Produced by the Waterside Workers Film Unit in 1957 and commissioned by the Miners’ Federation, Hewers of Coal is a dramatised documentary about the plight of Australian coal mineworkers and their industry. In the face of mechanisation, decrepit and dangerous mines, poor conditions, sporadic work and unemployment, poor mine and resource management, the film is a call to arms for the nationalisation of Australian coal mines.
The film was shot mainly in New South Wales in black and white underground, and in colour above ground. The film was screened at the Sydney Film Festival in 1957 and was shown extensively across the Australian trade union movement. The film contains rare and important footage of early Australian coal mining and has been used extensively in subsequent productions on coal mining.
The film opens with scenes of underground mining, including the use of machines to cut and transport coal, underground blasting, mine maintenance and mineworkers finishing up a hard day underground. The importance of coal to society and industry is profiled, followed by the willful wreck and ruin of coal resources by mine owners. The hardships and deprivations of the early days of the coal mining are dramatised, followed by an expose on the dangers of fire, spontaneous combustion and a cavalcade of disaster.
Poor planning and resource management leads to sporadic work and unemployment, which is followed by a fight for better wages and conditions. Conditions continue to deteriorate through World War Two only to be further exacerbated by the arrival of cheap oil after the war, prompting mechanisation of the coal industry. In the face of greater unemployment and the closure of many pits, the miners and their communities advocate for the better utilisation of coal and the nationalisation of the industry. The film shows important scenes of rank and file coal miners engaged in pit top meetings, as well as scenes of miners marching in protests.