “Whyalla: Where the Outback Meets the Sea”. In 2005, the council was promoting the city hopefully:
Long a steel and ship-building hub, Whyalla is now experiencing a tourism renaissance based around its proud industrial history and natural phenomena.
In truth, tours of the steelworks attracted few visitors. The tourist promotion office was now putting its eggs in the baskets of the Whyalla Maritime Museum, itself based on the preserved second world war corvette HMAS Whyalla (the first ship built in the shipyard, launched in 1941 and in 1987 hauled ashore).
Even more, they hoped for a boon from fishing tourism, from the annual angling festival, and from the exploitation of the giant cuttlefish, which swarm in the waters of nearby False Bay. While the lure of Spencer Gulf’s snapper and kingfish has failed to attract gourmet travellers, the cuttlefish do attract a thousand or so divers each winter.
Successive mining or processing proposals, boosting the prospects and benefits of aquaculture, betalene (an algae used in food manufacture) or the processing of titanium dioxide, came to nothing; more is hoped from reports that Indian energy giant Adani might develop a solar-power plant in one of the city’s huge – but virtually unoccupied – industrial estates. Sometimes the city’s main product seems to be consultants’ reports and optimism in industrial quantities.
For all that the city has become smaller and poorer, Whyalla remains (as the town commission’s 1965 booklet put it) “a city of contrasts”. Alongside the pub-club-bingo and poker-machine culture that seemingly characterises the city, it is also, paradoxically, a place with greater access to culture than comparable communities.
Partly because of its isolation and perceived disadvantages, the state government and other agencies have long made special efforts to bring culture to Whyalla. I first heard Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik live in the Nicholson Avenue primary school library, because South Australia’s arts council sent a string quartet on tour in about 1973.
The opening of what is now the Middleback Arts Centre in 1985 has given Whyalla residents an impressive program of theatre, music, ballet and other performances.
Nor is the culture all imported. The Whyalla Players have performed musicals annually since 1956, and not just the traditional Rogers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, but also complex and recent works such as Phantom of the Opera or Cats.
Again, this activity suggests a triumph of optimism over the city’s unpromising background of deprivation. Ironically, the Middleback Arts Centre is located in the same precinct that houses government and church employment and welfare offices.
This ambivalence can be detected in the reflections of resident writers published in anthologies produced by successive incarnations of the Whyalla Writers’ Group (WWG). In 2001, Julie Drogemuller, in her poem The Beauty of Whyalla, reflected lyrically:
are the lights
in the clear starry nights.
And her name is Whyalla.
Contributors to another WWG anthology, Iceblocking in Red Haze, expressed the disaffection seemingly endemic among the city’s “youth”. In a piece featuring a sustained diatribe beginning “I hate Whyalla”, an anonymous author ended her piece, paradoxically, by writing fondly of:
… the red sand, the saltbush, the desert … the RED HAZE, my home Whyalla.
As this suggests, while arguably a community in perpetual crisis, optimism can be found – not least in the pages of the city’s newspaper. Jan Vrtelka, a Czech migrant, wrote dozens of letters to the Whyalla News in the mid-noughties. He later published a selection of over 60 of them under the telling title of All for Whyalla.
Vrtelka’s optimism for Whyalla’s potential seemed boundless. He too advocated developing coastal resorts and remaking the railway to Port Augusta – which had carried passengers for only two years before closing in 1978 – to ship cattle to Darwin for export to Asia. He also proposed desalination plants, a medical school and university to make it the “education hub of western South Australia”.
The coastal track to Port Augusta, he claimed, could rival Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, if only it were sealed. He urged the introduction of dog-sledding (on sand) and land yachts (on mudflats near the city).
Whyalla, he thought, should plan for a city five times its present size: entice refugees to settle, he argued – perhaps having himself fled Soviet oppression.
Jan Vrtelka’s pride in Whyalla was not unique. Like my mother, he regarded Whyalla’s heat as invigorating and its generally fine weather as without parallel. It was as if the authors of BHP’s boosting booklets of the 1960s lived on.
Vrtelka’s optimism was at least rooted in an awareness that things really were pretty crook. He knew that the city’s population had declined more rapidly than in any comparable second city in any state in the world. He understood the notion of “a diminishing city” – an oft-used catchphrase – but he struggled against it.
Whyalla’s economic decline appears to be terminal. Ore mining in the Middleback Ranges brings modest benefits; as did the Santos natural gas development at Port Bonython on nearby Point Lowly in the 1990s. The development of BHP Billiton’s copper and uranium mines at Olympic Dam has not contributed much to Whyalla’s economy.
BHP divested itself of the steelworks in 2000 to OneSteel, later taken over by Arrium Steel, with each transfer costing jobs. Over the decade the total workforce in the steelworks – once 6,000-strong – fell to around 1,600. In April 2016, Arrium called in administrators and offered the plant for sale.
Today, the future of the steelworks remains uncertain. If it were to close, not only would Australia lose its only manufacturer of “long steel” products, but without its principal employer Whyalla would be mortally wounded, economically and socially.
Fundamentally, the question is whether an industrial community can survive in the harsh environment of the upper Eyre Peninsula. Arrium Steel’s collapse may reflect the structural impossibility of attempting to make steel in such a place, rather than merely chronic mismanagement and a worldwide glut of steel.
But amid the predictions of economic collapse and the social dislocation that would inevitably follow, optimistic voices are also heard.
The city council’s 2015–16 strategic plan predictably aims to create “a vibrant, attractive city offering our community a diverse range of sustainable economic, social, environmental and cultural opportunities”, creating “an energetic, harmonious, integrated community actively involved in shaping Whyalla for current and future generations”.
Just as deprivation and despair are an ineradicable part of Whyalla’s inheritance, so too are optimism and hope. A recent visit to the city disclosed new homes privately built where Housing Trust units had been demolished and, as well as many “For Sale” signs, new businesses opening (a perennial triumph of optimism over economic reality in the city).
Amid forebodings of doom, quixotic headlines characterise the Whyalla News: “Afloat with hope”; “City on the mend”, “Whyalla expands to great future” and, of course, “Jobs boost for region”.
The local council has launched a rebranding that will, they hope, attract tourists. (The Whyalla News cartoonist – who happens to be my elder brother – suggests that instead of “Where the outback meets the sea” it adopt “Where the steelworks used to be”). With the death in 2016 of Jim Pollock, long-term mayor named in obituaries as a “Whyalla warrior”, no fewer than seven candidates are standing for election as mayor: they all have positive visions for the city’s future.
On the way to the airport I stopped off at a magnificent exhibition of quilts by the Whyalla Quilters. The group’s members had produced over a hundred pieces, a startlingly characteristic expression of the creativity that Whyalla’s people can display.
No-one is really sure what “Whyalla” means in the language of the Barngala people: they were devastated culturally before anyone thought to ask. It may mean “place near water” (“Where the outback meets the sea”), or it may mean (in the classic Indigenous response to a white questioner) “I don’t know”.
Whyalla: I don’t know.
The author is grateful to Don Sarre, Ingrid and Stephen Stanley, Naomi Haldane and Ana Morris of the Whyalla Library Service, and Teresa Court of the Whyalla City Council. His work has also been published in Griffith Review 9 and 48.
This piece is republished with permission from State of Hope, the 55th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis of the economic, social, environmental and cultural challenges facing South Australia, and the possibilities of renewal and revitalisation.
You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.