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Pic in Time Coalface

In Queensland’s mining history, few stories resonate as deeply as that of the pit ponies, especially in the mining towns of Collinsville and Scottville.

These horses, predominantly Clydesdales, began their indelible association with the region’s coal mines shortly after mining commenced in 1921. Renowned for their strength and intelligence, these animals became not just helpers but cherished members of the mining community, playing a crucial role in the operations both below and above ground.

The introduction of the 1842 Mines Act in the UK, which prohibited underground work for boys under ten and all females, set a precedent that influenced labour practices globally including in Australia. The new law led to a reliance on ponies for underground labour, a practice that Australia adopted widely. By 1913, the number of pit ponies in service across Australia reached 70,000.

Despite the introduction of mechanisation in the late 1950s, which shifted their roles from hauling coal skips to moving heavy equipment, these animals remained integral to the mines. While this period marked a gradual decline in their numbers, the connection between the miners and their four-legged colleagues only grew stronger.

Pic in Time Coalface
Miners and pit pony at No 2. Mine.

Their roles extended well beyond mere hauling, they were central figures in the operational and social fabric of the mining community.

Each day, pit ponies would descend into the dimly lit mine shafts, playing a crucial part in the coal extraction process. They hauled containers of coal and heavy equipment through the underground tunnels, navigating the dark, cramped conditions with remarkable dexterity and resilience. The miners relied heavily on these ponies, who could perform tasks in environments that were challenging even for machines. Their ability to work in confined spaces and their gentle nature made them ideally suited for the underground tasks.

Their daily contribution was not just functional but also emotional. The pit ponies provided companionship and comfort to the miners during the long, arduous shifts underground. Miner Mervyn McCarthy captured this unique relationship when he described how a pony could lead a miner to safety in complete darkness, “if your lights went out… you would grab the horse’s tail… and it would lead you half a mile in the dark to the surface”.

Ray Brunker shared another telling detail about the ponies’ intelligence and their sense of fairness, “if you put a couple of extra skips on to a rake, so as to finish earlier, the horse would wake-up and he wouldn’t budge until you took off those extra skips”.

Pic in Time Coalface
Pit ponies being led away after their shift at No. 2 Mine.

As the era of pit ponies drew to a close with the rise of mechanisation, the miners sought to protect these valued members of their team in a very human way, by enrolling them in the union. This occurred when mine management decided it was time to retire the last working pit ponies, Wharrier and Mr Ed, from active duty.

In an unprecedented move, the miners made sure these ponies were signed up as honorary members of the Queensland Colliery Employees Union (QCEU). This was not merely a symbolic act; it provided the ponies with a layer of protection against being summarily dismissed or treated unfairly. This membership essentially granted Wharrier and Mr Ed the same protections afforded to human workers, including adherence to seniority rules and protection from unfair dismissal.

The union’s advocacy reflected the miners’ deep appreciation for the ponies’ years of service and their desire to see them treated with dignity and respect in retirement.

Pic in Time Coalface
Wharrier and Mr Ed – the last two pit ponies.

This act of unionising the ponies was a formal recognition of the animals’ integral role in the mining operations and their importance to the miners themselves. The community’s effort to protect and honour Wharrier and Mr Ed culminated in their retirement to nearby Desmond Station under the care of retired handler Bill Hoffmann, where they were well cared for and often visited by their former coworkers.

Collinsville was the last mine in Australia to employ the loyal beasts and on November 28, 2015, the Collinsville community unveiled a life-size, bronze statue of a pit pony to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the retirement of Wharrier and Mr Ed. This statue, funded by community-driven efforts that raised $190,500 in just 60 days, stands not only as a monument to the pit ponies but also as a symbol of the community’s resilience and spirit.

Today, while the era of the pit pony has passed, their legacy continues to be a source of pride and celebration in Collinsville and Scottville. These animals are remembered not just as labourers but as vital members of their community. Their story is a testament to the enduring bond between humans and animals, highlighting their significant role in Australia’s mining history.

To learn more please visit the Collinsville Coalface Experience Museum website at: https://coalfaceexperience.com.au. The information and images for this article was sourced from the Museum and from historical records available at: https://ourstoriesunearthed.com.au/pit-ponies.

Title image: 1989 May Day parade. The pit ponies retired the following year from the number 2 mine.

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