HISTORY: Attempts to establish an oil industry in Mackay

ATTEMPTS to establish a new industry in the Mackay region by drilling for and finding oil by the Mackay Oil Prospecting Syndicate near Sarina and later Cape Hillsborough during 1955 until 1957 weren't to be as successful as hoped.

One of the earliest mentions in the Daily Mercury archives of the syndicate was published on May 31, 1955.

The news report stated that a permit had been granted by May 30, 1955 to State Government politicians, Ernest Evans Jnr. M. L. A - Member for Mirani and Johannes Bjelke Petersen M. L. A - Member for Barambah; along with Roy Tandy a part-time prospector and labourer of Sarina.

This photo of Ernest Evans was published in the Daily Mercury in September 1955.
This photo of Ernest Evans was published in the Daily Mercury in September 1955.

The permit had been granted by the State Mines Department.

The permit was to cover an area of 200 square miles of coastline from the Southern Bank of the Pioneer River to Freshwater Point including the inland towns of Pleystowe and Sarina.

The issue of the permit had been granted following the discovery by Roy Tandy at Half Mile Beach - of a 'black substance' which was seeping through rock cracks. It was examined by American Geologist, R Kamon, stating that it was 'almost too good to be true'.

R Kamon agreed to become to company/syndicate's adviser.

'Seepages' of oil had also been found at Hay Point; Sarina Inlet and Victor Point.

Early indications stated the oil discovery seemed to resemble that of 'gearbox oil in colour and consistency and when exposed to a hot sun became oxidised'.

The Daily Mercury later reported on June 1, 1955 that capital/shares in the syndicate were to be made available in Mackay as well as Kingaroy - near the Petersen family property 'Bethany'.

By February 5, 1957, the 'Mackay Oil Prospecting Syndicate' had been established consisting of about 50 members by that time.

By August 15, 1955 an additional lease had been granted that included future drilling location Cape Hillsborough, which extended south to the Pioneer River.

The original lease had also been increased to cover some 400 square miles (1036 sq km), this occurred due to the original lease being considered too small by 'big people' in the oil industry.

State Government approval for the oil prospecting was later announced in Brisbane on December 8, 1955.

Oil drilling at Half Tide Beach, conducted by Oil Drilling and Exploration Ltd - on behalf of the permit holders later commenced on December 20, 1955.

The drilling was reported as preliminary test drilling, in the vicinity of Half Tide Island and Hay Point. A scout rig was used during the drilling.

The 1966 'Department of National Development, Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics Report - Geology of Mackay 1: 250,000 Sheet Area Queensland' reported: 'Three scout bores were drilled. Two of the bores, number 1 and 2, were on the coastline 10 miles (16km) north-north-east of Sarina, near Grasstree in the Campwyn Beds. They both encountered silicified sandstone and tuff; No. 1 was abandoned at a depth of 55 feet and No. 2 at 150 feet. Bore No. 3 was drilled at Hay Point (also in the Campwyn Beds) and the same lithology was encountered. It was abandoned at 150 feet. None of the holes encountered oil and gas.'


Later, some five drill holes at Cape Hillsborough were to be drilled during 1956. The five drill holes were drilled for information purposes on what would be the 'most favourable site', according to an article published in the Daily Mercury on February 5, 1957.

On January 31, 1957 with oil drilling also occurring at Ball Bay, Port Newry - near Seaforth was announced as suggested oil port by harbour authorities which had a minimum depth of 33 feet (10m). Gladstone had also been suggested as an alternative location.

The Daily Mercury, however, reported at the time that Gladstone's entrance channel was 'only 23 feet (7m) at low tide and would need extensive costly dredging for all tide navigation'.

Drilling at Cape Hillsborough was to begin in 1957 using a 'Petroleum Exploration Well'.

By February 5, 1957 bore drilling in search of oil had reached some 900 feet (274m) underground after about four weeks of drilling. The first 800 feet (243m) drilled was through shale. Pressure difficulties also were encountered during drilling. The syndicate's driller by this time at Cape Hillsborough was A. Moy of Miles - who was also a member of the syndicate.

