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Two men carrying an incapacitated mineworker during the Bellbird disaster


Bellbird Tragedy was the birth of Mines Rescue 

August 30, 2023

On 1 September 1923 a fire and explosions at Bellbird Colliery in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales caused the deaths of 21 underground coal miners.
The event was the largest mining disaster to hit the Northern coalfields of NSW.
Northern District President Robin Williams shares his remarks, delivered on 1 September 2023 at the Bellbird Centenary event at the Memorial Park near the site of the old Bellbird Colliery

It is a great honour to be with you this morning to reflect on the events that took place one hundred years ago today. We’re here to remember the twenty-one men that lost their lives underground just opposite this Memorial, the site of old the Bellbird Colliery, and to pay tribute to the many men that risked their own lives in attempts to save the lives of their comrades.

That fateful Saturday afternoon – the first of September 1923 – was not a regular production day, but rather a back Saturday where just a small number of miners were working.  The morning shift comprised of 450 men working underground, their shift finishing at 1pm. 

As they left the pit the afternoon shift, made up of just twenty men, entered the number one tunnel to start their day’s work. Just an hour later, all twenty would be dead from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a series of explosions and fire in the mine.  

Six pit horses, which were such an invaluable part of coal mining in those days, would also be killed.

Reports suggest that the first signs something was wrong came when smoke was noticed billowing from the ventilator in front of the colliery buildings. 

The mine manager was notified, and the underground deputy was instructed to enter the mine to see what damage had been caused.  When he hadn’t returned thirty minutes later the mine manager and three others entered the mine themselves to investigate. 

Sadly, they found the bodies of four men, and more were to follow.

A black-and-white photo of the funeral procession for Bellbird victims. Thousands of onlookers crowd the street.
The funerals for the mineworkers were held on a single day in Bellbird. Twenty-five thousand lined the streets to pay their respects.

The news of an explosion, that the mine was on fire, that men may have been killed or trapped underground soon spread from the pit top into the community.  Wives, some pregnant, arrived at the mine with their children and other family members, anxious to learn the fate of their loved ones.

Hundreds of miners, including many who had just finished their shift and were headed for home, returned to the mine desperate to go back underground to rescue their comrades.  Police were on hand to keep the anxious miners at bay while a plan was formulated, and a system of rescue arranged.

Hour after hour, those rescue parties worked tirelessly in an effort to find the missing miners. Sadly that afternoon, the bodies of seven men had been brought to the surface, with another eight recovered later that evening.

Continuous explosions were taking place during the rescue efforts. Fifteen bodies had been recovered when John Brown, who was a mine manager from the nearby Aberdare Colliery, entered the mine for a third time attempting to rescue the remaining men. He too became a victim of yet another explosion, and the suffocating gas that came with it. 

John became the twenty first fatality, and his body remained underground while the rest of his rescue party returned to the surface.

It became clear that the dangerous conditions meant it would be impossible for the six men left underground to have survived, and the risk of losing more lives attempting to recover them was too great. 

The decision was reluctantly made to seal the mine in an effort to extinguish the fire raging underground.

Eight months later, in June of 1924, the bodies of two of the six men still missing were located, with another three found in December of the same year.   

But it would be some 42 years later in 1965 that the last of the entombed men, George Bailey, was found and brought to the surface. His pocket-watch was stopped at 2.20pm.

Our thoughts are with those twenty-one miners that lost their lives here at Bellbird one hundred years ago today, and to the many brave men that, without hesitation, walked into the darkness of that mine with only determination and courage to bring those men back to their families.

To the families of the twenty-one whose names are etched on this memorial, please know that they will always be remembered.

The Bellbird Disaster of 1923 brought unimaginable grief and despair to so many families from this coal mining community, but it also brought about lasting and significant change to the health and safety of mineworkers which continues to this day.   

Their legacy will live on for the generations to come. 

Thank you.

Official portrait of Northern District President Robin Williams
Robin Williams is the President of the Mining and Energy Union’s Northern district.

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