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Heywood Wilkinson (1906–1977)

by D. F. Fairweather

This article was published:

Heywood Wilkinson (1906-1977), coalmining engineer, was born on 22 June 1906 at East Greta, New South Wales, third of five sons of English-born parents Robert Bertram Wilkinson, an engine driver, and his wife Emma, née Higginson. After attending Greta Public and East Maitland Boys' High schools, in 1921 Heywood began work underground at the East Greta colliery. In 1929 he became a contract miner working for his father, then under-manager in the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd's John Darling colliery. Meanwhile, he attended night classes on coalmining and mine surveying at Cessnock, and at Newcastle Technical College. At St John's Church, Cessnock, on 2 December 1933 he married with Anglican rites Alma Irene Gibson, a typiste. They were to live at New Lambton.

After gaining wide practical experience in several mines, Wilkinson became under-manager in B.H.P.'s Burwood colliery, near Newcastle, in February 1935 and, in 1937, manager. He was awarded medals for his role in fighting the major 1938 underground fire at Waratah, a neighbouring colliery, and for eleven years service as a member of the Newcastle Mines Rescue Committee. Appointed assistant superintendent of collieries for B.H.P. in 1945, he was promoted to superintendent in 1954. Five years later, in August 1959, he became general superintendent of collieries for B.H.P. when the south coast coalmines of Australian Iron and Steel Ltd were added to his responsibilities.

A leader in the modernization of coalmining in Australia, Wilkinson backed the conversion from tracked to trackless mechanized methods. In 1947, 1957 and 1964 he travelled extensively overseas to study modern practices, visiting the United States of America, Britain and Germany. He introduced innovative mechanization including an inclined conveyor drift at the Burwood colliery and oversaw the first successful longwall mining system in Australia at the Kemira colliery. Under his leadership, production and working conditions on both the north and south coalfields improved enormously. In 1950 the output of coal in New South Wales was 13 million tons from 18,000 employees; by 1966 it had risen to over 25 million tons from 12,000 employees. While he was proud of his part in this achievement, he gave credit to his company and many others.

Sponsored by Essington Lewis, Wilkinson had joined the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in 1945; he was a councillor (1957-66) and vice-president (1964-65), and was awarded the institute's medal for 1966 for 'his services to the coal industry, including his work in the introduction of mechanized mining practices and his great contribution to the development of human relations'. He served on advisory committees of the University of New South Wales and of the Department of Technical Education, and as an adviser to the State Mines Control Authority, the Goldfields Coal Syndicate's mine at Collie, Western Australia, and the Blair Athol Opencut Collieries Ltd, Queensland. In addition, he was a director of Corrimal Coke Pty Ltd and Pacific Coal Co. Pty Ltd. He retired from B.H.P. in 1966 and was a member (1968-72) of the Joint Coal Board.

In private life Wilkinson's affability and earthy sense of humour led to warm friendships and close family ties. A straightforward man of strong character, tough, determined and willing to make courageous decisions, he was autocratic in his management style and a hard negotiator. He was respected by all, feared by some and trusted as a man of his word by both trade union leaders and business colleagues. Money and position left him unaffected; he always retained his practical approach to life.

Of average height, Wilkinson was strongly built. He had a fair complexion, blue eyes—bespectacled in later life—and reddish, sandy hair. A founder and patron of the Burwood Colliery Bowling Club, he played bowls, dominoes (a game with him was obligatory for his colliery managers), golf (rarely) and an occasional game of cards. In particular, he loved fishing, usually in the estuary at Forster. On 23 December 1977, he set out with two other men from Taree in a powered dinghy to fish on the Manning River but was drowned when their boat capsized at Old Bar; he was cremated. His wife, and their son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • BHP Review, June 1947, Oct 1966
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 17 Oct 1938, 26 Dec 1977
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy records (Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

D. F. Fairweather, 'Wilkinson, Heywood (1906–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


22 June, 1906
Greta, New South Wales, Australia


23 December, 1977 (aged 71)
Manning River, New South Wales, Australia

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