A Brief History ...
A manufacturing operation to produce bricks was
established at the Darley site in 1893 by a partnership between Mr.
Thomas Akers and William Wittick. In 1898 David Mitchell, a builder
of note, supplier of building products and father of Dame Nellie
Melba, joined the consortium with an input of funds to maintain
operations. It was realised that the vast clay deposit was eminently
suitable for making high quality firebricks and with a further
injection of money for expansion in 1902, the Darley Firebrick
Company Pty. Ltd. was formed on the
9th of May, with David
Mitchell the majority shareholder.
At this time a downdraught kiln and a 30 meter high chimney were
built and a steam engine to drive shafts for a pug mill and grinding
equipment was installed. By 1907, 4 kilns had been built and a second
square chimney for the steam engine was erected. The third chimney
to the north was not built until the mid 1940's along with two extra
kilns. Some literature suggests this was done in 1909 but photographs
dated around 1942 do not show these structures. The Darley Firebrick
Company Pty Ltd. continued to trade under this name until the 13th
of August 1982 when the name was changed to Darley Refractories Pty.
Ltd. This was done to reflect the extended range of products
supplied after the purchase of the assets of the South Yarra
Firebrick Company, leaving Darley to be the only producer of
firebricks in Victoria.
From the earliest times the clay used was tunneled
from a 3 meter high seam, 200 by 500 meters in area, some 17 meters
underground. The clay was blasted with gelignite, broken up with
mattocks and loaded by hand into skips to be hauled to the stockpile
by winch. In 1965 the clay pit was open cut with the removal of
around 60,000 tonnes of overburden to expose the fireclay seam. In
1986 the last 15,000 tonnes of clay were removed to a stockpile and
the large quarry hole was consequently filled with refuse by the
The general method of making firebricks has altered
little over a hundred years although the grinding, extruding and
pressing equipment has become much more sophisticated. Clays are
still ground and mixed with crushed fired aggregate called grog, to
stop excessive shrinkage in the material as it is mixed with water
and extruded into a soft lump to be pressed into the desired shape.
Right up to the 1960's, many of the larger and special brick shapes
were hand moulded. This involved throwing hand sized soft pieces of
clay mixture into wooden moulds which had detachable bottom and
side inserts shaped to suit the characteristics of the firebrick.
A typical full gasworks setting would contain up to 1500 tonnes of
firebricks with over 100 different shapes. Many of these contained
tongues and grooves to provide a gas tight seal and were hand
moulded, as were large "D" shaped pipe retorts up to 5 meters in
length also used in these settings.
After shaping and drying, green bricks are fired in
a kiln up to 1350ºC to form a ceramic bond giving them strength
and integrity. Coke and black coal were used as a fuel to fire the
kilns up to 1965 when they were converted to use heavy fuel oil.
Probably the most significant improvement to firing was made in
1974, when the change to natural gas occurred. Quality was improved
and rejects reduced with the even control of burning temperatures.
After 72 years there was no more landmark black smoke from the
chimneys, only the occasional wisp of steam.
The most recent improvement in production was the
introduction of a 500 tonne Laeis dry press, giving the ability to
make precision shaped high quality bricks.
Product sales up to the 1960's were mainly to
gasworks in Australia and New Zealand, foundries, munitions,
fireplaces, steam boilers and locomotives. in recent years supplies
are still used for industrial boilers, furnaces, aluminium refining
pots, wood heater linings and kiln repairs. Castable high temperature
refractory concretes are also manufactured and sold.
Historic article written by: Gus Steegstra (previous General
to commemerate Darley Refractories' Centenary in 2002.
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