From farmland and slaughter yard, to brickworks and residential estate – A short history of the Bulli Brickyards, 1948-2002

The end is neigh: Developers overlooking the site of the Bulli Brickworks in 2002. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

THE need for housing materials, and a shortage of bricks, brought about the establishment of the Bulli Brick and Tile Company, and the building of a quarry and manufacturing plant on property south of Slacky Flat in 1948.

Jack Gwyther, who also owned the Bulli Family Hotel and several butcher shops in the area, had a slaughter yard on part of the land on which the Bulli Brickworks was proposed. The remainder was known as Woods’ Farm. Gwyther, with business partner John ‘Jack’ Thorne, were well-known and successful businessmen in the northern Illawarra.

The decision to approve the brickyards was one of the last major decisions of the Bulli Shire Council, which was on the verge of amalgamation with Wollongong, North Illawarra and Central Illawarra local government areas to form the City of Greater Wollongong Council. The Illawarra Mercury reported on August 1, 1947: 

MANUFACTURE OF TILES

Companies to operate on South Coast

Terra-Cotta tiles will shortly be manufactured on the South Coast. One firm has been established at Corrimal for this purpose, while another was granted permission to establish brick and tile works at Bulli by the Bulli Shire Council at its meeting on Monday night.

The Southern Stoneware Co., which has been established at Corrimal, has been able to secure a tile malting ma-chine which eventually should be able to produce between 4,000 and 5,000 tiles per day. At present the company’s output is restricted by its kiln, capacity and drying area. These are being extended and it is hoped that shortly in the vicinity of 17,000 tiles will be manufactured fortnightly.

The Bulli firm proposes to erect its works on Cope’s Estate, Organ road, Bulli. The estimated capacity of the plant will be 35,000 bricks and 1,500 tiles per week. In a report to the meeting, Mr. E. Way (building inspector) said he had inspected the proposed site, in company with the shire engineer with a view to ascertaining its proximity to roads and residences, direction of prevailing winds with possible nuisance created by dust and smoke.

The proposed site of the mixing sheds, kiln, etc., was approximately 280 yards north of the western end of Organ’s road, in portion of the land known as Gwyther’s Slaughter Yards, and prevailing winds would’ carry dust and smoke from the works away from the direction in which the nearest houses were situated.

From a planning aspect they did not consider it would interfere with any development projects of the council. In reply to Cr. Floyd, Mr. Way said it could possibly interfere with killing operations, but as Mr. Gwyther was one of the shareholders, he would satisfy himself on that aspect. Cr. H. Frew moved that approval be given. Seconded by Cr. Strachan. Cr. Floyd said he was not opposed to the proposal, but the aspect of the effect of dust on the meat should be looked into. The motion was carried unanimously.

The South Coast reported on Thursday September 16, 1948 that building applications were approved at Wollongong City Council’s meeting for a brick kiln and smelter stack at Bulli, valued at £10,000 for the Bulli Tile and Brick Pty Ltd.

The Illawarra Mercury reported on April 1, 1948 that when the Bulli Tile and Brick Pty. Ltd. plant goes into full production “in about seven months time it will have equipment to provide practically the whole of the texture brick requirements of the South Coast as well as ample supplies for export to other parts of the State”.

Bulldozers are now engaged in level-ling the ground for the site of the new works, which will be on what is known as ‘Wood’s Farm,’ Bulli, just near the Slacky Flat recreation ground. As soon as the bulldozers have completed their work the timber part of the works will be constructed, and this will be followed by the installation of machinery, which has been built to the special design and specifications of Mr. Langer, who is regarded as one of the foremost brick and tile experts on the Continent, and who has already built ninety-eight complete brick and tile and ceramic works on the Continent, many of them much larger than the Bulli project. Mr. Langer is also in charge of the £100,000 brick and tile project sponsored by the State Government.

The capital of the Bulli Company will be £25,000 and it is proposed to make rough cast bricks, as well as all classes of face and texture bricks, insulating bricks, standard and extruded types of tiles. The plant will be fully automatic and special equipment which was manufactured Hungary, was recently, loaded on a ship at Rotterdam, Holland, and is now, on its way to Australia.

