The Collection


A great chunk of modern Australia’s financial story was built on the dreams and determination of early fossickers.

Australia has been blessed with minerals. It has been our saving grace and curse.

The discovery of gold in 1851 changed Australia forever, adding well over a million people in just two gold-crazed decades when the world turned upside-down.

It was also important socially, as the gold fossickers forged an independent working spirit that became a major part of who we are.

It has been said that mateship was born in the tent cities of the goldrush. Diggers needed a mate to work their riverbed patch and, more importantly, when they commenced digging like rabbits, one down the shaft and one at the pit head.

In some ways, the colonial government wanted to suppress the news of gold, for they feared ‘bolters’ would simply up and leave their posts and head out to find their fortune. They had good reason to be concerned as thousands of colonials did exactly that, downing pens and tools and heading inland from Sydney and Melbourne.

As the cry of “Gold!” echoed worldwide, fortune-hunters came from the four corners of the globe, including many who had tried their luck on the Californian goldfields. Most were ill-equipped to travel the distance to the goldfields, many commencing to walk after arriving by ship, with little thought of food and provisions, let alone digging equipment. Tales of desperation and ruination were many.

Tent cities sprung up around the rivers. Some were foolish enough to erect their tents too close to the river bed, not knowing of the dangers of flash flooding. Hopeful diggers found a spot, pegged it out, and started to furnish their tent or lean-to with whatever was available such as buckets, shovels, rope, spare clothes.. and memories of home and loved ones.

Although a certain honour system was maintained, some protected their belongings by chaining fierce mastiffs or bulldogs to the entrance of their tent. Colonials stuck in their groups, Cornstalks here, Croweaters over there etc., as did the various ethnic groups – English, Irish, Danes, Germans, Swedes, French and, of course, the ‘celestial’ Chinese.

In 1853, the first boatload of Chinese miners arrived in Victoria. Between 1854 and 1855, around 31,000 Chinese arrived in the Australian goldfields. To the diggers, the Chinese were everywhere. They were colourfully attired, wore pigtails, built odd-looking temples, spoke a strange tongue and worked like devils. The smart ones opened general stores and tea houses.

The majority of diggers were identifiable by four items of clothing. They had a recognisable ‘look’ topped with a wide-brimmed ‘cabbage tree hat’ made from weaving a native palm that had been washed, dried and bleached. Nearly all diggers wore a kerchief around their necks to soak up perspiration and cover their mouth during dust storms. A bright red shirt was a sign of the times. Red cloth must have been cheap for many reports tell of a ‘sea of red shirts’. They mainly chose red because it didn’t show the dirt and didn’t need as much washing!

The fourth ‘look’ was that of the newly arrived immigrant, commonly called the ‘new chum’. Often these arrivals came in an English gentleman’s look, sometimes complete with a top hat, but it didn’t take long for them to realise such an outfit was far from practical or acceptable in sunny Australia.

The goldfields were extremely noisy places, and the diggers liked nothing better than firing guns into the night skies. Around 9 pm firearms blasted any semblance of silence to announce that diggers were going to sleep – however, shots continued to be fired right through the night. William Lockhart Moreton in Adventures of a Pioneer suggested ‘Every man seemed to think it necessary to discharge his weapon to let his neighbours and all others to understand that he could defend himself.’

If the gold held out the tent, cities evolved into small townships with a general store, coffee tent, printing office, police station and one or two hotels.

The arrival of a bank on the goldfields was especially welcome. Most miners were justifiably paranoid about being thumped on the head and robbed of their gold nuggets. Security was vital but not easy to arrange. Most miners carried their nuggets in a leather pouch until they could arrange to get to the city where they could be melted down and converted to gold sovereigns at the mint. Sovereigns were just as difficult to protect and many miners sewed them into the lining of their coats to conceal them.

At one stage, Australia boasted more gold sovereigns in circulation than any place on earth, including London.

Miners didn’t like bank promissory notes because a bank cheque from New South Wales was not accepted in South Australia, and so on. This was also the case with sovereign coins, inferring that some mints were inferior. Notes were also easy to lose in a flash flood or bushfire. Worst of all, it was believed bushrangers preferred bank notes – because they were lighter!

The gold towns often resembled a wild circus. Animals roamed the streets, especially goats, pigs, chickens and dogs (the roadways were a stinking mix of horse, cattle and other animal droppings). Flies were a dreadful problem.

In larger towns, there were shops of every description from the finest produce to the doubtful. Butchers, for example, hung their meat from hooks on the front of their stores (ignoring the plagues of flies), and bakers offered the plainest of loaves to an impressive selection of fancy bread and puddings.

The gold town of Hill End even offered oysters and other seafood, despite being a long coach ride inland. Ice, transported in special ‘ice ships’ from North America, was loaded on stage coaches and sent to the gold towns for shaved drinks – an expensive luxury. Cafes served tea, coffee and hot meals, depending on availability.

Tent-makers, chandlers, saddleries and blacksmiths supplied the basics – all at inflated prices.
At night the towns swelled with boozers, loafers, quacks and other conmen.

Singing rooms, places where the latest songs were performed in a singalong style, were extremely popular and each town had its local favourites.

Gambling was a major entertainment and fortunes were made, lost and made again. By far the major pastime was drinking – alcohol was everywhere and not always of the best quality.
Chaos ruled as new gold rushes were announced in all the colonies.

Miners had to contend with lean and often dangerous times. Mining licenses created social upheaval and, in Victoria, led to Australia’s most significant early political event when infuriated miners challenged the authority of the colonial government in what became known as the Eureka Stockade.
There was an unwritten law – not to ask too many questions of your fellow diggers. Many had secret lives, some were ex-convicts, and most, when asked where they had come from, would reply with “Down the Lachlan side” or simply, ‘The Mallee.”

When the miners struck it rich, they celebrated – often proving the old maxim: a fool and his money are soon parted. Celebrating miners even ate ‘sandwiches’ using ten-pound notes as filling, washed down with a bucket of French champagne.

The gold rush era lasted until the end of the eighteen-sixties however it was by no means the end of gold prospecting or mining. In truth, the waves of determined diggers had virtually exhausted the alluvial gold by dredging the rivers and scouring gullies and mountains. Digging deeper was expensive and dangerous, and by the 1870s, mining companies had been established to drill, blast and dig deeper into the earth.

Of course, there were other riches to mine and, like moles, we dug deep into the earth for nickel, lithium, iron ore, bauxite, lead and zinc.

Coal was excavated from the earliest days of European settlement.

When the main wave of prospecting passed, there were still thousands of men, and some women, who determinedly stuck to alluvial and small shaft mining. In many cases, these were ‘hatters’ – lone prospectors who preferred to stay away from other folks.

Some were too far gone with the ‘gold madness’ to return to a normal life. There are still such people in Australia today living a scant existence by panning river beds, digging holes like rabbits and believing that a fortune will be found tomorrow.


I have a long-standing interest in mining in Australia. I suspect I was inspired when, as a young lad in the early 1960s, I came across a small pamphlet of songs put together by the British singers A. L. Lloyd and Ewan MacColl. It was titled ‘Shuttle and Cage’ and contained songs from the northern English coalfields. It was also around the time I started thinking about undertaking some song and story collecting in Australia. I was curious as to why there were so few mining songs here, especially since the role of minerals in our history. I assumed, correctly, that the few pioneer collectors like John Meredith and Norm O’Connor, went for the obvious – the bush song tradition, which, by its nature, was primarily concerned with rural pursuits, especially shearing, droving and bush life. When I decided to go bush with a tape recorder the first destinations were mining communities like Cessnock, Kurri Kurri, Lithgow and Kapunda. The more I looked the more I realised we had overlooked our industrial folksongs. Yes, I did collect many songs and ditties and the very first album I produced for my fledgeling Larrikin label was titled ‘Man of the Earth’ and contained mining songs. I kept collecting mining songs and, in 2015, assembled a large book which I called ‘The World Turned Upside-down’, for that is exactly what the discovery of gold did to Australia. I also produced an album of some of the songs, ably helped in the studio by Luke Webb, a fine singer and musician, and Marcus Holden, my longtime music producer and accompanist.

Here are two traditional singers from the Warren Fahey Collection in the National Library of Australia. Both were recorded in Broken Hill, 1973.

  • The Miner’s Dream of Home

It is ten weary years since I left England’s shore,
In a far distant Country to roam.
How I long to return to my own native land,
To my friends and the old folks at home!
Last night, as I slumbered, I had a strange dream,
One that seemed to bring distant friends near, –
I dreamt of Old England, the land of my birth,
To the heart of her sons ever dear!

I saw the old homestead and faces I love – 
I saw England’s valleys and dells;
I listened with joy, as I did when a boy,
To the sound of the old Village bells.
The log was burning brightly,
‘Twas a night that should banish all sin,
For the bells were ringing the Old Year out,
And the New Year in! 

While the joyous bells rang, swift I wended my way
To the cot where I lived when a boy;
And I look’d in the window – Yes! there by the fire,
Sat my parents! – my heart filled with joy.
The tears trickled fast down my bronzed, furrowed cheek
As I gazed on my mother so dear,
I knew in my heart she was raising a pray’r
For the boy whom she dreamt not was near! 

