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Paul Rainbird gives his perspective on the Broken Hill Heritage Walk

Rainbird, P. ‘Where Have All the People Gone?’, Locality, Centre for Community History UNSW, Vol. 9 No. 1, 1998

Broken Hill is located in the far west of New South Wales. It has existed as a mining settlement for over a hundred years and during this century the city's population has rarely dropped below 25 000 residents. The deposit of silver-lead-zinc which was located in this semiarid environment has maintained its existence, but this is a non-renewable resource and the inhabitants are looking toward ways of generating income when the extraction of ore stops and the 500 or so remaining jobs are lost. It is with this in mind that the 'Hillites' have turned in recent years to attracting tourists (or called ‘terrorists' by the more cynical) through the promotion of Broken Hill as the 'accessible outback', as a centre for arts (home to the 'Brushmen of the Bush' and 'The Arid Zone Artists') and as heritage. This promotion of tourism was a conscious action taken after a public meeting in 1974. It is the heritage aspect that I wish to focus on in this paper and in particular the representation of heritage in the main street, the commercial centre of the city. Perhaps more appropriately I should say the non-representation of certain aspects in this, until recently, staunchly unionist mining town.

In 1885 following two years of exploration on the 'Broken Hill' the location became securely established as "Australia's principal mineral field". By 1888 the township of Broken Hill had developed some coherence and the main street, Argent Street, situated to the northwest and running parallel with the line of the ore loaded hill became established as the commercial focus of the place, with a number of two storey hotels, banks and even a theatre lining the wide dusty thoroughfare which marked the Thackaringa to Wilcannia track (the present Barrier Highway).

By the turn of the century the character of Broken Hill was established with a population of some 27 000; both sides of the Hill's main street – Argent Street – were lined with hotels (there were 27 of the 60 or so licensed in the town at this time). Argent Street also housed civic buildings, a technical college and shops, the majority of which were fronted by wide awnings sheltering the pavement.

Being at the very edge of New South Wales and over 1100 kilometres from Sydney, the people of Broken Hill felt neglected by the state government. This resentment was to become a feature of Hillite attitude and was often displayed by airing grievances in Argent Street. As early as 1888 there were public protests regarding lack of government aid in the face of acute water shortages; this not only made life difficult for day-to-day survival but also threatened property as many timber buildings were destroyed by fire with little water available to stop the spread. However, with the town booming from the ever more positive reports from the mines, much of the rebuilding was achieved in stone and the oldest buildings in Argent Street are relics of this period.

Militant unionism has a long association with industrialised mining and the unions in the Broken Hill mines were no exception to the rule. The first major strike occurred in 1892 and led not only to mass marches down Argent Street, but violent confrontations between armed police and unionists at the Theatre Royal Hotel; an event according to Solomon which brought the city to "the centre of Australia's attention... [and left it] in the grip of something akin to civil war". However, the strike was lost and the unions took a number of years to rebuild.

In 1902 the British unionist Tom Mann made his first visit to the 'Hill' and stimulated a Marxist era in union politics; the Barrier Social Democratic Club was established in 1903 and its members promoted the new idealism of "Workers of the World, Unite!". In 1909 a major strike saw pickets march behind a band down Argent Street to take up their positions at mine entrances. On one such occasion as the parade turned off Argent Street towards the mine entrance at the end of Sulphide Street "in a trice all was confusion, consternation, disorder, violence – men (and women, too) were being batoned in all directions. Tom Mann was struggling with at least fifteen policemen. Arrests were being made in all directions. Police, in the excitement, were flourishing revolvers in one hand and striking with batons with the other."

The adoption of notions of the universal proletariat meant that at the outbreak of World War I there was little endorsement to be found amongst the workers of Broken Hill who would not support, as they perceived it, the elite in a violent struggle against fellow workers. On one day in 1916 a meeting in Argent Street of Labor's Volunteer Army (a group which parodied the military as part of its anti-conscription protests) ended in a battle with loyalists after members of the Salvation Army were jostled. In his social history of Broken Hill 1883 - 1921, Kennedy labelled this period "a time to hate".

It is clear from these few examples that the main street of Broken Hill, Argent Street, has been the site of mass political expression which appears to be a significant part of the rich heritage of the city: how has this been expressed in the move towards heritage as a tourist attraction in recent years? In answering this question I will discuss individual places located in Argent Street where one might expect to find, based on the events noted above, some recognition of the major episodes in the social history of the Hill.

The move towards heritage has resulted in many information boards situated on the footpaths of Argent Street which form part of a circular 'Heritage Walk'. They are sited to provide the same vista as one or more old photographs displayed on the board and are accompanied by a small amount of text. One of the heritage information boards describes the Argent Street fire of November 5, 1888 when a 250 metre long block of Argent Street was razed to the ground destroying more than fourteen business premises. There is no mention on this board of the problems with the lack of water to fight fires at this time: indeed, protests had occurred regarding the water problem only weeks before. Nor, on the other hand, is there any mention of the looting in the fire's aftermath for which a number of people were prosecuted the following day.

The Theatre Royal Hotel is described in the pamphlet which accompanies the Heritage Walk in terms of dates of erection, of a fire, and of subsequent rebuilding, and as "one of the few (and largest) hotel theatre buildings remaining in the State." The opportunity is not taken here or on the information board to inform the interested tourist (or local) that this was the site of a major confrontation during the 1892 strike:

the time when the unions of Broken Hill were developing into an institution which would be able to dictate the direction of the town for nearly the next one hundred years.

Continuing along the Heritage Walk one is directed to cross the junction of Argent and Sulphide Streets, a look to the left here, towards the end of Sulphide Street where it meets Crystal Street, reveals the hills of waste rock created by the decades of mining. At this spot, there is no indication that this is the site where pickets and police were in confrontation, or that battle lines had once been drawn where the mine entrance had stood to symbolise the struggle between capital and labour. And, perhaps appropriately, a look to the right instead of the left brings into view the War Memorial erected in 1927 and described as "one of the largest free-standing sculptures in Australia". It may also be described as one of the most animated of war memorials in the country, here there is no passive, pensive, head-down figure, but rather a 'Digger' in the final throes of tossing a hand grenade (Mills Bomb). Does this represent a final indignant gesture towards those who actively fought in Argent Street against the war; against those 72% in Broken Hill who voted 'no' to conscription compared with a national average of 52%? Perhaps it does, but there is no indication in the vicinity that the war caused enough feeling to induce intra-community violence in the main street.

The heritage worth of the main street in Broken Hill does not allow for the representation of the social history of the local community. Rather it appears one of commodification where architectural value equals old and the retention of awnings and promotion of heritage colours provides a pleasant stage for a stroll through a theatre dressed to leave a visitor's sense unencumbered by the trials and tribulations of the people who worked for the mines, or families of miners, and who fought, on this same stage, for basic human rights.

A recent questionnaire survey of Broken Hill residents regarding attitudes to heritage showed that family history was regarded as extremely important – much more important than the mining history as it happens. If, as the questionnaire responses indicated, people do matter, why have they and their conflicts been downplayed or ignored in the main street representations of heritage? One is forced to conclude that heritage representation is not for internal community consumption and is certainly not social history.

Reproduced with the permission of the author, Paul Rainbird.


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