Thursday, December 7, 2017

The mystery shaft in Somers Street, Lawson

Top of the shaft with protective grill, 2017 author photo
  The structure in question is an open vertical shaft, some seven metres deep by two metres in diameter, cut into the top of the sandstone cliff at the end of Somers Street, Lawson. A domed, iron grill protects the top; the bottom of the shaft is accessible via a narrow tunnel about 0.7 m in diameter and 1.6 m from the base of the cliff. It has been dug by hand, as the pick marks show in a series of concentric cuts, each about the depth of a pick blade, so it predates mechanical excavation methods. The land is located on portion 22, Parish of Lawson, comprising 50 acres taken up by Frederick Somers in the 1870s. Below the cliff is a large area of cleared, mostly level land with several small streams. Its local name is the ‘convict pit’, but was it a convict lock-up or something else?

No records of the shaft being used as a convict lockup or for storage of supplies or of it even existing have been located in the official reports of the colonial surveyors, police, superintendents of the iron-gangs, the journals of William Cox the road builder, Sir Thomas Mitchell the Surveyor General and supervising engineer on the Western Road, the account of Governor Macquarie’s journey over the new road in 1815 or any of the accounts of early 19th Century travellers over the Blue Mountains to Bathurst (Mackaness 1965), not does it appear on the 1878 Parish of Linden survey (Dept. of Lands 1878).

Portion 22 Frederick Somers 1870, road reserve for Somers St
visible on eastern boundary, no evidence of shaft shown   
Historical records show the convicts who laboured on building William Cox’s 1815 road across the Blue Mountains were skilled workers and tradesman – masons, cobblers, smiths and carpenters, they welcomed the chance to earn a pardon, their ticket of leave or emancipation (Yeaman 1983). By the 1830s there were well established convict stockades at Springwood, Mt Victoria and Cox’s river. At Mt Victoria in addition to a tall stockade fence built from upright stakes to enclose the convicts, there were barracks for the soldiers, constables' huts, a cottage for the officers, a Commandant's house and a store house on this major site. So there was already an efficient stockade system in operation and troublesome men were punished by being put in leg irons and chains. The surviving contemporary accounts of life in these stockades emphasise the fact that the convict road gangs moved on as the road building progressed, and all wore distinctively marked convict clothing to discourage escaping (Karskens 1984).

Top view looking down shaft, author photo
Would the shaft have been an efficient way of holding convicts? The mean height of male convicts around 1820 was 168 cm - about 5 foot 5 inches (Nicholas 1988 p. 81). Even allowing for their smaller size, three or four men lying down would be a cosy fit and five or six standing in the narrow space would be pretty squishy but with more than five metres of waste space above them. The ‘convict hole’ is a myth, a piece of local folklore and the idea is untenable.

The shaft would also be impractical for the storage of supplies because of its narrow vertical nature; it is simply the wrong shape. There is a small, partially excavated earth and rock chamber at Bull’s Camp, also known popularly as the ‘convict hole’ which in fact was used by the road builders for storage of tools, equipment and explosives (Merriman 2014). 

Another suggestion has been that it was a kiln for producing lime for building or tanning and that the tunnel at the base was for air draft (Fox 2009). However there are no commercial deposits of limestone in the area, the nearest being at Wallerawang or Portland. The common feature of early calcining kilns was a wide, shallow egg-cup shaped burning chamber, with an air inlet at the base known as the "eye", all constructed of brick. This type of brick kiln occurs at Hill End and there is even a brick, shale processing kiln at Mt Victoria at the Asgard Swamp Mine (Higginbotham and Jack 1982). Heap and pit burning were used from the early days of settlement to produce lime from shell, and where simple shaft kilns were used they incorporated a separate brick firing chamber and ash boxes with brick or iron fire bars (Pearson 1990). None of this is in evidence at the Somers Street shaft and close inspection of the interior shows no evidence of intense heat such as soot accumulation, and spalling of the rock face. In fact, allowing for normal weathering, the internal pick marks are still fairly sharp and display the natural sandstone colouring. Nor is there any evidence of charcoal, ash, lime waste or limestone rubble in the vicinity, something to be expected if it had been a calcining kiln.   

