Broken Hill’s Big Strike – The Personal Diary of
Jack Cogan

Edited by Edgar Ross

It was the days when employers of labour were ‘masters’ and the employees were ‘wage slaves’. Militant workers who had imbibed the doctrines of Karl Marx spoke in ordinary everyday conversation of ‘selling their labour power to provide the bosses with surplus value,’ of ‘exploitation’. Just passing the time of day was likely to get a response like ‘Yes, a great day for waging the class struggle!’

The time was when the mineworkers of Broken Hill city of legendary industrial militancy, were engaged in what was claimed to be the world’s longest strike, lasting for eighteen months in 1919-20, as a result of which they won conditions on a much higher level than any other workers in Australia. But in its aftermath they experienced large scale unemployment and privations almost equal to those during the strike itself.

One of the aforementioned militant workers kept a personal daily diary in which he recorded the hardships, frustrations and bitterness of the struggle, which took place against a background of widespread industrial turmoil in Australia and revolutionary uprisings in many parts of the world in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution.

The diary tells much about the attitudes of the socialists of the day. It came into my possession on one of my visits to Broken Hill, where I was resident from 1925 to 1935 as sub-editor of the Barrier Daily Truth. Here are some extracts from it.

My name is Jack Cogan. That might not mean much to you. After all, I was just one of many wage slaves exploited by the rapacious Broken Hill mining companies.

It was a Sunday on a fine day in June, 1919, the 22nd to be precise, when I decided to keep a diary to show those who came after me what it was like to be on strike these days.

Actually, it has now been many weeks since we withdrew our labour power from the mines and stopped the wheels of industry turning. There are no sounds now of machinery crushing the ore in the bowels of the earth to make profits for the masters.

Let me tell you that conditions in the mines in those days were appalling, many men being killed or maimed because of unsafe mining practices and stricken by lead poisoning and dusted lungs and sent to an early grave. Between 1910 and 1919 there were 141 men killed in the mines. The mines were real hell holes, I can tell you! The temperature underground can reach 110 degrees.

How are we to remedy this situation? Some of us were convinced that the only real solution was to change the social system. We studied the works of Marx and Engels and formed the Barrier Socialist Party to study and popularise their ideas.

But first things first! In sheer desperation the Barrier Branch of the Amalgamated Miners Association (AMA) in 1919 refused to work any longer under the prevailing conditions. All through the previous year we had been demanding that something be done about improving conditions from a safety and health point of view and adequately compensating the victims of industrial disease. In March this year we drew up a log of claims.

We wanted working hours reduced to 6 a day over 5 days – a 30 hours week. We also wanted an increase of £1 a day in our wages, the end of night shift, the abolition of the contract system, which encouraged men to work as hard as they could and run risks to their health in order to get a decent pay. Above all, we wanted something done about industrial disease and adequate compensation for the victims of it.

There was a ‘blue’ involving the craft Unions, who were always scrapping about who should get particular jobs, and it closed down the mines. So we decided we wouldn’t resume except on the terms of our log of claims. That was on May 19.

But to get back to June 22 when I started my diary. As usual I got out of bed, went and got the Barrier Daily Truth, then back to bed for a read. Then, down the street to find someone to talk to in the library or at the Trades Hall. We had a meeting in the Central Reserve… we had been holding them every day since the strike started, with the AMA band opening with The Red Flag.

The speakers at first reckoned we would have an easy and quick victory and would be able to enjoy some of the good things of life. There was also another gathering at the Trades Hall, devoted mainly to singing and watching the dancing girls. The mining companies had proposed that we resume work and put our claims to arbitration, but we gave that a horse laugh.

Still, it was not long after we declared for the strike that some of the slaves began to feel the pinch and we had set up a distress association to see that something was done for them. Bonds were issued, repayable six months after the end of the strike, and I recall that at the first meeting £300 worth were taken out.

Early on, too, we decided to send delegations to other workers throughout Australia to seek financial support. The most prominent were J J. O’Reilly, who suffered from curvature of the spine but it did not stop him doing his job, Mick Considine, a lanky Irishman who was a very eloquent speaker, and Percy Brookfield, who had been the leader of Labor’s Volunteer Army during the campaign against conscription during the war and was elected to parliament. They even went to New Zealand to raise money. But the most solid support came from the coalies who donated 1 per cent of their pay. The Union had also set up a co-operative store to provide the necessaries of life and we were issued with coupons entitling us to get them.

