It was one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s coal mining history, born from the depths of desperation and played out on the edge of the renowned Hunter Valley vineyards. But what culminated in a brutal and bloody protest and the death of a mineworker shot by police, began 90 years ago this month with a few simple strokes of a pen.
The year was 1929, and the owners of the Northern NSW coalfields had come together, in the face of decreasing demand for coal and worsening economic conditions, under the banner of the Northern Collieries Association.
On February 14 they issued their almost 10,000 mine workers with a notice of intention to slash their wages by 12.5 per cent and remove the key industrial rights that allowed union lodges to hold pit-top meetings and pit stoppages. The new conditions were also designed to allow colliery managers to hire and fire workers without regard to seniority.
Understandably, the Miners Federation refused to accept the terms – but what no-one expected was for the mine owners to lock the gates on the miners for the next 15 months.
After shutting out their own employees on March 2, a bitter standoff between the workers and the owners ensued, laying siege to the Hunter mining community.
Families were forced to rely on meagre government handouts, while new laws were introduced in an attempt to make it illegal for miners to gather in protest.
Desperate times filled with poverty and starvation eventually forced the miners to accept the mine owners’ demands, returning to work in June 1930 on reduced contract wages. The lockout, however, failed to break the resolve or organisation of the miners’ union.
But before the new conditions were begrudgingly accepted, one miner was forced to pay the ultimate price for his principles, shot and killed by police during a bloody and bitter protest over the introduction of non-union labour at the Rothbury Colliery, which by that time had been taken over by the NSW Government.
On December 16, 1929, ten months into the desperate and divisive lockout, around 5000 miners gathered at the colliery’s gates in protest over strikebreakers working at the site.
A large force of police, who were reportedly brought in to protect the non-union workers, clashed with the miners who marched on the colliery and shots were fired by the armed constabulary.
While there remains plenty of conjecture around what actually happened during the ensuing riot, one miner – 29-year-old Norman Brown – was killed by a bullet fired by police, while upwards of 45 other workers were injured.
Around 7000 people attended Brown’s funeral at Greta, with the riot labelled “the most dramatic industrial clash that has ever shocked Australia” in a report by Sydney’s Daily Telegraph Pictorial.
While the Rothbury colliery finally closed in 1974, the events at the mine almost 50 years earlier had already passed into Australian folklore as one of the darkest chapters in Australia’s coal mining history.
The Rothbury riot and “Great Australian Lockout” as the overall dispute became known, later became the subject of a 2007 documentary, Lockout, presented by award-winning Australian actor Chris Haywood.
The 56-minute film featured interviews with Hunter mining identities including Jim Comerford, who at the time was one of the few remaining eyewitnesses to the event. He has since passed away.
Mr Comerford wrote a book of the same name about the incident, based on his first-hand experiences as a 15-year-old, who was working as a pit boy when he got caught up in the riot.
He later went on to become an activist and union leader, with many of his historical documents now available to be viewed in a library named after him at the Edgeworth David Museum, located in the grounds of Kurri Kurri High School.
Kurri Kurri is also the home to a mural depicting the riot, which was painted by artist Chris Fussell on the Custom Credit building, while an official monument commemorating the event can be found on the western side of Wine Country Drive, about 2km north of North Rothbury and 17km north of Cessnock. It was dedicated by the Northern District Miners Women’s Auxiliary to all those who endured the lockout, as well as the miners present at the riot in Rothbury.