By MICK ROBERTS ©
RETIRED coal miner George Forsyth Bryson was described in a story with the Daily Telegraph in 1946 as a short, stocky man, with brown eyes and a cheer-fill grin, looking closer to 30, rather than his 41 years.
The reporter described George as a man you would take to be in the prime of his life, with many years of hard work ahead. But sadly that wasn’t the case. He had dusted lungs.
George revealed how he was “30 per cent dusted” – a result of working almost 30 years in the Corrimal Colliery, on the NSW South Coast. He was on a pension, and was unable to ever work again in the industry. The Telegraph described George as one of the South Coast’s “walking-dead”.
“There are about 1,000 others like him on the southern coalfields, some only 30 per cent, dusted, others 100 per cent, dusted. They’re all ‘on the dust’ — drawing compensation,” the newspaper reported.
The Telegraph talked to George as he tinkered on a motor-bike at his Fairy Meadow home, for which he paid £1 a week in rent. The fact George was working on a motorcycle during the reporter’s visit, was not lost on me. George had a life-long love of motorbikes. In fact, motorbikes, pubs and hooning are what drew me to his story. You see, George became a bit of a legend around Bulli during the depression years as a result of his 1936 New Year’s Eve pub crawl, when he visited hotels at Corrimal, Woonona, Bulli and Thirroul, before stealing a police motorcycle from outside Constable Boyd’s Bulli residence. But, we’ll come to that later.
As I researched George, I realised the Telegraph reporter’s labelling of him as one of the walking-dead was a little premature. He was a fighter – a rebel – who would go on to live into the new millennium and the ripe old age of 94.
Born in 1906, not much is known about George’s early life – or even his parents. From my research, I believe he may have been born in Kurri Kurri, near Newcastle. His birth is not registered. We do know though that George started working in Corrimal Colliery at the age of 15.
“I’ve been in the pits more than 25 years — started when I was 15,” he was quoted in his 1946 newspaper story.
“I worked all the time at Corrimal, one of the worst mines in Australia for dust.”
What we do know about George from newspaper reports of the day, is that as a young man he was never far from trouble – especially when it came to motorbikes and the law.
George had a ‘bung’ leg as a result of a motorcycle accident as a teenager. Appealing the cancellation of his motorbike license in 1937, he told a magistrate how it was essential in his employment as a miner. He explained how at the age of 19 he was knocked down by a hit-run driver and suffered a badly smashed leg. The injury continued to affect him, and he needed his motorcycle to ride to work. He rode the bike right up to the tunnel mouth of Corrimal Colliery. If he walked, his leg would ache and become swollen.
Interestingly, George’s 1925 accident involve a distant relative of mine. George, who was living in Corrimal at the time, was returning from Sydney by motor cycle with Jack Upton, who was in an attached sidecar. As a younger man, I used to mow the lawn for that sidecar passenger – an elderly Jack Upton, who married the sister of my grandmother. But that’s another story.
George and Jack were travelling towards Bulli, along the Princes Highway near Waterfall, in 1925 when their bike collided with a motor car. The young men were picked up unconscious and taken to the Waterfall Sanatorium, where it was found that George had a broken leg and other injuries.
Jack escaped with minor injuries to the leg and hands, and was able to jump on a train home. George though was taken to Prince Alfred Hospital, and the injury to his leg would stay with him for the rest of his life. He must have been well-liked amongst his work mates, as they made a collection on his behalf.
Not long back at work, George came another ‘gutsa’. On November 12 1929 he was thrown from his bike while on his way to work at Corrimal Colliery, and suffered abrasions and a pelvis injury.
George was no angel. He often suited for court to answer traffic infringement notices. At the age of 26, on November 14 1931, he was fined £1, or eight days in prison for using insulting words to Constable Bennett, in Keira Street, Wollongong. He was also charged with riding his motor cycle without a working headlamp, and fined 10 shillings or 24 hours in the slammer.
George wedded Alena Watson in Wollongong during 1934, although married life didn’t seem to slow him down in any way. During 1936, he fronted the magistrates a few times for a number of minor offences, including indecent language and offensive behaviour in Crown Street, Wollongong.
