Yallourn North

Yallourn North, originally known as Brown Coal Mine, grew from the first attempts at commercial brown coal mining in the Latrobe Valley. The town is 10 km north of Morwell which is 150 km east of Melbourne.

The Great Morwell Coal Mining Company was formed in 1889 to exploit the extensive deposits of brown coal near Morwell. The company intended to provide fuel for locomotives and help lessen Victoria’s dependence on New South Wales coal supplies, but went into liquidation in 1899. Its mine lay abandoned until 1916 when it was re-opened by the Mines Department to provide emergency fuel during a New South Wales coal strike. The Mines Department provided some huts for the workers, a marquee that was used for a school, and installed a pump for a water supply.

After the State Electricity Commission (SEC) was formed in 1918, a new open cut was developed on the south side of the Latrobe River in the 1920s, and the model town of Yallourn was built to house the SEC employees working in the open cut, power station, and briquette factory. The original open cut at Brown Coal Mine and its fledgling township passed into the jurisdiction of the SEC in 1924. As the SEC intended to stop mining at the old open cut by 1928, it was anticipated that the settlement would fade out as Yallourn developed.

Instead of declining Brown Coal Mine grew steadily. By the mid-1920s many SEC workers discovered they could not afford to rent the houses that had been built for them in the model garden city. Instead, they moved to Brown Coal Mine and built huts in the bush, using any materials they could find, such as bark, flattened kerosene tins and bags stiffened with lime. More businesses opened in Brown Coal Mine to cater for the expanding population and it even boasted a lively, vociferous newspaper, the Electric Spark.

Elevated above Yallourn and the fogs and coal dust that choked it, Brown Coal Mine was a reproach to the planned town below. The SEC demolished some of the huts but had to scale down this course of action once the depression tightened its grip in the 1930s. Reluctantly, the SEC was forced to accept Brown Coal Mine’s continuing existence and began a series of improvements to the town, including a water supply and sanitation service after a gastro enteritis outbreak killed seven babies. The residents were also accorded a grudging respect by the SEC hierarchy for their resilience and independence. The Victorian municipal directory (1938) recorded a post office, a bank, a hall, three stores and two coffee palaces.

The original open cut also proved resilient. Coal was won from there into the postwar period. After a discovery in 1928 that much of Yallourn had been inadvertently sited over brown coal deposits, that town’s expansion was restricted. In the years following World War II, the SEC turned to other towns in the Latrobe Valley to house their rapidly increasing work force. The massive extensions to the Yallourn Power Station meant that an influx of construction workers and their families urgently needed houses. As a result, Brown Coal Mine underwent a transformation. In 1947 its name was changed to Yallourn North.

In 1950 the SEC built a new subdivision for 275 houses, some of which had been prefabricated in England. Private estates were also developed. Many of the new residents were migrants from a variety of countries. The population increased rapidly, reaching 1457 in 1954, swamping the identity of the displaced persons and identity of the ‘Coalies’. Over 1000 residents were in camps and hostels. The symbolic end of the shanty town of Brown Coal Mine occurred in 1950 when a landslide caused a large section of the main street to fall into the open cut. Yallourn North experienced another expansion in the 1970s when the SEC demolished its model town of Yallourn and some of the former residents relocated to Yallourn North. As part of the resettlement program, the SEC provided facilities such as a swimming pool, football oval and netball courts for the town. The town also has a public hall, medical centre, hotel, school (96 pupils, 2014), Anglican, Catholic, Serbian and Uniting churches and a shopping centre. A recreation hall built in 1948 by the SEC for the single men’s camp has been kept as the Old Brown Coal Mine Museum.

The original open cut is no longer mined for brown coal, but the town of Yallourn North continues to overlook the extensive Yallourn open cut and Yallourn W power station. The former shanty town overlived its planned counterpart, Yallourn, now submerged in the open cut.

Census populations for Yallourn North have been:

census date population
1954 1457
1971 1808
1986 1359
1996 1216
2006 1159
2011 1059

Further Reading

K. Ringin, The old Brown Coal Mine, Moe, 1986

Josef Sestokas, Welcome to little Europe: displaced persons and the North Camp, Sale, 2010

Meredith Fletcher, Digging people up for coal: a history of Yallourn, Carlton South, 2002