At the door of the cottage we met face to face – 
‘Twas the first time for ten weary years;
Soon the past was forgotten – we stood hand in hand – 
Father, Mother, and Wand’rer in tears.
Once more in the fireplace the oaklog burns bright,
And I promised no more would I roam;
As I sat in the old vacant chair by the hearth,
And I sang the dear song “Home, sweet Home!” 

Refrain – I saw the old homestead, etc.

SOURCE (another version)

Mrs D Clarke, Bankstown, Fahey Collection

  • Don’t Go Down The Mine, Daddy/The Miner

The discovery of gold indeed turned the world upside-down. This song, with its chorus of “Going up to Summerhill, the gold mine for to see” was published in Poems Written in Youth by William Walker (Sydney 1984) with a note that the song was written “at the outbreak of the Gold Diggings in 1851.prog is an early Australian term for food. It was written as a parody of ‘Oh Susannah

Luke Webb sings the title track from the accompanying album ‘The World Turned Upside-down’

The following in the introduction to ‘The World Turned Upside-down’ ebook.

“There’s a hell of a lot of gold in Australia – and a bloody lot of earth mixed in with it!” 

(Quoted by Rad Dawson, Forrester’s Beach, NSW, recorded by Warren Fahey, 1974)

Australia’s first payable gold was discovered by Edward Hargraves at Summerhill Creek, near Bathurst, NSW in 1851. Gold mania immediately swept the colonies. Prospectors cancelled their trips to California and thousands of clerks, labourers and servants ‘bolted’ from their work to head west to the newly named ‘Ophir’ goldfields. “If this is gold country,” said the Colonial Secretary, “it comes on us like a clap of thunder, and we are scarcely prepared to credit it.”

Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Reviewer, established in 1845, always regularly published topical verse and, on 31 May 1851, in an article headed “On the gold-digging epidemic now raging in New South Wales”, it offered this ditty predicting the Australian goldfields would prove far larger than California.

‘It’s Off to the Diggings We’ll Go’ sung by Luke Webb, Warren Fahey and Marcus Holden.

The story of gold mining in Australia has been told many times but this book offers no ordinary facts and figures history – it is more of an emotional history – from the men and women who were diggers or first-hand observers on the goldfields during the 1850s gold rushes and the later company mines. It is also a songbook and assembles many of the early songs circulated through the oral tradition, concert halls, goldfield shanties and published songsters and in reader contributions to newspapers and magazines. Many of these songs are published for the first time.

Australia has been blessed with minerals. It has been our saving grace and curse for centuries. The goldrush of the mid 19th century changed Australia forever adding over a million people in just two decades. It was also important socially as the gold diggers forged an independent working spirit that became a major part of who we now are as a people. Shearers and, later on, coal miners inherited this independent spirit and it resulted in Australia claiming the world’s first democratically elected socialist government.

Today’s Australia is still mineral rich and, thankfully, it has helped us ride through the so-called Global Economic Crisis. We still battle with side issues of workplace relations, environmental sustainability, increasing reliance on partnerships with relatively new partners like China and India, and that age-old balance of who actually owns mineral wealth. It is important we know our mining history so we can properly establish where we are today, and where we should be headed.

In this book, there are some fascinating diary reports from the goldfields, extracted from digitized manuscripts and other print sources. The Australian TROVE project has been digitizing early newspapers and magazines for several years and now offers researchers millions of pages and has been a boon to revealing new material, especially in my folklore work in locating rare songs. Frustratingly the scanning of early printing often results in gobbledygook and one needs to painstakingly correct the type extracts.

Most of the songs in the collection come to us from anonymous writers however there are two exceptional contributors – Charles Thatcher, better known as ‘The Colonial Minstrel’ and Joe Small, a well-known colonial singer and music publisher. The role of these ‘popular’ songwriters and music publishers cannot be underestimated for their songs definitely traveled far and wide. There is some illuminating new insights to both Small and Thatcher including an observation of an actor who worked with him in Ballarat who pointed out that “Thatcher was not much of a singer but hugely popular as a satirist.”

Here is a song about shipping agents, the men who arranged passage on the many ships in and out of our harbours. Some trips were back to Europe, Asia or across to the New Zealand goldfields, or around Australia to a new rush. Some of the unscrupulous agents took advantage of the ‘innocent’ diggers and, after receiving their passage money, were never seen again. Charles Thatcher didn’t hold back in exposing them and you can imagine him belting this one out in a goldfields hotel to the tune of ‘Campdown Races’.

Luke Webb (on banjo) sings Thatcher’s ‘The Shipping Agents’

Wherever possible I have provided traditional tunes for the songs, most of these were specified in the original publication or come to us from versions collected in the oral tradition. A handful are offered as ‘suggested tunes’ having been married to verse by singers in the 20th century. The fact that so many published songs, in newspapers, magazines and songsters, specified traditional airs is a testament to the importance placed on such tunes in the 19th century. There are several databases offering midi files to traditional tunes. I recommend The Digital Tradition. I have also included, where possible, references to Australian recordings, including some of my own, for recorded songs.

There are two aspects of the songs that I would highlight. One is the influence of American minstrel music on our gold songs and the other is the art of parody. Minstrel music was extremely popular in Australia from the late 1840s and became particularly popular in the 1850s and 60s when several major American minstrel troupes, mostly black face, toured extensively. Parody, including parodies based on minstrel songs like ‘Oh Susanna’, had wide circulation and were, understandably, an easy way to get a song to travel. You will also find some good honest doggerel but remember these sometimes awkward rhymes delighted many a lonely miner as he sat by the campfire at night.

Warren Fahey sings ‘The Mines of Australia’, a song he collected in the early 1970s and typical of the mournful verse written by many a dejected digger. One suspects the story was a common one, and not very nice at that!

Two friends travel to Australia to dig for gold but only one, the singer of the song, returns. It appears as a Victorian melodrama of foul play where our remorseful singer has likely hit his friend on the head with a shovel and pocketed his share of the gold. I recorded this song from two singers in the nineteen seventies, Mrs Dee Clarke, Sydney, and Cyril Duncan, Brisbane.

I sailed to the west with a dear pal of mine, 
Each having a share in one claim, 
And taking bad luck as it came with the rest, 
And working on all the same, 
When a cowardly blow struck my pool pal low, 
Who struck him I never could tell, 
But the share of his gold, lays close to my heart, 
For mother and dear sister Nell.

I’m going back to my dear old home, 
Far away over the sea, 
Back to the scenes of my childhood, 
Where there’s a welcome sure for me. 
Many a year has passed away, 
Since I left old England’s shore, 
And may God speed the vessel 
That carries me back 
To my dear old home once more

SOURCE: this version Mrs Clarke. Fahey Collection

Warren Fahey sings ‘Pint Pot & Billy’, a song he recorded from the singing of Cyril Duncan, Hawthorne, Qld, in 1974.

How revealing some of the miner’s diaries are, be they of emigrant’s travelling to Australia, usually with a mixture of trepidation, optimism and fear, or those written in a crude tent, in the goldfields. We are fortunate to have these windows into the hearts of these adventurous people. There are also many reports, personal accounts and reminiscences of colonials observing life on the goldfields – how they travelled, how they lived and their successes and disappointments.

Warren Fahey


Mining has proven to be both a blessing and a curse to Australia. It has put more than a few quid in our national pocket, accounted for our first major population explosion in the 1850s gold rush era, opened up tracts of land previous considered worthless – and made quite a few men (and women) obscenely rich. Striking it rich, by digging into the earth or on the stock market, has nurtured greed and greed usually has consequence. Mining is a big part of Australia’s modern history – even our biggest miner refers to itself, brashly, as ‘The Big Australian’ – but the average Australian remains sceptical and, possibly, hostile, because the folk memory of mining is a litany of struggle, frustration, disaster and grief. 

When I first started to collect oral history, especially old songs and stories, (it was back in the nineteen-sixties), I figured out that these mostly anonymous, seemingly naive ditties, could be seen as ‘signposts’ to our history, pointers to our national identity. Previous collectors, and there had been only a handful since A. B. Paterson published his 1905 Old Bush Songs, had concentrated on our bush songs, recognising a certain urgency to gather the remaining songs about shearers, drovers, bushrangers and, to some lesser extent, the gold rush. These were also seen as popular subjects for the folk-singing brigade of the nineteen-fifties and sixties when folk song attained a certain commercial popularity. When I set out, tape recorder at the ready, I headed for mining towns in the Hunter Valley and then Western New South Wales. Small towns, old communities and, at the time, still active mining centres. I was interested to see if there was an industrial folk song tradition in Australia. It proved to be a rich field and over the years I have collected annotated hundreds of songs related to mining. 

Interestingly, the larger early mining camps like Ballarat, Bendigo, Ophir, Hill End and Braidwood usually had what was described as a ‘singing room’. These were often quite large hotels set up with piano and hotel facilities. Songwriters like Charles Thatcher and John Small would perform songs that told of the miner’s life – the upside and downside. They were raucous joints.

