Broken Hill: a radical history
Broken Hill: a radical history

“[W]e leave the destinies of this magnificent fighting industrial centre in the hands of the militant spirits of the present and future generations; and sincerely trust that some of the facts and phrases herein placed on record may prove beneficial to the coming agitator in the struggle for the emancipation of the working men and women.”

 – George Dale, The industrial history of Broken Hill, 1918.

A century ago, Broken Hill was not yet famous as a movie set for Priscilla or Mad Max. It was, however, acknowledged as the most radical and militant union town in Australia. And it was about to become even more so during World War One. It nestles in the Barrier Range, 1,100 km west of Sydney and 500 km from Adelaide, surrounded by semi-desert, on the land of the Wiljakali people, who had strong ties to the Barkindji people along the Darling River.

Today, the mines in which that inspiring working class toiled and sacrificed are almost silent. The union and socialist traditions have been eroded. Yet iconic representations are everywhere.

Sipping a coffee at a cafe in the middle of the main street, you can see a memorial to the women who mobilised during every strike by the all-male mining workforce between 1889 and 1920. In a street a block away, you’ll see a mural depicting women and children preparing to march in a protest.

Opposite is the hall of the AMA (Amalgamated Miners Association) band, which used to play at pickets and mass meetings. For instance, during the five-month lockout of 1909, new picket shifts gathered in town three times a day and marched to the line of lode to the strains of the brass band.

Half a block along, the magnificent Trades Hall is home to a history of working class solidarity. Its beautiful hall is still a glorious venue for special occasions such as weddings. Its splendour is a vivid reminder of the pride Broken Hill workers had in their traditions of militancy and radicalism. The foundation stone was laid by Ben Tillett in 1898. Under it lie a range of trade union and socialist papers from around the country.

Tillett had played a leading role in the London dock strike of 1889. The new, hardly formed miners’ union on the Barrier had made its mark internationally by cabling £1,000 for strike relief. George Dale, the chronicler of these early years, wrote: “[A] voice was heard from the wilderness as it were … and it said: ‘more is to follow if needed. Fight on, comrades, fight on’”. Tillett told those gathered in 1898 that he “would never forget the thrill of delight with which they received the news” of the donation from so far away.

Until a few years ago, hanging in pride of place as you entered the art gallery was a painting, United we stand, by Clark Barrett and Howard Steer. It depicts a favourite theme of local folklore: women are tarring and feathering scabs behind police lines at a picket. Now it hangs in the Council Chambers.

On the other side of town you can kick a ball on the Paddy Lamb oval, named after one of the militants who, after years as a socialist on the Barrier, helped form the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). He was smuggled onto a ship to get him to Moscow to discuss this momentous step.

On the way across, you can visit the Shorty O’Neil lookout. O’Neil worked in the mines from age 14, was involved in the eighteen-month “great strike” of 1919-20, which won the first 35-hour week in Australia, and was a militant in the CPA’s Militant Minority committees from 1931 to 1935, which defied both companies and union officials.

The Miners’ Memorial stands on the top of the pile of spent rock that follows the line of the lode and dominates the city. Visitors to this moving place, with its record of those who were killed in the name of BHP’s and others’ profits, read of the significance of the red flag as it flutters in the breeze.

At the entrance to the cemetery you encounter a spire topped with a globe bearing the inscription “workers of the world unite”. On this memorial to Percy Brookfield, said by one of his biographers to be “possibly the most radical anti-politician ever elected to parliament in Australia”, are the words of the union song, “Red Flag”. Holding the balance of power in the NSW parliament, Brookfield was instrumental in forcing the Labor state government to free 12 revolutionaries of the Industrial Workers of the World. They had been convicted on perjured evidence during the repression of 1917.

The political radicalism of Broken Hill is illustrated nicely by the role of Mick Considine, a Marxist elected as president of the AMA. He later became infamous when he announced, as a member of the federal parliament, that he was acting consul for the new Bolshevik government of Russia. Both Considine and Brookfield played key roles in the radicalism and militancy during WWI.

The memories of working class militancy, radicalism and solidarity around the now declining city are not just romanticism. They represent a history of bitter class battles against rapacious mining capital in a harsh environment, isolated from the major cities. The workers’ own militancy attracted radicals and revolutionaries so that there was always a plethora of socialist groups. The revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World had a vibrant presence there from 1913 until they were destroyed by state repression in 1917.

