Where squalor cankers in the heart of beauty: Miseries of Clifton miners and their ‘kennels’

A REPORTER and photographer from the Sydney Sun paid a visit to the villages of Scarborough and Clifton in 1911, giving a blow by blow description and capturing a glimpse of the terrible conditions the coal miners and their families endured at the time. The following detailed story, in one of Sydney’s most widely read newspapers of the day, no doubt would have embarrassed Bulli Shire Council, and lead to improvements – albeit slow – in living conditions for the people who called the mining villages home. The Sydney Sun reported on January 17, 1911:

Communities in dirt and dismal places

Little children are taught to pray for happier surrounds

This hut was wrecked by the rain on Thursday night. The man asleep there was flooded across the room. All his belongings were washed out, and down the gully. The bedding and some of the man’s clothes are seen in front of the hut, the walls of which were forced off the frame work.

“Heigho, for the wind and the rain, For the rain it raineth every day.”

The old epilogue might have been appositely spoken almost any day last week at any of the South Coast colliery settlements, as vest rolling curtains of thick fog were rung down upon the grim tragedy of existence at those places. It rained every day and every night, and it blew harder than it has ever blown before — so the people declare. Hard, and dangerous, and full of discomforts, the collier’s life always must be, of necessity. But in weather such as that of last week it is almost incredibly miserable — more especially in conditions such as obtain in the South Coast townships. Imagine communities aggregating 2000 or 3000 men, women, and children, existing in places where there is not a decent cottage to be had for money, and where there is no land available whereon these industrious and thrifty people may make homes for them-selves that shall mitigate somewhat the discomforts of their ordinary lives. Imagine these deplorable conditions made doubly hideous by torrential rains, pouring through fogbanks that shroud the drenched earth in darkness at noontide, and one may possibly realise in what wretched circumstances the miners at Clifton, Scarborough, and other of the coastal settlements have existed during the past week or so— and must always exist in any but fine weather. Incredible is by no means too strong a term whereby to describe the deplorable position of these unfortunate people. No one who does not know the facts would ever believe that white human beings could be compelled, in a country like this, to live as these people have to live. The great majority of them possess no comforts whatever. Their lives are devoid of almost every compensating pleasure that makes the lives of other toilers tolerable. They have no gar-dens, no enclosures that they may look upon as their own, and beautify, or employ, to the household profit. They have actually no homes— no places that they could make homes of. There are some few exceptions. But they are scarce. The dirtiest, dingiest slums of Surry Hills or Woolloomooloo can not show such unspeakable hovels as hundreds of the southern district colliers and their families are compelled to herd in. Most of them are not even shelters. Indeed, compared with the misery of everyday existence in such places, the grimy, arduous, dangerous work in the mines must seem pleasant by comparison. There may be something in that fact.

A sanitation movement

Unpleasant effect of the installation of the new sanitary system at Clifton. The ‘conveniences’ are scattered around anywhere amongst the hovels, which are unfenced, and have no privacy whatever.

There has been an outbreak of typhoid down the South Coast lately. And the matter is by no means occasion for wonder. The municipal authorities down south have just inaugurated a new sanitary service. They are compelling its use, too. And the township of Clifton wears a strange and extraordinary appearance today.

In consequence the general style of architecture there is primeval. Huts, built roughly of planks and tin, have been scattered around anyhow, and with no regard for uniformity of frontage. These huts are for the most part in a woefully ruinous state. Like the cottage in the poem, their outsides are old and mean. But, unlike the thatched abode that the poet described, everything within these places is wondrously unclean.

The wind whistles through their cracked sides. The rain beats in and through them. On hot, sunny days they are ovens. But people are living in them— because they must live somewhere, and there is nowhere else. And now each one of those poor hovels has Its j sanitary appurtenance. There are no yards — not a bit of fence of any kind. And the galvanised iron outhouses are put just any where. There are three of them in front of one hovel in which a family of six is crowded. And the stench from these places is at times insufferable. A serious case of sickness occurred at this place lately.

There is a fine new post and telegraph office at Clifton. It is a two-storied structure, of attractive appearance. But grouped alongside it, higgledy-piggledy, is a collection of the worst class of hovels to be found in this country. They must have been a bad enough blot upon the landscape before. Viewed from a distance— a good long distance — they might even have lent something of picturesqueness to the scene. They are ruinous enough for that. But the sanitary conveniences have taken away their picturesque value, and left them a mere hideous collection of foul hovels — the hideousness sharply and conspicuously emphasised by the new sentry-box like structures which are scattered about amongst them. Elsewhere at Clifton there are huts and humpies as bad as those around the fine new post-office — or worse. But the municipal authorities can do but little to improve matters, at present. If they pull these places down and burn the wretched stuff of which they are pieced together, the unfortunate people who inhabit them will be left shelterless. There are no other places into which they can crawl, even. It is a terrible state of things.

