After the Disaster

Observations of the late Mr Jack McNamara - Author & Poet - August 2002 Sent to the Mine Disaster Centenary Committee.

 

I write these lines in order to compliment (in my limited manner) the various committees, volunteers, official, business people etc., who organised the diverse presentation and panorama of events accompanying a commemoration of July 31st 1902. The unselfish displays of cherished artefacts, photographs and portrayal of those culinary means employed to satisfy the miner's appetite and sustain his dependants. The quaint and mysterious gowns, demure bonnets and billowing frocks, a parade illustrating the passing of a century; coal miners from a bygone day, though not easily distinguishable from those of today.

 

Coal miners remain ageless, as does the precious fuel they toiled and died to extract from the dark corridors of the mountain. A giant Shire horse who could have perhaps manoeuvred wagons at the incline's foot, the dairy maid and milk cow from an era when milk production was almost as important to the community as their beloved Pit; the Ladies Cricket team which won the IDCA trophy in 1931, their male counterparts being denied this goal until perhaps twenty five years later; matched by the halcyon years of Rugby League during the 1930's and 1940's; the horse drawn vehicle which could perhaps have delivered Graham's bread, Barrett's milk or Stone's meat products; the bizarre and beautiful cementing remembrance of those who have given us the reality of a rich, rewarding future. Words fail me.

 

The honour of a seat in the little church, where the spirit of Kembla has prayed for more than a century, devoted on mourning and celebration alike; the eulogy of Fred Kirkwood, promoter of the Faith and icon of the public; the lovely and talented school choir and eerier siren. What a change to Kembla's destiny if that alarm had sounded 1.00pm, 31st July 1902; the candle lighting honour, bestowed by the committee and family members more qualified, to light and hold proudly aloft tribute to a maternal uncle; the cemetery tours, the moving ceremony at Windy Gully, unveiling of the plaque, subdued and poignant rendition of Wendy's "Windy Gully", accompanied by the distant carolling of the Magpie Lark, harbinger of a newborn dawning; the consecration of a field after one hundred years of neglect: Poet Felicia Hemans, in reference to the Provencal Knights 800AD quotes "They care not of tears o'er their silence shed, or the dust had stirred below". The silent tombs of Windy Gully cared and stirred at this solemn blessing, or I imagined so. Maybe it was a zephyr in the treetops or a trembling knee. I think not. At the Civic Reception, Friday August 2nd, 2002 when the region's political dignitaries lauded Kembla past and present, Kembla responded by an ovation that threatened to tremble the staunch brick bastions of the Kembla Fire Brigade building; a ecstatic moment at the coffee table kindling hope and bonding friendship.

 

Who will forget Fred Moore's words on the return of the survivors to the workings. This grief-shrouded force did not take up tools to repay mortgages, refurbish homes or indulge in luxury. In the absence of compensation or immediate relief, forced to rely on public donation, they returned to the face for the miserable and grudging pittance that would provide subsistence for the family and perhaps provide a few pence for the widows and orphans. Many a hunger would have persisted and thirst remained unslaked had it not been for the generosity of the Village businessmen. Women, some with babes at breast, struggled with the recalcitrant kindling and reluctant coal fuel to induce the spark that would warm the chilled, add flavour to the meagre meal and above all ignite the greater spark of Hope and in the guidance of Faith a future promised. The womenfolk were the heroes of this struggle, the pangs of surrendering sons, husbands and fathers became a mountainous burden, but woman's love will triumph and carry on high the slogan "Excelsior" long after man has flagged to the couch of surrender.

 

I welcomed the general acceptance of the Cordeaux people as part of the Kembla Community. Cordeaux blood has mingled with the rich plasma of Kembla since the initial settlement, as they have mingled in the silent corridors of that sacred crypt forever to be known as Kembla Pit. We must be thankful that the memories are not entombed. There were outlying communities linked with the Kembla pre-explosion, north Kembla, South Kembla and Cordeaux River. North Kembla extended along the escarpment as far as Gillan's Farm, now known as "Stafford's Farm", where Kembla and Keira meet. Perhaps forty mineworkers came from here, including the Egan's and Purcell's. This community was decimated during the disaster and virtually disappeared from memory. South Kembla has partly surrendered to development and national reserves. Cordeaux River, whose history is well documented, succumbed as a rural community during the early 1950's and now has but a tenuous hold on identity.

I plead with those interested to demand a plaque or shrine in the vicinity of what was know as the "Head". To remove noxious weed and alien shrub from the area, to restore the majestic Red Cedar once looking down upon this venerated place from their aeries on Ramsay's Farm. In fancy the shed blossoms of Illawarra Flame may, as the mythical dragon's teeth. Spring to life and illuminate the site in brilliance. Dreams are transient and ethereal, though public effort may harness them to reality. Why not a shrine on remembrence, a restoral of the beautiful sandstone façade of the portal, looted and desecrated during those careless years post 1970. No exposure of the entrance, this would be sacrilege. The mooted problems of the public insurance appear strange, given perhaps that two hundred men and boys walked this track each working day for ninety years.

 

The Roman silver mines of Sicily, the gold mines of Sheba, tin mines of Cornwall and purple sponge beds of the Ionian Isles will be remembered from Antiquity 'til Eternity, so must the coal mines of Illawarra who sired the immense industrial complex of Port Kembla and took the village of Wollongong from nursling stage to the threshold of mature citydom, be celebrated into infinity of time parochial, maybe, yet I award Kembla Pit the pride of place.

 

Had I the pen of Demosthenes, the oratory of Churchill or the charisma of Troy's Helen, I should deliver this request beyond rebuttal, but immortal speech will e'er elude the mortal ken.

 

Jack McNamara
August 2002  

 

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