Roasting kiln at Hill End, 2015 author photo
There are however a number of clues that reveal what may be the true nature of the shaft. It is adjacent to land on which a former dairy operated, and the 1985 study located the nearby remains of a dairy building, as well as rusty discarded milk churns, and recorded that traces of oat grain had been found inside the shaft at the base level. There are also surviving remnants of improved pasture in the cleared land below the shaft site, including subterranean clover varieties and rye grass (Merriman, 1985).
Milk churn located during the 1985 survey, 1985 author photo 
This area at the end of Somers Street below the cliff line has some of the best grazing land in Lawson and from the 1840s when the first settlers arrived in the area, was known as the Cow Pasture (Bratby and Stockton 1986). It was probably the site of a dairy from the 1880s when the local population began to increase following the arrival of the railway in 1867. The Mechanic’s Institute opened in 1896, and the town soon became a significant population centre in the Mid-Mountains between Springwood and Katoomba. Lawson was also the seat of local government for all of the Blue Mountains, apart from the Katoomba and Blackheath urban areas, from 1907 to 1947 (Bentley, 1986).

Aerial view in 1943 showing the dairy, shaft and cow pasture.
Photo courtesy SIX maps
Since the 19th Century milk production in much of SE Australia has necessitated supplementary feeding of stock due to the low soil fertility and the short growing season (Atkinson 1826). There were many small dairies operating in the Blue Mountains in the early 20th Century. They were often family run operations that may have employed two or three people and milked between ten and twenty cows. They delivered their own milk products and often sold from the dairy as well. There were as many as 20 small dairies operating in Katoomba in the 1920s-30s.

Geo. Whitte's dairy Katoomba 1912
Many of the guest houses of the period advertised the availability of fresh milk and local dairies were trusted suppliers. In 1946 Blackheath Council voted to oppose the introduction of the Milk board to regulate local dairies, not only due to the costs of meeting health regulations including pasteurisation, but “it was pointed out, in no uncertain manner, that the milk produced locally is far superior in quality to that imported into the area” (Blue Mountains Advertiser 1946). Blue Mountains Shire Council correspondence files record twelve dairies operating in Wentworth Falls in 1930 with two in Leura, four in Megalong, four in Mt Victoria and two in Mt Irvine (Local Studies files - Dairying) and see images.

The link between the shaft and dairy farming is confirmed by the minutes of Blue Mountains City Council’s Town Planning committee for 18 February 1970, which contains the following report from The Town Planner:

Proposed Historical Site, Lawson
Mr W Deverall of 70 Military Road, Dover Heights, has written to Council offering part of his land in Somers Street providing it is retained permanently as a historical site. His letter reads as follows:
“On portion of my property at Lawson there is, I think, one of the most historic mountain emblems.  It is not mythic but definitely this deep stone well has been hand-chiseled out by convicts.  I have studied this matter hard and after a good deal of research, I feel convinced this well has been used as an ensilage pit. At the bottom it has an opening enabling the contents to be drawn therefrom during the crossing of the Mountains or the making of the road.
This has become somewhat sacred to me and I would not like, at some future date for this historic emblem to be lost. If the Council should think the same as me about this matter, I would be pleased to dedicate this portion of my land to the Council to be kept in perpetuity.”

The ensilage pit was inspected by the Town Planning Committee in May, 1968, when the Lawson/Bullaburra Town Planning proposals were under consideration. It has not been possible to verify Mr Deverall’s statement that this is an ensilage pit but the Historical Society will be contacted before the Meeting to this end. It is considered that Council should accept Mr Deverall’s offer with a surround of approximately one acre as illustrated in the accompanying sketch No.D2357.

Map identifying the silo from the 1970 Council report
As well as confirming the stock feed hypothesis, this document gives us 1970 a possible date for the installation of the protective grill covering the top - Council would have been quick to recognise the safety issues presented by the open shaft. However the supposition that the shaft dates from the crossing of the Mountains cannot be supported. It is certainly true that a shortage of suitable stock feed was identified as a problem by early travellers; Blaxland’s 1813 journal of the first successful crossing of the Blue Mountains records the explorers’ daily search for feed and water for the party’s horses.

Before we turn to a further source of evidence for dairying on the site, let us look at milk quality and how it was determined. In the early 20th century there were two relatively simple tests for quality available in small dairies. One was a basic test of specific gravity using a lactometer to determine adulteration; this would reveal watering down of milk. The second was the Babcock test, invented in the 1890s, which was the first inexpensive and practical test that could measure the actual fat content of milk. A manual cream separator would be used to extract the cream that was either churned into butter or when combined with milk protein produces cheese, both were value added products for the dairy farmer or milk processor. The Babcock test was also utilized by farmers to selectively breed for cows producing milk of higher butter fat content.

