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'But Sir, this strike has one feature which renders it more profoundly interesting than any of its predecessors here, or elsewhere as far as I know, and which must secure it a prominent and distinguished page when the history of these colonies shall come to be written. It is the fact that the women of Broken Hill are the first great body of working women who have raised their voices in united protest against the glaring injustice that "the present Constitution will not allow them a voice in the framing of the laws under which they are compelled to live".'

So wrote Mary Lee, suffrage campaigner and welfare worker, in an impassioned letter to the Barrier Miner in September 1892. That year, women of Broken Hill had formed the Females United Strike Protest Committee, appealing to the Governor of New South Wales to intervene in the Great Strike and force mining companies to accept arbitration. By December 1892 Lee herself was visiting Broken Hill as a delegate from the Adelaide Sick Poor Fund and the South Australian Working Women's Trades Union, sent to gather information on the level of want and suffering there in the wake of the strike. She was profoundly affected by what she saw - 'scenes which although my heart is filled with them, my pen is, alas, too feeble to picture' - and wrote numerous times to the South Australian Register, petitioning her fellow countrymen to send much-needed aid to the orphans and widows of the mining city, and beseeching them to remember that 'Broken Hill undeniably saved our colony from bankruptcy'.

The 1892 strike was not the first that Broken Hill women had endured, and it would certainly not be the last. In the face of negligent policy on the part of BHP and other mining companies seeking major profits at the expense of their workers, Broken Hill had become a union town. A branch of the Amalgamated Miners' Union (AMA) was formed as early as 1886. In 1889, refusal by trade union members to work with non-union members ended in a week-long strike. The Great Strike of 1892 erupted when mining companies broke an agreement with unions by introducing a contract system for ore excavation. This time it lasted nearly four months. Broken Hill women showed their support by joining union picket lines and forming groups to physically attack non-union 'scab' labour. Their participation demonstrated solidarity with their men, but the violence was born of pure rage given that children were starving and families suffering needlessly while the scab labour thwarted their cause. Industrial strikes did give rise to a fearfully strong sense of unity, but at a devastating price: poverty, malnutrition, disease and high mortality rates. Housewives were forced to eke out meagre rations and, somehow, continue to make ends meet. Even without the strike-induced deprivation, life was never going to be easy in this isolated, semi-desert town.

Broken Hill had begun as a tent city for miners seeking a good wage. It was a no man's land: 'the bleakest and wildest on all God's earth, under a blazing sun'. Following the discovery of silver by Charles Rasp in 1884 - and what was, in fact, the world's largest known silver-lead-zinc orebody - thousands of men made the journey to Broken Hill. A large number of Irish migrants arrived from South Australia. Numbers were swelled by an influx of migrants from war-torn Europe - Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Italy, Greece, and Malta - who planned to work hard and send money to their families back home. Afghan cameleers joined the population. Broken Hill was seen by most as a temporary pitching post. It was a place to work. It was also a place to drink: by 1898 an estimated sixty licensed hotels were operating in the town. It was no place to make a home, and it was, apparently, no place for women. In 1887 there were just 600 women in a population of 9,000. Some were wives and mothers, others were business owners running boarding houses or laundries, and a certain number worked as prostitutes.

By the 1890s, however, the numbers began to even out as miners elected to stay in the town and were joined by their wives. Many families lived in corrugated iron shacks with dirt floors, others in tents made from flour bags stitched together - a few were wealthy enough to live in stone cottages. For many women, life was ruled by a strict routine: Monday for washing, Tuesday for ironing, Wednesday for cleaning, Thursday for mending, Friday for shopping, Saturday for cleaning, Sunday for church. While their menfolk toiled under the earth, the women were faced with their own trials above it: ferocious dust storms, a frightening scarcity of water (Broken Hill had no permanent water supply until 1952) and almost no firewood. Disease was rife, exacerbated by unsanitary conditions. In 1888, the infant mortality rate was double that in Sydney. Four midwives were registered in Broken Hill by 1892, and most babies were delivered at home. The Broken Hill Hospital consisted of an iron room and an adjoining tent, and was filled to capacity dealing with mine injuries and disease. Despite these challenges, women banded together to establish welfare organisations, schools, hospitals, small businesses, boarding houses and social clubs. Mary Lee's dramatic portrait of Broken Hill women raising their voices in united protest to demand political representation may have been wishful thinking (her address on female suffrage at the Theatre Royal drew only a moderate attendance) but they were certainly capable of effective collaboration. There were theatre groups, sporting groups and music groups. Women cooked, cleaned and sewed for religious and lay welfare organisations. Some joined the Benevolent Society. Others, unsurprisingly, formed a temperance group as early as 1887.

