When coal mining commenced in the Illawarra area many of the mine workers were emigrants from the North of England, where coal had been mined since the thirteen Century. As most of the thicker seams of coal in the United Kingdom had been worked out by the mid 1850’s, these miners were accustomed to working in thin seams, using the mining methods and working conditions, practiced in the United Kingdom.

The first mine in the Illawarra opened on Mount Keira in 1855, and a mining village was established on nearby mine property”. (As most of the above miners had originated from the north of England, they were known as “Geordies”). Slab timber shacks were erected by these miners on the adjacent “Geordie Flat,’’ as it became known, and the land rented to the mine worker.  Whilst fresh water was available from a nearby stream, crude provision was made for sanitation, and kerosene lamps were used for lighting.

Green vegetables, eggs, and fruit was supplied from the family garden plot, and a dairy cow purchased by the miner, or from other miners who had taken up farming as an additional occupation, provided a source of milk and cheese.

Whilst some men from the local area were employed at the mine, many of the UK miners came out alone, and the family followed once they had become established in the area.

A Bush School erected on Mount Keira in 1861 was replaced in 1877, with a more permanent brick structure, along with a Post Office and Store.

The miners and other mine employees rose early to dress in their work clothes, and walked to the mine on the escarpment, and on underground, depending on their place of work, at the mine. The Miner, after filling his ‘’Darg’’ of 10 skips, walked out of the mine and back home in his dirty clothes, to bath in a Tub prepared by his wife or parent.

In 1925 Legislation was enacted to have Bath and Change Houses erected at each mine. This enabled all mine employees to travel to and from the mine in clean clothes and to take a shower at the end of each working shift and travel back home in his clean clothes.

Many of the UK miners employed at the time would have witnessed women, and children under ten years of age, working in coal mines. The work was carried out in horrific conditions by the miner and his family, and required the coal mined to be loaded by the family group  into Tubs and or Skips, and push or drag the latter along the floor of the seam to and from a coal dumping area located at the pit bottom.

In 1842 Legislation was enacted in the UK, forbidding the employment of women, and children underground.

Following the arrival of the First Fleet Convicts were used in the coal mines opened in the Newcastle area of New South Wales. Convicts were never employed in the coal mines, opened later on in the Illawarra.

The mining of coal by hand was a dirty and dangerous occupation, with no provisions for the suppression of the coal dust, and an open flame candle attached to the Miners head cap, provided him with the illumination of his working place.

The mining of the coal was carried out using the Contract system, with the miners working in pairs, and each suppling their own Picks and Shovels and manual operated face Boring machine. The explosives required to ‘’shoot’’ the coal down from the coal face, were purchased by the Miners from the mining Company. The Company supplied the roof support timbers, pit ponies, coal skips, mine haulage/s and mine ventilation systems and a Blacksmith for use as required by the Miners, to sharpen their Picks and face boring Bits. Payment was made to the miners for their erection of roof supports in their working place along with ‘’Consideration’’ payments for working in water and mining stone etc. A mine Deputy was appointed by the Company to regularly inspect and report on the ventilation and safety of each working place, and to detonate the explosives placed in the holes hand drilled into the face by the Miner.

Wheelers with pit horses, North Bulli No 2 Mine, 1972
From the collection of Ron Cairns

A Cavil of all the Miners working places was conducted every three months.

The Cavil was a form of lottery, conducted to change/rotate the working place of each pair of miners. A number was assigned to all working places in the mine and each pair of Miners had a Token number that they attached to each skip they filled at the coal face.

The Cavil was conducted by matching a marble marked with the Miners Token number drawn from one Barrel, with a marble representing the number of a mine working place number drawn from a second Barrel. The result of this matching determined the working place of each pair of Miners for the following three Months The Cavil was supervised by representatives of both the mining Company, and the Miners Union. The Cavil provided a means of sharing the variations in the mining conditions encountered in each of the working places in the mine.

Contract Miners at the Coal Face
Courtesy of the Mineral Heritage Collection

The Miner chose his work clothes from a selection of old shirts trousers and coats that he, or more likely his wife, considered unsuitable to be worn in public. Most of the miners worked at the coal face in a flannel shirt/s. This cloth provided the warmth needed to walk from his working place to the surface in a cold intake airway, in his coat and sweat laden shirt, that following a hard day’s work at the coal face.

All coal miners had the taste of coal dust in their mouth and ingrained in their eyes and skin. His work as a coal miner required him to be constantly alert to the condition and behavior of the roof and sides of the coal seam surrounding his working place, located deep below the surface. It is little wonder that coal miners were captivated by the opinions of their Union leaders, and for the most part they each followed their Union protests, and strike actions, without question.