Milk inspection records 1924 showing James Linton and
Miss McBriar among the Lawson dairies
Blue Mountains Shire Council rate records show that in 1914 the owner of Portion 22 was James Linton a saddler from Sydney who operated the Glen Dairy there until around 1922. Blue Mountains Shire Council milk inspectors records show butter fat testing was carried out at the dairy from 1915 to 1924 and fines of 20/- and 40/- were imposed for adulteration - another reason to use supplementary feeding to maintain milk quality. A Miss McBriar operated the dairy in the 1920s and in 1939 a Mrs Ross was operating the dairy after her husband deserted her (Bentley pers. Com.). In 1945 on the death of James Ross the property was left to the Sons of Temperance, Sydney. The dairy and residence existed until they were lost in the catastrophic December 1957 bushfires.

Dairy listing 1930
The capacity of the shaft may be calculated to be about 16 tonnes of grain or ensilage. Ensilage is made from pasture plants cut when green, which is compacted, sealed and allowed to ferment without air, forming a material similar to sauerkraut; cattle relish it once they get used to the taste (Woods 1883, Sutherland 1980). Grain may also have been delivered by cart or truck down Somers Street from the highway or railway to the top of the silo from where it could then be removed at the base as required for stock feeding. A full silo of grain would by my calculations feed a dozen cows for six months and so ensure security and continuity of milk production.

The economics of dairy farming easily demonstrate that supplementary feeding was a worthwhile investment to maintain production. A small dairy of 15-20 milking cows producing an average of two gallons (9 litres) each per day over two milkings, much less than today’s breeds, could return around £40.0.0 per week, before costs, based on milk prices of around 4 pence per pint. The weekly basic wage in the 1920s was around £4.5.0. In today’s values £40.0.0 is equivalent to over $2,500 based on the CPI from 1920 to 2015, not a bad living, but a hard one, (see note for calculations below). Ken Porter whose family operated a dairy in north Leura in the 1930s with a milking herd of 80 cows, recalled in an oral history interview for Blue Mountains Library in 2010, that his father would get up at 2.30 am to begin milking at 4.00 am, seven days a week and his grandfather would still be making deliveries at 9.00 pm, no wonder he would often fall asleep at the dinner table; Ken began helping with the milking at age six, with his two brothers, and would often not arrive at school until 11o’clock in the morning (Levido 2010).

The cow pasture below Somers St, remains of The Glen dairy on right, 2017 author photo
Supplementary feeding came into sharp focus during the 1890s when Australia was in a grip of widespread drought, known as the Federation Drought . Ensilage was promoted as a secure means of fodder conservation by the principal of the Hawkesbury Agricultural College, who toured rural areas delivered lectures on silos and ensilage for dairy farming (Sydney Morning Herald 1891). It is quite possible that this raised awareness and prompted the building of our silo.

There are other early examples of pit silos, including the seventeen grain storage silos located in the sandstone bedrock on Cockatoo Island, these date from the 1840s, and  have a small top entrance opening up to a cavity six metres deep and seven metres wide. Earth silage pits are found on dairy farms along the Nepean River at Castlereagh and may also date from as early as the 1840s (Godden et. al. 2008). The Somers Street shaft may be seen as part of an established tradition of on-farm fodder conservation and storage. Ensilage and chaff were also widely available from commercial suppliers (Maitland daily Mercury 1910) and may have been stored in the silo for protection from weather and vermin. Oats and barley were also grown locally for stock feed (Freemans’ Journal 1903).
Lawson guest house advertising pure local Jersey milk and cream, 1905
Based on average feeding rates of 3.5 kg of silage per day for a lactating Jersey cow weighing 450 kg and producing 13 litres of milk a day, a full silo containing 6 tonnes of fodder would provide continuous supplementary feeding for around a dozen cows for at least six months, and so ensure security and continuity of milk production. The limiting factor in milk production is actually water, with up to 4 litres of water required for every litre of milk produced (La Grange 2007). The nearest natural water source to the Glen dairy  is Cataract Creek a short distance away on the valley floor, in dry times water may have had to be carted and there may have been a well.

Beginning in the late 1860s there were camps of fettlers and navvies throughout the Blue Mountains as the railway line was pushed westwards from Penrith to Wentworth Falls by 1867 and over the Great Zigzag to Bowenfels by October 1869 – here were men used to cutting through rock and they were not in short supply.  In fact the labourers who worked on the Mountains line, with their families, contributed significantly to the growth and development of the towns along its route (Croft 1982).

