Miners’ Statue, Wollongong Library 2020

The Illawarra coal mining industry of the late 19th century had its own very particular character – it was an industry which never used convict labour; much of its workforce comprised newly-arrived migrants bringing their own traditions with them; it was one which was itself a vehicle for the establishment of settlements and villages in many parts of the Illawarra; and the industry itself developed its own particular practices which came to shape the way of life in those settlements.  What follows is, first, a background description of the ways of life and the work environment of the miners of the day and their families and second, a far more personal set of observations by an acute observer of the day, the late Mr Len Leffley, who worked  in the industry for many years and wrote for the general information of others, for competitions in which he won prizes, and for the former ABC programme, OpenABC.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2021-11-06-at-1.16.54-am.png
Excelsior Colliery ca 1890
From collections of the Wollongong City Library
and Illawarra Historical Society P02408

Len Leffley
Sean O’Brien

Living and Working Conditions in the Illawarra Coal Industry

Len Leffley – raconteur, poet,  and coalminer

Living and Working Conditions in the Illawarra Coal Industry

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 thirteenth century.  As most of the thicker seams of coal in the United Kingdom had been worked out by the mid 1850s, 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 miners had originated from the north of England, they were known as “Geordies”.)  Slab timber shacks were erected by the miners on the adjacent “Geordie Flat,’’ as it became known, and the land rented to the mine worker.   While fresh water was available from a nearby stream, only crude provision was made for sanitation, and kerosene lamps were used for lighting.

Green vegetables, eggs, and fruit were supplied from the family garden plot, and a source of milk and cheese provided from a dairy cow purchased by the miner, or from other miners who had taken up farming as an additional occupation.  While some men from the local area were employed at the mine, others came from the UK – many of whom came out alone, with their family following once they had become established in the area.  A Bush School was erected on Mount Keira in 1861 and 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 further on underground, depending on their place of work at the mine.  The miner, after filling his ‘darg’ (the limit placed on the miners’ daily output) of 10 ‘skips’, walked out of the mine and back home in his dirty clothes, to bathe 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 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.  That work was carried out in horrific conditions by the miner and his family, and required the coal mined to be loaded into ‘tubs’ and or ‘skips by the family group, who pushed or dragged them 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 however never employed in the coal mines opened later in the Illawarra.

The mining of coal by hand was a dirty and dangerous occupation, with no provision for the suppression of the coal dust.  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 using the ‘contract’ system, with the miners working in pairs.  Under the contract system, the mine workers were paid simply for the weight of coal which they produced.  Each pair of miners supplied their own picks and shovels and manually 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 drill bits.  Payment was made to the miners for their erection of roof supports in their working place along with ‘consideration payments’ which compensated miners for their reduced income arising from, for example, working in water or mining stone. 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.

A ‘cavil’ of all the miners’ working places was conducted every three months.  The cavil was a form of lottery conducted to change or rotate the working place of each pair of miners, recognising that different workplaces had different earning potential by virtue of their differing conditions.  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.  It 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 provided his own work clothes, and would choose these 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.  This cloth provided the warmth needed to walk from his working place to the surface through a cold intake airway, in his coat and sweat laden shirt that following a hard day’s work at the coal face.

Coal miners always had coal dust to taste in their mouths, and ingrained in their eyes and skin.  The coal miner’s work required him to be constantly alert to the condition and behaviour 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 attentive to the opinions of their union leaders, and for the most part they each followed their union’s 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 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’ fortnightly ‘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 was left to sort out their shares of the money in the envelopeNearby at 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 1940s 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 removed the direct connection between individual miners’ efforts, and coal output, and required the former contract miners to work a regular 7am to 3pm shift and be paid a weekly award wage.  The miner 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.

Conditions Underground

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. (Under this system, a vertical shaft was created down to the mine workings, and a type of furnace constructed at its base.  A fire in the furnace would draw air in through the convective effect of the shaft/chimney, and that air would be expelled at6 the furnace stack at the surface.)  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 tragic 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 also 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’ (the development of pneumoconiosis or ‘black lung disease’ through the inhalation of coal dust), along with other chest diseases such as bronchitis. 

Wheelers were young men looking after a pit pony, responsible for hauling the empty and the full skips between the miners at the coal face and the mine coal handling.  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 weekends, the ponies were at most mines ‘spelled’ in a horse paddock on the surface.  Accidents involving pit ponies did sometimes occur where, 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 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 also rode push bikes to and from work, and there were some with 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,  Clifton and others.  A number of houses were erected by the mining company at Kembla Heights when the mine was opened in the early 1900s, and some single men’s ‘baches’ (small houses. often meant for short term stays) were erected by miners near the mine.  These baches were either occupied on a permanent basis, or from Sunday to Friday by miners who had family homes elsewhere, and who 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 village of Kembla Heights remains a place of great historical interest, and studies are continuing as to its preservation as a place throwing light on the miner’s life of the last century.  A video illustrating its history and present situation may be seen at https://www.facebook.com/TheTimeCapsule.au/videos/1088247191586103/ .  The mines south of Mount Kembla tended to be supported by the more established suburbs of Unanderra, Dapto and Albion Park.

Mt Kembla Hotel – ca 1900 – 1910
Courtesy of Wollongong City Library
 and the Illawarra Historical Society P 11756

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 baches were built by the mine employees on company property adjacent to the mine site, that become known as ‘Bank Book Hill’.  Some of the baches 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, as 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 around 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 comprised a concrete or earthen strip about 8 metres in length, with a 1 metre square pit at each end filled with moistened clay, with a firmly fixed steel pin protruding from the clay in the centre of the pit.  Each player was supplied with four 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 (usually) 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 motor van, 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 that day or on the next.  These bottles were stored either under the house, or in the ice chest to keep them cool.

Len Leffley – raconteur, poet,  and coalminer

In the Illawarra, as elsewhere, every coal mine had its ‘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 evolved from the pick and shovel contract system with pit ponies, to the mechanised system of mining.  This latter system employed electrically powered coal cutting and coal loading machines, battery locomotives and rail wagons.  This type of 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 finally the mechanised longwall retreat mining systems.

Len experienced these changes as a staunch unionist, having 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, which were ever present, during the whole of his working life.  He was engaged with the broader community through Rugby League and athletics, and was 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 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.  He was gifted with the ability to write great poems, and stories, with many of these being recorded, and presented his work 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.

The following material is a selection of his writing – both stories and separately, verses and is entirely his work, other than minor formatting and typo corrections.  It commences with his own introduction:

Mining Stories

My mining stories (in UNDERGROUND IN BLACK ) are based on fact, and  although the characters are fictitious, they are written around incidences that I was either involved in, or became aware of, during my forty years working in the NSW coalmines, in the greater part in the Wollongong area. The dialogue of the characters is in the colloquial language of the miners.  I hope that readers will enjoy reading these stories that provide an insight into the lives of men, who daily face the dangers in the blackness underground, and mine the coal.

Len Leffley Stories

Strike 1949

Death Underground

The New Machine

His Last Chance

Len Leffley Verses

(Be sure to scroll down within each box to read the complete work)

Long Gone Forests Fossilized

Forty Bloodied Years

Sunless Years

The Shorts Are On

Black Future