In March George was charged with riding his motor cycle in a reckless manner along the Main Road through Bulli. Like all his court cases, he pleaded guilty.
Sergeant Newland said about 7.45pm on March 28, George was riding his motor cycle with sidecar attached, along the main road; there was a passenger in the sidecar. George was swerving backward and forwards across the road and swinging the sidecar into the air. He nearly knocked down passing pedestrians, the court was told.
When questioned, Sergeant Newland said George appeared to have had a few grogs. He was fined £3 with eight shillings costs or seven days behind bars.
George’s most notorious run-in with the law though came in 1937, when he decided to take the Bulli constable’s motorcycle for a spin.
The Daily Telegraph, which almost a decade later would detail George’s dire state of health, reported on January 16 1937 that he had been charged at Bulli Court with having used a police motor cycle without authority.
On New Year’s Eve George had four schooners and two mugs of beer at Corrimal Hotel; three schooners at the Royal Hotel, Woonona; half a glass of over-proof rum at the Ryan’s Hotel, Thirroul, and a couple of pints of beer at the Bulli Family Hotel, before stealing the cop bike.
Constable Smith gave evidence of finding George at Green’s Pinch on Bulli Pass, at about 7.30pm, after receiving reports that Constable Boyd’s bike had been stolen from in front of his Park Road, Bulli residence.
George, as usual, admitted he had taken the bike, and confessed he had been drinking.
Sergeant Newland gave evidence at his court case, explaining how the bike had been badly damaged, and how it was towed to the Government garage in Sydney, where repairs cost £15 and its transport another £4 12 shillings.
George said he didn’t remember what happened after his New Year’s Eve drinking session, until he regained his senses in the Bulli lock-up.
Ishmael Richards gave evidence of George coming to his home at Thirroul, about, 4pm and when leaving he was well on the way to being drunk, but could ride his motor cycle.
George was ordered to enter into a £20 bond to be of good behaviour for two years to abstain from liquor during that time, and to pay £19 damages.
When the Daily Telegraph came to visit a retired 41-year-old George in 1946, he was living with his wife and two daughters at Fairy Meadow.
“Nearly a year ago I started thinking I was dusted,” he said.
“I went to a doctor, and he had me X-rayed. Later he told me I wasn’t the best, and shouldn’t continue working in the mines.
“What could I do? I’ve been a rabbit all my life, working underground. I’m just a numskull at any other job. So I kept on working.
“Six months later I was worse. Another X-ray showed I was dusted. I went before a medical board and was classed thirty-three and a third dusted. That’s the first stage.
“I can never work in a mine again. I can’t do any other work, because I’m not trained for it. They pay me £3/15/ a week compensation.
“I’ve put in the best 25 years of my life underground, and now I’m turned out like an old horse. And there’s not much feed in the paddock.
“It’s toughest on the wife: She’s the one who has to do the explaining when we can’t pay the bills. And there’s not much left after you pay rent. She’s the one who has to buy the tucker for our two girls.”
The reporter explained how George rolled a thin cigarette and lit it:
Then he began coughing. The spasm lasted about 10 seconds. His voice was faint when he began talking again.
“That’s how it gets’ you, you feel like your chest was in a vice that someone had screwed up one turn too much. If they’d only, unscrew it a bit you think it might be all right.
“You can’t run without losing your breath. You can’t lift a heavy weight. You can’t expand your chest. And cough. You spend half your time coughing.
“A man with dusted lungs is like a man with TB. You live a TB’s life and you die a TB’s death.
“Thank God I haven’t got a son. They say mining is a family occupation, but I’d rather see a son of mine do anything than go into the pits.”
George had another brush with the law in 1954, when he was fined £5 for picking Christmas Bells at Mount Keira. At the time he was reportedly living in Florence Street, Reidtown. His wife, Elena died in Wollongong during 1964, while, despite being ‘dusted’, the old coal miner lived on for another 36 years to see in the new century.
George died on April 5 2000, aged 94. His ashes lay in the Unanderra Memorial gardens, south of Wollongong.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2019