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History of sealing at Macquarie Island

Nuggetts Penguin Progressing Plant

Site History

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Nuggets site, 1997
(Mike Nash)

A small boiling down plant was first established by Joseph Hatch at the Nuggets in 1891 to exploit the resident royal penguins. The following year Hatch transferred the headquarters of his operations from Lusitania Bay to the Nuggets and a large processing shed, two accommodation huts and a penguin holding yard were subsequently constructed at the site. In 1903 it was mentioned that the huts and digesters at the Nuggets were being repaired and that water pumps were being transferred from the old Lusitania Bay works.

By 1908 the original plant comprising two boilers, three digesters and three cooling tanks were becoming worn out. A second hand boiler was brought in to replace one of the originals and a small digester was added. Timbers from the 1898 wreck of the Gratitude were used to construct platforms for these additions.

To assist in the movement of stores and oil barrels a ramp was constructed from the digester shed to the beach and a winch for hauling up boats was added. In January 1913 additional plant equipment was landed at the station from the Rachel Cohen. In April 1918 heavy seas washed away a number of timber barrels, destroyed the penguin yard and smashed in the end of the building housing the digesters. Seasonal work at the Nuggets continued until April 1919 when the Rachel Cohen took off the last load of oil processed at the station before Joseph Hatch was forced to quit Macquarie Island. Numerous visitors to the Nuggets left accounts of the operation, particularly members of the AAE who were based at the Isthmus during their 1911-1913 occupation.

Location and Description

Map of the Nuggets Site

The site is located on the north eastern coast of Macquarie Island and lies slightly south of two prominent sea stacks known as the Nuggets. It occupies the lower slopes of the south eastern side of a small hill extending out to a shingle and sand beach. Vegetation on the hill slope is dominated by tussock grass and Macquarie Island cabbage. Nuggets Creek flows through the southern part of the site and provides access to inland breeding sites used by royal penguins. The northern end of the beach is also used by a small elephant seal population. The site covers an area of approximately 100m by 25m and has four main parts: grave sites, living quarters, barrel storage, and the steam digester plant.

The Graves

The graves of sealers C. Anderson (1903) and F.O. Bauer (1918) lie at the northern end of the site directly opposite the two large sea stacks. The grave area was reconstructed in 1982 by ANARE expeditioners and a timber pole fence measuring 2m by 2.3m now encloses the area. The two white painted timber crosses have small metal plaques providing details on each burial.

Otto Bauer was employed as the headsman of Joseph Hatch's operations at Macquarie Island between 1909 and 1918. At the age of 37 Bauer was married in 1917 to Violet Hatch. In May of the following year he died at the Nuggets after being struck by a barrel being loaded in the surf zone.

Accomodation Area

Accomodation area

Accomodation area at the Nuggets

The accommodation area is located approximately 15m south of the graves. The huts are on a low flattened terrace set against the side of the steep slope that backs the beach at the Nuggets. The smaller northern hut, which originally accomodated the headsman and two plant engineers, is approximately 3.5m square and comprises remnant floor boarding and timber bearers. The larger hut is approximately 12.5m by 6m and was originally used as a cookhouse and sleeping quarters for the men. It is marked by stone footings, foundation posts and scattered floor timbers.

The huts were described in the Christchurch Press in 1909:

The largest of the two huts was divided into two rooms, one containing eight bunks and a small stove, the other, which was used as a kitchen, containing a kitchen range, table and two forms. The smaller hut contained three bunks, table and forms and 'a unique kind of stove composed of about twenty pieces of old iron tied together with wire. It used to fall to pieces at intervals. Ventilation was conspicuous by its absence. A few old newspapers furnished reading matter. Both huts were overrun with large rats ...

A test excavation at one end of the larger hut was carried out by archaeologist Karen Townrow in 1988. The hut was constructed using imported timbers supplemented by material from local shipwrecks and locally obtained stones. The area chosen for the hut site had been levelled with beach gravel before the foundation stones and corner posts were positioned. Recovered artefacts were generally small and fragmentary and included bottle glass, leather, pipe stems and corroded ironwork.

