All history is in essence local history in that the great, the defining and the minutiae of national events are all enacted in a specific place, somewhere. Today the West End’s Birdwood Park sits calmly beside Stewart Avenue, but this triangle of green grass holds a deep political past. It was once the site of violent clashes between the Hunter’s mine workers and the backdrop to one of the most bitter and divisive periods in Australian history.
Originally known as West End Park its name was changed after Anzac hero Field Marshall William Riddell Birdwood paid a visit to the city in 1920. Novocastrians united to give him a rapturous welcome and shortly afterward, in a flush of patriotic fervour, the Council re-named the park in his honour. Almost three decades later Birdwood Park’s unity was gone and the park instead bore witness to enraged industrial meetings.
The background was the nation-wide coal strike which took place in the winter of 1949 and nearly brought the country to a halt. At this time almost all of Australia’s electricity and gas came from coal with rail, tram and sea transport also dependent on this fuel source. The strike began after miners’ negotiations for a 35-hour week, a small wage increase and the inclusion of long service leave as a normal condition of employment broke down. The conflict quickly intensified and spread, soon half a million workers were unemployed.
Ben Chifley’s Federal Labor government quickly passed legislation making it illegal to give financial support to the strikers or their families, including credit from shops. In one of the most controversial decisions in Australian politics, they also sent in the military to act as strike breakers and people witnessed the extraordinary sight of 2,500 soldiers working as coal miners, including locally at Minmi and Muswellbrook.
Hostilities escalated, not only as expected between the government and the strikers, but also within the union movement itself which split over how to deal with this unprecedented state of affairs. During July 1949 Birdwood Park was the local meeting place for these opposing groups of unionists with crowds of over 1,500 not uncommon. The rallies often became riotous, on one side was the Communist Party and squaring off against them were the so-called ALP ‘moderates’.
The gatherings became so acrimonious that the police regularly attended, but with the crowd vastly outnumbering them they struggled to maintain order. Despite linking arms to form a physical human barrier between the two warring factions police attempts to contain the throng were doomed. The opposing groups instead pelted each other with tomatoes and even threw fire crackers at their opponent’s speakers. At one particularly angry rally a huge brawl erupted and no sooner was one fight quelled than another began, with the situation becoming so vicious that a Communist supporter was beaten until he lost consciousness. The punch-ups rolled out of the park and into Parry Street, where they stopped the traffic and left another unionist knocked out.
By mid-August the strike was over, leaving some miners relieved and others despondent. Although their claims were unmet and their bargaining power broken it was the strike’s social divisions which would take longer to heal. A perceptive commentator reflected “The strike has been defeated, but it is not so clear who the victors are.”
Today the beautiful fig trees of Birdwood Park are silent. But history is an unending dialogue between the present and the past, so the park’s cultural memory lives on. When the wind comes up the heavy branches of the shade trees move and you can hear the leaves rustle; I like to think that if you listen carefully the sound of the political slogans which once stopped a nation and the people who chanted them can still be heard.
The Screen Australia 2008 docudrama Infamous Victory: Ben Chifley’s Battle for Coal is available from ABC program sales. The Sydney Morning Herald and Newcastle Herald extensively covered the Australian coal strike, including the meetings in Birdwood Park. Photos of the strike meetings can be seen in the Hunter Photobank, a digital image database which is part of Newcastle City Council’s cultural collections http://collections.ncc.nsw.gov.au
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