History: Charcoal in the Hawkesbury

Petrol rationing commenced in Australia in October 1940 as a consequence of the declaration of war with Germany by Britain and France in September 1939. As part of the British Commonwealth, Australian was, therefore, also at war. Essential goods and services were to be directed to meet the needs of Australian armed services which were deployed in Europe as part of the allied forces.

Hawkesbury charcoal: A picture from Wartime 1942, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (image number 027267). Picture: Supplied

Hawkesbury charcoal: A picture from Wartime 1942, courtesy of the Australian War Memorial (image number 027267). Picture: Supplied

Following the entry of Japan into the Pacific conflict in December 1941, more stringent restrictions on fuel usage were imposed and citizens were allowed only enough petrol to travel about 16 miles or about 25 kilometres per week. For many people charcoal provided a viable alternative fuel source for the duration of the war and several years afterwards.

During the decade preceding the outbreak of the war, charcoal was already being considered as an alternative to petrol. In December 1939, C A Hungerford of Kurrajong Heights suggested vehicle owners compare the costs of running on petrol with the more economical charcoal gas and advertised that installation of gas producers was available from £30.

In 1934, farmer Robert Hobbs commenced charcoal production on his Maraylya property. Local tree species such as wattle, ironbark, stringybark, turpentine and cypress were suitable for producing good quality charcoal. Some farmers bolstered their income by selling suitable trees from their properties for charcoal production. The naming of Charcoal Road in Maroota commemorates the location of charcoal kilns which operated in the area during World War Two.

The NSW government encouraged owners to fit charcoal burners to their cars, trucks or tractors. Most engines needed some modification to run efficiently on the gas which was produced by burning the charcoal. Hawkesbury Motor Garage situated in Thompson Square, Windsor was licenced to supply, fit and service gas producing equipment for motor vehicles also supplying the charcoal. It is not known how many vehicles in the Hawkesbury were converted during this period.

There were several difficulties associated with the use of gas producer units. The equipment was heavy and bulky and needed to be securely mounted on the vehicle, however, trucks and tractors were much easier to fit than cars. The burners required regular cleaning in order to burn efficiently.

Quality charcoal free of ash, sand and unburned wood was essential. There was a risk of fire when emptying the producer when the unit was hot. Deadly carbon monoxide gas, a by-product of burning process, was a health hazard and motorists were advised to start vehicles in the open air rather than in the garage.

It was suggested by the Local Government and Shires Association NSW that councils could establish kilns for the production of charcoal which could then be sold to the community. Windsor, Richmond and Colo councils all decided unanimously that they would not set up enterprises in competition with local suppliers.

The use of charcoal as a fuel source for motor vehicles was short-lived and soon after fuel rationing was discontinued in February 1950, most owners reverted to former fuel sources.