Monuments to Labour

Joan Kent

How appropriate that the 1993 National Conference of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History should be held in Newcastle. This city’s long and illustrious industrial history led Jeans and Spearritt to describe Newcastle’s 1920s face as . a veritable Birmingham of the southern hemisphere’. 1 The location of the Conference and the emphasis on site visits not only focussed on the region’s labour and industrial history but gave a practical demonstration of the wealth of information available from an industrial landscape.

The pages of The Hummer are ample illustration of the usual sources of those interested in the study of labour history: documentary, of course, but it can be harder to find evidence of the lives of unspectacular working people in books and manuscript material, especially during the nineteenth century. Newspapers can be rewarding and are timeless, even if time consuming to use. The recollections of past times and events recorded as part of oral history projects. or simply because a wealth of knowledge is so apparent and an appreciative ear and mind are alerted, can provide information now unobtainable elsewhere. But so often the interviewee is dismissive of the worth of their own life experience or the interviewer delays and the opportunity is lost: ‘If only I’d recorded himlher last month…’

Working class songs often linger from childhood in the adult memory, keeping alive past struggles and an indomitable spirit. In the realm of physical evidence the trade union movement has collected a wealth of memorabilia in the form of banners and posters – but to describe them as ‘memorabilia’ is perhaps a denigration of yet another unique source of evidence.

But what happens when there are no written sources, the participants are dead and the recording of memories was delayed too long? Often of course nothing can be done to

salvage such a past. But sometimes another form of evidence survives, in varying stages of decay or destruction, provided by the physical remains of a building or a process or in the landscape which remains long after an activity has ceased and the settlement is abandoned.

The remains of the windmill on Thomas Amdell’s 1804 Caddie Farm grant (now part of the Cattai National Park) is an example where the only documentary evidence is an 1809 advertisement offering the mill and fifty acres for lease, and two photographs, taken in 1867 and 1907 respectively, when the mill had long been ruined. Some circumstantial evidence survives which draws a blurred picture of the context of the mill’s development in the infant grainlands of the Colony, but apart trom the recording of Amdell’s allocation of six convicts to run his farming activities, nothing is known of the personal lives of the men who built this small stone mill and what is probably a granary adjacent, on a windswept prominence above the Hawkesbury River nearly two hundred years ago.

Even today (if one can block out the sounds and sights of speedboats on the poor degraded river) there is some feeling of the isolation both the builders and the operators of the mill must have experienced. Out of sight of Caddie Homestead which itself was built on the very edge of settlement, prey to the fears of a strange and hostile environment and the retribution of an even more hostile Aboriginal population which was by now determined to put an end to the incursions of the British penal colony, life on this point in 1805 was close to total alienation.

Evocative as this may be, it is not based on direct historical evidence. What is clear however is that the building of this small but sturdy mill was a technical breakthrough for the Hawkesbury settlement, which relied on hand operated steel-mills to grind flour for its daily bread – even the windmills which had been erected in Sydney and Parramatta were problematic and unreliable, a testament to the lack of skilled millwrights and the Colony’s reliance on the ingenuity of carpenters who by trial and error contended with unsuitable building materials and eventually constructed a mill which could withstand the ferocity of local weather conditions.

An archaeological excavation was recently conducted at the mill – the remains of the oldest surviving industrial building in Australia – by the National Parks & Wildlifc Service who manage tbe site. AItbougb on a limited scale, the dig bas provided somc evidenct’ lit tbe way tbe mill worked and suggests tbat tbe granary may bave included a kiln process to dry the grain before milling. It also suggests that another site nearby, previously known as ‘the miller’s cottage’, was part of a later activity, possibly stock-raising, with no apparent association with the mill. Conservation of these remains is continuing.

Evidence of former mining activity is often sporadic – at Hill End and Sofala sufficient intTastructure of domestic dwellings and small businesses remain to give flesh to the wonderful photographic evidence of the Holtermann Collection, although the tents and temporary huts which provided very minimal she~ter for the majority of hopeful miners on the fields have long since disappeared.

Rather more sinister, yet impressive, are the remains of the Ottery Arsenic Mine, near Emmaville, which operated as a tin mine from 1882-1906, for arsenic extraction between 1920 and 1936, before returning to tin extraction 1938-40. This is one of only four arsenic mines in Australia and only one other such mine had an on-site processing plant as is found here. 2

As evidence of industrial technology and construction it is awesome. Again in an isolated location, a remarkable series of brick condensing chambers march uphill to an equally impressive brick chimney stack; the calciner is surrounded by slimes dumps and mullock heaps and a S-head stamper battery and engine decline in the engine room adjacent to the ore-bins. The main shaft and poppet head survive, as do the foundations of the office store and assay office. Other infrastructure such as change rooms and roadway have left less substantial evidence, but the totality is a blueprint of the industrial processes which were carried out here and a testament to the skill of the tradesmen who constructed the complex. The inhuman face of human labour is provided by the elegance of the condensing chambers, from which the arsenic powder was scraped by the unfortunate workers and the strange coloured liquids which seep from the heaps and adits – a salutary lesson in human and environmental exploitation.

Other places provide physical evidence of social hierarchies – the homestead of the old Willandra Pastoral Station (now the Willandra National Park northwest of Hillston), with its eighteen rooms and expansive verandahs bespeaks the comfort of the manager’s residence, but compromised because if the owner had lived in it, it would not have been built in asbestos cement, as new and as innovative as that material was in 1918 when the homestead was built. Within the homestead compound are the jackeroo’s quarters (the sons of other landowners serving their apprenticeship, they dined with the family in the homestead), the tennis court, croquet lawn, flower and vegetable gardens, rose arbour and the boatshed on the edge of the lagoon.

In the adjacent compound and a notch or two down the social scale are the foremen’s cottages, the stud rams’ thatched shed, the men’s quarters and the station outbuildings. Almost a mile away in distance and a lifetime away in social terms are the shearers’ quarters, messhall and kitchen – clustered around the woolshed, the focus of activity for these, the lowest in the hierarchy – apart trom Ah Long, the Chinese gardener who lived in a galvanised iron shanty on the edge of the lagoon. Displaying the social and economic distance trom the shearers is the Expert and Contractor’s Cottage, removed from the main shearing compound, turning its back on the unsavoury if indispensable shearers and overlooking the vast red Western Plains. The whole remains an exercise in spatial hierarchy. The extent and variety of the physical evidence oflabour history is vast. Over the last ten to fifteen years this has been recognised in terms of industrial and historical archaeology and an increasing list of publications portrays in words and pictures the immediacy of the physical evidence around us. 3


  1. D.N, Jeans and P. Spcarrill, The Open Air Museum (Allen & Unwin, 1980), p.92
  2. Michael Pearson, The Ottery Arsenic Mine Discussion of Possible Historic Site Proposal, Internal Report, NPWS Cultural Heritage Division Collection, 1981, p.2
  3. Any reading list on the subject should include: J. Birmingham, I. Jack and D. Jeans, Australian Pioneer Technology: sites and relics. Heinemann, 1979; ibid., Industrial Archaeology in Australia: rural industry, Heinemann, 1983; Jeans and Spearritt. op. cit.; Graham Connah, ‘Of the hut I builded’ The Archaelogy of Australia’s History. Cambridge University Press, 1988; R. Ian Jack and Aedeen Cremin, Australia’s Age of Iron History and Archaeology. Oxford and Sydney University Press, 1994