By now, opinions were changing about us getting a quick victory and had given place to a feeling that we were in for a long struggle. There were reports of malnutrition and of a rise in infant mortality.

June 23. Another day, and a beauty, too, as I woke with the sun streaming in the window piercing the misty clouds, with the wind moaning its hatred of mankind. I’m a bit of a poet, don’t you think? Anyhow, I hopped out of bed, lit the fire, had a look at the Truth, then down to Paddy’s for a yarn (Paddy Lamb, was a pioneer socialist E.R.) Paddy is worried about the slaves, who are becoming apathetic about the strike and can see nothing but gloom ahead. Thoughts come to me about the situation. It is not that they like their jobs but they have to get a livelihood. Why do the slaves put up with a position where they produce the good things of life for a few while millions live in poverty? But away with these thoughts, there is work to do in this great struggle.

June 26. It’s becoming a hum drum existence. Walking down the street, attending meetings, taking my coupon to the store to get a few things for the larder, chatting up the girls on the women’s committee (That is nice, and I am particularly shook on V-B. In fact I walked her home today and would like to make love to her). Nothing much is happening in the strike, but the news from overseas is interesting, like the uprising in Italy: May the slaves there win out!

June 27. Broke the monotony today by doing a bit of housework, pumping out the cellar and tilling the soil so that we can grow something for the table. But I soon got tired of that, so back to the street, where I bumped into Wetherie (see note A: E.R.) and we discussed things in general. We agreed something must be done to keep the slaves active.

June 29. A great meeting of the rebels today, pleased with the way the slaves are sticking it out but concerned about the lack of activity. The coalies are a tower of strength, now paying a 2 per cent levy. Thrilled by the news of the uprisings in Europe.

At a meeting of the AMA a motion was moved by Sam Deed to take a ballot on a return to work. But only two voted for it, and the crowd was in good spirits and actually enjoying the sunshine and the fresh air as a break from the bowels of the earth.

July 3. The Federated Engine-Drivers and Firemen’s Association decided to go back to work but, unfortunately for them, there was no work to do. With still no sign of settlement, the members of the Tea and Toasters (The Trades and Trades Laborers, a breakaway of surface workers from the AMA they had received registration under the Trade Union Act of 1881-E.R.). So now we are going to picket the mines to stop any funny business. The result; The Tea and Toasters have decided to join the A.M.A. and stay with the strike. We also had a bit of trouble with the Blue Whiskers (the Barrier Workers’ Association, another breakaway from the A.M.A., so named after its leader, who had a reddish beard – E.R.). But we soon busted them.

July 15. Having no ore to treat, the Port Pirie smelters have now closed down, something else for the masters to think about! A meeting of industrialists in Sydney have decided to form a new party and Brookfield is in trouble for associating with them.

August 25. Reported that Brookfield resigned from the Labor Party over its attitude towards the gaoled I.W.W. men but at the request of the Barrier branch of the party he agreed to withdraw it, but he continues to be at logger heads with the party leaders over his support of a proposal to form a breakaway industrial socialist Labor party for which he was expelled from the Labor party.

The slaves get something to crow about as Brookfield is elected as an Independent, defeating the endorsed Labor Party candidate.

January 1, 1920. Another year has passed and there is still no settlement of the strike, but there are signs that the bosses are becoming restive as the price of metals begins to rise. A commission has been set up, headed by Professor Henry Chapman, of the University of Sydney, to investigate working conditions in the mines from the standpoint of the health of the slaves. There has also been a conference with the mining companies, who offered a paltry rise in pay.

Meanwhile, the slaves fill in their time going to meetings, playing cards in the reserve and going to concerts and dances. I go for rides on my bike and I spend a lot of time reading. I have just been reading Browning and I agree with him that life is but an empty dream. No Truth today, because the boys are on strike. Sometimes I feel I would like to get away from this city of dust, strikes and woe.