I was also curious about the so-called ‘lust for gold’. Did it exist and did it really drive people crazy. One of my earlier interviews, around 1973, was with an elderly man who had fossicked for most of his ninety-something life. Rad Dawson was typical of early Australians obsessed by striking it rich by discovering a sizeable nugget. He had a keen sense of humour and said, “Warren, there’s a lot of gold in Australia – and a bloody lot of Australia mixed in with it.” The lust for gold was a reality and mining speculation on the stock exchange probably isn’t far removed from the speculation of those early diggers. Some did it with a shovel and others a pen. 

We know the discovery of gold in 1851 sent Australia into manic overdrive adding well over a million people to our population in twenty short years. On the positive side it opened up the country. As the cry of ‘Rush Away!’ swept over the colonies hopeful and, more often than not, hopeless diggers literally raced from one digging to another, sometimes from colony to colony. Small businesses established to service the mining tent cities remained to become the nucleus for a saner, settled community. The roads and then the railways snaked paths to link these growing townships. By hook or by crook Australia was to become a new land. 

The most important aspect of the gold rush was that it saw the majority of men, and it was mostly men, working for themselves for the very first time. Prior to this most men were farm labourers, especially shepherds. Ex Prime Minister John Howard often talked about Australia finding its national identity on the front lines of WW1 but he was wrong. We found our identity on the goldfields of the 1850s. We nurtured mate-ship there too for miners had to work in teams, one down the mineshaft and another at the mine top lowering the bucket. Men had to watch each other’s back as gold was a powerful force and theft, murder and corruption commonplace. 

In my e-book ‘The World Turned Upside-down’, offering my findings on the various gold rushes of the 1850s through to the end of the nineteenth century, I discovered a lot of songs, many published in newspapers, including one which became the title of the book and companion music album. ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ . The song captures the mania created by the discovery of gold in the west of New South Wales. It was originally published in Poems Written In Youth by William Walker (published Sydney 1884) with a note that it was written ‘at the outbreak of the Gold Diggings in 1851”. Interestingly it noted the American minstrel tune ‘Oh Susannah’ as the melody. Minstrel troupes were a popular entertainment on the goldfields and many of their songs became parody vehicles, many addressing miner’s grievances.  

As the alluvial gold petered out around the late 1860s company mines were established to dig deeper down. If the gold-rush towns had problems with disorganised authority, unscrupulous agents and general disorder the mining towns were to see much worse. The miners were no longer independent and were back working for ‘the man’. Mine owners are traditionally seen as villains -and some deserved  the reputation. 

Between 1860 and into the  early twenty-first century Australia witnessed some horrific mining disasters where hundreds of workers were killed, mostly by mine collapses, gas explosion and drowning. Working conditions were unregulated despite an extremely aggressive union movement. The mining unions had learned lessons from the embattled shearing industry, at the time the most important contributor to the nation’s boom ride. They had also learnt from mining experience in Wales, Scotland and England. The then emerging streams of socialism, including the IWW, called for direct action over arbitration. The struggles of the mining unions, especially those involved in coal, are legendary, and bitter. Bitter struggles produce songs and poetry because these are often the only way ‘the folk’ can document their side of the story. They also provide a pressure valve for relieve the frustration – satirical song and verse being safer than physical confrontation.

We now have a catalogue of mining disaster songs that help us understand the struggles in the mining industry. I like to think of these songs provide an ‘emotional history’.

The Eldorado Mining Disaster’ tells of a mine collapse at the Eldorado Mine near Chiltern, Victoria, in 1895, which entombed around twenty miners. Before they faced their death by suffocation the miners scratched messages on their blackened billycans. Ches Dawkins wrote “I am getting faint. No air. God protect me for the sake of my poor children and my wife, Lizzie. Look after them and bring them up good. The money I have in my box and bank be divided with the little ones. Make the best of what I have saved. Kiss them for their poor father’s sake. I forgive all. My love to all that are dear to me. Goodbye, my dearest children.”

The ballad, which relates the agony of the dying miners, came from a broadside printed by James Purtell, and sold for one-penny through news agencies to financially assist the distressed families. I was given the song by Lithgow coal miner Jack Mays in 1973. 

Tragedy and despair may appear strange bed-fellows for music but history has shown us that such songs and stories can live on in the folk memory. Modern-day entertainment has generally put the kibosh on such oral circulation – but not entirely. The collapse of the Beaconsfield Mine in Tasmania in May 2006. was like no other mining disaster in Australia’s history. To use the description ‘media circus’ would be an understatement. Of the seventeen people who were in the mine at the time, fourteen escaped immediately following the collapse, one was killed and the remaining two were found alive using a remote-controlled device. These two miners were rescued on 9 May 2006, two weeks after being trapped nearly a kilometre below the surface. As a folklorist I was interested to track how this disaster would see the creation of folklore. The likelihood of songs being written were slim yet there was at least one – written by (Dave Grohl) and performed by the Foo Fighters.

Foo Fighters. Ballad of Beaconsfield.

There was also a musical based on the event however, because of the outcry, it was shelved. You can watch a clip on the reaction the idea caused. 

Beaconsfield: The Musical by Dan Ilic. 2008

What Beaconsfield did create was humour. I had tracked several disasters including Cyclone Tracey, Twin Towers, Bali Bombing and the Tsunami and all produced humour in the form of photo-shopped cartoons and photographs, jokes and even knock-knock jokes. These were primarily circulated via social media and Facebook in particular. My interest was in assessing how long after the actual disaster did the humour appear and what role did it play in receiving public stress. There is no doubt that humour is a valuable mechanism to release distress over such disasters. It is, of course, a relatively new form of folklore. It took about two weeks after the Twin Towers attack for the jokes to flow, and a similar lapse in the Beaconsfield collapse. It is almost akin to the old bush pioneers who routinely got wiped out by the cycle of floods, bushfires, droughts etc and their only response was to shrug their shoulders, mutter ‘Well, you might s well laugh’, and continue on. The almost 24 hour media coverage of modern disasters adds to the shock and community ownership. After an unwritten time the community realises it has to move forward. Humour helps us move forward.

One of the most fascinating stories from our mining heritage came from Lithgow and concerns a strike in 1911 at the Hoskin’s Mine. Somewhat ironically set to the tune, ‘When The Sheep Are In The Fold, Jenny Dear’, the song tells of a lengthy strike that tore Lithgow apart setting families against families as desperate workers struggled to survive without work. The introduction of scab labour fuelled the fires further. The miners had asked for an increase of tuppence a tonne and the  mine owner, Charles Hoskins, foolishly retaliated by reducing their rate by tuppence. Each day as the scabs arrived to work the mine the Lithgow miner’s union brass band would greet them and play the ‘Death March’. After a couple of month’s, emblazoned by their success in keeping the mine going, the scabs started to dance to the music. All hell broke loose. The miners raced down for the biggest Donnybrook of their lives, locked the scabs in the boiler room, torched Hoskin’s new T-Model Ford and then turned their attention on the police. All ideal fodder for folksong.

Man of the Earth. The first release on Larrikin Records

I collected this song from Jack Mays, Lithgow, 1973, and recorded it the following year for the first album to be issued on my Larrikin Label, Man of the Earth was the first recording of Australian industrial folk song to be released.

In the Hunter Valley I found Jock Graham, a retired miner who had lost his leg in a mine collapse.  

JOCK GRAHAM, miner and songwriter of ‘Man of the Earth’

A  prolific poet Jock was a solid union man who dreamed of a socialised coal industry. He had seen it all including the Rothbury revolt where miners stood up to the Government and a young miner, Norman Brown, shot dead by the police. Jock wrote songs about the miner’s life that rang with the truth. It was his poem ‘Man of the Earth’ that I used for the title of that first Larrikin album. The song still sends  shiver down my spine some thirty-five years later. 


By profession and birth, I’m a man of the earth,

I dig in it like a mole;

I dig it and drill it, and blast it and fill it

For that great commodity coal.

To some I’m a brave man, to others a knave man

Who’s putting the land in a hole;

A strike and attack man, a black and a slack man

Who plunders the country of coal.

It’s narkin’ at times to be blamed for their crimes,

And placed in a villainous role

Invented by story, press, jury and tory,

The profit-made agents of coal.

No story of men who are suffering pain;

Of heroes who starve on the dole;

Nought written or spoken of hearts that are broken:

The windows and orphans of coal.

The court is the gauge which determines my wage,

The parson looks after my soul;

My hands are my boss’s, his gains are my losses;

By body is bartered in coal.

The gaps in our lines: ‘Red Rolls’ of the mines,

Show death has been takin’ his toll,

While snipers at maimed men and dead men and famed men

Grow fat on the blood of the coal.

Yet through muck and mire and lung-dust and fire,

More clearly I’m seeing my goal:

Of diggin’ and drillin’ and blastin’ and fillin’

Supplying a socialised coal.

Blood on the Coal

You’ve learned to know the miner—the “black” man, the “slack” man.
But come with me below ground and amid the sweat and stress,
And watch him at his hard work, his drill work, his skilled work,
See for yourself his true life before you read your press.

Come down and breathe the dank air, the foul air, the rank air;
Fill up your lungs with coal dust, disease dust, for proof;
Come down and see the ‘slave’ man, the cave man, the brave man
Risk life to save his mate’s life beneath a falling roof.