Broken Hill women also concerned themselves with the education of their children. Many women controlled the household budget, and some contributed financially to the establishment of local schools. The first state school opened in 1887, with two more to follow by 1889. Women would make up the teaching staff of the state schools for the next century, though school principals were invariably male. In 1889, eight Sisters of Mercy from the Maitland Congregation arrived to assist in providing care for the sick and needy, but also to provide education for the young. By 1891 there were 30 nuns in Broken Hill, and by 1896 they were operating five Catholic schools.

Families were badly hit by strike conditions three more times in the early twentieth century. In 1909, unionists refused to accept wages and working conditions and BHP announced a lockout. Women formed a Relief Committee to help those struggling to feed and clothe their families, and thousands marched in support of their men. In 1916, militant AMA members pushing for a 44-hour week were fired and 3,000 union members went on strike in protest. The stoppage lasted just eight weeks, largely because Broken Hill's metals were essential to the war effort. Mine managers accused their workers of being unpatriotic, but the city of Broken Hill hosted wartime fundraising events as well as any other town. The Barrier Empire League put together a grand Argent Street parade to raise money for the wounded soldiers' fund, and in August 1915 the Barrier Miner was astonished to report upon a 'Girls' Frolic' held at the Masonic Hall to raise money for the same cause. Some women arrived in gentlemen's clothes 'ranging from pyjamas and policemen's uniforms to immaculate dress suits' and cadet uniforms, while others arrived in ladies' fancy dress: 'there was such a rush at the entrance to the New Masonic Hall when the doors were opened that a table in the hallway was smashed to pieces', wrote the Miner. A second hall was hired out to cope with the numbers, but even so it was 'painfully crowded for dancing'.

The need for such light-hearted entertainment was obviously acute. The war years were trying. Several mines closed, thousands of men found themselves unemployed and tensions were running high. In 1915, when café-owner Mrs Francis Egan refused to comply with union demands, she found her business boycotted and was unable to find alternative employment. When she capitulated and tried to join the Hotel, Club and Restaurant Employees' Union (the HC and REU), her efforts were deliberately frustrated. Mrs Egan was a single mother with four children to feed. In anger and desperation, she called the president of the HC and REU to her home, held him at gunpoint and tarred and feathered him before marching him triumphantly down the main street. Incredibly, when she was taken to trial, a jury of local townsmen found Mrs Egan not guilty and the AMA was forced to pay damages for conspiring to deprive her of a way of earning a living. Pro and anti-conscription debates caused further division in the Broken Hill community at this time, particularly between mine managers and union leaders on the right and left side of politics respectively. Many unionists joined the Labor Volunteer Army (LVA) and spoke out strongly against what was perceived as further exploitation of working men by conscription. On the eve of the 1916 conscription referendum the LVA marched the streets and was joined by the Ladies' Corps, led by a choir. Women carried banners, chanting 'Vote No!'. And Broken Hill did.

The final and the most severe strike lasted eighteen months between 1919 and 1920, based upon union demands for improved working conditions. The mines were a death trap. Pneumatic drills were dubbed 'widow-makers'. Those who escaped injury were more than likely to suffer from pneumoconiosis, tuberculosis, pneumonia or 'dust on the lungs'. The strike was long and bitter. Malnutrition meant that infant deaths rose from 99 per 1,000 births in 1918 to 147 per 1,000 in 1919. It was, however, the catalyst for great change. Unions combined to form one governing body, the Barrier Industrial Council (BIC). Working hours were reduced, ventilation installed in the mines, and some compensation paid. The new industrial working conditions became law in the Broken Hill Workers' Compensation Act.

