They toiled tireless hundreds of metres below the ground to haul coal extracted from the region’s rich seams. Now some of the hardest workers in the South Maitland Coalfields will have their contributions to the mining industry honoured, with a life-sized statue of a pit horse set to be erected in Kurri Kurri’s Rotary Park.
More than $100,000 has already been raised by the community for the project, and sculptor Brett Garling is well advanced on creating the bronze statue, which has now been expanded to include a pit horse, skip and wheeler as well.
Work is expected to be completed by the end of 2019, with fundraising efforts continuing to enable the statue to be installed alongside the existing mineworker memorials.
Originally proposed by a group of locals several years ago, the project is being coordinated with the help of Towns With Heart, a community-based economic development organisation known for its work on the Kurri Kurri Murals and Nostalgia Festival.
Community Project Manager Lesley Morris said the project would also include an interpretive display designed to educate current and future generations about the important role pit horses played in the region’s mining industry until the introduction of modern technology in the mid-20th century.
“We want to make sure future generations know the story of the pit horse and the very important role they had to play in the coal mines,” Ms Morris said.
Hundreds of horses worked in the mines in the Northern District Coalfields of NSW from the early 1800s.
Clydesdale crossed with thoroughbred mares produced the ideal 16 to 20-hand specimen, which was put to work in the mines from the age of four.
Pit horses were broken in at a paddock resembling underground workings, pulling skips and snigging timber, with much time spent on ensuring the horses would obey voice commands and would not be flighty or headstrong.
The horses that worked in mines with tunnels came out every day after work, where they were cleaned and checked for injuries before being turned out into a paddock for the night.
Mines with shafts, however, provided a very different working life for their horses, which descended into the depths of the mine on a Sunday and did not return above ground again until the following Friday.
Historical notes on the Towns With Heart website paints a picture of what life must have been like for the horses at Richmond Main Colliery, the region’s second deepest mine at 900 feet.
“They got used to descending two at a time in a double cage for 40 seconds. They soon adapted to the mine’s noise, smell and working conditions. Their work started Sunday 3pm; 100 to 120 removed from a grassy paddock to return to the colliery. They knew the way, while someone operated the gates. At pit bottom, a stableman checked them. They were fed, watered, then harnessed by 7am. Soon after, all the underground mineworkers arrived by cage 50 at a time. Each wheeler collected his horse. They brought two empty skips to four miners and collected two full skips.
“Strata pressure affected Richmond Main more than all other pits on the Coalfields. When coal was removed, the floor rose in areas, and the ceiling lowered, making hazards for the horse. They became very nervous when the roof started moving. Miners soon relied on the horses for warnings. They would have saved many lives over the years. They wore head protectors, but the undulating floor caused the skip rails to warp. Horses suffered many injuries to their legs.
“Pit horses knew their work better than their handlers. They could count, they knew when it was knock-off time and even when it was Friday afternoon.
“Miners considered these gentle giants their workmates and never tolerated anyone mistreating them. Each had a distinct personality; their injuries and deaths were sadly mourned.”
Ms Morris said the Pit Horse Statue committee had been overwhelmed by the support and donations from the local community and mining companies, which have helped this project become a reality. This included an incredibly generous donation of $50,000 from the CFMEU.
Fundraising activities are continuing, with the committee organising a number of Bunnings barbecues, as well as another Country Music Fundraiser this month. A set of five pewter belt buckles featuring pit horses has also been donated by Christine Brown to support the committee’s fundraising. If you are interested in more information or would like to bid for the belt buckles visit www.visitkurrikurri.com or call the Kurri Kurri Visitor Centre on 4936 1909.
TOP IMAGE: Coal miners lead a pit horse through an underground mine in the Hunter Valley. Image courtesy of the Bert Lovett Collection and The University of Newcastle, Australia.
SECOND IMAGE: Christine Brown with the set of five belt buckles she donated to help raise funds for the Pit Horse Statue project.