Learn of the grim disasters, the churned up. the burned up:
Go seek the mining churchyards and count the growing roll;
Weigh justice then, so feted, so treated, and meted
Against the dark stain spreading, the blood upon the coal.

You’ll see conditions slipping, through tricking, pin-pricking;
The guilt with which he’s burdened you’ll place where it belongs;
And you will be a just man. a fair man. a rare man,
If you’ll raise coal production by righting miners’ wrongs.

SOURCE Jock Graham

Down Below

(Jock said Hilda Lane wrote some music for this one)

Where the shaft is yawning deep;
Where the pent-up gases seep:
Where Death’s dangers soundless creep,
Down, down below;
Where the young earth’s ancient bed
Hangs as tombstones overhead,
‘Mid the memories of our dead,
Down. down below.

Death is sorrow long to wear;
Tyrants’ hands are hard to bear,
Still the union’s strength is there,
Down, down below-
Unity our ranks will close,
Hearts will beat as hammer blow.
Smashing Peace and Freedom’s foes,
Down, down below.

Ere we passed through Eden’s gate,
Coal was formed to seal our fate
And through the patient eons wait.
Down, down below
Shame will sink with bygone years,
Tortured toil and fettered fears,
As the grand new day appears,
Down, down below.

Long the Red Roll, wide and long,
Of the brave, the kind, the strong,
Still we sing a rousing song,
Down. down below.
Rising up and over strife,
Over grief and trouble rife—
Mateship builds a better life,
Down, down below.

SOURCE: Jock Graham

Song Of The Coal Miner

Tune: Come Fill Up Your Glasses

I carried my swag through Australia’s out-back,
And between cane and shearin’ I lived on the track;
I once shared your coal dust, your danger and fear,’
And I haven’t met miners for many a year.

Then fill up your glasses and have what you want,
A toast to the miners I’ll say:
Here’s an end to the toll in the miners’ Red Roll. . .
I’m the man you don’t meet every day.

Down mines in the bush, in the mountain and hill,
Miners cut, bore and blast, and they timber and fill’;
They labour and strain and they send coal ‘out-bye”,
And the Red Roll is waiting for miners to die.

We once cavilled pillars in the three-panel west,
And we set up our long props as good as the best:
She was laggin’ a little way back in the gob,
And the deputy came and he OK’d the job.

The roof it caved in with a thunderous roar,
And it crashed on my mate and buried him o’er
I left with my sorrow and nothing could sate;
But a miner can never forget an old mate.

I swear now to work for the miners ‘in-bye’,
Till no danger is left by which miners may die—
Oh, perhaps there’s amongst us we’ll never see more,
So, let’s drink all our healths with a full bumper more.

SOURCE Jock Graham. Fahey Collection

Obviously not all so-called ‘folk songs’ are anonymous and several mining songs can be attributed to known authors. This has not prevented these songs from entering into oral circulation and that’s where they legitimately get tagged as folk song. Often such songs get changed as they are passed down the line. Once again this is a feature of folk song. The late poet and playwright, Dorothy Hewitt, wrote a poem in the 1960s about the 1929 Rothbury Coalfields Riot and the tragic death of a coal miner picketer Norman Brown. Mike Leydon put the words to an equally stirring tune and that song, simply titled ‘Norman Brown’, has seen continued circulation and refuses to disappear. I recorded a version in 2010 which, I hope, does the two creators justice and helps commemorate a dark side of our mining history that should never be forgotten.

Up in Broken Hill, a city built on mining, I found another example of bitter union and company fights. The Matron at the base hospital, Mrs Frances McDonald, had a family background in an early union struggle that resulted in a prolonged strike in 1918. Scab labour was brought into the then small community. One of the locals who voted to side with the scabs, he becoming a blackleg, was named Bailey. Showing that simple twists of a well-known song can be an effective tool in class warfare, the locals took to singing:

Won’t you come home Bill Bailey, 

Won’t you come home?

I moan the whole day long,

I’ll do the cookin’, honey,

I’ll pay the rent,

I know I’ve done you wrong etc etc

There wasn’t even the need to localise or change the words. The singing of the song, loaded with venom, was enough to ridicule and taunt Bailey.

Mrs McDonald also knew the famous song ‘Don’t Go Down The Mine, Dad’ however she had joined it with another song, ‘The Miner’.

Fred Bartley, also in Broken Hill, recalled Bailey and another scab named Packer. He remembered a parody of ‘Only a Button Between You and Disgrace’.


He was caught in the big mine office,

Surrounded by police and scabs.

He gazed out into the township

Watching the trams and cabs.

Then came the relief of pickets,

And up went cheer after cheer,

And the band it struck up ‘Bill bailey’

And he fancied he could hear:

You are a scab, a loyalist to the mine,

You scabbed on your workmates

By not falling into line.

You drive the big mine lorry,

You bend your head in shame,

You’re afraid to look at your workmates

And Packer is your name.

and here’s another of Fred’s strike songs
Tune: Casey Jones

Scab’s Hymn

On the seventh day of September we called a one-day strike
As a protest ‘gainst the censor Lieutenant Colonel Dyke,
But Blue Whiskers, the double scab, with legs upon his chest,
Was not prepared to stop away for one day’s rest.

Blue Whiskers kept his popper running,
Blue Whiskers scabbed a second time,
Blue Whiskers got a wooden medal
For scabbing on the diggers at the Central Mine.

The unions got together and said it wasn’t fair
For Blue Whiskers to go around a-scabbing everywhere.
The ‘Wobblies’ union local number two, they were sure there
And they threatened to throw ‘Bluey’ down the Central stair.

Blue Whiskers will hit the bottom flying,
Blue Whiskers will break his scabby spine,
Blue Whiskers will fire in his alley
And he’ll do no more scabbing at the Central Mine.

NOTE:This song is related to the IWW song composed by Joe Hill but, of course, it has been localised. I assume that ‘Blue Whiskers’ was so nicknamed because he had red hair. The song is anonymous and was collected in Broken Hill in 1974 from a manuscript. It was common to refer to scabs as having ‘legs upon their chests’
as in parasites such as fleas or lice.


FRED BARTLEY, Broken Hill . 1973. Fahey Collection

The Man That Works in the Mine
(Tune: Mansion of Aching Hearts)

You can go down the streets of the Barrier each day
And gaze at the grand things around,
See people in cars with jewellry and fine clothes
That no doubt cost many a pound.
On the edge of the footpath a man sits alone
With face all drawn, haggard and grey,
Just ask who he is—that wreck of skin and bone,
And lo, to one you’ll hear them say:

He’s a man that works down in the mine,
Down in the struggle and strife,
Swallowing lead to earn bread
For his poor children and wife.
He’s a man that is hounded from pillar to post,
He’s a wreck before reaching his prime,
All broken and maimed while the boss reaps the gain,
He’s the man that works down in the mine.

Just take a quiet walk ’round our city so fair
And see the fine buildings in town;
There’s no need to ask who put them there
It’s the man that works under the ground.
Then see the fine homes where the dear master lives
With tennis court, carriage and pair.
Go round on the outskirts, see the tumble down homes,
Go inside and see what you’ll find there.

A man who once worked in a mine,
Down in the struggle and strife,
Broken in health to produce wealth,
For masters he’s given his life.
His work days are over; his strength has all gone;
His kids must go on the breadline
For they’ve cast him aside, on the scrap heap to die,
The man that worked down in the mine.


Georgre Hibberd, Broken Hill, 1984 (corro). Fahey Collection

Note: This was by George Hibberd, a retired Broken Hill miner who had this item as a manuscript. Collected, by Warren Fahey in 1984, via his cousin who was headmaster of the BH High School.

I prefer to use the term ‘story song’ which, to my mind, allows me to differentiate them from what I would call commercial songs. It also avoids the term ‘folk song’ which, sadly, now carries far too much baggage. It is a difficult line and at the end of the day it probably doesn’t matter except my experience has shown the more naive and traditionally based the song, the greater the intensity. Of course the dramatic changes in our entertainment patterns – especially since we have become a nation of people who get entertained (typically by the electronic media) rather than one which entertained itself – has affected the transmission of songs and, to some extent, stories. This can be seen in the way newer songs are circulated. In the 1970s through to the nineties songs about off-shore gas and oil mining were popularised by circulating leaflets, having singers perform at rallies and having songs published in radical newspapers and songbooks. The Builder’s Labourers Songbook, published in 1975 by the radical Victorian branch of the BLF, was typical of such publishing and reprinted rallying songs like ‘Down With Esso-BHP’ with its first verse and chorus parodying the popular song ‘I Will If You Will, So Will I’:

Oh the tycoons in the boardroom said “Okay.

We will build a pipeline right across the bay,

It’s our modern contribution,

To industrial pollution

With the compliments of Wall Street, USA.”

So it’s down with Esso-BHP,

Oh, it’s down with Esso-BHP,

We’re a wake-up to your capers,

With your dredgers and your scrapers,

So it’s down with Esso-BHP.

I must admit to writing and singing one of these songs myself! I have a mate, a farmer on the Blackall Plains, near Quirindi, NSW, who has been a longtime battler against miners, especially BHP, and State Governments determined to mine on his family property. It just didn’t seem right and on a visit in 2008 I must have been in a whimsical mood and penned a parody on the old song from the musical ‘Oklahoma’ – ‘The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends’. I changed it to ‘The Miner and the Farmer Should Be Friends’. It was published on the Union Songs website as a matter of record.