A history of militant spirits

Mining on the Barrier began in 1885. The miners dug silver from the barren land in scorching summer heat or numbing winter cold, living in tents and rudimentary shacks, their families regularly threatened with typhoid. In 1889, a notice flagging the intention of union members to refuse to work beside non-unionists was posted around the fields. It didn’t bring everyone into line, but an eight-day strike in November resulted in the first compulsory union in the country in which the company would be, in George Dale’s words, “chief recruiting sergeant”. Union reps would collect dues every payday; non-unionists would not be offered work.

In this brief mobilisation, traditions of determined class defiance, the contours of which would be repeated over the coming decades, were established. Each episode created a history to inspire and harden succeeding generations. A militant Women’s Brigade joined the pickets. A grainy photo of their presence lies in the library’s local history archives.

Local businesses, discontented with big city neglect, depended on reasonable conditions to survive. The state government, known for its neglect, found the resources to send a sergeant and 11 constables to uphold the rights of the companies. Brian Kennedy, in his social history Silver, sin and sixpenny ale summed up: “Such provocative action helped to unite the community behind the union, which alone … seemed to possess the will, resources and organisation to resist distant and grasping authorities”.

Within months, the AMA had levied every member five shillings a fortnight for the fighting fund of the maritime unions on strike. The company responded with a lockout lasting weeks. But the next big battle was brought on by the companies, BHP the biggest and most important among them, in mid-1892.

The bosses ended the 1889 agreement and announced they would be introducing contract work for some jobs. Miners everywhere knew that contract work, unlike hourly wages, encouraged slipshod work bound to end in more accidents. This came on the back of a typhoid epidemic and increasing concerns about lead poisoning.

On Sunday, 3 July, 5,000 people, including a good number of women, gathered in the treeless Central Reserve (now Sturt Park). The speeches emphasised the common interest of the miners, other unionists and women and families. Josiah Thomas moved a motion which read in part: “as the Miners’ Association is the most chiefly concerned, this meeting supports any action the miners may think fit, whether immediate or otherwise”. It was passed unanimously, cementing a sense of solidarity and determination, which helped keep the strike going until 23 October.

A highpoint of optimism and enthusiasm in that bitter 18-week battle came on a beautiful fine day in August, which became known as the Fateful 25th. Mass picketing, reinforced by the militancy of women armed with axe and broom handles, and who led foray after foray against blacklegs and shift bosses with vigorous violence, kept the scabs out.

To the horror of conservative opinion, the “inevitable women” molested a respectable businessman and seized the reins of a bank manager who rode his horse into the crowd. The mouthpiece of conservative opinion on the Barrier, the Silver Age, commented sourly about viragos with tar pots, thus fuelling the popular legend that they tarred and feathered the scabs.

One hundred marched with the men in the union march and 500 marched later in a women’s procession, a bold and daring activity for the times. Three times that number lined the streets to support them. Mrs C. Poole, mounted on a handsome bay, acted as field marshal. Thousands gathered in the Central Reserve to welcome their march, where several women were hoisted onto a lorry from which they typically urged the men to stand firm. Even the Silver Age begrudgingly admitted that they spoke well.

Hundreds of cops, some in plain clothes, were brought from Sydney. By late September, seven strike leaders were jailed and hundreds of scabs, many brought from outside the city, were working. But riotous scenes of women confronting scabs on Saturday nights continued, even after some militants thought the strike was defeated. Women crowded the streets for the annual eight-hour procession, and some who claimed to have taken blacklegs out of the mine rode on a vehicle displaying a banner emblazoned “Women’s Union”.

While reluctant to admit defeat, the union officials on 23 October moved that the strike be ended. At least 1,000 unionists had to leave the Barrier and those working had to keep their union membership secret to avoid dismissal. Soon after, wages were cut by 10 percent.

The reputation of the unionists on the Barrier line of lode inspired many in the labour and socialist movement. But any hint of where they were from was enough to have them blacklisted by employers in Victoria or South Australia. It was 16 years before the militants could respond in kind to their exploiters.

However, they never missed an opportunity to join the fray. During the 1894 shearers’ strike, some of them were involved in burning down the Rodney, a ship carrying scabs up the Darling, and taking them into captivity. When one of the leaders, Sid Robinson, was brought to trial in Broken Hill, workers attacked prosecution witnesses and the jury acquitted him.

In 2004, hundreds of locals lined the banks of the Darling at the spot where the remains of the Rodney lie to watch a re-enactment of this too little known act of solidarity.

