Wonthaggi is located 132kms south east of Melbourne via the South Gippsland and Bass Highways, in the Bass Coast Shire of Gippsland, Victoria, Australia. The town, known originally for its coal mining, is now the regional service centre for tourism, beef and dairy industries, and at the 2001 census, it had a population of 6,136.
Coal was discovered by explorer William Hovell at Cape Paterson in 1826, and was subsequently mined from the Powlett River fields in the region, between 1859 and 1864. However transporting the coal by whale boat through the surf to larger ships anchored offshore proved costly and dangerous and mining activity was soon curtailed.
Much of the coal for the colony of Victoria was sourced from Newcastle and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, along with local supplies from private and co-operative coal mines at Outtrim, Jumbunna and Korumburra in Gippsland. After the 1909-1910 strike by coal miners in the Hunter Valley, the Victorian colonial government were determined to ensure stability in local supplies of coal. The State Coal mine and the town of Wonthaggi came into being in 1910 to supply coal for the steam trains in Victoria. The construction of the Wonthaggi power station in 1912 resulted in the mining complex becoming the first electrified mining operation in the southern hemisphere.
The mine provided a stimulus for unionism and in particular the Victorian Coal Miners Association. The State Coal Mine heralded increasing regulation of mining, with the introduction of wages boards, and compensation for accidents under the Coal Mines Regulation Act. Management of the mine adopted a policy of conciliation and negotiating with union representatives which generally reduced industrial disputation.
In 1911 miners formed the Wonthaggi Co-operative Workmen’s Club, a social club with 300 members and a membership fee of 10 shillings. Miners were also prominent in establishing the local hospital, friendly society dispensary, union theatre, and a co-operative store, and in supporting miners in New Zealand in the 1912 Waihi miners’ strike
Mining continued for 59 years, extracting 17 million tonnes of coal from 12 separate mines. The State Coal Mine closed in 1968 and is now operated by Parks Victoria as a visitor experience, with a well-presented museum.