The Farmer & The Miner Should Be Friends.

(Tune: She’ll Be Coming ‘Round The Mountain)

The Farmer and the Miner should be friends. Farmer and the Miner should be friends. ‘Cause they both slave, sweat and toil,  Both dig the rich black soil, Yes, the Farmer and the Miner should be friends.

The Miners they know lots about the land. The miners they know lots about the land. How to leech it, and bleach it.  And even try and pinch it Yes the miners know lots about the land.

The Farmers they are born of the Land, The Farmers they are born of the Land, They’ve fought drought, floods and fires, Now they’re fighting boardroom liars. Yes, the miner and the farmer are at war.

The farmers and the miners are at war, The farmers and the miners are at war, Just to keep their family stations, They’re forced to fightin’ corporations. Yes, the farmer and the miner are at war

The miners all have healthy appetites, The miners all have healthy appetites, They snap, wheeze, gulp and swallow, Any farm where they can wallow,  Yes the farmer and the miner are at war

The Miners keep saying all’s okay, It’s important to the nation that they stay, But the buggers are not grazing, They are badly misbehaving Yes the farmers and the miners are at war

It’s David and Goliath at war again, It’s David and Goliath at war again, The Big One is a bully, with determination fully, Focused on the company’s endless bottom line, But the farmer and the miner should be friends

The Farmer is a cog in the big wheel, The Farmer is a cog in the big wheel, is nice for power and heating, But it fails when it comes to eating. So the farmer and the miner should be friends.

The miners they all have greedy appetites, The miners they all have greedy appetites, They want all the land and water, And they’d even take your daughter, No, the miners and the farmers are at war.

So how do we resolve these men of war? So how do we resolve these men of war? Give them tickets to a show? is that the way to go? No! the answer’s the real value of the soil. No! the answer’s the real value of the soil.


Farming folks should stick together, Farming  folks should all be pals. Miners dance with farmer’s daughters, Farmers dance with the miner’s gals! Not bloody likely!

Warren sings John Dengate’s brilliant song ‘Thanks to the Yanks’

Humour, albeit loaded with sarcasm, can be a useful tool for the songwriter attempting to convince others about the eternal question of ‘who owns the minerals under the ground?’. The late John Dengate, a Sydney wit and singer, always ready with a parody, wrote ‘Thanks To The Yanks’ in the 1960s. Here’s a few verses to reminder to us all that times do not change.

Thanks To The Yanks

We’re happy little Aussies and we’ve lots of wealthy mates,

The money they’re investing here puts food upon our plates.

They’re mining in the temperate and in the torrid zone –

Because we can’t be trusted to do it on our own.

Thanks to the Yanks for drilling all the oil;

You’ll find us very grateful and you’ll find us very loyal.

Pray, send us lots of capital and lots of expertise

And send across the CIA to keep us on our knees.

Some people say uranium’s too dangerous to touch,

Huh! The conservation lobby’s always talking double-dutch;

The stuff is really harmless, Lang Hancock told us that

And he’s too rich and clever to be talking through his hat.



Listen ye sons of this land of corn & wine
To the song of the olden times-all of Burra Mine
When with bullocks & drays the heavy loads
Were carted all along its hard & dusty roads
Six times & all had we encamped one night
Near the Kapunda mine just by the River Light
There was Charley, the Frenchman & Yorkie & me
Sliding Bill & two others, all bent on fun & glee
One Johnny from Gawler, who was as good as a blade
As ever whip upon the hack of a bullock team had laid;
With Pat, from dear old Ireland, that happy home of cheer
Who could ride the young buck jumper with a cry of “Look out here
And the singing & the jesting went merrily around
Until the hill tops of the light re-echoed with the sound
The grog passed in a tin pannikin there
In a way & manner to make poor Good Templars stare
For Charley played the fiddle & Paddy all the while
Gave us “Finnigan’s Wake” just in a proper style
Till the curlews note was heard in wild & weird like cry
& the scared opossums scaled the gumtrees hard by
So we kept up the night with laughing & with fun
Till the small hours began to ring until the clock struck one
Then round the fire we slept & never opened an eye
Till the bright sun in the east illuminated the sky
Then up we rose and merrily into our toil once more
We laboured on with right good will as cheerful as before
And now the season has passed by, yet be the story mine
To tell how we carted copper from the Burra Burra Burra Mine

Source: From a SA Newspaper April 1880
Copper mine

The Miner‘s Song.

Pick a little,

Dig a little,

Make a little hole.

Sink a little,

Drive a little,

It’s better than the Dole.

Pan a little,

“Speck” a little,

“Colour” here and there.

Sweat a little,

Swear a little,

Gold ain’t EVERY-where.

Never get downhearted,

Keep your faith each day,

At the final clean-up

You will get your pay.

Gabriel runs the Stampers,

Peter cleans the Plates.

Dividends are handed out

At the Golden Gates.


Western Mail (WA) August 1936

Jim Champion and Jack Mays were retired Lithgow miners. I interviewed them about the ‘bad old days’. They told me in 1973 that: ‘Miners were a dying race that had been killed off by the system. In the old days we worked hard and played hard and there was real comradeship with the Lithgow miners because the mine owners also owned the town—lock, stock and barrel. Music was very important to our community and we loved to hear songs, poems and stories about miners. It made us feel as one.’

The following came from Jim.

Two Miners’ Toasts

May God above send down a dove
With wings as sharp as razors
To cut off the lousy bastards’ heads
That lowered the brace boys’ wages.

Not a penny off our pay
Not a minute on the day
Two quid on the pay
And a shorter working day!

In The Coal Mine

God! You don’t know what it is—
You in your well-lit sky,
Watching the meteors whizz,
Warm, with the sun always by.

God! If you had but the moon
Stuck in your cap for a lamp
Even you’d are of it soon,
Down in the dark and the damp.

Nothing but blackness above
And nothing that moves but the cars
God! If you wish for our love –
Fling us a handful of stras.

Note: Jim added “Oh, lots of local miners knew that one. Fahey Collection.

The Colliers’ Strike Song
   A Song by Melinda Kendall 1885 (Melinda Kendall was the mother of Australian poet Henry Kendall)

   Come all ye jolly colliers, and colliers’ wives as well,
   And listen to my ditty, for the truth I mean to tell;
   It’s of a colliers’ wage dispute, is the burden of my song;
   I mean to cheer you up, if it won’t detain you long.
   For masters they are grumbling, in country and in town,
   They want to starve poor miners, by cutting wages down;
   But if you stick together, and every one be true,
   You are sure to be triumphant ­ singing cock-a-doodle-doo.

   For masters they are grumbling, in country and in town,
   They want to starve poor miners, by cutting wages down;
   But if you stick together, and every one be true,
   You are sure to be triumphant ­ singing cock-a-doodle-doo.

   The miners of Mount Kembla, oh! loudly how they shout
   Against this drop of ten percent, they’re right without a doubt;
   In this happy, glorious country, man is treated like a Turk,
   Where the masters get the profit, and the miners get the work.
   We only want fair wages, we only want fair play,
   We know we ought to have a good dinner every day;
   But what are we to do when the butcher he comes round,
   If we let our masters drop two shillings in the pound.

   Just ask a blessed woman what she is going to do,
   From the present price of wages we cannot save a screw
   With a lot of little children, with pieces, hungry teeth;
   If they drop our wages, they must also drop the price of beef.
   For every woman knows the task she has to meet,
   With a lot of little mouths, and nothing much to eat;
   But it can’t be very different, it’s very plain to tell,
   Where the masters get the oyster, and the miners get the shell.

   I would have you stick together, and have a good go in,
   Be true to one another, and I’m sure you’re bound to win;
   Though money is so valuable ­ and so is labour, too
   The working man is worth whatever he may do.
   And I hope that every woman will tell her husband too;
   She will do her very best to help him to keep true;
   They will be sure to raise the wine, and make the masters say
   “The devil’s in the women, for they never will give way.”


Illawarra Mercury, October 3, 1885

Both Jack and Jim had worked the Lithgow mines all their lives and on the tapes they explain the old system of coal mining and also, in detail, the various words that have mostly passed out of local use. They are extremely descriptive and the tapes are recommended for anyone interested in the coal industry and word usage. They also lived through the 1930s Depression and Jack described his life in some detail and especially how his wife sent him out to work each day with a brown paper bag sandwich. When I asked where he had got work he shyly explained how he didn’t. He would go and hide in the scrub outside of Lithgow and come home each night – so the neighbours didn’t pity the family since they didn’t have anything to spare either! He also explains the story of the Hoskins Strike in 1911. It was from Mr Mays that I got the songs ‘When You Give That Tuppence Back Charlie Dear’ and ‘The Lithgow Strike Jingle’ – both about the Hoskin’s strike.

When You Give That Tuppence back, Charlie Dear

Tune: When The Sheep Are in the Fold, Jenny, Dear

It is strike time in the dear old Lithgow Valley,
The men on strike intend to do their best,
A few scabs round the tyrant seem to rally –
But there’s not a spark of manhood in their breast.

