“Women of the Coal Rushes” by Georgina Murray and David Peetz
UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010
Review by Ross Gwyther. Dec 2010
Our summer holidays in the 1950s often meant a road trip in the FJ to Sydney to visit mum’s rellies, and one of the highlights was an overnight stay in Cessnock with Auntie Al. Al’s husband Jack had been a coal miner all his life in the Hunter region, from his early days in the momentous struggles during the Rothbury lockout, till when silicosis took him from her in 1961. We could always rely on hearing one of Jack’s hilarious stories of work underground.
So starting out to read a book just published on the story of women in the Qld coalfields, “Women of the Coal Rushes”, brought back many happy memories. Georgina Murray and David Peetz, with the financial assistance of the mining union, the CFMEU, have written the book after spending a year interviewing women young and old around Queensland mining towns.
The book mostly provides a platform for these women to tell their own stories. We read about the daily life of a miners wife in the early years, the organisations which these women formed to support the vital role of the union in miners lives, their central role in the epic working class struggles in the coal mining industry, to the gradual change where women work alongside men in the giant open-cuts of today. While the authors have summarised and extrapolated from the experience of women in over 100 years of coal mining, they have wrapped this story around hundreds of anecdotes and interviews with women of all ages, so that we finish the book with a real feeling that we have been sitting in the same room as they talk.
The book left me wanting more. If anything, the anecdotes are at times too short, and after reading a short quotation from one of the over 100 interviewees, I often felt like asking her to tell some more of her story! There are tantalising glimpses into the politics of working class life in the coalfields. We know that the communist party played a crucial role in these struggles – indeed the authors refer to the Collinsville branch of the party, which had over 90 members in 1944 - yet there is too little reflected in the stories to really flesh out this part of the working class story.
However these are minor inconveniences in an otherwise fascinating book. Murray and Peetz finish the book with a chapter which brings together some common themes - the threads of resilience, danger and solidarity with those of women as homemakers, women as workers and the class relations in mining communities.
Too often, the stories about workers lives and struggles are told about those workers, rather than by them – in this case we actually hear their voices. Too often stories fail to mention the word “class”, as if it were an outdated word from a past era. Not so in this book – the authors show how important is the concept over the whole of that century of coal mining history and struggle – to quote one worker, “our labour was our only leverage – we never got anything on a plate…”
I visited my Auntie Al last in 1998. We rummaged around together in the shed, and found Jack’s pit helmet. Inside the inner band was folded a crumpled 2 pound note. I joked with her that Jack must have kept it aside all those years ago, for a few beers at the pub. “Ah, he always did that”, she said “he thought he had the better of me, but I was on to him. When we needed a little extra for groceries, I always knew where to find it!”
Like my Auntie Al before them , the women of the coal fields have yet to tell all their stories, This book is an excellent start, and deserves to take its place on every bookshelf devoted to understanding the everyday struggles of the Australian working class.