The Guardian 2 November, 2005

Book Review by Bob Brown

Beneath the Valley

by Justice Michael Kirby

Beneath the Valley is an important anthology written by people who personally knew the coal mining industry of the Hunter Valley or were touched by it, or its people, in different ways. It is a mosaic of a period in history which has largely passed and a way of life which persists in the memories of fewer and fewer people. It is a book which needed to be written and credit is due to Zeny Giles, and the late Norman Talbot, and all who were involved with it at Catchfire Press; those who assisted in its production and, especially, the contributors.

The memoir of Justice Michael Kirby provides an insight into the warmth with which this outstanding jurist and great Australian viewed the coalminers of the northern field whom he describes as "a special band: steadfast and rather noble" and as "the salt of the Australian earth".

The coal mining towns had a history of deprivation, exploitation, struggle, sacrifice, suffering, insecurity, shattered dreams, and personal and community tragedy. But Beneath the Valley also portrays the positive side — the sense of community, of family, of interdependence, solidarity, self-respect, personal pride and often heroic achievement which flowed from a determination of coalminers to assert and defend their rights, to resist and overcome injustice and to leave a better world for their children than the one they had inherited.

It is appropriate that the central theme of this anthology is coal. The coal mining industry in the Hunter Valley was not just one of many; it was central to almost everything about the valley.

It was the cause of the initial European settlement of the lower Hunter, it determined the pattern of settlement and the transport network, it attracted the steel industry which dominated the Newcastle industrial landscape for many years, it provided a living for tens of thousands of families, it provided and continues to provide the power to fuel Australian industry and it earned and continues to earn billions of dollars in export earnings.

The basic unit of the industry was the individual pit with its adjoining village and, later, the dormitory towns like Kurri Kurri and Cessnock. The pit was our raison d'ętre. It dominated our lives and determined the parameters of our living. It largely set the scope and the horizons of our thinking and of our vision.

Jim Comerford provides a vivid picture of his first day at the Big Mine or Richmond Main, the most magnificent coal mine in the Southern Hemisphere, if not the world, that John "Baron" Brown had designed to be the jewel in the crown of his coal mining empire. Jim also recalls how the coalminers made the extra effort to produce coal to help the fight against fascism in World War II. Col Maybury tells a very human story of his first day down the Aberdare shaft at 49 Gannon and relays some of his most vivid memories.

It was difficult for the early miners to retain personal dignity when they knew that the coal owners valued the life of their pit horses more than they valued the life of the miners. It cost money to replace a dead pit horse but dead and crippled miners cost them nothing until compulsory workers' compensation was introduced and their premiums were influenced by the level of injuries and deaths. However, Jack Delaney provides a valuable account of a mine manager Fred Hemmingway who directed rescue workers to escape an imminent further roof fall while he remained behind with an injured and trapped miner.

Before compulsory bath houses at the mines, the black coal dust streaked with sweat was carried home where the miner's wife had a round galvanised metal tub brimming with hot water in the middle of the kitchen and the kids were sent outside to play "until Dad has his bath".

Dignity, self-sacrifice courage & loyalty

How indeed could men retain their dignity in those circumstances and in circumstances where they depended on canaries to warn them of the presence of odourless, deadly gas or, as Allan Edgar reminds us, rats which scurried past food towards the intake heading to warn them of an imminent roof fall.

Beneath the Valley gives numerous examples of how it was possible for coalminers to retain and assert their self-respect and personal dignity. There are the constantly recurring themes of community, loyalty, interdependence, courage, self-sacrifice, musical expression, creativity and humour. After you had washed off the coal dust you could go to choir practice or don your dinner suit and carry your regalia to meetings of your friendly society or the Masonic Lodge or you could attend meetings of your club or political party. In all of those forums no one could distinguish between a miner and a mine manager and each person was as good as the next.

The two photographs on page 118 help to show how the men and women of the coal towns retained their dignity. A commitment to music led to the great choirs of the coalfields and the bands, the vocalists and the instrumentalists. There is the fascinating story of Jascha Gopinko that John Giles has recorded for us. There are also the delightful contributions of Mary Pickering and Zeny Giles who recall such august names as Ernest Llewellyn, Alwyn Elliott, Llewellyn Bevan and many more.

There are too many fascinating anecdotes, recollections, observations, poems and photographs in Beneath the Valley to refer to them all separately but they weave a great tapestry of the human experience and of remarkable communities. We can never really understand ourselves and begin to understand our place in the cosmos until we know where we came from. Beneath the Valley makes an invaluable contribution to that knowledge.

I like to think that I have absorbed the central ethos and the principles of the coalminers so that if I could write my epitaph I could well choose to have inscribed: "He never scabbed, he never crossed a picket line and he never betrayed his class".

There should be a copy of Beneath the Valley in every home in every present or former coal mining community. Our children and grandchildren are entitled to know where they came from.

Beneath the Valley book can be purchased for $28 from Hunter Valley bookshops and regional libraries or from Catchfire Press, PO Box 2101, Dangar, 2309

Bob Brown is a former Mayor and State Member for Cessnock, Federal Member for Hunter and Charlton and a former Federal Government Minister. He retired from Parliament in 1998. He has just completed a three-volume federal political history of Australia.

Back to index page