When the tyrant said he’d take them down for tuppence
Like a spirit each man seemed to disappear
As they said, “Farewell, they added, we’ll return again
When you give that tuppence back Charlie dear “

When you give that tuppence back, Charlie, dear,
We can then return to work with conscience clear.
But as heaven’s sky is blue
We will never work for you
Til you give that tuppence back, Charlie, dear.

As we wander up and down old Lithgow Valley,
The scenes of strife and want must give us pain,
Standing for their rights like men of honour –
Let us hope the struggle will not be in vain.

Then we wander down the roadway to the furnace,
And it makes us sad to see scabs working there –
They’d be better in the churchyard safely sleeping
Instead of being scabs for Charlie, dear.

SOURCE: Jack Mays & Jim Champion, Lithgow 1973

Fahey Collection

Jingle on the Lithgow Ironworks Tunnel Struggle

Some people say that Lithgow is now noted for its strike,
And that to break the unions up is capitalistic skite.
Oft has a ruthless master tried on this cruel ‘gag’,
But when the ‘screw’ was on the men, he ran against a ‘snag’.
The present trouble had its birth quite early in July;
When miner Caims asked to get off, the boss made no reply.
He went and did his duty, and when he sallied back
The boss said: ‘Here, you can’t go in, for you have got the sack.’
The chap was taken back a peg, but not dismayed was he,
And turned round to his mates who said; ‘Cheer up, old man, we’ll see.’
Now, these are men with humane hearts, who stand by one another;
They tried to patch the matter up without industrial bother.
With this in view, they sought the man who made the first big

He would not listen to their tale, go ‘down below’ he’d sooner.
Then came the head ‘boss money bag’, and broke a savage grin;
He said: Til take the twopence off and then you may go in.’
‘Not we’, the sturdy man replied, “we’ve not come here for sport;

Before we sacrifice our rights we’ll let it go to court.’
The pit was stopped, the men were off to please a stubborn will,
Tis said that volunteers came forth—’twas rather a command,
And soon a score of weak-kneed chaps took on the ‘scabby band.
To make things better for the fight they called on worthy Owens
To cut some coal, but he, for one, gave in his answer ‘no’.

Then as the true men left their work, with each succeeding shift,
The policemen came along and said, ‘For you I’ve got a “stiff”.’
But some there were who crawled about, their billets to retain—
Such ‘scabs’ as these may never hope for man’s respect again.
A pity ’tis there are such men to stoop to things so mean:

To gratify the ‘money bags’ they make themselves unclean.
But this did not undo the men, to principle so true,
Who oft escorted down the street some of the measly crew.
The poor clerks too, in raiment fine, were called to help the mob;
With aching backs and blistered hands they broke a little gob.
And when they thought the workers’ homes were short of bread and

The press was full of master’s mag—the men stood by the guns.
Still, this is a Christian land, where men kneel oft and pray:

Two hundred to the organ fund—the men may go to hell, eh?
And when the parson sues for peace that understanding passes,
The rich ride home in motor cars and dink the champagne glasses.

Here luxury and ease abound, and much congratulation
That they’re not like the men who strike for better situations.
And all this trouble is for gold, that goeth not to grave;

This is their god, and not the One who sent His Son to save.
Then brothers, wives and children, dear—who sigh to see such greed,
Stand by your precepts—living wage; life’s sunshine’s what you need.
Be sober, honest, worthy men, and let conviction rule,
But never, never have it said you’ve been a tyrant’s tool.


Jack Mays, Lithgow, Fahey Collection.

One of the most biting Australian songs tells of the Hunter Valley and Newcastle’s relationship with the Great Depression. Written in the 1960s it is still sung.


On an island in a river
How that bitter river ran
I grew on scraps of charity
In the best way that you can
On an island in a river
Where I grew to be a man.

For dole bread is bitter bread
Bitter bread and sour.
There’s grief in the taste of it
There’s weevils in the flour
There’s weevils in the flour.

And just across the river,
Stood the mighty BHP. 

Poured pollution on the water

All the lead of misery

And its smoke was black as hades

Rolling hungry to the sea.

In those humpies by the river

We lived on dole and stew

While just across the water

Those greedy smokestacks grew

And the hunger of the many

Filled the bellies of the few. 

On an island in a river

How that bitter river ran

It broke the banks of charity

And baked the bread of man

On that island in a river

Where I grew to be a man. 

For dole bread is bitter bread
There’s weevils in the flour
But men grow strong as iron upon
That black bread and sour


Written by Dorothy Hewitt & music Mike Leydon

Sadly, there are several songs about mining collapses. The following tragic ballad was published and sold at news agencies and throughout mining communities, to raise funds for the orphaned families.

The Eldorado Mining Disaster

Tune: Balaclava

With sorrow we remember, the middle of July,
When those six noble miners were all destined to die.
Hemmed in beneath the surface, no power on earth could save,
For no one could approach them, down in their living grave.

Oh, ’tis a touching story; the loss we all bewail;
Extremely sad to hear it, this true pathetic tale,
How those poor fellows perished on that eventful day,
We mourn in sorrow for them all, now silent in the clay.

Poor Kneebone suffered dreadful, crushed up against the wall
(Beyond all recognition) – the saddest fate of all
Oh God, he must have struggled, for freedom, all in vain!
But death soon lent a kindly hand, relieving all his pain.

Oh, how they must have suffered, locked in that dismal tomb;

All huddled close together, they met their fearful doom.
Just contemplate their feelings, all raving in despair,
As they were slowly dying for want of food and air.
Their thoughts of home and mother, their friends so true and kind,
Their wives and little children, whom they would leave behind.
Their last words were in prayer, all praising God above,
As each one wrote upon his can a message full of love.

Repeat chorus:

Poor Dawkins died a hero, a brave courageous man;
Just listen to the touching words he wrote upon his can:
God help my little children, and keep them from all strife;
And God be kind to Lizzie, my fond and loving wife.
What money I have in my box, please go to it and take,
And kiss my little ones for me, their own dear father’s sake.
Give love to my poor mother, and tell her not to cry;
And write and tell that dear old soul the cruel death I die.


Recorded Lithgow, 1973  Fahey Collection

After an ABC broadcast Mrs Clarke contacted me to say she had a very old song that thought I might be interested in hearing. The song is an old song that was in circulation in the 1860s goldrush period. A sentimental tear-jerker. I included it on ‘Man Of The Earth’ recording.

Further research has shown that this song was written by George Le Brunn and Walter Hastings around 1890. The song refers to an old English custom of taking a small caged bird down into the mine – it was used as a precaution for ‘bad air’ and if the bird expired the miners would leave the mine – fast. 

The Song of the Thrush

Years ago in the wilds of Australia
Out in the goldfields there once stood a camp
The miners were made up of all sorts of classes
Many a scapegoat and many a scamp
When into their midst came a young man from England
And with him he brought a small thrush in a cage
To hear the bird sing they would flock round in dozens
That sweet little songster became all the rage

There fell a deep hush,
As the song of the thrush
Was heard by that motley throng
Many a rough fellow’s eyes grew dim
As the bird sang out clear and strong
Eyes lighted up with a bright yearning look
As the bird sang it’s beautiful lay
It brought to their minds
Dear old England and home
Thousands of miles away.


Mrs D Clarke. Bankstown, Fahey Collection

Folklore of Beaconsfield Mining Disaster

(Warren Fahey 2006)

The mining industry has a long and usually chilly relationship with folklore and the 2006 Beaconsfield Mine Disaster, of Beaconsfield, Tasmania, is no exception. What does make this event stand out is the way the media reacted to broadcast blow-by-blow, “live from Beaconsfield”, style of reportage which, in the projected style of Hollywood’s ‘Truman Report’, zeroes into every imaginable facet of the disaster, rescue and aftermath. To many viewers the sensationalistic approach to news journalism was sickening as was the continuing need to create celebrities out of those involved. This, of course, also happened with the attack on Twin Towers and reportage of contemporary wars, especially Afghanistan and Iraq. There is no escape from the cult of celebrity. As I write this on the morning of May 17 I note that the top-rating Channel 7 Breakfast program, hosted by David Koch and his sidekick, ‘celebrated’ the town of Beaconsfield with a ‘live-to-air’ sit-down breakfast. This is some weeks after the rescue and a fine example of wringing the last few drops out of the story.

Excuse my cynicism but surely this is not good television?

Communities create folklore for particular needs. In the days before sensationalist media (was there ever a time?) disasters were recorded by the ‘folk’ through song, poetry and story. One needs to place the mining industry, especially coal mining, into perspective in as much as it was dangerous underground work at a time when industrial safety was almost non-existent. There was also a great urgency to get tonnes of coal up to the surface and off to the burgeoning factories. In some ways early gold mining had the same urgency and many the digger perished under a shaft cave-in. It is understandable that songs, poems and stories would be used by the ‘folk’ to tell ‘their’ story in which they would address various wrongs: the greed and carelessness of the mine operators, the generally bad conditions of mine work, the poor pay for such dangerous work, the reliance on mateship in times of danger. After an actual disaster the songs would also address the reasons for the disaster, the plight of the miners killed or trapped, the rescue (if any) and the plight of the families left alone. Most mining songs are very emotionally charged. Some take the traditional direction of ‘warning’ or passing on of traditional wisdom and superstition. ‘Don’t Go Down The Mine, Daddy (sometimes dreams do come true)’ is a well-known song that embodies many of the above-mentioned features. I collected a version of this American song from Mrs Williams, in Broken Hill, in 1974. Mrs Williams, a matron at the Old People’s Home, sung the song as part of another traditional mining song known as ‘The Miner’. She said they were sung at local dances as a waltz.

