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BHP veteran reflects on plant’s closure

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It was the “world’s worst secret”, one that former worker Aubrey Brooks described as “devastating” for Newcastle at the time.

On 30 September 1999, BHP steelworks closed after 84 years of operation.

The announcement had been made two years earlier and left 1,800 employees out of a job.

Mr Brooks was one of those.

He had followed in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps in February 1961 by joining BHP as a 15-year-old to work as a rivet heater.

“My grandfather was there on the first day of operation in 1915 and my father spent about 42 years there,” he told Newcastle Weekly.

“During that time, my grandfather went through two World Wars and The Great Depression and my father was there in World War II.

“I spent 38 years there, my brother 20 years, and my son was there for a short time as well.”

Mr Brooks recalled the impact the closure had on workers, their families, and Newcastle itself.

“It was the world’s worst secret – everyone knew it was coming, we just didn’t know when,” he said.

“As time ticked down, it was just devastating.

“People who had been there all of their lives just didn’t know what they were going to do.

“Even on the last day when we were marching out, I witnessed grown men crying.”

In 1911, BHP chose Newcastle as the site for its steelworks due to an abundance of coal and, four years later, it opened on prime real estate on the southern edge of the harbour.

While Mayfield and surrounding suburbs declined in popularity because of pollution, the steelworks thrived, becoming the region’s largest employer.

An estimated 50,000 people worked for the company during its existence.

Mr Brooks believed BHP’s decision to close the steelworks was due to several factors, which included its desire to move into minerals, as well as the fact that Newcastle was an “antiquated plant” in desperate need of repairs.

Despite the turmoil at the time, he said the city owed a debt of gratitude towards the company.

“Newcastle was built on BHP,” he said.
“What would Newcastle be like if BHP had not come to town? Would we have a university?

“The biggest thing they did for Newcastle was employment through those hard years.”

Mr Brooks has organised a 20-year reunion this Saturday 28 September at Carrington Bowling Club.

The event will start at 12.30pm.

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