During 1908, John Darling, chairman of directors of BHP, publicly stated that wages in the mines needed to come down by 12.5 percent. The AMA invited Tom Mann to help organise for the inevitable confrontation. Mann had fought alongside Ben Tillett in the London dock strike and was now a leader of the Victorian Socialist Party. One of the first things he did on arrival was to address a meeting of women, for which the union secretary organised child care.

BHP announced that it would lock out all those who refused to accept lower pay from 1 January. New Year’s Eve celebrations gave way to picket lines, marches, mass meetings and committees organising solidarity. The children in the Socialist Sunday School naturally found a role, often simply throwing rocks on the tin roofs of the homes of scabs.

A popular pastime of strikers was constructing mock graves of scabs bearing inscriptions such as, “Here lies [X]. Once he was a man, now he is a scab” or “RIP. Cursed to the memory of [Y], a scab in BHP mine, 1909”.

Women again played a militant part. They refused service to scabs and cops in shops and pubs. Anyone seen not wearing a union badge, produced by the women, was challenged. One of the socialists, a Mrs Gibson, did two months in jail rather than pay a fine for insulting words to a police officer. The VSP speaker, Lizzie Ahearn, attracted huge crowds.

But again, strike leaders, including Tom Mann and Sid Robinson, were arrested and jailed. With their heads held high, after five bitter months, the workers went back. Opinions differ as to how much of a victory it was. But their fierce resistance rebuilt the union and is remembered with pride.

All these activities and events were graphically described and supported in the newly established Barrier Daily Truth, published by the AMA and paid for by union members’ dues across the city. This paper, though lacking its original militant flavour, is still seen by many as the paper for workers as against the conservative, pro-boss media.

When I began visiting the city in the 1990s, the Tourist Bureau sported a huge display of depictions of the picketing. A larger than life statue of Tom Mann towered over it all. At the press of a button, you could listen to him speak about the need for socialism. And in 2009, trade unionists and socialists travelled there to join locals for centenary celebrations.

The war

WWI was not a good time to strike to improve your conditions. But the socialists and the IWW, in this centre producing lead for bullets, knew it was an imperialist slaughter that served only the interests of the capitalist class. Their role was vital when it came to standing up to the mining companies in the jingoistic atmosphere.

In June 1915, George Weir, for the companies, issued what Dale described as a “magnificently constructed piece of patriotic dope” demanding that the contract with the AMA not be renegotiated until six months after the war ended. At first, it won a narrow majority at a union mass meeting.

But fear of lead poisoning and regular deaths and injuries jostled with patriotism. Among the underground workers, the demand for shorter hours had become urgent. So, on 26 September, just 13 months after the country had been swept by patriotic zeal, frustrated by endless toing and froing between union officials, mining barons and government bureaucrats, 537 undergrounders voted to stop work every Saturday afternoon, cutting the 48-hour week to 44.

At the eight-hour day march a few days later, thousands carried placards declaring, “If you want a 44 hour week TAKE IT” backed up by a clamour from women’s meetings. In letters to the BDT, women sneered at the men’s timidity, demanding they take the hours off immediately. The decision to work only 44 hours was “a revolt of rank and file militancy against the most militant union leadership … in Australia” as labour historian Ian Turner put it.

Men were sent to Port Pirie, around the country and even to New Zealand to win solidarity. They needed the confidence, which came with a socialist political worldview, to withstand being attacked – by not just the press but also trade unionists – as traitors responsible for the murder of the boys at the front.

The arguments had been aired from the start of the war. A month after war was declared, socialists had heckled a recruitment meeting. The evening ended with their hall being trashed by a patriotic crowd in what the BDT luridly described as a “RED war!”

With some of the most seasoned radicals away, others like Percy Brookfield learned to take their place. They set up their own rank and file strike committee to lead the struggle. As is often the case, the companies’ intransigence ultimately healed the divisions among the workers.

So in January, when they locked out the shift that worked 44 hours, a mass meeting declared the whole of the line of lode on strike. As usual, women mobilised, backing the elected strike committee, which ran the pickets and oversaw appeals for solidarity. Regular mass meetings helped harden workers against the war hysteria and keep spirits up.

After seven months of disruption and growing support, the Arbitration Court granted the 44 hours, increased wages and penalty rates. A great victory, unlike 1909, especially in the political context of patriotic hysteria!

Within weeks, anti-war agitation replaced the constant strike meetings. On 11 June, 2,000 were mobilised in support for Sydney IWW member Tom Barker, jailed under the War Precautions Act for anti-war propaganda.