Interior of the shaft showing pick marks, author photo, scale is 10 cm
2017 author photo
Construction of the shaft itself would have utilised traditional manual methods for road construction and rock cutting used throughout the Blue Mountains and elsewhere in the 19th Century. The work was usually done by a two man team with one man holding a long, sharpened steel jumperbar that was struck by the hammer man and rotated a quarter turn after each blow. This resulted in a series of holes from about 40 cm to 80 cm deep, the weakened rock could then be broken away with chisels or wedges. In a hand boring contest attended by 1,000 people in August 1888, five teams competed and the winners achieved bore holes 33 cm deep in hard granite in less than seven minutes, at a striking rate of 91 hits per minute, this would need two hammer men striking successive blows on the jumper.

Interior view of the silo showing access tunnel, 2017 author photo
The rock face was then cleaned up with a pick axe swung alternately from right and left, this produces the familiar angled cuts seen on many of the local railway cuttings and in our shaft. The space needed to swing the pick also determined the minimum diameter of the shaft. Although black powder and dynamite were available and used in the bigger road and rail cuttings, (Convict Trail 2017), it is unlikely they were used in our shaft for fear of shattering the cliff face. There is some evidence of coarse sandy, rock spoil in crevices on the cliff top, but most is visible as a mound at the base of the cliff outside the lower entrance tunnel, see photo.

Exterior view showing access tunnel in relation to cliff face and
mound of spoil 1985, author photo
So to summarise, the shaft post-dates the convict period and was probably excavated by skilled rock cutters employed on the numerous railway gangs living and working in the area, during the railway construction period of the 1880s and early 1900s. It is further proposed that it was the need to maintain milk production, perhaps prompted by the severe drought of the period 1896-1902, that prompted the significant economic investment in providing supplementary fodder storage, either grain or ensilage and perhaps both, that is the origin what can now be identified as the rock silo in Somers Street, Lawson.

Ossie Smith's dairy Katoomba c. 1920
The Glen dairy below Somers Street with its associated silo was part of a wider picture of many small, township dairies in the Blue Mountains and elsewhere. Apart from using a cream separator and the Babcock tester, they showed little evidence of the technological changes that would transform the dairy industry in the 20th century, now Australia’s third largest agricultural industry with a gross value of over $4 billion annually.

The Mountains dairies continued to operate into the 1950s due to the demand for fresh milk by the local community that valued their local milk and wanted nothing to do with the so called ‘imported’ stuff. Before their eventual demise they were the last remnant, on a human scale, of a cultural adaptation that stretches back into prehistory and still survives in many rural and small scale societies in parts of Europe, Africa and Asia, where milch animals have included not only cows but sheep, goats, camels, donkeys, horses, buffalo and reindeer.

Ossie Smith's milk cart c. 1920
The importance of milk was apparent from the beginning of European settlement 1788. When the First Fleet arrived at Sydney cove, it brought one bull, four cows and one calf. These animals were to supply milk to the new colony and to serve as foundation stock for future herds. There were many setbacks in the first year (poor soils and pastures being a major concern) and within the first four months of settlement the original herd had wandered off in search of better food. Seven years later the herd was found near the Nepean River, numbering 40 cows and 2 bulls. During those early years, famine, drought and a lack of farming experience meant that many of the initial shipments of dairy cattle were slaughtered for meat. After these initial difficulties, the herd increased from 200 cows in 1796, to 1,044 in 1800 and rapidly to 34,500 head by 1825, and went on to form the basis of the dairy industry as we know it. (ABS, 2004).

Full fat cow’s milk is recognised as a good source of nutrition for brain development and generations of school children have been nurtured on milk with clear health benefits (Adee et. al. 2017). The difference now is that most children will never know the warm, rich smells of a milch cow chewing her cud, or experience the drama of a busy dairy at sunrise. Milk products are now consumer items that come from supermarket cabinets via a supply chain. The standard of nutrition of most Western countries is now so high that cow’s milk is probably unnecessary in our diet (ibid.) and is just as likely to be enjoyed in a latte or a yogurt smoothie, yet in the not so distant past the village dairy formed an essential part of small town life.


Stan Bentley for personal conversations during the 1985 research, Stan was a member of Springwood Historical Society and as a young man worked in various Blue Mountains dairies; he supplied many of the personal details of the Lawson dairy operators.

The pioneering Blue Mountains archaeologist, Fr. Eugene Stockton first alerted me to the shaft and reported finding oat hulls in the interior; he has resided in Somers Street for many years and first explored the silo in the 1960s.  

