When Bulli residents were going about their normal routine just after lunch 131 years ago they heard an explosion that appeared to come from an area above the school.
What unfolded in the hours and days that followed the tragic event at the Old Bulli Mine has only ever been surpassed by the Mount Kembla Mining Disaster which claimed 96 lives in 1902.
In a booklet about the Old Bulli Mining Disaster written by founding chairman of the Mineral Heritage Sub-committee Stuart Saywell it was revealed the 1887 explosion came only days after miners returned to work from a strike.
Fluctuating coal prices that were affecting miners wages and piece rates.
When locals first heard the explosion they would have had no idea just what a tragic loss of life was unfolding.
Herbert Cope was the sole survivor of the Bulli Mine Disaster that claimed 81 lives.
Tragically what came to light later was that most of the victims probably did not lose their lives in the initial explosion.
It is thought many of them may have died from the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning shortly afterwards.
What will always go down as one of the saddest days in Wollongong history was remembered on Friday afternoon at Saint Augustine’s Church, Bulli where 60 of the miners were buried.
The commemoration co-ordindated by the Black Diamond Districts Heritage Centre was followed by flowers being laid at the Mine Disaster Memorial in Park Road, Bulli.
President Kerrie Anne Christian said every year they managed to make contact with a few more families of decendants to add to the disaster contact list from such a sad chapter in Illawarra history.
And this year was the first time they had one speak at an anniversary service that was to remember and honour those who lost their lives in 1887 and “respect the hardship their families and this community suffered”.
Dan Meehan said he felt honoured to speak and is writing a book after doing so much research into the disaster.
Mr Meehan said the aftermath of the explosion must have been sheer anguish.
“The whole nation was shocked by the fury of it,” he said.
“It was in all the papers, funerals every few hours as soon as a body was identified.”
Mr Meegan’s research for a book he is writing included looking at newspaper articles that featured quotes such as “the mind of the eye-witness recoils at what has been seen, and the suffering”.
The Melbourne Argus reported on the “helpless women and children” and how the working miners who perished were in the prime of their life and fathers of young children.
The reporter also wrote “it is the most appalling work of death yet written in the pages of Australian history”.
Mr Meeham said 31 miners left 30 widows that day and left 117 children with no bread-winner.
His book will be called The Poor People’s Friend and he is interested in speaking to other descendents about what happened to their families in the aftermath of the explosion.
Historian Ron Cairns, author of two books on the history of coal mining in the Illawarra, said it is understood a shot placed in the coal face blew out and ignited methane in the Old Bulli Colliery.
“It would have then charged towards the supply of oxygen..and along the way of course it picks up fine coal dust which is heated and then it explodes. It was an horrific explosion not unlike what happened at Mount Kembla,” Mr Cairns said.
“An horrific part of all that was when the women came to the mine and had to identify the people who were dead.”
Mr Cairns said the effect on families and the whole community must have been overwhelming.
“I can’t imagine how even today you could handle something as huge as that,” he said.
I can’t imagine how even today you could handle something as huge as that. It was just an awful business. How you would ever get through that and come out the other end, I do not knowHistorian Ron Cairns
“It was just an awful business. How you would ever get through that and come out the other end. I do not know”.
Coal mining is in the family for Mr Cairns who had four relatives lose their lives in the Mount Kembla mining disaster 15 years after that dark day in Bulli.
Mineral Heritage Sub-committee secretary Graham Pryor said coal mining 130 years ago was far different to today.
“It was very much pick and shovel work and very physical. Ventilation of the mines wasn’t very good,” he said.
Mr Pryor said many of the improvements that have made coal mining a far safer occupation resulted from the two major disasters 15 years apart in the Illawarra. Which is partly the reason why they remain to this day Australia’s two worst industrial disasters for loss of life.
Between those two events alone 177 men and boys died in less than two decades.
“When there was a disaster like the Bulli explosion it had a terrible effect on the township,” Mr Pryor said.
More than a century ago miners would bore the coal face and use explosives with an open flame fuse to ignite them.
Open flame head lamps, cloth head caps, wooden roof bars and wooden props for roof support were far different to what underground miners experience today.
Mr Pryor said what happened after each disaster was new legislation was introduced to try and prevent similar occurances.
“Some time after the disaster stone dusting was introduced. That is where white stone dust is applied to the surface of the coal mine tunnels and that makes the coal dust incombustible,” he said.
“In the 1930’s the Southern Mines Rescue Station was established. With regard to carbon monoxide poisoning all coal miners these days wear a self-rescuer which is a device you put on your face and you breath through it. It chemically converts carbon monoxide, which is a poisoness gas, to carbon dioxide which is harmless.”
Many major changes occurred in the 1940’s making coal mining far safer and healthier today.
Mineral Heritage Sub-committee chair Andy Hubscher is involved with the Mine Disaster Memorial along with Allan Potter who is the chair of the restoration committee.
Speaking at Friday’s commemorative service Rev Leigh Roberts, of Saint Augustine’s, recalled how many of the miners were sitting in the same church just days before the explosion claimed their lives and what prayers and scriptures were read.
“No one could have known that three days later there would be a disasterous explosion that would rip apart this community killing 81 people,” Rev Roberts said.
Wollongong Lord Mayor Councillor Gordon Bradbery said the impact on the Bulli community at that time must have been huge because so many wage earners for their families were suddenly gone.
Cr Bradbery said it was important to gather and recall such an event and make sure we don’t repeat it “so we have a safer, more secure, caring community”.
Bulli High School students read out the names of 81 men and boys killed 131 years ago. The youngest were 14.