A stop over each day at their local Pub was a regular for some, but not all Miners. As the Miner carried no money to pay for the number of Beers he drank on each visit, his name and number of drinks was recorded on the ‘’Slate’’ standing behind the Bar. Payment of his ‘’Slate’’ was settled with the Publican, on the Miners two weekly, ‘’Pay Friday’’.

At the mine on ‘’Pay Friday’’, one Pay Envelope containing the money owing to both Miners for their work at the mine in the past two weeks was provided by the Company. Each pair of Miners were left to sort out each other’s share, of the money in the Envelope.

Nearby the Colliery Pay Office was a table and chair, or small office space where the miners paid their ‘’Stump’’ (union dues) to a Union official.     

The introduction of mechanised mining in the late 1940’s was strenuously resisted by the Miners and their Union Leaders and led to frequent strike action and large losses of coal production. The mechanised mining system required the former Contract Miners, to work a regular 7am to 3pm Shift and be paid a weekly Award wage. The Miners found this to be very different from his working day, as a Contract Miner.

In the Contract system the Miner could, at most mines, fill the darg of ten skips by around midday, or soon after, and walk out of the mine. This enabled him, to head off out of the mine to the Bathroom, to shower and change, and return home.

Initially no source of electric power was available at the mines. Steam was used as the primary source of machine power and the ventilation of the mine workings was provided by a Furnace shaft. Methane gas is given off the coal as it is mined, and in the presence of the naked light used by the miner in the early days, created an ever-present hazard. The use of black powder explosives ignited by an open flame fuse, to ‘’shoot the coal’’ down from the coal face provided another ingredient, in creating a methane gas explosion.

At the Bulli Colliery 1887 and the Mt Kembla Colliery in 1902 methane gas explosions provided graphic examples of the ignition of methane gas, resulting in a large loss of lives.

Other sources of accidents at coal mines were falls of mine roof and sides, rope haulages and skip handling systems.

Many of the early coal miners suffered from health problems that included “bent knee” due to the constant kneeling involved in working at the coal face, in low seams, Nystagnus, a disease of the eye, caused by working in poor lighting, and the effects of breathing coal dust over many years. led to a miner being ‘’dusted,’’ along with other chest diseases, such as Bronchitis.  

Wheelers were the young men with a pit pony, responsible for hauling the empty and the full skips, to and from the miners at the coal face. All Wheelers developed a strong bond with their pit Pony who were either stabled underground with other Ponies or travelled to and from Stables erected on the surface, at the beginning and end of each working shift. At weeks end, the Ponies were, at most mines, ‘’spelled’’ in a horse paddock on the surface.  Accidents involving pit Ponies did occur and depending on the extent of the injury, the Pony would be “put down” in a humane manner.

Wheeler and Pit Pony
Courtesy of the Mineral Heritage Collection

As noted earlier when the Miners completed their shift, they arrived home in their dirty work clothes to wash in a Tub, with the help of his wife washing his back with water, heated on a solid fuel stove. Quite often, the rest of the family followed “Dad” into that Tub.

Pit head Bath and Change Houses were not provided at the mines until 1926, when Legislation was enacted to require these facilities be provided at all mines. The first Colliery Bath House built in the Illawarra, was erected at the Mt Keira Colliery in 1927.

Many of the miners and other employees walked to and from the mine, while others travelled on Buses, from areas remote from the mine. Some of these Buses were driven, on behalf of the bus Owner, by a worker employed at the mine, with the Bus remaining at the mine, until the end of the working shift. The Bus was then driven from the mine by a mine worker/Bus driver, dropping off passengers along the route travelled earlier in the day, on the way to the mine.

Some employees rode push bikes to and from work, and there were some motor bikes.

Most of the Illawarra suburbs began as villages populated by coal miners. Mount Keira was the first, followed by Balgownie, Bulli, Woonona, Scarborough, Wombarra and Clifton etc.

A number of houses were erected by the Mining Company at Kembla Heights when the mine was opened in the early 1800’s, and some single men’s ‘’Batches’’ were erected by the miners, near the mine. These Batches were either occupied on a permanent basis, or from Sunday to Friday, by miners who had family homes elsewhere, and would return home each weekend.