Australia has seen some horrific mine disasters – The Bulli Mine Disaster, NSW South Coast occurred on the 23 March 1887 killing 81 men – and in 1895 the McEvoy Disaster at the Eldorado Gold Mine in Beechworth, Victoria, claimed six miners in a very tragic scenario.

The history of the Eldorado Mine is interesting:

1854: Eldorado opened up 1855 (gold discovered 1854)

1855: Large sluicing claims in operation from 1855 – ‘Races of a mile or a mile and a half are being constructed here’

1859: Deep leads worked from 1859.  During the 19thC, only three claims were successfully worked on the Eldorado leads: Kneebone Co., 1859-72; Wellington Co., 1866-78; and McEvoy, 1859-79 and 1890-1901

1860’s: Eldorado was considered ‘the great mining centre’ of the Beechworth region during the 1860s – production diminished by 1870.

1869: Tin-mining lease taken up at Clear Creek, near Eldorado, 1869 – creek beds, banks and flats to be sluiced using Chinese labour – about half the price of European labour

To 1880: Eldorado mines idle by 1880 – only remaining plant on McEvoy claim – if that removed, Eldorado ‘defunct’ as a mining township.

1880:Tin prices high in 1880 – £85 per ton – some said it would pay to work Eldorado for tin alone.

1890: Eldorado again a busy locality, 1890 – whole of old ground (including McEvoy shaft) as well as new ground taken up.

1895: McEvoy mine disaster, 1895 – six miners killed when the mine was swamped by an inrush of water and sand.

1901: McEvoy mine ceased work, 1901 – estimated total production, 630 kg – much of the company’s ground later sluiced by Cock’s Pioneer Co.

early 1900’s: Cock’s Pioneer Electric Sluicing Co. reworked alluvium by barge-mounted gravel pump, 1899-1913 – from 1903, driven by electricity generated at a steam power plant.

1914-1941: Cock’s Pioneer Gold and Tin Mines NL, 1914-29 and 1934-41 – large-scale hydraulic sluicing – electrically driven from power generated at steam power plant – second highest dividend-paying mine in Victoria, 1935 – total gold production 3,650 kg.

1936-54: Cock’s Eldorado Gold Dredging NL, 1936-54 – at the time of its construction, the dredge was the largest in the Commonwealth – total gold production, 2,198 kg – dredged area of about 10 acres, to an average depth of 75 feet.

I was aware of this disaster through a verse of a song called ‘Young Dawkins’, collected by Ron Edwards and included in the Big Book of Australian Folksongs (Rigby 1979). In 1973 I was in Lithgow, a coal town in West NSW, and recording retired miner Jack Mays. Jack had a pamphlet on the McEvoy Disaster (also known as the Eldorado Mining Disaster). The pamphlet contained a song that had been sent to all the mining towns to raise money for the families. It was printed by James Purtell and sold for one penny and available at newspaper officers across Australia. This is the only time the song has been collected.

The leaflet published an appeal: Before their death by suffocation the miners scraped messages on their blackened billy cans. Ches Dawkins wrote: “I am getting faint. No air. God protect me for the sake of my poor children and my wife, Lizzie,. Look after tem and bring them up good. The money I have in my box and bank be divided with the little ones. Make the best of what I have saved. Kiss them for their poor father’s sake. I forgive all. My love to all that are dear to me. Goodbye, my dearest children.”

The Eldorado Mining Disaster

Tune: Balaclava

With sorrow we remember, the middle of July,
When those six noble miners were all destined to die.
Hemmed in beneath the surface, no power on earth could save,
For no one could approach them, down in their living grave.


Oh, ’tis a touching story; the loss we all bewail;
Extremely sad to hear it, this true pathetic tale,
How those poor fellows perished on that eventful day,
We mourn in sorrow for them all, now silent in the clay.

Poor Kneebone suffered dreadful, crushed up against the wall
(Beyond all recognition) – the saddest fate of all
Oh God, he must have struggled, for freedom, all in vain!
But death soon lent a kindly hand, relieving all his pain.

Oh, how they must have suffered, locked in that dismal tomb;
All huddled close together, they met their fearful doom.
Just contemplate their feelings, all raving in despair,
As they were slowly dying for want of food and air.

Their thoughts of home and mother, their friends so true and kind,
Their wives and little children, whom they would leave behind.
Their last words were in prayer, all praising God above,
As each one wrote upon his can a message full of love.

Repeat chorus:

Poor Dawkins died a hero, a brave courageous man;
Just listen to the touching words he wrote upon his can:
God help my little children, and keep them from all strife;
And God be kind to Lizzie, my fond and loving wife.

What money I have in my box, please go to it and take,
And kiss my little ones for me, their own dear father’s sake.
Give love to my poor mother, and tell her not to cry;
And write and tell that dear old soul the cruel death I die.

Australia’s worst mining disaster occurred in 1902 at Port Kembla, NSW South Coast,, in which 96 men and boys were killed.. At around 2.00 p.m. on 31 July 1902 a large volume of flame and smoke was seen to burst from the main tunnel of the Mount Kembla colliery near Wollongong. A massive explosion in the mine resulted in the tragic loss of 96 lives and many serious injuries. A royal commission was set up to investigate the disaster. The cause of the explosion was found to be the ignition of firedamp or methane gas supplying a miner’s light. The explosion generated a coal dust explosion that wrecked a large portion of the mine. The recommendations of the royal commission included more testing for gas, improvements in ventilation and shot-firing practices, and the use of safety lamps where gas was present. The miner’s safety lamp has now been replaced by modern, electric lamps and other safety equipment.

To my knowledge no songs were written about this disaster. As a folklore collector I accept they might have been written however they did not enter the tradition. This could possibly have something to do with the style of song favoured around the turn of that century. We had abandoned the bush ballad to reflect our ‘more sophisticated’ city lifestyles and, in doing so, moved to more unsingable ‘popular’ songs. Such songs have little interest to the song tradition and usually remain firmly on the printed page. Of course it was also a tragedy without a happy ending, nothing to sing about.

Beaconsfield has proved to be a different story. Here was a disaster beamed to our television sets. We had hourly updates and then, through the wonders of technology, photographs and voice cuts of the trapped miners. It was truly like a soap opera with talking heads and the saga of the ‘stars’ themselves.

One miner, Larry Knight, was killed during the collapse but two, Brant Webb and Todd Russell, survived.

One of disaster folklore’s main devices is humour. We create post-disaster jokes as an unconscious mechanism to relieve community anxiety and stress. It acts as a community pressure valve. We created jokes after Twin Towers, Azaria Chamberlain’s death, Port Arthur, Hoddle Street Massacres, the Bali Bombing and the Darwin Cyclone, to name a few disasters involving Australians. Of course there is nothing ‘funny’ about any of these events but we do need to resolve issues surrounding such events, and as if a giant sigh of relief, we actively circulate humour to absolve ourselves. It is a way of ‘wrapping up’ disasters and ‘moving on’.

The humour associated with the Beaconsfield disaster commenced far earlier than any other disaster I have surveyed. Usually there is a polite period of ‘mourning’ – a week, a fortnight. In the case of Beaconsfield the jokes, photoshop, cartoons and associated lore started rolling the day after the rescue. Songs followed.

The story of the mining accident at Beaconsfield mine in northern Tasmania has made headlines around the world, and sent the small mining community on an emotional rollercoaster.

25 April 2007 – 9:23pm. An earthquake measuring 2.1 on the Richter scale triggers a rockfall at Beaconsfield gold mine. Fourteen miners escape but three are still missing.

26 April – There is no sign of the missing miners. Rescuers come within 15 metres of where they think the men are, but debris hampers the search. Unions raise questions about whether enough reinforcing was done after a series of mini-quakes last year.

27 April – Remote-controlled earth moving loader uncovers body of Larry Knight amongst the rubble of the vehicle which he had been operating.

30 April – Celebrations begin when contact is made with Brant Webb and Todd Russell, who survived the rockfall. Large boulders have trapped them inside the 1.5mx1.2m cherry picker cage in which they had been working.

1 May – Mr Webb and Mr Russell have their first food in six days, after a tube is pushed through the 12 metres of rock separating the men from their rescuers. After the initial jubilation at finding them alive, it is made clear that the operation to pull them to safety will be dangerous and time-consuming. A raise borer is brought in, to drill a lower rescue tunnel underneath the men.

3 May – Workers begin drilling a pilot hole for the one-metre diameter rescue tunnel.

5 May – Foo Fighters singer Dave Grohl sends a fax to the men after he learns that they asked for his music to be sent down on mp3 players. Grohl offers to have a beer with the miners when they get out. Rescue progress is slow, as the first metres of rock are described as being as dense as ‘a goat’s head’.

