Did you know there was a massive coal mining incident in Wollongong in 1902? So, I went to Windy Gully to find out what happened there.
Our past hides many secrets, history which seems to have disappeared out of sight with respect to memory and thought. I’ve always felt it’s important to seek out our haunting history and learn about our past. Which is how I ended up at Windy Gully.
Interestingly enough, I knew nothing of the incident. In-fact, I didn’t even know Wollongong had a coal mining industry until I happened across a site talking about the history of a Windy Gully when I was searching online for cool abandoned places to visit in the area.
Windy Gully itself won’t come up on any maps, it’s part of a larger area known as Kembla Heights, and there is actually an active mine site today, located right next to the old site where the incident occurred.
At 2 pm on July 31, 1902, Mt Kembla Mine suffered the worst mining disaster in Australia’s history, when a gas explosion killed 96 men and boys.
The resulting Royal Commission found the explosion was caused by escaping gas from the 35 acre goaf ignited by a naked flame and mixing with the coal dust. The ingredients were a lethal cocktail. The commissioners also found the Company was not negligent as it was legal to use naked flame lamps in New South Wales mines at the time and it was doubtful the gas would have been detected before the fall had occurred.
The immediate problem was where the bodies were to be buried, so the company donated land at a site in Windy Gully and a mass grave dug. Families quickly claimed and removed their loved ones for burial, which included some rescuers.
Of the 33 miners buried in Windy Gully there were four unclaimed bodies buried in the mass grave on the high side of the Cemetery making Windy Gully the resting place of most of the miners. At least 32 bodies were buried in the Soldiers’ & Miners’ Anglican Church Cemetery, Mount Kembla, and another 24 in Wollongong Cemetery.
Many families lost the breadwinners. Some families lost all their men. The disaster, apart from being the worst the country had seen at the time, was also unique in that several men from the same family were killed. Fathers, sons, uncles, nephews, cousins and brothers worked and died side by side. What this meant to those left behind was the loss of family support mechanisms.
One woman, Mrs Dunning, lost 11 relatives in the disaster. The Catholic cemetery at Wollongong shows the impact on the Egan family with four sons killed on that day. Close by are the five members of the Purcell family.
Work recommenced at Mt Kembla Mine eight weeks later on September 24.
Finally, 100 years later, during a centenary commemoration of the disaster, Windy Gully Cemetery was consecrated on July 31, 2002, by Rev Gordon Bradbery.
The hardest part about visiting the mine, was seeing some of the ages of the men who died in the explosion. As young as thirteen and others were over seventy. An example of what life was like back then, when it didn’t matter what age you were, if you had to work to out food on the table, then you just had to work.
Though I thought I would feel sad when visiting the area, the mine and the graveyard, I wasn’t. It was such a horrible incident, no doubt about that. So many deaths of so many men, fathers, grandfathers, brothers, husbands, sons and so on. It would have made a sever emotional impact on the community at the time.
Instead I felt honoured that I discovered this incredible place, so I could then record this little bit of history, so it may never be forgotten. And then share that with others, so more people then remember this story and remember the lives lost on that horrible day.