For women, the formation of the Barrier Industrial Council had one particularly direct consequence. In 1930, the president of the Council passed a resolution to ban married women from working in Broken Hill. The policy was intended to diminish unemployment by holding clerical and retail jobs open for young, single women, encouraging them to stay in the city. It was felt that a miners' wage was sufficient to keep his wife and family. The policy stayed in place for more than fifty years. Married women who were professionally trained were permitted to keep their jobs, provided there were no qualified single women available, and plenty did so. Some nursing sisters, such as Elsie Simper, established private hospitals. Marion Strang spent her savings to purchase and fit out a home for the elderly after the geriatric ward of the Broken Hill Hospital closed for financial reasons during the 1930s depression. A new, fully-equipped and air-conditioned hospital opened in Broken Hill in 1941 and soon enjoyed a reputation as one of the best nurse training hospitals in the state: Matron Vivian Bullwinkel, survivor of the Banka Island massacre in 1942, completed her early training there. Broken Hill women continued teaching, and in 1956 Mrs Phyllis Gibb became Principal of the School of the Air. Aboriginal elder Beryl Carmichael began work at Broken Hill schools in the late 1960s, teaching local kids about racial tolerance and cultural sensitivity. When Christine Adams' father Vince died of pneumonia in 1955, her mother Helen was given employment at the mine kindergarten, and later at the Zinc Mine Guest House. Qualified comptometrist Margot White found employment in 1958, shortly after she was married, and was able to continue working in accountancy right up to retirement age. Her mother, Nydia Edes, became the first female Alderman on the Broken Hill City Council in 1962. For the most part, though, married women did not undertake paid employment. They raised their children, carried out their domestic chores, and became actively involved in voluntary organisations. Heather Powell, first female union secretary (1977) and member of the BIC executive from 1994, remembers her own mother Eileen May, who raised six children and volunteered for St John's ambulance, the Red Cross blood bank, polio immunisations, Meals on Wheels and home care. Eileen was awarded the Broken Hill Citizenship Medal for her services. Station-owner's wife Pam Lord began making weekly hospital visits for the Flying Doctors Auxiliary in 1965, and was still doing so in 2009 at the age of 80.

In 1981, dental assistant Jeanine Whitehair challenged the union ban on married women working, and was supported by the Equal Opportunity Commission. About the same time, mine closures and redundancies began as the ore body diminished. The face of Broken Hill was changing. Croatian-born Katie Maxwell, who in 1961 made the journey to Australia with her mother and sister to be reunited with her father, remembers well the significance of her decision to open a clothing business when her own children were at school. In 1989, Bronwen Standley-Woodroffe became co-owner of the Horizon Gallery with her husband Albert. Heather Powell's appointment to the executive of the Barrier Industrial Council in 1994 was significant, as was Darriea Turley's election to local government in 1995 and her appointment as Deputy Mayor in 1997. It was Broken Hill-born architect Christine Landorf who co-designed the award-winning Visitors' Centre that sits atop the great mullock heap on the old mining lease overlooking the town. Women are as crucial to the community now as they have ever been. The difference, perhaps, is in their visibility - though there was nothing subtle about Mrs Egan's march down the main street in 1915 - and in the level of public recognition accorded to them. In 2001, the enormous contribution of Broken Hill women to the development of the city was officially acknowledged with the unveiling of the Broken Hill Women's Memorial in Argent Street.

Barbara Lemon


Christine Adams, Sharing the Lode: The Broken Hill Migrant Story (Broken Hill: Broken Hill Migrant Heritage Committee, 2004); Research essay by Christine Adams, submitted and assessed as part of an Advanced Diploma in Applied and Local History, University of Newcastle; Leonard Samuel Curtis, The History of Broken Hill: Its Rise and Progress (Adelaide: Frearson's Printing House, 1908); Edward Stokes, United We Stand: Impressions of Broken Hill 1908-1910 (Canterbury, Vic: The Five Mile Press, 1983); Letter from Mary Lee, Barrier Miner, 1 September 1892, p. 3; letter from Mary Lee to the S.A. Register, 11 November 1892, p. 6; letter from Mary Lee to the S.A. Register, 3 January 1893, p. 3 (copies of all articles by Lee in relation to Broken Hill held by the Outback Archives, compiled by Elizabeth Mansutti); 'Girls' Frolic', Barrier Miner, 20 August 1915, p. 3; Interviews conducted in Broken Hill by Barbara Lemon and Georgia Moodie, January-February 2009.