Historical information

This particular specimen was recovered from the Lal Lal Coal and Iron Mine in Victoria, 19km from Ballarat.

Brown Coal was discovered here in 1857, just alongside the Geelong to Ballarat Railway line. This discovery of lignite (brown coal) was the first in Victoria, which would bring important benefits to the region and state, both of which had previously been reliant on coal imports.

In the 1860s, iron ore was found just 5km from Lal Lal, and the area was converted into an Iron Ore Mine. The Lal Lal Iron Mining Company took over operations in 1874, who then peaked iron production in 1884. This mine continued operations until June 1884, when the blast furnace was extinguished and never recommenced. The blast furnace at Lal Lal is considered one of the most important and highly significant sites ion early industrial history in Australia, as it is the only remaining best furnace from the nineteenth century in the Southern Hemisphere. The furnace ruins are 17 metres high, and are clearly visible today on Iron Mine Road, Lal Lal, near the Bungal Dam.


This specimen is part of larger collection of significant geological specimens in the Burke Museum that was collected from around the world between 1868-1880. A large percentage of these specimens were collection as part of the Geological Survey of Victoria 1852-1974. The Geological Survey of Victoria was an organisation founded in response to the Victorian gold rush to explore the geological and mineral resources and to record a detailed map of the state. It was headed by British geologist, Alfred Richard Cecil Selwyn (1824-1902), who was responsible for issuing over 60 geological maps during his 17 years as director. These maps were all hand-drawn and coloured and became the benchmark for accuracy for geological mapping. Collecting geological specimens was an important part of mapping and understanding the scientific makeup of the earth. Many of these specimens were sent to research and collecting organisations across Australia, including the Burke Museum, to educate and encourage further study.

This specimen of Lignite (brown coal) is significant, as it was mined from the area where brown coal was first discovered in Victoria, leading to an important and controversial future of the mining and use of brown coal in this State.

The Victorian Heritage Database has listed the Lal Lal Coal Mine with local significance, with their Statement of Significance stating: "The Lal Lal coal mine is historically significant as the site of the first discovery of lignite (brown coal) in Victoria, and one that promised important benefits to regional and state industries that were reliant on coal imports at the time. The significance of the stie is reduced by the poor state of preservation of the coal mining and processing fabric".

Physical description

A hand-sized light-weight, soft and combustable sedimentary rock specimen, that is dark brown in colour. The specimen has jagged edges, as though parts of the rock have crumbled away.

Brown coal, or Lignite, is formed naturally from compressed peat, and is typically found in natural basins. The stages to the formation of coal ('coalification') begin with plant material and wood, which will decay if it is not subjected to deep burial or heating, and turn into Peat. Peat, when sufficiently compressed naturally, will turn into Brown Coal (Lignite), and finally into Black Coal (sub-bituminous, bituminous and anthracite). Each successive stage has a higher energy content and lower water content. It is brownish-black in colour. Brown Coal has a high moisture content, between 50 and 75 percent, and a low carbon content. Some Brown Coals may be stratified, with layers of plant matter, which means little coalification has occurred beyond the peat natural processing stage. When Brown Coal is submerged in dilute nitric acid or boiling potassium hydroxide solution, it reacts to produce a reddish solution, of which higher-ranked coals do not.

When brown coal is pulverised and burned in boilers, the steam is used to drive turbines, which generates electricity. It is the lowest rank of coal, as when burned, it creates a relatively low heat content, which in turn does not create a great output of steam.