Clifton is a very beautiful place. But it is most foully disfigured by about the craziest, ugliest, most ruinous collection of impossible hovels that can be imagined in a clean community. The illustrations can give only a faint idea of the actual conditions. They are in all respects shocking. And the residents declare that no-thing can be done to improve these condi-tions till the Government takes action. Because the parties responsible remain deaf to all entreaties and blind to the pressing necessities of the community.

Sardine Street, Tintown

Single men’s quarters at the South Clifton Mine. The rent is 2 shillings and 6 pence a week.

When a coal miner has finished his “shift” he is always a tired man. Also, he is in-variably too thickly begrimed to sleep un-washed. But it is but small opportunity for washing that many of these toil-worn people have. In what is popularly known as “Tintown,” at Scarborough, there are a number of galvanised iron huts in which the miners live. Those, on the right hand of the “road,” as shown in the picture, are single-roomed. In each of them two men live. These kennels have no floors — nothing but cinders. The fireplaces are just heaps of rough-hewn stone. A couple of rough bunks and a small bench complete the equipment of the places. There is no fence. The huts are jambed closely together, with but afew inches of space between them. There is a rough track in front of them. And there is only a rough, weed-grown rise to the railway line at the rear. They are nothing but kennels, these places, and very untidy, dirty kennels at that. And not the slightest provision has been made for water supply. When rain falls the denizens of these sardine boxes line up all the hollow-ware they possess to catch the water as it flows off the roofs. When the men come “home” to their huts they must go and hunt for water to remove some of the grime that lies thickly upon them. They bail it out of holes, fed by springs principally. And the water that is used by the occupants of the upper huts sometimes flows along, to be used again by the people lower down. It had been raining when “The Sun” representative visited Tintown. The steep “road” was like a rocky trout stream in a mountain district. Its condition is shown in the picture. In all the little hovels there was no comfort, nothing of the kind that makes a home comfortable or attractive — nothing but wetness, and dirt, and misery. In one of the huts were two men, one trying to sleep, and the other making tedious and unsuccessful efforts to prepare a rough meal on a discouraged fire, the smoke from which refused to ascend the low bush chimney. Water from the embankment at the rear was flowing over the cinder floor. To keep sorno part of the floor out of the water, a channel had been cut in the ground from the hole in the back of the hut to the doorway in the front. It was all very, very miserable. And the conditions in all the other huts were the same. Not a vestige of cheer or suggestion of comfort anywhere. And before long these men had to leave their, desolate kennels and go back to their burrowing in the dark bowels of the earth. Straining tired muscles, delving with wearied arms, in the dim light of a lantern that was only a spark in the black-ness, to win for humanity the fuel without which the match of civilisation must stop, and the wheels of industry be heard no more. From the coal pit to the hovel— from the hovel to the coal pit. This dismal routine of tedious discomfort, all that there is in a man’s life! A dog’s life? — No. A dog would not have it. People ask why miners strike occasionally. An that answer to the question why they do not cease work more frequently would be that the conditions at “home” are so unspeakably dismal and discouraging that the blackness and the labor of the pit are deemed preferable to idleness in circum-stances of such discomfort.

The married quarters

The married men’s quarters at ‘Tintown’, below the South Clifton Mine.

On the left side of Sardine-street are larger huts for married men with families. In these places children are growing up. Poor little Australians! What a grievous handicap is theirs! No home comforts, no garden, no hack-yard, even, to play in; none of the surroundings, for them, that educate and elevate a child, and help a nation onwards on the march to progress and enlightenment and prosperity. Nothing but squalor, and such poor, plain comforts as the love and devotion of sad-eyed mothers can supply from time to time. Here, also, there is no provision made for saving the rain water. When it rains out comes all the hollow-ware— tubs, jugs, tins, of all sorts.

Devotion of the women

The women whom fate and the indifference of mankind have doomed to existence in these places, fighting nobly, but almost hopelessly, in circumstances absolutely devoid of cheer or hopes to do their best for those entrusted to them, are all sad-eyed. Their lives know nothing of the sunshine of a clean, well-kept home. The dull cloud that over hangs them, denying them the brightness that is enjoyed by their fellow-women, has no silver lining — as far as they are able to see. When a strike occurs, and the weekly supplies cease, and there are dismal threats to turn them out of the hovels in which they are forced to live — then the fight so courageously and patiently maintained by these self-sacrificing women becomes a sadly hopeless one, indeed.

