Albert Cairns was an Illawarra coalminer over a period which saw the beginning of major changes to the industry.  (He was also the father of a major contributor to this website – Ron Cairns, whose working life was largely spent in that industry also.)   Albert’s story very much reflects the life of a miner in those days.  Born in Jerilderie on 8 October 1893 in a year of general depression and bank collapses, he was one of a family of 11 boys and girls.  He spent his early school years at Corrimal and on leaving school entered the South Bulli mine at 14 years of age, presumably as a clipper boy.

Albert Cairns (1893 – 1985): coalminer

He subsequently worked in a number of mines including the Old Bulli mine, Mt Kembla Mine, and Balmain Mine (at 8900 metres, the deepest shaft mine in Australia) before eventually moving to the Wongawilli mine in 1918.  His working life finished in 1945, as a result of the mandatory retirement programme (see below) instituted by the then-new Joint Coal Board, for those miners showing any signs of pneumoconiosis – being affected by coal dust (‘dusted’).  Despite that health concern, he lived an active life for another 40 years, well known for his activity in greyhound racing.

His career followed a common pattern for the industry – starting at the least skilled (and possibly less physically demanding) level as a ‘clipper boy’ – one of the boys who clipped the skips on to the haulage cable.  He then became a ‘wheeler’ – a person who walked with and oversaw the working of one of the pit ponies used to haul coal from the working coal face to the surface.  Later he worked as a ‘clipper boy’ (one who attached or removed wagons (‘skips’) using clips on the continuous haulage ropes traversing the working mine.  His later years were spent working as a literal miner, working under the contract system (link to that).  Miners in that system worked as pairs, working in a location determined by the cavil system (link).  Their working pattern was to manually undercut the coalface on which they were working (cutting a kerf), drill the coal face above that, and insert explosives to blast down the face, for the coal to be shovelled into a skip for removal.  Each skip was tagged with the identification of the working pair, and the pair were paid in accordance with the tonnage of coal produced.

As part of the contract system, the miners themselves provided the (manual) drilling rigs to drill the coal face (although the mine owners would sometimes provide a sharpening service for the drill bits) and also pay for the explosives used, purchased from the mining company.  Their nett pay was thus determined by the amount of coal produced, less the consumables used in mining that coal.  So it is of interest to see what miners were paid, how that varied, and how it compared to the rest of the community.  The images below show the earnings of Albert Cairns for the twelve months from mid-1934 to mid-1935, the first being the actual paysheet, the second a transcription of that.  It should be noted that the period covered is towards the end of the Depression in Australia, a major economic collapse triggered by the Wall Street share market crash of 1929.

Original paysheet for Albert Cairns, Miner for FY 1934/5
Courtesy R Cairns
Transcript of the original paysheet for Albert Cairns, Miner for FY 1934/5
Note that all amounts are stated as pounds-shillings-pence (£-s-d)  or shillings-pence  (s –d).
Courtesy R Cairns

The paysheet shows a number of issues about the miner’s earnings of the day, including

  • Variability:The ability of miners to earn was dependent not only on their own endeavours, but on the nature of the ‘place’ they worked.  Even excluding outliers, the fortnightly earnings show a variation of 2:1 to 3:1 – so life might vary from being quite comfortable to very tight over a short time, with little control being open to the miners.
  • Explosives: overall, in the period shown the cost to a miner was some 5.8% of total earnings spent on the purchase of explosives.  In the same manner as the overall pay, the wide variability in the amount of explosives used is a reflection of the nature of the workplace at any point in time, with a greater or lesser amount of shotfiring being necessary to support production.
  • Overall income Albert Cairns’ total income for the financial year 34/35 was some £408 9s.  That equated to an average weekly income of £7-17-4d.  While comparisons to current wages are reasonably meaningless, that sum can be compared to the average weekly wage of the time, to provide some comparison to others in the community (while bearing in mind the economic dislocation of the time).  At the start of the Depression in 1929, the average weekly wage for an adult male was £5-1-5d.  By mid-1934, that had reduced to £4-1-7d, having reached a low of £4-0-6d at the end of 1933. 
  • In other words, before the impact of the Depression, his weekly earnings were some 55% higher than average weekly earnings; in 1934, they were some 93% higher than average weekly earnings.  For no doubt a variety of reasons, the miner of the day earned a premium over other wage earners – and was presumably less open to short term variability.  It is likely that the central nature of coal as an energy supply for the economy was a factor in this situation.  Interestingly, the number of industrial disputes experienced in 1933 was the lowest ever recorded to that year, at 90 – of which 52 involved employees in the coal mining industry.

‘Dusting’ and Retirement

As noted above, Albert Cairns was one of those workers who were the subject of compulsory retirement on the grounds of their health being affected by dust.  The Joint Coal Board operated this scheme, which included supplementary payments over and above those which might arise from general workers’ compensation schemes.  A notice received by Mr Cairns on his 60th birthday throws some light on why this was necessary.

The letter notes that payments formerly received by Mr Cairns from the general Workers’ Compensation scheme consequent on his compulsory retirement were no longer being paid, and hence were no longer set off against the benefits received from the JCB Subsidised Compensation scheme.  The amount of that payment is shown – £8 per fortnight.  Reserve Bank of Australia data shows the average male weekly wage at that time to have been some $30 per week (£15).  That suggests that at £8 per fortnight, the ‘standard’ Workers’ Compensation was not greatly over one quarter of average male wages.  It is not surprising therefore that miners who in other circumstances should perhaps not have been working remained at work – demonstrating the necessity of the JCB Subsidised Compensation scheme to the objective of removing ‘dusted’ miners from the workplace.