The electrical equipment is ready for installation as soon as the ground and woodwork is completed. A director of the company said yesterday: “The kilns are capable of supplying the wants of builders in any building project they have in hand or contemplating. Our fully-automatic plant is the only one of its kind in Australia.” The company has a 99 years lease of the land from which can be obtained a practically inexhaustable supply of clay for the manufacture of tiles, texture bricks, and ceramic products, and the directors are confident that the production will exceed any existing company in Australia because of the completely automatic plant. When the company goes into pro-duction it will have continuous employment for thirty to forty men.

The works of the Bulli Brick and Tile Company in 1959 became the first works to be mechanized on the South Coast and the fourth in Australia, at a cost of 30,000. Four bricks fork-lift trucks were installed and under the management of J. W. Thorne, production was raised from 250,000 to 350,000 bricks per weeks. By 1973 that amount had lifted to 50,000 per day.

The Sydney Tribune reported a seven week strike at the Bulli Brickworks on July 17, 1973. The workers worker were demanding an $18 a week over-award payment (a brick worker on 40 hours a week cleared $60 to $65 during these times).

FORTY Bulli brickworkers and their families (pictured) marched from Woonona to the brickworks last Wednesday as their strike for better wages and conditions entered its seventh week.

Of the 44 brick workers on strike, only those who were ill did not take part. Ben Fotherington, a member of the workers’ disputes committee, told Tribune that the workers were “as solid as the day they went out.”

The brick workers are demanding an $18 a week over-award payment (a brick worker on 40 hours a week clears only $60 to $65); 17½ per cent annual leave loading and three extra sick days a year.

The owners of Bulli Brick and Tile Works, a private company, whose major shareholder and director is Mr. J. Thorne, have offered only to grant the three days’ sick leave. The striking brick workers are receiving widespread support in their local community.

Eighty loaves of bread a day are donated by a supporter. The strike committee receives free petrol from a local service station for all cars on strike business. Two local grocers supply food at cost price to the strikers. A local butcher does the same while he has also waived all bills of strikers who are his regular customers.

The Helensburgh Workers’ Club, the Bulli Women’s Hockey Club and the Bulli Bowling Club have all held social nights to raise money for the strikers. Donations have been received from South Coast wharfies, miners and from a total of 34 workplaces addressed by the strikers. The brick workers intend to go to Sydney and Newcastle this week to raise further funds. Much of the work in providing food for the strikers and organising finance has been done by their wives. They support the strike 100 per cent. “Who can live on $60 a week?” one of the women asked Tribune during the Wednesday march.

Now, as in the past, Bulli brick workers are fighting for better conditions and wages for all brick workers in the State. Two and a half years ago, they won a cut-down in the dusting necessary for retirement from 33 and a third per cent to 10 per cent. Earlier this year, they staged a work in, which only had to last two and a half hours before the owner gave in to their demands.

While the strike proceeds, the owner of the brickworks, Mr. Thorne, has gone on a business trip to America to buy a new brickmaking machine. Just before the national wage rise this year, Mr. Thorne raised the price of his bricks by $4 a thousand. As the works produces 50,000 bricks a day, his profit gain was substantial.

As the Bulli Brickworks is a private company, it is not obliged to make its profits public. The Bulli brick workers, now in their seventh week of strike, deserve the financial and moral support of all workers.

Neil Wonson at Bulli Tile and Brick yard, Quilkey Place, Bulli, 29 November 1983. Picture: Illawarra Mercury Image Collection, Wollongong City Libraries.

The bricks from the works were known for their hardwearing qualities, and as a consequence were used as footpath pavers throughout Kings Cross, Sydney in the 1990s. Also, the bricks were used to pave the footpaths throughout the Bulli shopping centre in the 1990s. The bricks are still on the footpaths and landscaping features to this day in the Bulli shopping centre (2021).

The Bulli Brickworks in 2002. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

The Bulli Brick Works continued operating through to 2002 when it was closed and the site redeveloped for housing. The Bulli Brickworks site is now a residential estate at the end of Grevillea Park Road.


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