Images from Blue Mountains Library Local Studies Collection and the author unless otherwise noted

Historical prices and modern values

Historic currency value calculator - 

References and further reading

ABS - Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book Australia, 2004. History of milk production in Australia. Retrieved from

Adee, Sally et. al. 2017. Milk, New Scientist No 3116, 11 March.

Atkinson, James 1826. An Account of the State of Agriculture and Grazing in New South Wales. Holborn, London, J. Cross.

Bentley, Stan 1986. Christmas Swamp, a history of Lawson. Springwood Historical Society.

The Blue Mountains Advertiser (Katoomba, NSW : 1940 - 1954) Blackheath Council To Oppose Milk Board (1946, April 12) , p. 6. Retrieved December 6, 2017, from

Blue Mountains Encyclopaedia1926 -7. Where to Stay and What to Do. Local Govt. Sydney, NSW Tourist Agency.

Blue Mountains Shire Council. Inspector’s Record of Inspections, 1915-1928. Lawson, Shire Chambers.

Bratby, D. (interviewer) and Stockton, J. (interviewee). 1984, February 18. Interview
with Julie Stockton by Diana Bratby [Audio file]. Speaking of the Past, Blue
Mountains Library. Retrieved from

Convict Trail: Formation of the Great North Road - . Accessed 28 November 2017.

Croft & Associates with Meredith Walker 1982. Blue Mountains Heritage Study – Final Report, for Blue Mountains City Council.

Fox, Brian 2009. One of Lawson’s Mysteries. Hobby’s Outreach vol. 20, no. 5 December 2008-January 2009. Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains Historical Society.

Freeman’s Journal 1903. 'THE SETTLER', Freeman's Journal (Sydney, NSW : 1850 - 1932), 7 November, p. 12. , viewed 29 Nov 2017,

Godden McKay Logan 2008.  Archaeological Management Plan, Penrith Lakes Scheme -

Higginbotham E, and R Ian Jack, 1982. The Asgard Swamp Mine and Kiln near Mt Victoria, New South Wales: An Archaeological Report. Australian Archaeology No. 15 (Dec., 1982), pp. 54-66

Hughes Turnbull, Lucy 2008. The End of Transportation, Dictionary of Sydney.

Karskens, Grace 1984. The Convict Road Station Site at Wisemans Ferry: an Historical and Archaeological
Investigation. Australian Historical Archaeology, 2, 1984.

La Grange, Robert et. al. 2007. Nutrition Management for Tasmanian Dairy Farmers. Department of Primary Industries & Water Tasmania.

Levido, Trish (interviewer) and Porter, Ken (interviewee) 2010. Leura Dairy 1930s, interview with Ken Porter by Trish Levido for Blue Mountains City Library.

Mackaness, George 1965. Fourteen journeys over the Blue Mountains of New South Wales: 1813-1841. Reprint ed. Sydney, Halstead Press.

Maitland Daily Mercury (NSW: 1894 - 1939), 1911 'AGRICULTURE.', 25 November, p. 5. , viewed 29 Nov 2017,

Merriman, John 2014. From Linden Bluff to 20 Mile Hollow: the Western Road 1814-2014. In Eugene Stockton ed., This Tortuous Ridge, Linden to Lawson. Lawson, Blue Mountain Education and Research Trust. 

Merriman, John 1985. A rock silo in Somers Street, Lawson: an archaeological and historical investigation. Armidale, University of New England, Dept. of Archaeology and Paleoanthropology.

Nicholas, Stephen, ed. 1988.  Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia's Past. Cambridge University Press.

Pearson, M 1990. The Lime Industry in Australia: an overview.  Australian Archaeology No. 8, 1990, pp. 28-35.

Somers Street, Lawson.  Pamphlet file, Blue Mountains City Library, Springwood.

Sutherland, JA 1980. Fodder Conservation in: Introduction to Agriculture. Sydney, McGraw-Hill.

Sydney Morning Herald 1891. COUNTRY NEWS, (NSW: 1842 - 1954), 26 August, p. 8. , viewed 29 Nov 2017,

Wikipedia. Federation Drought -  accessed 4 October 2017.

Wikipedia. Silage - accessed 4 October 2017.

Woods, Henry, 1883. Ensilage: its origin, history, and practice, a lecture. -

Yeaman, John 1983, 2010 and 2014. Footsteps in time, a road across the mountains. Accessed 29 November 2017.

John Merriman, Local Studies Librarian, Blue Mountains City Library, 2017

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