The problem – and its answer

At the lower end of Sardine-street, with its rocky boulder-strewn waterway of a “road,” I are two little cottages that shine out, as bright exceptions to a rule of drab and dismal dullness. They are plainly built. But they are apart, from the others. They have fences, and gardens, and fruit trees, and greenery growing over their verandahs. And the people in these places do not wear the general appearance of despondency that characterises the rest of the place.

What is the meaning of it? “Well, you see,” said one matron— she actually smiled as she spoke — “we bought this ground many years ago, before it was locked up, and we have made our homes on it.” That was all. And it was so perfectly simple! But the eloquence of the lesson that that simple explanation taught could not be expressed in any terms of speech. “We have made our homes here!” Let the Government of New South Wales take the lesson to heart.

Hundreds and hundreds of toiling men, living like animals, eager to buy land and thoughtfully build pretty homes upon it — homes in which their children might be happy in comfort, and even some of the modest luxuries of life. And not an inch of ground that they may possess in what is almost a virgin wilderness! They must live in the comfortless hovels provided for them — or travel long distances to their employment from places where the owners of the land believe in the right of even miners to possess something that they may cherish and take pleasure in, and turn to refreshingly from the tedium of their everyday work.

This is a serious matter for Clifton and Scarborough and other places where the land is all held by those who will neither sell it that others may build decent houses, nor yet build the houses themselves. When the greater number of the men employed there are compelled to live away — and pay railway fares— It means the loss of hundreds of pounds a week, it is centralisation — on a moderate scale, perhaps, but that is what it is. And Scarborough is one of the most lovely watering places on this continent— and one of the most easily accessible from the capital. But it is not going ahead as it ought to do. The money that it should have is drained out of it steadily. Clifton, also, would be a beautiful resort — but for its awful collection of abominable hovels and the startling effect that its brand-new sanitary system gives those places. And Clifton, also, is showing signs of decay where it ought to be displaying all the evidences of material progress. Also, it should be mentioned, to enjoy the privileges of a home, the miner working on the “locked up” areas has to make other than pecuniary sacrifices. He has to wait as long as two hours for a train, some times. But he has the home, and makes the sacrifices cheerfully. He uses what is called the “paper train” a good deal, and that train travels by a timetable all its own, apparently.

The Government’s responsibility

If it be admitted that it is the duty of a Government to ensure that the citizens of a country grow up in circumstances possible of promoting the growth of a healthy, virile, moral people, the Government of New South Wales has a big responsibility in this matter. The position is, now, that it is not possible for the miners to secure land on which they can erect healthy homes. It is not possible for them to possess adequate sanitary conveniences. The South Coast district is as beautiful as any place yet discovered on this wide earth. Its wealth of ever-varying scenery — Its glorious diversity of entrancing ocean pictures, its towering, mist-shrouded, wooded heights, its splendid beaches, its lovely gullies, filled with rich store of bright ferns and brighter wild flowers — all those things put the South Coast in the front rank of the beauty spots of New South Wales. But, in sharp and awful contract, the people who live in the midst of all this wonderful natural beauty are condemned to an existence of the most extreme squalor and misery imaginable. And there is no hope for them— save in the Government. There is nothing to be done for them— except by the Government. They must stay on, herded together in little tin kennels like dogs— or crowded into crazy hovels of half-rotten boards patched with strips of tin— until the time when the Government shall choose to say: “THIS THING SHALL NO LONGER BE!” And most surely, by every claim that undeserved, unnecessary misery may have upon human sympathy and human pity and human justice, that time must be at hand. It should not be difficult for the shocking conditions here, related to be remedied by legislative means.

There are large areas of land suitable for building held by the colliery proprietors, for which they have no use — and for which, as they quite justly explain, they can give no tenure. That should not be an impossible disability to overcome. But the State has the power to make or vary any conditions in the interests of its people. And where, as is the case in some of these southern places, the disabilities are the result of heartless obstinacy and unconcern on the part of individuals, the State is still all powerful.

Teaching the children to pray

The women of the South Coast districts have for long been making their sad plight a theme of special and earnest intercession in their prayers to Almighty God. They have no longer hopes of succor at the hand of man. It is in the power of the Government to ensure that their pitiful appeals are presently answered. “It has been going on so long— for years and years”— said a wan-faced mother. “And we’ve got so that we don’t hope any more. But we pray for better times, most of us, and we teach the children to pray, too!” Think of the sublime pathos, the wondrous pitifulness of that!


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