This award winning documentary explores the history of the notorious Victorian State Coal Mine, from its inception in 1909 until its demise in 1968. Considered the most dangerous and difficult coal mine in Australia at the time, the working conditions bred a solidarity that forged one of the nation’s strongest and most militant unions. Occupying a revered place in the pantheon of Australian trade unionism, the bitter industrial victories won by the Wonthaggi miners in the dark days of the Depression became the blueprint for industrial action across the country, transforming Australian working life forever.
The film combines inspiring interviews with the men and women of Wonthaggi along with local and national archive footage, a large collection of still photographs and newspaper headlines as well as contemporary scenes of miners remembering and celebrating a bygone era of mateship, solidarity and unity. Evocative contemporary visuals of rusting and abandoned mine sites give the film a poetic and deeply personal feel, further revealing the underlying humanity and integrity of those interviewed.
Implementing a chronological storytelling style, the film begins with the pioneering days of the mine, with hastily sunk mine shafts and a tent city, before exploring the large scale expansion of the mine and the influx of battle hardened immigrants from Britain’s troubled coal fields in the 1920’s. This is followed by first hand accounts of the horrible conditions underground, the ever present threat of gas and frequent accidents and fatalities.
Like so many other coal regions, the Depression years brought crushing poverty and unemployment, but in Wonthaggi, this ushered in a period of radical militant unionism. In an attempt to win back wages and conditions, in 1934 the communist led union took on one of Australia’s most conservative politicians, the then Victorian Railway Minister Robert Menzies. The highly organised 5 month strike saw the formation of a broad committee to raise funds, collect and distribute food, raise awareness and garner support for the strikers across the country, as well as provide entertainment to the strikers and their families.
The miners’ wives played a critical role in supporting the strike and formed their own committee, which later became the Women’s Auxiliary. There are a number of points in the film where the contribution of the women of Wonthaggi is celebrated. Menzies’ humiliating defeat and the Wonthaggi miners’ victory inspired unions across the country to fight for a better deal, and now they had a template of strike organisation to emulate. Red Wonthaggi was born.
It was not long before Wonthaggi was once again thrust into the national spotlight, but this time for the wrong reasons. In 1937, number 20 shaft exploded, claiming the lives of 13 men. Through interviews, stills and graphic photographs, the film recounts the explosion, the rescue attempt and the disaster’s aftermath.
Having maximised coal output during the Second World War, Australia’s coal mines were in a terrible state. The eventual push to improve wages and conditions resulted in the national coal strike of 1949. Wonthaggi was already in decline and its industrial might was waning. While it was now only a bit player in the national strike, the strike was based on the principles learned at Wonthaggi.
The unity and solidarity that was the Wonthaggi trademark did not hold on the coalfields in New South Wales. As shown through dramatic newsreel archive, the 49 Strike was steeped in anti-communist Cold War hysteria. The Wonthaggi miners talk passionately about their contribution to the strike and their bitter disappointment when the Chifley Labor Government jailed their union leaders and sent troops into the mines. There are some terrific interviews here that give us an insight into the Cold War attitudes of the time and how that impacted on working class efforts to improve their lot. Miner’s wife and Women’s Auxiliary member Jessie Hansen recounts her efforts to sway public opinion by travelling to workplaces across the state. Her sense of betrayal when the strike collapsed is deeply felt. The 49 Strike was the last major industrial battle fought by the Wonthaggi miners. The film recounts the closing of the mine and presents interviews and a series of contemporary scenes dedicated to remembering the glory days of the mine, the men and their legendary union. This includes three of the interviewees singing the Miners’ Union song.
- Broadcast nationally on ABC TV in True Stories primetime slot 1996 and a repeat broadcast in 1998.
- Gold Award, Documentary Division – Worldfest-Charleston International Film Festival (USA) 1996
- Third Place, ‘Certificate For Creative Excellence’, Documentary, Current Events, Special Events Division – US International Film & Video Festival (USA) 1997
- Honorable Mention Award,History Division – 45th Columbus International Film & Video Festival (USA) 1997
Author: J Bird, 2023