Dark time in Bulli history
Writer and historian Dan Michael Meehan made some startling revelations on Friday during the 131st anniversary commemoration of the Bulli Mining Disaster.
The Illawarra has had the two worst disasters in Australian industrial history and Mr Meehan is the first descendant of a victim from Bulli to speak at a commemoration service at Bulli organised by the Black Diamond Districts Heritage Centre.
At Saint Augustine’s Anglical Church in Bulli on Friday afternoon he said he was suprised to be the first and his two daughters Margaret and Bethany Meehan were moved by his address.
Mr Meehan spoke of how the Bulli mine explosion was a dark chapter in Australian history for more than one reason.
It wasn’t just the loss of life that occurred as a result of the explosion at 2.30pm on March 23, 1887. But what happened afterwards when a generous Australian public donated a huge sum of money to a fund “for the relief of the families rendered destitute by the colliery explosion”. “The money however never came to any of those for whom it was intended,” he said.
After news of the explosion was reported around the national 42,534 pounds was collected. Mr Meehan said an indication of what that money would buy back then was that Bulli Public School was built for 550 pounds.
“This money would have built each of the 81 Bulli families a new home for just over half of the money donated. It was a fine gesture on behalf of the Australian public.”
Mr Meehan said it took an Act of the NSW Parliament in 1910 to get the money released 23 years after the tragic event devastated a whole community.
By that time it had increased to 56,334 pounds which became the NSW Disaster Relief Fund “a bit late for the Bulli families”.
Mr Meehan is a descendant of William Williams whose name is on the Bulli Mine Disaster memorial. Mr Williams was the father of Mr Meehan’s Great Grandmother Charlotte Hobbs who according to family oral history was “thrown penniless into the street”. But that did not stop her 15 years later spending three days helping out after the Mount Kembla disaster by dressing bodies of the dead. That is one of the reasons Mr Meehan is writing a book called The Poor People’s Friend.
He has some idea of how his great grandmother and the family felt after the Bulli explosion. “Coal mining killed my brother Tony in 1978, deep below the earth at Darkes Forest Mine. That is the shaft end of Coalcliff. So yes I do unfortunately know first-hand how families feel when in a mere heartbeat..life is taken suddenly and without warning”.
“We were deprived, just like our anscestors 90 years before, of the time to prepare for the completely overwhelming angst and heartache that befell us. I understand only too well the anguish of this. Imagine then, in 1887, the aftermath of an explosion that killed 81.”
Mr Meeham said 31 of those miners left 30 widows and 117 children with no bread-winner. Five of the men left young widows and many of the victims were single young men and teenagers who left mothers, fathers and siblings to grieve.
- The Mineral Heritage Subcommittee was established in 1987 to research and record the history and heritage of the minerals industry in the Illawarra and surrounding areas.
- The subcommittee has published books on coal mining history and was involved in the WHY Documentaries production of the “Beneath Black Skies” DVD about the history of coal mining.
- An Illawarra Heritage Trail is a virtual tour that also seeks to preserve the history of early industries in the Illawarra for future generations.
- Ron Cairns was the project manager for the historic resource that results in many viewers also choosing to visit some of the actual sites they see on the website such as the Bulli Mine Memorial commemorating the underground explosion and Bulli Miners Cottage.
- Establishing the site was funded by the Illawarra Branch of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM).
- Mr Cairns joined the mining industry himself as an apprentice electrician in 1944 and achieved accreditation as a deputy, undermanager and manager of electrical engineering.
- He was appointed manager engineering, BHP Steel Division Collieries in 1979 with responsibility for engineering at all BHP coal mining operations within the Illawarra and Newcastle coalfields.
- Mr Cairns became a graduate member of AusIMM in 1957 and was Illawarra Branch Chairman in 1958/59.
Illawarra coal mining history:
- The first coal mine in the Wollongong area opened on Mount Keira in 1849.
- After this first commercially successful colliery was established, many coal mines were opened along the seaboard to the north of Mount Keira.
- To transport coal to their customers, some of the collieries constructed sea jetties where ships were loaded.
- Coal was shipped to Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Hobart and shipped to other countries including China.
- Tramways were constructed from the mines to the jetties and skips loaded with coal were towed along the tramway by horses.
- At the jetty, the coal was loaded into a ship.
- The ships transporting coal were called colliers. The early colliers were sailing ships and in later years they were powered by a combination of steam and sail.
- Completed in 1888, the Government Railway constructed a rail line between Sydney and Wollongong which provided safe reliable transport to the Sydney market.
- By the turn of the 19th century 12 mines employed 2,300 men between Mount Kembla to Balmain.
- In 1907 there were 10 coke-making plants operating in Illawarra.
- There was an increasing market for coal to fuel the steam powered ships carrying cargo and immigrants to the NSW colony and an increasing demand for coal to provide steam power in industrial applications.
- The mining communities suffered hardships which included the devastating Bulli Mine Explosion in 1887 when 81 men and boys lost their lives, only to be followed in 1902 with an explosion at the Mount Kembla Mine where 96 men and boys were killed.
- Throughout the years major improvements have been made in an industry that began by mining with a pick and fork and later a pick and shovel, hand boring of the coal face, explosives requiring an open flame fuse to ignite the explosive charge, open flame head lamps, cloth head caps, wooden roof bars and props for roof support.
- These were primitive implements used by the early coal miners, most of whom came from the UK where mining had been practiced for centuries.
- The coal mining industry has made great progress in becoming a safer and healthier workplace.
- We should not forget how coal mining became established as an industry from humble beginnings. That is part of Australia’s history.