As the alluvial gold petered out around the late 1860s, company mines were established to dig deeper down. If the gold-rush towns had problems with disorganised authority, unscrupulous agents and general disorder, the mining towns were to see much worse. The miners were no longer independent and were back working for ‘the man’. Mine owners are traditionally seen as villains – and some deserved the reputation.

Between 1860 and into the early twenty-first century, Australia witnessed some horrific mining disasters where hundreds of workers were killed, mostly by mine collapses, gas explosion and drowning. Working conditions were unregulated despite an extremely aggressive union movement. The mining unions had learned lessons from the embattled shearing industry, at the time the most important contributor to the nation’s boom ride. They had also learnt from mining experience in Wales, Scotland and England. The then emerging streams of socialism, including the IWW, called for direct action over arbitration. The struggles of the mining unions, especially those involved in coal, are legendary and bitter. Bitter struggles produce songs and poetry because these are often the only way ‘the folk’ can document their side of the story. They also provide a pressure valve to relieve the frustration – satirical song and verse being safer than physical confrontation.

We now have a catalogue of mining disaster songs that help us understand the struggles in the mining industry. I like to think these songs provide an ‘emotional history’.

‘The Eldorado Mining Disaster’ tells of a mine collapse at the Eldorado Mine near Chiltern, Victoria, in 1895, which entombed around twenty miners. Before they faced their death by suffocation, the miners scratched messages on their blackened billycans. Ches Dawkins wrote, “I am getting faint. No air. God protect me for the sake of my poor children and my wife, Lizzie. Look after them and bring them up good. The money I have in my box and bank be divided with the little ones. Make the best of what I have saved. Kiss them for their poor father’s sake. I forgive all. My love to all that are dear to me. Goodbye, my dearest children.”

The ballad, which relates the agony of the dying miners, came from a broadside printed by James Purtell and sold for one-penny through news agencies to financially assist the distressed families. I was given the song by Lithgow coal miner Jack Mays in 1973.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Warren Fahey is a Sydney-based Cultural Historian, author and performer. His Australian Folklore Unit site offers resources on Australian history, music and folklore.