Victorian mining boiler records
This guide explores the mining boiler registration records held by the Public Record Office Victoria as VPRS 9534/P1. Unfortunately, only the records from 1929 to 1947 appear to have survived, comprising in total 293 individual registrations for pressure vessels used in the mining industry. An Excel data sheet carrying details of all 293 registrations accompanies this document.
As befitted Victoria’s most important nineteenth-century industry, regulation of mines was accorded priority in legislation. However, the Mining Statute of 1865 contained no reference to engines, boilers or certification of drivers. Regulation of machinery in the mining industry really began with the passage of the Regulation of Mines Act on 25 November 1875. Under the “General Rules” section of the Act, no one under the age of eighteen years was to have charge of an engine or boiler. No person in charge of steam machinery was to work more than eight hours in twenty-four. All boilers had to be fitted with a water gauge, a pressure gauge and a safety valve and be hydraulically tested every six months. The mine manger was to inspect the machinery every two weeks and keep a record of his findings with notes of any maintenance carried out.1 While the Act was strengthened in 1877, there was still no requirement for mandatory government inspection of boilers.2
The law was significantly upgraded with the passage of the Act to Provide for the Regulation and Inspection of Mines and Machinery which came into law on 3 November 1883. All steam machinery in mines was to be examined by an inspector prior to use and kept in a fit and proper condition. In addition, all persons in charge of steam machinery in mines for the first time had to hold a certificate of competency.3 This was still not enough to prevent serious accidents occurring. By 1886 it was apparent that boiler explosions in Victorian industry were increasing at an alarming rate compared with the rest of the world. Complacency, the number of old mining boilers in use, and the poor quality of the water generally available to Victorian mining plants were largely to blame. In Victoria, one in 287 boilers in use exploded in 1885/86. In the USA it was one in 885, in England one in 2000, and in Germany one in 3000.4 Further amendments to the Mines Act in 1897 at last provided for government registration and annual inspections of boilers in mines – an important step forward in terms of safety.5 It is the survivors of these registration records which this guide examines.
How the records are arranged
Unfortunately, the records for the period 1897 to 1929 appear to have been lost to us. There are only two volumes extant within the record series. The first (Unit 1) has 200 pages (folio numbers) with entries ranging in date from May 1929 to July 1937. Surprisingly, the entries are not all in date order. The second volume (Unit 2) also has 200 pages (folio numbers) with entries dating from September 1936 to August 1947, but only the first 93 pages are filled in. The implication is that no later records exist for mining boiler registrations. The entries in each individual registration are almost identical with those made under the Boiler Inspection Act 1906 (BIA) registrations (VPRS 7854/P1 and /P2), not really surprising given that both were carried out almost side-by-side within the same government department. Each entry has spaces to record the date the boiler was registered for inspection, owner, address at which the boiler was inspected, the mine at which it was to be used, date of inspection, boiler type, maker, construction date where known, and a host of construction details and dimensions of the individual components making up the boiler. Finally, each entry has a space for comments made by the boiler inspector, which range from a short comment to a paragraph on the boiler, its history, and the use to which it will be put.
The big difference between the Mines Department registration system and the BIA registration system is in the numbers assigned to the boilers. Under the BIA system each boiler was given a number corresponding with the page (folio) number on which it was registered. No such orderly process seems to have been followed for the registration of mining boilers. While indexing the records the writer tried hard to develop some sense of how the numbers were assigned but, in the end, gave up. The only common denominator seems to be the first two letters MD [presumably Mines Department]. Then followed another letter (for most of the extant records D, F, H, J, K, M, O and W – but not necessarily in alphabetical/date order) followed by up to three digits. Then there are the rogue entries – some with the letter and numbers reversed, some simply with a D followed by a four-digit figure, some with a T-suffix (seemingly limited to some but by no means all air receivers), and some which were issued with (or retained) a BIA number. To complicate matters for those attempting to identify a boiler by the marks stamped into it at the time of inspection, boilers appear to have been commonly (but not always) issued with a separate number at subsequent inspections (or changes of ownership), while at least one retained its original number from its first inspection in 1919. Thankfully in most cases the new numbers (and transfers to and from the BIA system) are noted in red ink on the blank page opposite the registration details.
What is remarkable is the very small number of new boilers registered. The extant records neatly encapsulate the period covered by the Great Depression beginning in 1929. Depressions engender upswings in gold mining and, as a consequence, the registration of boilers. However, even following an easing of the Depression in 1934, there were almost no new boilers registered until 1937, and even new air receivers were likely to have been made from second-hand boiler drums.
The records contain a wealth of information for those researching Victorian industrial history. There are details of boilers and air receivers used in mines, gold dredges, collieries, quarries, lime works and brickworks, including a few gems like Ruston excavator No.1071 on lease from the Victorian Railways to the David Mitchell Estate quarries at Lilydale in 1936. In some instances, traction engines working in quarries were also captured.
The spreadsheet has been uploaded as a 'comma-eparated values' (CSV) text file that can be opened in any spreadsheet or database program.
Obviously, there is too much detail in each registration for the entire entry to be included in the table, so researchers should note that this spreadsheet is not intended as a substitute for the original records. The items recorded in each entry of the spreadsheet include:
ID: Sequential number of the record (required by the software used to build the spreadsheet).
Unit: There are two volumes or “units” in the record series. It is the first key to locating the record.
Folio: This is the second key, and locates the folio, or page number within the volume or unit.
Registration: The boiler number stamped by the inspector on the boiler and recorded in the register.
Date of test: The date of inspection. (Usually but not always the same as that stamped on the boiler).
Owner: The owner of the boiler (or for whom it was being inspected).
Location: This is the location where the boiler was to be used.
Maker: The firm that built the boiler.
Type: The type of boiler.
Year built: The year is listed wherever identified in the original record.
Builder’s number: Shown wherever it is identified in the original record.
WPSIG: Working pressure in pounds per square inch above atmospheric pressure allowed by the inspector.
Comment: As noted by the inspector in the original record. The inspector often recorded the mine at which the
boiler was last used or the mine to which it was subsequently sold.
Wannan, A (1894). The Engine Driver's Guide. E W Cole, Melbourne.
Victorian Parliamentary Papers (VPP): Votes and proceedings of the Legislative Assembly 1860-1897.
1 Victorian Statutes, Act 480 of 1875.
2 Victorian Statutes, Act 583 of 1877.
3 Victorian Statutes, Act 1120 of 1883.
4 Wannan 1894: 102.
5 Victorian Statutes, Act 1514 of 1897.