Extreme isolation, a remarkable natural environment, severe climate and tough working conditions: Broken Hill’s population has been a uniquely shaped enclave defined by resilience, creativity and self-reliance. The result is a long list of significant people and achievements in the mining and pastoral industries, the union movement and the arts.
The eight-hour working day and collective bargaining, for example, both began in Broken Hill. This is where BHP Billiton, now among the world’s biggest mining and exploration companies, began. And the early history of Rio Tinto, another world mining giant, is also linked to Broken Hill. A busy commercial airport, railway-line and modern sealed highways mean Broken Hill is no longer isolated. But many other features that have shaped the town’s ethos remain evident, particularly in its mining industry.
The main ore body, the line of lode running right through the town beneath the mullock heap, has been mined by a succession of companies. Today, it’s worked only at its southern end by Perilya Ltd, owned by Australian and Chinese interests.
In 1907 more than 8000 men worked in ‘The Hill’s’ mines and the town had a population of more than 30,000. Production peaked again in the 1950s when the mining workforce reached 6500, but it’s been declining ever since. The most recent retrenchments saw Perilya’s Broken Hill workforce drop from 500 to 300 in late 2007.
Perilya’s southern operations general manager Andrew Lord says it wasn’t an easy decision and there was backlash from the town. But it was part of a strategy for the mine to survive the Global Financial Crisis.
The strategy worked; the mine again turns a “reasonable profit” and many of the workers who most recently lost their jobs are now among 200 contractors who supplement Perilya’s core workforce.
Increased efficiency through modern technology means Broken Hill now produces as much ore as ever with present-day miners working 600–1000 m underground, scavenging remnants left between old tunnels.
Mining still provides about one-third of the town’s income. And the industry continues to play a vital role in the town’s psyche, contributing particularly to a worldliness uncommon in remote Australia.
Mining the Broken Hill lode these days is complex and it’s said that if you can make it here you can make it anywhere in the industry. The current mine is operating on an 10-year plan. “But there’s more there,” says Noel Hannigan, Perilya’s mine services superintendent. “Realistically, this will be a mining town for a long time to come. The raw material is here – it might not be in this section, or the next, but there’s great mineralisation and great prospects outside.”
Noel is the third generation of his family to work in Broken Hill mining. His grandfather swung a pick and his father drove trucks, both underground. Noel began as a boilermaker in 1969 and went underground the following year.
“The camaraderie in a place like this…you won’t find anywhere else,” says Noel. Forged in an extreme environment where safety is always a team concern, old-fashioned Aussie mateship is palpable in the south mine’s locker-room-like chamber called the ‘marble arch’. Here miners assemble between shifts to exchange vital information.
There’s much huddling around clipboards and computers and mumbling of instructions for about 15 minutes every 12 hours during the crucial transfer of details about what’s been achieved and is yet to be done underground ‘at the stope’.
Mining here is now highly mechanised but the men still come up smelling of the earth. And this change-of-shift ritual remains as vital today as it was a century ago.
*Originally published in Australian Geographic magazine.