Women & Unionism

An artists impression of the blockade at Bulli in 1887

An artists impression of the blockade at Bulli in 1887

By MICK ROBERTS ©

WIVES, mothers and daughters of Illawarra’s coal miners were powerful voices in the great industrial revolution of the late 19th century.

They rallied behind their men folk with unbound enthusiasm showing overwhelming support in the industrial battles of the 1880s and 90s.

Unionism had been around in the Illawarra since 1878 but it was not until the 1880s women made a dramatic enrichment towards working conditions for their sons and husbands.

Violent incidents were common on NSW coalfields, especially against non-unionists. Such incidents often started with women shouting threats and beating tins (tin kettling) or throwing stones, with the men prepared to enter the fray if non-unionists or police challenged the women. Cutting telegraph wires, barricading road and rail, intimidating non-strikers, and tarring and feathering were strategies used by the unionists.

A six month strike from September 1886 to February 1887 at Bulli Colliery protesting a reduction in wages caused great bitterness within the community. Evictions from company houses to make way for “free labourers” brought from Sydney resulted in heated clashes.

Women became involved in the dispute during January 1887 when 40 so called “black legs” arrived by boat at Bulli jetty.

Over 300 unionists and 150 women were waiting at Sandon Point. The free labourers, aboard the company’s coal wagons, were blocked by the angry crowd where the tramway crossed the main road in Bulli village.

The women led the way, some with babies in arms, pleading with the non-union men not to take their husband’s jobs.

While the blockade was a success, with the non-unionists deciding to return to Sydney, the strike failed with many of the unionists returning to the Bulli mine to be killed in a massive methane gas explosion.

One of the 81 killed in the March 1887 explosion was George Ralph, younger brother of 23-year-old Fanny Strachan of Woonona.

Fanny and  John Strachan of Woonona

Fanny and John Strachan of Woonona

Fanny and her husband John, also a miner, had three young children all under the age of 4 when 20 year-old George was killed in the tragedy.

Fanny was born in the fruit growing village of Sherbrooke on Bulli Mountain in 1864 before marrying John Strachan at St Augustine’s Church of England at Bulli in 1884.

By the 1890s the Strachans lived on Bennetts Hill, near the present Woonona Bulli RSL on the Princes Highway, from where John worked as a wheeler at South Bulli Colliery. John, with three young children to feed, decided to risk the consequences of working through a strike at South Bulli pit, along with his father-in-law Thomas Ralph, in 1893. It was a dangerous decision, but times were tough and John, to the great worry of his wife, defied the union.

Trouble was brewing on January 30 1893 when eight or nine union men waited for the strike-breakers in bushes beside the South Bulli incline at 3pm.

Constables Reynolds and Kelly were called to escort several men safely home from their shift and Fanny and her mother Caroline Ralph, who also ran the Black Diamond Guest House, anxiously made their way to the pit to meet their spouses. I

That evening the Strachan home was subject to the traditional tin kettling by local women and children because of John’s actions.

The police were called and three women were charged with riotous behaviour in a public thoroughfare.

Fanny told the Bulli bench of magistrates that her neighbour Mary Baywater, wife of South Bulli miners’ lodge secretary James Baywater, came from her house belting an old kerosene tin with a stick. She was joined by wives of striking miners including Fanny Brownhill and Sarah Moore.

Bennetts Hill, Woonona at about the time the Strachans resided in one of the cottages.

Bennetts Hill, Woonona at about the time the Strachans resided in one of the cottages.

“The tin-kettling was directed to my house because my husband was working. These women played on these tin kettles for half an hour, and when they had exhausted themselves they sent their children to finish it. I heard Mrs Baywater say to some children…‘Go closer with the kettles – right up to the Strachan’s place’. And the children came right up to our place,” Fanny Strachan told Bulli Court magistrates.

One witness said he saw around 25 boys in front of Strachan’s place beating tins that evening.

The three women, defended by solicitor Francis Woodward, strongly denied the charges, but the evidence was overwhelming. They were each fined 10 shillings, with 6 shillings and 8 pence court costs, and 7 shillings professional fee. As was the practice, the fines were most likely paid by the lodge.

Fanny Strachan’s father died in Woonona in 1912 aged 73, while her husband John continued in the industry working in the Old Bulli Colliery stables caring for pit ponies until his retirement aged 58 in 1917. He died at Woonona aged 73 in 1930.

Fanny lived her days out in Bulli continuing her tireless voluntary work for Bulli Hospital and passionately following her love of local soccer.

She died aged 84 at her residence in Hopetoun Street Bulli in 1946.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2014

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