PHOTOS: Helensburgh in the beginning

Helensburgh’s main street: "It was a happy place and they were very proud people.'' Pictures courtesy Geoffrey Sykes

Helensburgh’s main street: "It was a happy place and they were very proud people.'' Pictures courtesy Geoffrey Sykes

Metropolitan Colliery is the oldest  continually operating mine in Australia. JODIE DUFFY discovered the township of Helensburgh, that sprung up around the mine in the late 1880s, is steeped in culture and working-class values.

High on a rocky ridge at Stanwell Tops, Geoffrey Sykes gazes out of his lounge room window onto the valley below.

The clear view of the coast is breathtaking and it's easy for the mind's eye to erase the roof tops from Stanwell Park and imagine the view that first struck settlers from this location in the 1800s.

Sykes, a local playwright who has a PhD in semiotics, has just completed a film of the 130-year-old Helensburgh settlement titled Black in Time.

Although Sykes lived with this view for 25 years, it's the first time he has felt an affinity for the coalmining village that lies on a high sandstone plateau a short distance to the west.

Filmmaker Geoffrey Sykes’ latest project is an homage to the early industrial miners. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

Filmmaker Geoffrey Sykes’ latest project is an homage to the early industrial miners. Picture: SYLVIA LIBER

It was in researching the film that Sykes bonded with the early settlers and the village they built around the mine and railway.

"Over time I've become quite fond of early Helensburgh," says Sykes. "In the end I felt sentimental about the old town and the people who lived and worked there. If you had to live in a mining town prior to the '50s then this was the best one in Australia to live in."

While miners faced crippling lung dust and other health and safety issues, conditions at the mine were not as bad as other early pits across the country.

"It was relatively modern in comparison," explains Sykes. "The height of the seam for example meant there was plenty of room for men to stand straight as they walked and ventilation was much better."

After a hard day at the pit, black-faced miners head home.

After a hard day at the pit, black-faced miners head home.

The mine's isolation, surrounded by gums and heavy scrub and with the Royal National Park to the east and north, meant not only did miners work together but on the surface they played and prayed together. Although extreme poverty was a constant, Helensburgh soon became a country town rich in culture and community events.

After a hard day at the pit, black-faced miners would return home and without fail wash away the grime and dress in clean clothes before venturing out in public. So too did the women, with hats and gloves, which made certain that each and every trip to the hub of the town was a savoured outing. With a little effort life was far from boring.

"People chose to live close to the mine," says Sykes. "It was a happy place and they were very proud people. They lived in a marvellous environment, with a remarkable amount of culture, which I think grew out of their isolation. They had no choice but to create a life and make their own fun. They were a close community."

As the town grew it had the first registered club in Australia (Helensburgh Worker's Club), there were also two choirs, cricket and football clubs, a surf club, fishing trips, community picnics and every second week, a highly popular debating club and dramatic society. There was a town band and community dances.

Park Street, Helensburgh.

Park Street, Helensburgh.

"It became a bit of a tribal town in many ways because of its geographical location," says Sykes.

"Many of those values and participation in community based events continues in Helensburgh today. There still exists that small town ethos."

The rail line reached Helensburgh, then known as Tent City in 1884, with the station opening in 1889.

In the early years it was railway men and tree fellers who lived in the tents and bush humpies but over the next five years that grew to thousands as miners and their families joined the mix at Camp Creek Gully.

Soon there was a thriving village of bush shacks and tent dwellers. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald described Camp Creek at the time as "an oasis ... with fern trees and foliage of many delicate hues of green" that would soon serve as a source of the best cedar trees in Australia.

Sinking a 335-metre mine shaft.

Sinking a 335-metre mine shaft.

At the end of 1884 John Coghlan sunk a diamond drill on top of a ridge overlooking the creek. In that first bore the ground was so poor that 200 pounds of diamonds were lost as they reached the 76m mark but in the days that followed Coghlan persevered with another two bores, which discovered the seam now known as Metropolitan Colliery.

Sykes' film begins with the geographical formation of the land and the layers of coal seams in the cliffs along the coast that were apparent to explorers George Bass and Matthew Flinders as they sailed passed the area. But the coal was first put to use by two injured sailors off a shipwreck who, having taken shelter in a cave on the south side of what is now Sea Cliff Bridge, had scraped the coal from the cliff and burnt it in order to keep themselves warm.

While the discovery of coal and the establishment of Metropolitan Colliery (the company is a major sponsor of the film) is an integral part of the film, it is the miners, their lungs dusted with coal, their faces black with grime, who emotionally draw the audience to the story of the town's heritage.

"For me the film became a homage to the pre-industrial miner, those who worked in the mine prior to modernisation," says Sykes. "Generations of men who worked in conditions which by today's standards would not be tolerated."

The start of a new day – Helensburgh miners before a shift in the early 1900s.

The start of a new day – Helensburgh miners before a shift in the early 1900s.

The film is helped along by a docudrama - actors play the role of a coal miner, a miner's wife and mine account clerk. Through their eyes the audience gains a picture of what life was like.

The poverty, often made worse from months of industrial action, strengthens the character of the township where residents learn to rely on and help each other through the bad times.

"There's a lot of layers to the film," says Sykes. "It's entertaining, rather than a complete factual account of the history of the township."

During the Depression many men without work moved their families to Bulgo in the Royal National Park where they built huts and lived off the sea. They survived by supporting each other.

The founder of Helensburgh and the first mine manager, Charles Harper, moved to Camp Creek in 1884. Slowly the town relocated away from Tent City up onto the flat. Homes were built out of slab, stones and corrugated iron.

"Harper was regarded as an enlightened planner. He was a popular, intelligent man and he was sent here to plan the township and operate the mine."

Harper was killed, at the age of 53, in an industrial accident, leaving behind a wife and nine children. Hundreds of people attended his funeral.

While some say the town was named after Helensburgh in Scotland, it was widely believed that Harper named the town after his daughter Helen.

Black in Time is Sykes' fourth film by his production company Film South. It will premiere at the Helensburgh Worker's Club on April 11 and 12. Tickets are $10.

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