Barrel Storage

Grave Site at the Nuggets

Grave Site at the Nuggets c. 1920
(Australian Antarctic Division)

Interior of sealers hut at Lusitania Bay

Interior of sealers hut at Lusitania Bay
(Australian Antarctic Division)

Unloading barrels at the Nuggets, Macquarie Island

Unloading barrels at the Nuggets
(H. Hamilton, Mitchell Library,
State Library of NSW)

Digestor plant

Above: Digestor Plant in operation, 1895
(Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery)
Below: Steam Digester Plant
(Alexander Turnbull Library)

Digestor plant at the Nuggets, 1997

Digestor plant at the Nuggets, 1997
(Mike Nash)

Ten metres north of the digester shed shed are two concentrations of partially buried barrels that still contain coal. With the establishment of steam digester technology on Macquarie Island large quantities of coal to fuel the boilers had to be shipped in at the beginning of each season. Timber barrels were also used for the importation of food and stores and the export of oil from the island.

From the northern end of the shed the remains of a barrel ramp leads down to the beach and a concrete foundation for a winch that is now located at the Isthmus The difficulties of landing barrels at the Nuggets were described in 1909:

Next day the men worked continuously from dawn until well after midnight. The coal was floated ashore in barrels weighing nearly quarter of a ton. Immediately they touched the beach the waves commenced to bury them in the sand, where they becane almost immovable. Of the four men on the beach one was sick and another had his leg crushed when a great wave came in and pushed the barrels together. As a result he limped for more than four months. These men wrestled with the heavy barrels all day with only two intervals for tea and biscuits.

Steam Digester Plant

The steam digester plant lies 48m south-south-west of the living quarters. The remains consist of the foundation of a 12.5m by 6m shed enclosing four digesters and three boilers which sit on substantial timber bearers. At the back of the processing shed three settling tanks that were reported in previous surveys are now buried under a landslip. There is a scatter of artefacts southwards to Nuggets Creek, including some large items of plant such as a partially buried engine and two discarded boilers.

The digester plant at the Nuggets was in operation between 1892 and 1919. The oiling season at Macquarie Island was usually from mid August to mid February. At the beginning of August the plant would be prepared by two engineers who would work in shifts throughout the season. During the peak production period from January to February up to two thousand penguins could be packed into a digester at a time. Processing took 12 hours at 30lb of steam pressure to produce a pint of oil per bird. The oil was run into cooling tanks and then stored in 30 gallon timber casks.

The use of steam digesters in the production of oil from seals and penguins appears to be unique to Macquarie Island and the existing remains are therefore representative of a rare technological usage. The introduction of steam digester plant to Macquarie Island in 1899 was paralleled by its first usage for oiling by the Norwegian whaling fleet in the same year. It therefore must be considered as 'state of the art' and reflects the rapid changes in the industrial technology that was available in the Australasian colonies.

Site Impacts

From the study of archaeological survey reports produced over the last 15 years it is obvious that the site is undergoing significant changes. Between September and April each year it is impacted by breeding penguins penguins and elephant seals during their moulting periods. To protect the boiling down works the Parks and Wildlife Service installed 68m of protective fencing in 1991. High seas during subsequent seasons destroyed a large proportion of the fencing and the remnants have since been removed.

A study of historical photographs of the Nuggets operation also indicates that over the last 70 years penguin activity has removed all tussock growth lying in front of the site, therefore decreasing its protection from occasional high seas. In recent years the large south-east digester has been pushed two metres away from its original timber bearings and the south-west digester has fallen over towards the south. Landslips and tussock growth has also buried three settling tanks and partially buried the northern most boiler.

The wet, cold and saline climate of the island is also very destructive of ironwork. Scientific measurement of atmospheric corrosion rates at a number of historic sites on Macquarie Island have demonstrated that they far exceed those of any recorded Australian mainland sites. The Parks and Wildlife Service is investigating the feasibility of applying protective coatings to the larger items of iron equipment to significantly slow down corrossion rates.