January 11. Another meeting, but I am getting tired of listening to the same old dope. George Kerr reckons the strike will end this month. But things are now getting pretty tough and I have put my name down for a food coupon again to get some of the necessaries of life. I am spending a lot of time reading, particularly Marx, who explains the ins and outs of the capitalist system, the way the workers are exploited. It convinces me that there is no solution for the problems confronting the wage slaves until they become educated along class lines, develop class consciousness and unite and organise to change the system. It’s good to read of the progress of the Bolsheviks in Russia and of the activities of the Australian Consul, Peter Simonoff, who worked in the mines here. How I long to see Europe flooded with the Bolsheviks’ ideas!

January 17. An interesting visit from Albert Wallis, the General Secretary of the Miners’ Federation who told us how the militants walked out of the Labor Party and set up the Industrial Labor Party with the aim of establishing the Socialist Republic of Australia. With Brookfield expelled for supporting it, we will have to set up a branch of the Industrial Labor Party in Broken Hill.

February 9. Out of bed to get the Truth. A report by Tom Mann, the British socialist activist speaking of a coming revolution, but there is no sign of it here, although the slaves, like the seamen, are fighting back against the bosses. With Billy Hughes threatening to use the War Precautions Act to smash the strike. A report that Brookfield has been shot (a strange entry, for Brookfield was actually shot in 1921. Was there an earlier assassination attempt? -E.R.)

February 25. Coupon Day, but there is nothing in the store.

How long can we go on like this? The slaves are becoming desperate now. No reports of any progress towards a settlement. It is decided to send a delegation to the Trades and Labor Council in Melbourne to discuss the situation. I long to get away from this dismal life. In fact, last night I dreamt that I had won Tatts and was in Melbourne enjoying a life of luxury. But one can never forget the class struggle.

March 5. To the Quadrangle to hear Dr Chapman’s report on his inquiry and also a report on the negotiations now proceeding with the directors in Melbourne. The news from overseas is good, with the workers in Germany now in revolt. May they win out!

March 18. Some excitement in the town with a visit from Scott Bennett (see note B: E.R.) who addressed the crowd and forecast the doom of capitalism in Europe. Brookfield also spoke about the prospects for progress to socialism through the new Industrial Labor Party.

March 20. Election day and a win for Brookie against the candidate of the official Labor Party. He now holds the balance of power in the parliament and will no doubt use it to good effect. There is great jubilation among the slaves.

March 22. Visited the commission of inquiry.

All sufferers from T.B. and pneumoconiosis are to be removed from the mines and compensated. Some are to be certified as able to work in a pastoral area, where, it is claimed, the progress of the disease can be halted. It is proposed to assist them to become farmers in the Riverina. But this is not going to be all plain sailing. A lot of men are refusing to submit themselves for medical examination, claiming it is just a ruse to victimise them. There is talk of cutting off their coupons.

It is reported that the mining companies are now prepared to give us a 40 hour week for undergrounders and 44 hours for surface workers but they won’t increase wages. That’s not good enough! Got £2 from the Lodge to help keep me going.

April 30. A big meeting of the AMA to hear a report from the delegates to the conference with the company directors, the main speaker being O’Reilly. It was decided to carry on the strike on a vote of 1600 to 36.

May 1. At last it seems as if the strike may end and let us get back to work and prepare for the revolution. The directors have offered a 6 hours day for a 6 day week with a £1 a day wages and Holloway (secretary of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council) is trying to arrange a settlement on that basis. So, the delegates return to Melbourne. Sister Alice went to the Trades Hall today to give clothes to the needy wage slaves. May 27. Paddy got a letter from Paul Freeman (see note C: E.R.) about getting a delegation from Australia to attend an international conference in Russia.

June 3. Judge Edmonds has been appointed by the Government to try and find a settlement of the strike. But the mining companies refused to accept him as an adjudicator. However, the AMA said it would accept him and then the companies changed their tune. So, things are looking brighter for a settlement of the strike. But there is trouble over the Commission of Inquiry being conducted by Professor Chapman, with the mining companies insisting that mineworkers be tested for 21 listed diseases before being allowed to work in the mines. The slaves reckon it really means 20 excuses and 1 disease, namely dusted lungs. But the examinations go on.

