On 1 September 1923, 21 men lost their lives at Bellbird Colliery in the worst mining disaster of our district. One hundred years later we honour and remember our fallen miners.
On 1 September 2023, Coal Services Mines Rescue and the Mining and Energy Union (MEU), together with the Coalfields Local Historical Association hosted a memorial to commemorate the centenary of the Bellbird Mining Disaster.
Parliament and local government, mineworkers, union delegates and industry representatives joined the descendants of the miners to pay their respects and to ensure the lessons learnt from the tragedy are never forgotten.
MEU President Robin Williams spoke about the history of the disaster followed by Mines Rescue General Manager Alaster Wylie recounting how the disaster led to changes in legislation and the introduction of mines rescue. Meryl Swanson MP, Clayton Barr MP and Cessnock City Council Mayor Jay Suvaal all genuinely spoke on how the tragedy had shattered the tight knit mining community but also united it together. Member for Hunter Dan Repacholi unveiled the new plaque commemorating the occasion.
Bellbird Public School students sang the national anthem and recited “Men of Coal”, Tara Naysmith sang “Mates Underground” and the MEU Mines Pipe Band played “Amazing Grace” as wreaths were laid in tribute.
As 100 seconds silence was held to honour the 21 miners, the melodious song of Bell Miners (or Bellbirds as they are commonly known) rung out, as if the birds were also paying tribute on this historic occasion.
|Twenty one lamp rays shine bright for the twenty one lives lost during the 1923 Bellbird Mining Disaster. |
George Malcolm Bailey, John Brown, George Chapman, Alexander Corns, Frederick Fone, Jack Graber, William Griffin, William Hartley, Alfred Hines, Maurice Hyams, George Kelly, Joseph Lambert, Gordon Locking, Jeremiah McLaughlan, Charles Mills, Frederick Moodie, John Morgan, Harold Richards, Phillip Roberts, George Snedden, John Stewart.
|“This catastrophic disaster is a significant moment in the history of Mines Rescue as the catalyst for the Mines Rescue Act 1925 and the opening of our first Mines Rescue Station in 1926. We pay tribute to the lives of the men who were tragically killed and reflect on the impact and influence that Mines Rescue has had on safety and emergency response in the mining industry since the disaster.” |
Mines Rescue General Manager, Alaster Wylie.
“Bellbird remains the worst mining disaster in our Northern NSW coalfields. We gather together to remember the enormous scar left on our community, to acknowledge the important changes that followed and to recommit ourselves to continuous improvements in mine safety.”
MEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy District President Robin Williams.
“When the Bellbird Mine Disaster occurred in 1923 it had a huge impact on the future of mining across NSW and beyond. The devastation of this disaster was far reaching and is still felt to this very day by the mining community, and the families and friends of those 21 miners who lost their lives. Recognising the 100 years since this disaster occurred is an important step in ensuring our coalmining history is preserved and reflected upon by future generations.”
Coalfields Local Historical Association President, Lynette Hamer.
As the day shift at Bellbird Colliery ended, 450 men departed the mine and the afternoon shift took over. Not far away in Kurri Kurri at the tin picture theatre, hundreds of miners’ children were at the Saturday afternoon matinee watching the silent movie “The Little Church Around the Corner”. The film depicted a disaster in an American coal mine and little did they know that another tragedy was unfolding so close to home.
The Deputy on shift for the small afternoon crew was Fred Moodie and as he read over the reports there was nothing to indicate anything was amiss. Fred entered the mine following the men who had already gone ahead and shortly after encountered thick swathes of black smoke from an underground fire that was consuming the workings of the 5 East mine and spreading to other areas. Racing back to the surface he raised the alarm.
As word got out men began to gather, desperate to begin rescue efforts. Some men headed straight back in, including Fred who ultimately lost his life in his effort to save his mates.
Despite the unimaginable and extremely dangerous conditions there was no shortage of volunteers with dozens of men risking their lives to bring out the missing miners.
At the time there were only 6 sets of proto breathing apparatus in all of NSW and none at Bellbird Colliery, so the men had only the most rudimentary equipment, often nothing more than a wet handkerchief covering their mouths.
When it became clear that any more attempts to rescue the men still underground was futile, the agonising decision was made to seal the mine so the oxygen supply to the fire would be cut off. Fifteen bodies had been recovered by the rescue parties and six men were left behind as well as six pit ponies. Much more than simply work horses, the ponies were trusted and beloved companions.
The Colliery was sealed and not reopened until 5May 1924 when specially trained rescue teams using Proto equipment began the difficult and dangerous work of recovery. Frederick Moodie was found on June 2and John Brown on June 17. It wasn’t until December 18 that William Hartley and Alexander Corns were found, shortly followed by Frederick Fone on December 27. Malcolm Bailey was not found until 41 years later in July 1965 when at last all the men could finally be put to rest.
Twenty-five thousand people attended the mass funeral held on 3 September 1923, flocking from far and wide to pay their respects. Businesses closed as the mining community mourned. As the funeral procession made its way through the streets, 510 miners from Bellbird Colliery, headed by their lodge officers, followed the coffins to accompany the men on their final journey.
Forty-two children lost their fathers on that tragic day and another two children were born after the disaster, fated to grow up without ever knowing their fathers. The families were entitled to money under the Workmans Compensation Act 1916, however the maximum amount payable was 500 pounds. To put that in perspective, the wife of Jack Graber who had five children to support (the fifth being born only weeks after the disaster) was to receive an amount equaling 18 months of her husband’s wages. Thankfully, relief funds were established to help the families and donations came from all sources including government, union, businesses, churches and individuals. The entire community rallied together providing both material and moral support.
The tragedy resulted in enormous support and public awareness of the importance of mining safety.
The inquest after the disaster found the 21 men had all succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. While the inquest was unable to explain the cause of the fire, some accounts were critical of many unsafe work practices, such as unreliable emergency phone lines and lack of hazard reporting and control. The inquest also revealed that some workers did not have safety lamps.
Mining lodges had been lobbying for the introduction of mines rescue stations since 1921 and the results of the inquest proved the vital need for emergency equipment and trained emergency and rescue officers. The disaster became the catalyst for the Bill to establish a mines rescue service which was tabled in the NSW Parliament in 1924 and the Mines Rescue Act 1925. The first NSW Mines Rescue station was established at Abermain in 1926. To this day Coal Services Mines Rescue provides training for rescue brigades in coal mines and has rescue stations in all major coal fields in NSW to ensure the safety of all workers in the coal mining industry.