The Cape Hillsborough site, had been chosen by geologists Dr. L Lawrence; N Tallis along with WD Lenehan - a Pleystowe farmer who also was a water driller and diviner. The site was chosen as a result of a study of the area and the principals of geology. Evidence of oil seepages through sandstone outcrops were found in the Cape Hillsborough area consisting of greasy black substance, seeping as a 'rich green - yellow oily substance'. Drilling for oil was to occur at Cape Hillsborough, intermittently during approximately a 12 month period.

Sand Bay, just south of the Cape Hillsborough resort had been suggested as the site for an oil well test, however due to financial problems and unavailable expensive machinery not being available, the nearest available land - Cape Hillsborough was chosen.

By April 2, 1957 drilling attempts had reached a depth of some 1140 feet (347m). A diesel driven percussion drill was being used by this time at Cape Hillsborough.

A depth of about 1600 feet (488m) below the land surface had been achieved by May 8, 1957. Contractors, by May 8, 1957, were drilling hourly. A special control valve, to reduce the chance of losing oil due to gushing if the syndicate was successful in strucking oil had been built and ordered in Brisbane by this time. The valve would be installed in bore casing at the Cape Hillsborough site.

However the syndicate at Cape Hillsborough was to run into problems. After drilling some 1790 feet (546m), the drill then being used had broken at the site.

Once the broken drill was retrieved, another bigger drill was used, bringing the depth down to 1810 feet (552m), however the replacement drill was considered 'unsatisfactory'.

As a result, the Cape Hillsborough site was temporarily closed until a new smaller drill could be acquired.

On August 8, 1957 permit holder and regular spokesman for the syndicate, Ernest Evans was appointed the Development, Mines and Main Roads Minister in the State Government.

Drilling for oil later stopped at Cape Hillsborough due to an unfavourable geologist's survey at 2400 feet (732m).

According to Queensland State Archives - based in Brisbane, another permit was issued to Johannes Bjelke Petersen, with the Mackay Oil Prospecting Syndicate mentioned for a period between January 1, 1958 till December 31, 1959. Later a 'Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics, Queensland bores map' dated June 1958, stated that a bore referenced as 'MOPS 1 Mackay' was in existence on the mainland north of Yeppoon.

By May 7, 1962 the 'Mackay Oil Prospecting Syndicate' had ceased operating with a meeting held in Mackay, which was attended by its chairman Johannes Bjelke Petersen M.L.A. Johannes (later Sir), would later become Premier of Queensland on August 8, 1968 and would remain as Premier until his resignation on December 1, 1987. He was replaced by Mike Ahern as Premier of Queensland.

Ernest Evans, later passed away in Brisbane while still Mirani MP on February 28, 1965 aged 72. A state funeral for Ernest Evans was held in Mackay on March 2, 1965. Johannes Bjelke Petersen, later passed away at Kingaroy on April 23, 2005 aged 94. A state funeral was later held for him on May 3, 2005 at Kingaroy.



An article published in the Daily Mercury on May 7, 1962 reported on why the syndicate's operation at Cape Hillsborough had failed to find oil.

The report stated: 'Drilling was carried out by a Southern Water Drilling Contractor. But although first class water drilling equipment was used it was not suitable for oil drilling".

"The lack of proper drilling equipment was caused by limited finance at the Syndicate's disposal," it read.

"Main trouble was caused by the jamming of the casing brought about by the pressure of the casing brought about by the pressure of the ground and the formation of the country.

"Drilling had been carried out mainly in limestone and sandstone, but a hard bar had been struck at 700 feet (213m). These conditions had remained to about 1000 feet (304m) and this practically stopped the drilling machine.

"The use of improper machinery and the lack of finance had been the two reasons for the cessation of operations at the 2400 feet (732m) mark.'

Were you a member of the syndicate or know someone who was? Or can you help with further information to do with the Mackay Oil Prospecting Syndicate? Contact the Mackay Historical Society and Museum Incorporated (operators of the Mackay Museum), by sending an email to mackaymuseum@gmail.com, writing to P.O. Box 1349, Mackay Qld 4740, or phoning 49530002 during opening hours (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10am until 2pm). Or visit the museum at 4 Casey Ave, South Mackay (opposite BB Print Stadium).