September 30. A new award has been issued by Judge Edmonds. It provides for a 35 hours week (five shifts of seven hours) for undergrounders and 44 surface workers. There is to be a base rate of 15/- a week, with an increase of 2/- per day. No stopping on night shift. Workers found to be suffering from tuberculosis or pneumoconiosis are to be removed from the industry and get compensation. There is also to be improved ventilation in the mines.

October 16. The delegates return to Broken Hill and address a big meeting but their report is not acceptable, so back they go to Melbourne. The bone of contention is the surface workers’ hours.

October 20. The delegates return from Melbourne to report nothing, so it is decided to still hold out.

November 10. A big meeting to hear the delegates’ latest report. Kerr moved a motion to declare the strike off.

It was carried overwhelmingly although some still wanted to continue until the surface men were granted the same hours as the undergrounders. It is announced that the mines will open in a fortnight. The band played enthusiastically at the end of the meeting.

So the great struggle is now over! It has gone on from May 1, 1919. The bosses have invited the slaves to return to work. Went to the Trades Hall to get my coupon. There is much talk of the struggle and everybody is pleased that the industry will be in full swing again and the grim days of the past will be forgotten. I gazed at the crowd eager to produce profit for the master. It will now be a case of ‘How much ore did we get this fQrtnight?’ How anxious they are to get back into the bowels of the earth to toil and sweat for the parasites!

November 11. I joined the mob rushing up to the mien to barter their labour power. But what of the future? Will they fight to change the system? Ah, no. All they are concerned about is getting a big pay. The only hope is to wait for the coming of a great crisis, when we can seize political power and carry on a dictatorship. How humiliating to wait for the master to say you can be exploited? But the news from Sydney is good reporting the formation of a Communist Party. We must get Arthur Reardon, secretary of the Australian Socialist Party, to form a local branch.

So, now, after eighteen months we will go back to work where the roof can cave in without warning and we toil in dust and gas in long hours in order to be able to keep living. If the wage slaves would only become wise and emancipate themselves!

November 19. There is no getting away from strikes in Broken Hill. Now there is a strike over the price of beer!

November 27. I have been to the mines several times since the end of the strike to try and barter my labour power for a job and today again I was one of hundreds doing the same thing and, after waiting for hours, had to come away without a certificate allowing me to be exploited. How degrading! The Broken Hill Compensation Act is now passed.

December 24. At last I did get a job and have received my first full pay in eighteen months. But how far will it go? Why can’t they pay us each week instead of having to wait for a fortnight before we get any money? And the job makes me sick anyhow. Especially the slaves. All they can talk about is winning money at the races or the two-up school or about their conquests of women. They don’t seem to be interested in the way they are exploited.

January 1, 1921. Another year! What will it bring? I only did a month’s work last year and still many slaves are roaming along the line of lode in search of a job. All countries seem to be in a state of crisis, which may mean the downfall of the capitalist system. But there is much need for educational work. They should read Bellamy’s Parable of the Water Tank which, in simple terms, explains the workings of the capitalist system. Too long have wee been chasing the wild wind of reformers that can provide no solution. Learnt of happenings in Victoria through a visit from Bob Heffron (See note D:E.R.).

January 8. A meeting to select two members of the Compensation Board and was disgusted at the bickering over the question of one man, one job.

January 31. The Big Mine (Broken Hill Proprietary Company E.R.) has closed down, also the Junction, and it is reported that the British is to go soon. There are also rumours that the Newcastle Steel Works is to close. It is reported that there are now 5,000 men unemployed in Broken Hill and that only a quarter of the AMA membership is working, so what chance for men chasing a job? I have tried to met work at the North mine but without success. So, the weeds in my garden are getting a thrashing.

But there are some good things happening, like the moves by the unions of Australia to set up machinery to organise the socialisation of industry and form One Big Union. So, the revolution is in sight!

February 6. A meeting to discuss the bleak industrial situation, with proposals to send a delegation to the company directors and the Federal and State Governments. There is even a proposal to offer to accept less wages. The mob don’t seem to realise the seriousness of the situation let alone understand that the only way out of it is to change the system. And here is Lloyd George in England calling for co-operation between Capital and Labor to solve the crisis. But who caused the crisis anyway? Capital! But back to the local slaves. They are certainly making things willing at the police station trying to get tickets. But I see no hope of getting one, so I think I will clear out and look for a job somewhere else.

