Beneath black skies

BY standing in front of a moving train, Old Bulli Colliery miners’ wives and babies were able to halt the flow of scab labour to replace striking miners, but just two months later 81 men and boys died when the mine blew up. These dark days of coal mining in the Illawarra have been reconstructed in the documentary Beneath Black Skies, launched in Wollongong last month.
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Greg Rowan, senior inspector of mines, Queensland Government Natural
Resources & Mines

Angie Tomlinson

On August 25, Why Documentaries launched Beneath Black Skies to a 500-strong crowd at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre theatre.

The night featured speeches from Len Leffley, one of the few remaining pick and shovel coal miners on the south coast; John Moneteleone, representing the Workers Compensation Commission; CFMEU’s Andrew Vickers; MP Sharon Bird; and retired mine manager Stuart Saywell.

The documentary recreates the tragic events of 1887 when miners at Old Bulli Colliery went on a six-month strike for better conditions and increased pay. The strike continued for so long because the company brought in train loads of non-union labour to replace the striking miners.

It was the women who stopped the labour getting to the pits as they stood in front of a moving train with their babies and pleaded for the non-union men to return home.

The miners did return to work without the better conditions they had fought for and two months later the Bulli pit blew up, killing 81 men and boys.

The documentary also looks at Australia’s largest industrial disaster when, in 1902, 120 children became fatherless after 96 men and boys were killed in the Mt Kembla disaster.

The film’s director and producer, Sandra Pires, said the documentary was very moving in parts with a few tears shed on launch night.

“Being sent to mine coal was considered the harshest punishment for a convict. Men of 23 were completely physically ruined after two or three years down a mine,” Pires said.

“This documentary is of national significance even as we wrestle with sustainability. I think it is important for coal miners to be acknowledged and for the public to see the role they played.”

Pires spent three years writing and shooting the film.

“I feel as a documentary maker you need to be able to talk from a place you understand. I had to spend a long time researching and getting to know the people,” she said.

After interviewing many pick and shovel miners, some of whom sadly passed away before they were able to see the documentary, Pires had a unique insight into how different mining was then compared to today.

With the documentary under her belt, Pires is now looking to do a mining web page which will contain resources for schools. She is currently looking for sponsors for the project.

Beneath Black Skies is narrated by Australian actor David Field and is available for sale through Why Documentaries.

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