Highlands History | September 11: Keep the beer flowing

A concrete reservoir was built in 1908 on Welby Hill as storage for Mittagong’s water supply, but collapsed shortly before its official opening. The story was featured in last week’s column, as told by former local historian John McColgan.

Being prominently reported in Sydney newspapers, the significance of the mishap deserves further explanation. The incident at Mittagong was deemed newsworthy because the town’s water was essential for brewing the state’s beer.

Arthur Tooth, head brewer at Tooth & Co’s Sydney brewery, had registered the Malting Company of NSW in 1898. He realised the desirability of establishing a large-scale malting works to supply barley malt to breweries throughout NSW. 

As atmospheric conditions, moisture content and temperature were vital factors, a suitable locality was required. Coastal areas did not supply these requirements so Mittagong was chosen, it being reasonably close to the largest market, conveniently situated for transport facilities and having a good water supply.

In 1899 a large malthouse was constructed at Mittagong on Oaklands Estate, between the railway line and Nattai Creek. A dam was built across the creek to provide the large daily volumes of water required. The malthouse was duplicated in 1906 with a mirror-image structure on its northern side and an average of 27 men were employed working up to four shifts daily, contributing to that most appealing of end products – well-brewed beer. 

BUCOLIC: The Mittagong Maltings reflected in the waters of Nattai Creek, prior to its closure in 1980. Photos: BDH&FHS.

BUCOLIC: The Mittagong Maltings reflected in the waters of Nattai Creek, prior to its closure in 1980. Photos: BDH&FHS.

DAILY DEMAND: Nattai Creek provided water for Mittagong’s Maltings from 1899 to 1909.

DAILY DEMAND: Nattai Creek provided water for Mittagong’s Maltings from 1899 to 1909.

The creek proved unreliable as a water source. A weir on Baker’s Creek and the reservoir at Welby were built in 1908 to provide a town reticulated water supply.

WATERWORKS: AW Tooth turns first sod in 1908 for the weir on Baker’s Creek, Mittagong.

WATERWORKS: AW Tooth turns first sod in 1908 for the weir on Baker’s Creek, Mittagong.

When the reservoir collapsed on Friday, January 22, 1909, the mishap was briefly noted in the Sydney Morning Herald on the Saturday. The paper then provided a full description on the Monday, concluding that:

“Great disappointment prevails in the district at the accident, as arrangements were made for the turning on ceremony by the Governor on Wednesday next, which had been proclaimed a public holiday for Mittagong. 

Numerous business and private houses have already been connected to the water supply mains. The mishap will place a check on the progress of this line. Fortunately recent rains have well filled all house tanks, so that tourists are not likely to be inconvenienced.”

A detailed report on the incident is found in the local Robertson Advocate:

“One of the biggest calamities which has ever taken place in Mittagong, occurred on Friday evening...when the reservoir, which has just been built in connection with the water supply, totally collapsed. 

The reservoir, which is situated on a high hill, contained over 200,000 gallons of water. It appears that the reservoir gave way without any warning, and some idea may be gathered of the force of the water when large concrete blocks were hurled some hundreds of yards away, and the steel pipes and bars twisted and scattered in all directions.

The reservoir had not yet been taken over by the council. It was built by the Public Works Department at a cost of £2000. There is only a portion of the base now standing, and the theory has been advanced that the bottom of the reservoir blew out. Fortunately the water found its way down the southern side of the reservoir in the opposite direction of the town. Otherwise residents would have been flooded. 

Three officers of the Public Works Department arrived in Mittagong and...accompanied by the Mayor and Aldermen, proceeded to inspect the destruction. Arriving on the scene the officers were astounded at the collapse of the structure, and would not advance any reason for it. It is stated that a searching inquiry will be made.

It has been decided to erect two iron tanks capable of holding 20,000 gallons each near the site of the reservoir. Great satisfaction was expressed at the state of the weir, and the large body of water flowing in at the rate of 75,000 gallons daily. The water will be pumped through the main to supply the town and its industrial users.” 

Until a replacement was built in 1910, residents were inconvenienced by an irregular supply. The Maltings, however, was not adversely affected and the state’s beer kept flowing.  

  • Berrima District Historical & Family History Society – compiled by PD Morton.