(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.”
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.
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’ [*download powerpoint version of the above sight joke here]
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 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’:
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.
So far underground
There’ll be no salvation
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.
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. net.au
“The Real Hero Of Beaconsfield’
T-shirt used as a carrier for a message:
‘First photograph of the trapped miners’
My sincere thanks to contributors
K V McLennan