Site Name:Bulli Memorial
Address:Park Road Bulli, adjacent to the Anglican Church & Cemetery
GPS Coordinates:H308223 E 6198882 HSL 22.0 metres
Site Access:Public access
Bulli Disaster Memorial

(Courtesy of the Mineral Heritage Committee Collection)

Early Mining Disasters

The memorial, located in a small park near the Bulli Anglican church, commemorates an event – a major mine explosion at 2.30pm on Wednesday, 23rd March 1887 – which was at that time Australia’s largest industrial accident in terms of loss of life. But it was a mere fifteen years before that unfortunate distinction was taken over by another Illawarra coal mining disaster, that at Mt Kembla on 31 July 1902. Eighty one men and boys died in the Bulli disaster on 23 March 1887; 96 died in the Mt Kembla disaster, a number not exceeded since. The explosion at Bulli had a massive impact on the community both immediately and ongoing: a graphic account from the Melbourne Argus newspaper of several days after the explosion described in detail the scenes and activities immediately following the disaster. The Illustrated Sydney News of 15 April 1887 used their artist to depict the scenes of distress at the mine. The violence of the explosion had been such that many bodies were unable to be identified.

Bulli Disaster Memorial
(Courtesy of the Mineral Heritage Committee Collection)

The Strike and its Effect

From commencement of production in 1861, the Old Bulli Mine had been the site of significant industrial dispute and in fact, the miner’s union members had only returned to work in January 1887 after a very bitter six months’ strike. The mine owners brought in free or non union labour under police guard during this dispute, that gave rise amongst others, to the now famous Battle of Bulli incident. When the strike collapsed, the company would only selectively re-hire strikers, and in particular would not employ unmarried men over the age of 20 (The Argus, Melbourne, 26 March 1887). That implied that a high portion of the workforce was married and in many cases with children. Fifty women (of whom thirty were pregnant) were widowed; 180 children were left fatherless and largely dependent on charity.

Two Inquiries

Investigations into the causes of the explosion were undertaken initially through a coronial inquest, and later through a Royal Commission. The inquest, held with a jury of local residents, returned a verdict which was explicitly critical of mine management and regulatory agencies for allowing men to work in a mine with a risk of gas explosion. Having a view that the jury had been biased in its decision, the government set up a Royal Commission which was regarded as being equally but oppositely biased. The Commission returned a finding that the principal cause of the disaster had been the action of one of two miners who had fired a shot (an explosive charge to bring down coal) which had initiated the explosion. The fact that a further disaster occurred only fifteen years later does not suggest that the Commission had made a major contribution to safety development. More details on the inquiry processes, and the individuals involved, may be found here (Note: 25MB download).

Back to Work

By 19th May 1887 the Illawarra Mercury could report that the mine had recommenced working “…in the four foot seam,…considerably lower than the seam in which the disaster occurred.” Work recommenced in the “gassy section” at the end of July. Reporters accompanying the party which inspected the section of mine where the disaster occurred, before work recommenced, commented on the extent of fine coal dust present throughout the workings.

Bulli Anglican Cemetery looking to Bulli escarpment
(Courtesy of the Mineral Heritage Committee Collection)

The Memorial and its Opening

The government announced in August that it would erect a memorial to the explosion at a site to be chosen by the people of Bulli. Its location became a matter of contention. The representative of the Minister for Mines having proposed to install it in Bulli Park; the Bulli Progress Association considered it inappropriate that such a memorial should be in “..a place of public amusement” and suggested it be located in the cemetery of the Bulli Anglican church where three quarters of those who died were buried. The memorial itself was duly erected a year after the disaster. Made of Scotch granite, both brown and grey, it is 25ft. high, and embedded in 12 tons of Pyrmont stone. It was delivered to site on 13th March, 1888, with the objective of having it ready to be unveiled by the Governor Lord Carrington on the first anniversary of the explosion. That though was not to be the case, with the formal ceremony being deferred at short notice. Public interest however was such that an impromptu ceremony, attended by as many as 1200 people, was held at the memorial site to mark the first anniversary of the explosion, in 1888. The memorial site was renovated by miners in 1939 and again in 2015. This work was carried out by the descendants,families and friends of victims of the 1887 mine explosion and the 1965 mine fire with the financial support of the mine worker’s union

In March 2016 a commemorative service was held at the Memorial to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 underground mine fire and to note the recent renovations made to this historic site.