The Mount Kembla area was a little different to other mining villages in that, whilst most of the miners lived near the mine at the Kembla Heights, others chose the Mount Kembla village, lower down the mountain. There was some, mostly friendly, rivalry between the miners and the Dairy Farmers living on plains below, that led to an occasional clash of opinions, with the Mount Kembla Hotel, being the focal point for the menfolk to gather, at the weekend.

The mines south of Mount Kembla tended to be supported by the more established suburbs of Unanderra, Dapto and Albion Park.

In 1916 G&C Hoskins Company opened the Wongawilli Colliery and erected a large battery of Coke Ovens and later a Coal Washing Plant.

A few roughly built houses or Batches were built by the mine employees on Company property, adjacent to the mine site, that become known as ‘’Bank Book Hill’’. Some of the Batches were erected by employees, who had family homes elsewhere in the district, while others built a family home and lived there on a permanent basis. Other workers resided in Dapto or elsewhere and travelled to and from work by small buses driven in most cases by mine workers, using the system described above. At Wongawilli the Company later provided an area of real estate on the southern side of the roadway leading up to the mine, and privately built homes were erected by mine employees and a Public-School building followed.

Each mining village became a self-contained entity, where everyone knew everyone else, and public transport between each village was either very limited, or non-existent.

Rugby League, Soccer and Cricket Teams were formed within the Illawarra area, with Soccer the more popular in the Northern and Rugby League in the Southern suburbs.

As noted earlier the nearest Hotel to each mining community became the focal point for relaxation by the Miners at the weekend. The activities included drinking, in some cases to excess, followed by some fisticuffs, access to the ever-present SP Bookmaker, for betting on the Saturday horse races, and the playing of Iron Quoits.

The Quoit Pitch was comprised of a concrete or earthen strip about 8 metres in length, with a 1 metre square Pit at each end, filled with moistened clay, and a firmly fixed steel pin protruding from the clay, in the Centre of the Pit. Each player was supplied with 4 Quoits and attempted to ring the pin by throwing the heavy cast iron Quoit from the one end of the Quoit pitch to the other. A team of say four, played the game with great passion, and much unwarranted advice, from all and sundry observers.

A meat Pie Man travelled the district every Saturday to visit the local Hotels in a small Motorvan, with hot meat pies in an oven, heated by a wood fire in the rear of the Van.

At 6 o’clock the Hotels closed, and this provided some Patrons with the opportunity to purchase one-quart capacity bottles of draught beer, to take home and drink later or  on the next day. These bottles were stored either under the house, or in the ice chest to keep them cool.

Coal Industry “Characters”

Amongst the mine workers at each coal mine, were many ‘’Characters.’’ One of those many ‘’Characters’’ was the late Len Leffley, who worked in the Lithgow, Illawarra and surrounding areas coal mines, for some 40 years.

As was customary, Len started out in the coal industry as a young man, employed as a Rope Clipper, then a Wheeler, later a Contract Miner and finally as a Mine Deputy. During Len’s time in the industry the mining of coal progressed from the pick and shovel Contract system and Pit Ponies, to the Mechanised system of mining. This latter system employed electrically powered coal Cutting and coal Loading machines, Battery Locomotives rail Waggons. This mining plant was progressively replaced with improved systems of mining and machinery including rubber tyred Shuttle Cars, caterpillar mounted coal Loaders and Continuous Miners, Belt Conveyors and the mechanised Longwall retreat mining systems.

Len Leffley
Sean O’Brien

Len experienced these changes as a staunch Unionist, who held official positions in the Miners Federation, and in his final fifteen years in the industry, as the Secretary of the South Coast Mine Deputies and the NSW Mine Deputies Union. He was well respected by both his Union members and Colliery Managers, for his ability as a very competent Mining man and his firm but fair attitude, when dealing with industrial disputes, that were ever present, during the whole of his working life.

He was involved in Rugby League and Athletics, and for many years a member of Brass Bands.

During his work in the mines, he was very seriously injured by the cutting head of a Continuous Mining machine and endured, throughout his life, other serious and ongoing health problems, and he handled each of these issues, in typical Len fashion.

He was very well known throughout the industry as a ‘’hard case,’’ with a unique ability to make people laugh, in an industry that has had some very dark moments, and was gifted with the ability to write great Poems, and Stories, with many of these being recorded, and presented at a number of forums, including “ABC Open” Radio.

Following his retirement from the coal industry in 1988, he enrolled at the University of Wollongong as a mature aged student, to study Creative Writing, and later completed studies in the use of the Computer, and Keyboard touch-typing.

Len died in May 2018, following a very short illness, and will be sadly missed, by all who knew him.