6 May – The raise borer finishes its part of the operation. It will be removed and workers will attempt to finish the tunnel using hand tools including diamond blade chainsaws.

7 May – Workers encounter rock ‘five times harder than concrete’ as they try to finish the tunnel under the trapped men. They use low-grade explosives, but progress is extremely slow. Veteran TV reporter Richard Carleton collapses and dies while covering the mine disaster.

8 May – Late at night, a test probe is sent through the last metre of rock separating the men from their rescuers. The men say they can see the probe, and workers begin the final push.

9 May – 4:47am  rescue workers use a hydraulic rock splitter, and finally break through to the two trapped men. They are brought to a crib at the 375-metre mark, where they prepare to reach the surface. At 6:00am AEST, Brant Webb and Todd Russell walk out of the mine and move their miners’ tags to the ‘safe’ side of the board after their two-week ordeal.”

On receiving the first email circulated joke on the 9th May, the day after the rescue, I actively started to solicit humour contributions.

As part of my ongoing research on contemporary folklore and humour (I  am midway through a book) I am keen to receive ANY cartoons, jokes, photoshop etc related to this event. I know some of these will no  doubt be offensive however they are still important in the overall  study. I have already received three such items already in  circulation. I am attempting to track the immediacy of humour as a  communal device alleviating stress and concern.”

A further email broadcast also asked about songs:

Now that Brant Webb & Todd Russell have been rescued from the  Beaconsfield gold mine and (according to tonight’s news) the men are  enjoying “steak and chips”, at the Launceston Hospital, I am  interested if any songwriter has written or planning to write a song  about their rescue or/and the death of their work mate Larry Knight?”

The arrived in all shapes and sizes.

I would suggest that one of the reasons for the immediate transfer of humour had something to do with the humour expressed by Russell and Webb who, reputedly, “cracked jokes all day long”. The coverage of their ‘escape’ day, especially where the two men ‘clocked off’ also showed what was reported internationally as  ‘their typical Aussie sense of humour”.

Strangely the very first two items received (unsolicited source) had an American perspective. The first featured soap star and sometime singer (who recently visited Australia) David Hasslehoff who is known as ‘The Hoff’.  (see right) The item was titled “The Real Hero Of Beaconsfield’

The second used the T-shirt as a carrier for a message:
The implication being ‘hard rock’ of the mine as they attempted rescue (see right).

Without a doubt the most circulated item was titled ‘First photograph of the trapped miners’ (see right)

I also received a more elaborate powerpoint version of the above sight joke* with various captions like ‘Brant and Todd in the morning’, ‘Brant and Todd winking’.

The next item is a CD record cover of a compilation of songs using mining themes connected to the rescue. Interestingly a news release made comment that a record label was considering releasing the compilation into the market.

The Bladder, an on-line satirical magazine about sport posted the following which, in turn, has been sent as an email attachment”

Rescued miners axed by coach

Rescued miners Brant Webb and Todd Russell had their celebrations cut short today after the coach of their local football team, John Larner, informed them that missing two weeks of training has cost their positions in the team indefinitely.

“I’ve copped some flak over this, but it’s the team rules,” Larner told The Bladder. “If I let these two off, it’ll send the wrong message to the other blokes in the team and to our opposition. For an amateur footy club, we pride ourselves on our professionalism, and not turning up to training will not be tolerated UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.”

A spokesperson for Webb and Russell said the pair are disappointed with the decision and are considering lodging an appeal with the club’s board. “Given that they were 925 metres underground with no chance of escape, we feel they’ve got a strong case,” the spokesperson said. “There has to be some flexibility in there regarding the miraculous survival of life and death situations.”

But Larner, a coach who only last year was reprimanded by local police for making the under 10s run 65 kilometres in driving rain as punishment for a narrow loss, is standing firm on his decision for the two now-famous miners. “There are young blokes in the reserves who put the hard yards in every week, training and getting out there on a Saturday arvo giving their all for the Beaconsfield Parrots. What kind of message would it send if I rewarded two blokes, who haven’t even trained this week, with automatic selection?

I’ll tell you. That we favour people who overcome impossible odds to still be alive. There’s no favouritism at this club, and there won’t be for as long as I’m coach.”

Sources close to Webb and Russell say the pair are quietly confident they’ll be selected after Kochie threatened to move to Beaconsfield in protest if they were not selected to play this weekend. Larner is re-considering his position at the urging of residents and the mayor.

The Whingers. Blogspot used the rescue as an item based on the hideous television program ‘Big Brother’:

Beaconsfield 06: Double Eviction

Brant Webb leaves the mine and makes his way to the Eviction stage.*

Trapped Tasmanian miners, Brant Webb and Todd Russell, were evicted from the Beaconsfield mine at 6am today. The pair are not expected to receive any prizes. Webb and Russell have appeared on the Beaconsfield Nominations show, where Gretel asked them the “world famous” ten questions. In answer to the question, “Who was the most annoying person in the mine?”, both miners pointed at the other. However, they also named each other as the person they liked most in the mine. After subsisting on a diet of staples for the last fortnight, both miners listed “food” as the thing they missed the most. When asked what was the worst part of being in the mine, both miners replied: “Wondering if we were going to live.” OK. OK. I’m being silly. I would provide a link to a news story so that you can read up on the miners’ saga for yourself but I just can’t seem to find a single mention of it anywhere

The two following reports, from the international media, show how these stories can develop into legendary stories:

‘They handed out small cards that read: “The Great Escape. To all who have helped and supported us and our families, we cannot wait to shake your hand.” By Tuesday night, Russell had recovered enough from the ordeal to go for a bourbon and Coke at his local pub.’

Brant, the first man who was rescued, stayed at the hospital for about three hours, before checking himself out, Maynard told The Early Show.
“Todd stayed a little bit longer, but that was so he could enjoy a meal in the hospital ward… a meal of steak, chops, eggs, chips, and sauce,” Maynard reported.’

I’m sure there will be several songs written and circulated about the bravery of the men, position of the union etc and here’s three:


© Peter Hicks and Geoff Francis

“Dark as the dungeon” they sing in the song,
And none but the miners know what really goes on,
On that fateful day the earth shook and rocks fell,
One brave man was gone, two trapped inside a living hell.

Up on the top the families gathered around,
Waiting for news of their men to be found,
At last there arrived that most stunning of sounds,
The men were alive, but were buried deep beneath the ground.

For week upon week – they kept calm and stayed cool
With jokes and bold laughter and some playing the fool
Two bravest of miners trapped in that holiest of hell
Union men bunkered – in the “Two Star Hotel

Their rescuers toiled by both day and by night,
Risked their own lives, with just one goal in sight,
Drilling through rocks hard as any on earth,
They each put their comrades – before their own worth.

Now food had arrived and home comforts as well,
Country songs and Foo Fighters rang out in their cell,
But none would dare say that the danger had ceased,
For each moment inside was an eternity.

And there’s no flat screen tv or inhouse video,
And there’s no satin sheets in this “ Two Star Hotel”,
But what the room service might lack in the “cordon de bleu”
Is made up by raw courage and mateship as well.

And deeper frustration set in as they tried,
To break through the rocks all their strength they applied,
But the union trained rescuers held firm to their task,
And each man he gave as good as could ask.

Now after two weeks they’ve stepped out and walked tall,
Their cards they’ve clocked off, into loving arms they now fall,
They’ve paid their respects to their comrade who fell,
And the whole town rejoices for the tenants of the Two Star Hotel
And the whole country rejoices for the heroes of the Two Star Hotel


(For Todd, Brant and all the rescuers…Enjoy your beers boys.)


© K.V.McLennan 2006

Hard work, hardrock mining
Far down neath the soil
Strong men laugh at danger
Long day sweat and toil!

Wait for sound of thunder,
Safe inside the cage.
Rock face crushes under
Nature’s sudden rage.

Call out! Call again!
Screams of silence closing in
Shout loud! No-one hears
Death has closed their comrade’s ears.

Slowly, realization
So far underground
There’ll be no salvation
Cave-in stifles

Every sound!
Call out! Call again!
Screams of silence closing in
Shout loud! No-one hears

Death has closed their comrade’s ears.
Hours of helpless waiting,
Voice too hoarse to call.
No days here to measure

Midnight watch for all.
Night of long despairing
How much air remains?
How long till they’re dying?

Then [a] sound [that] makes them cry.
Call out! Call again!
Something’s moving on their skin
Shout loud! Someone hears!

Now the waiting and the fears.
Call out! Hear the sound!
Food and water underground!
How long can they live?

Hope is all we have to give!
G slow, take it careful!
One slip kills us all
Hard work, hardrock mining

Far down neath the soil.
Strong men laugh at danger
Talking down their greatest fears
But they will remember;
Death has closed their comrade’s ears.

Here some truly awful jokes:

Michael Jackson has cancelled his trip to Beaconsfield after hearing the two minors who were trapped in a cage have been released.

‘I don’t think the guys will be getting a beer tonight as it’s illegal to serve beer to minors’

I suspect more jokes, probably a lot more jokes, will flow over the next few weeks.

Please feel free to add more material to this site.
Email to wfahey@bigpond.

‘First photograph of the trapped miners’

Digging holes in the ground – like rabbits!