(At this point Jack Cogan left Broken Hill to look for work in Adelaide, and continued his diary E.R.)

March 22. Was just preparing to go and hear a talk by John Gunn, the Labor Party’s grand hope, when I heard the paper boys yelling ‘Sensation at Riverton’. Got a paper, and learnt of the shooting of Brookfield on the Riverton railway station, and all Broken Hill is now on edge waiting for news.

March 23. And Brookfield is dead. We carried him to the train where there were many Hillites waiting in grief to bid him farewell as his body was being returned to the Barrier.

April 12. Very disappointing news from England, where the workers have been sold out, so there will be no revolution. I would love to go to Russia, where the workers are in control. But all I can do is read about it from others, like Phillips Price, Postgate, Brailsford Goode and others. But it is more important to read the works of Lenin which are now coming here, like The State and Revolution. Well, it helps to brighten things a bit while contemplating the dismal picture in Australia.

After a brief retum to Broken Hill lack Cogan travelled interstate unsuccessfully looking for work and spending a good deal of time fraternising with leaders of the various socialist groups in Sydney and Melbourne, particularly the Communist Party and the Victorian Socialist Party. In Melbourne he also attended meetings of a ‘think tank’ of intellectuals who had been prominent in the activity against the First World War and military conscription for overseas service. It was called the Y Club and is still functioning. On December 27 he returned to Broken Hill and resumed his attempt to get work on the mines. His diary tells of lively discussions on the position in Russia with Paddy Lamb and Arthur Reardon, visiting from Sydney, participating. There was special attention given to a decision of the Communist International to invite affiliation from revolutionary groups in other countries fulfilling requirements set out in a document enumerating 21 points. Cogan mentioned that he had read the document ‘many times’. The united Communist Party of Australia applied for and was granted affiliation to the International.

Local political affairs were dominated by conflict between the Industrial Labor Party and the Australian Labor Party, the former, now without the influential figure of Brookfield, moving into a steady decline and eventual demise. The diary continues-

February 28, 1922. The industrial situation is as bleak as ever, and the AMA is in a bad way. For the meeting tonight we could not even get a quorum.

March 26. It looks as if the Labor Party is well and truly defeated in the Federal elections. I’m sorry about that. I would have liked to see them in power to demonstrate to the workers that they could do nothing for them.

March 28. In the papers today there is a report of Lenin being shot and dying. How sad it will be and how upsetting for the revolution!

April3. Still looking for work, but no luck. A meeting of the AMA decided to join the One Big Union and will now be known as the W.I.U. of A. (Workers Industrial Union of Australia) Let us hope it will be a success.

June 2. Much talk locally about the strikes in the shearing and maritime industries in Australia and the struggles of the miners in England. The workers have not given up the fight yet!

June 9. It is now nearly six months since I came home, and still now work. The AMA now has only 1,000 financial members.

June 26. Reports from the big All Australian Trade Union Congress in Melbourne. A landmark in our history in the moves to bring socialism to Australia. So what importance is a job for Jack Cogan, an unemployed miner of Broken Hill? The struggle goes on!


A. Ernest Wetherell, a strike activist, who later became editor of Barrier Daily Truth and eventually a Minister in the New South Wales Labor Government.
B. Harry Scott Bennett, prominent lecturer in socialism and rationalism as a member of the Victorian Socialist Party and, later, secretary of the Rationalist Association based in Sydney.
C. Paul Freeman, a prominent socialist agitator during the First World War who came from overseas. When the authorities decided to deport him he went ‘underground’ and spent some time in the Cogan home. The authorities eventually caught up with him but could not find a country prepared to accept him as a citizen until the Soviet Union did so. He was killed in an accident while travelling in a locomotive with Lamb and Altem Sergeiv, a refugee from the 1905 revolution in Russia who lived in Australia for some years and was also killed. Lamb escaped with a back injury.
D. Robert Heffron, originally from New Zealand, who became a prominent member of the Victorian Socialist Party and later secretary of the Marine Stewards Union, based in Sydney. He was an early member of the Communist Party but transferred to the Australian Labor Party and became Premier of the N.S.W. Government.