In response to a crescendo of demands for conscription to fill the trenches in Europe, on 23 July the inaugural meeting of the Labour Volunteer Army was held. A committee consisting of five revolutionaries led a militant, no-holds-barred anti-conscription campaign. They were hugely proud of the city’s No vote that year, and an even larger No in the 1917 referendum in the face of large, violent mobilisations of the patriotic middle classes.

The LVA took shape at a mass meeting of more than 500 men and women at Trades Hall. They took an oath to the “working class of Australia” not to “serve as a conscript (industrial or military) … even though it may mean my imprisonment or death”.

The LVA Women’s Corps held regular meetings, formed its own choir which led its contingent in demonstrations and had its own banners. Mrs Frances Mortimer, its main speaker, told LVA rallies that workers must make war on war. Alice Cogan, a supporter of the IWW, ran speakers classes to boost more women’s confidence to speak and was the subject of constant secret police scrutiny for her effective campaigning.

The women received a boost with a three-week visit by Mrs Bella Lavender, a popular agitator from Melbourne who spoke to large crowds on “Australia’s Peril”, meaning employers, “The War Precautions Act” and the status of women industrially and socially. The firebrand British suffragist, Adela Pankhurst, now a member of the VSP, addressed overflow meetings on her visit.

The great strike

By the end of the war, the IWW had been destroyed by police repression and imprisonment of many of its leading activists. Two of those framed in Sydney, Donald Grant and Peter Larkin, brother of James, the famous Irish revolutionary trade union leader, had spent time in the Hill. But that did not stifle the militancy and determination that permeated the working class of the Silver City.

Their biggest battle yet, and the last of such proportions, was around the corner. More than one historian has described it as the biggest industrial battle in Australian history. Thousands were on strike from May 1919 to November 1920. These 18 months brought hardship, sacrifice and near starvation, but could not erode their traditions of solidarity and determination. When you think of 12-hour shifts worked today, ever longer hours for those with full time work, their path-breaking victory and the 35 hours they won seem even more historic and inspiring than at the time.

But the 1920s and 30s were difficult times for the miners, with declining metal prices and considerable unemployment. This laid the basis for more cautious politics to take root.

Under Shorty O’Neil, sentiments of trade union traditions were kept alive but with less political content. Barrier Industrial Council, which replaced the old Barrier Labour Federation representing all the unions, imposed bureaucratic methods to try to defend the hard-won conditions as mining declined. For instance, anyone born outside the town could not get employment unless the unions agreed. They resisted the employment of women decades after women were integrated into the workforce elsewhere.

Under the pressure that all unions felt during the Labor governments of Hawke and Keating from 1983 to 1996, union militancy gave way to collaboration with bosses, an unthinkable state of affairs six decades earlier. In the 1990s, the move was on to introduce 12-hour shifts. Everywhere, disgruntled women complained about living with exhausted men with no energy for family life. At the same time, there was an air of resignation.

And yet the traditions of militancy, radicalism and organisation continued to be recognised with pride. Peter Black, a Communist Party member who never denied his radicalism, continued to be elected as mayor for 19 years until 1999. And then, with the ALP, he represented Murray-Darling in the NSW parliament until 2007, when a redistribution incorporating conservative rural areas turned it into a National Party seat.


Broken Hill has a history to be treasured by all trade unionists and anyone who wants to see a better world. The militancy was absolutely necessary to improve conditions in the face of mining capital interests that cared not one jot that a man was killed producing their dividends every fortnight. What did they and their shareholders care that thousands more suffered injuries that often forced them out of work. Not only workers, though they suffered the most, but the whole population paid the price of their callous disregard of the dangers of lead poisoning.

The role of revolutionaries was vital, particularly during WWI but not only then. They helped imbue the industrial militancy with the political will to stand up to vitriol, able to provide answers to the arguments used to denigrate their struggles.

Because the metals that they mined could not easily be got somewhere else, the workers along the line of lode had enormous power. But it took politics and a wider view to achieve the class consciousness and confidence needed to exercise that power.

If you visit the silver city of the Barrier, sit for awhile with a drink or meal in the Social Democratic Club in Argent Street. It is a relic of those traditions, established as the Marxist club for workers and their families to gather in opposition to the more conservative Working Men’s Club (which still exists a couple of blocks away in a rundown state appropriate for those politics).

Think how much better our lives could be if the traditions of Broken Hill from 1889 to 1920 and beyond were rebuilt in every city.

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