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Main Street Lithgow, 1869-1932

Patmore, G. in Locality, Newsletter of the Centre for Community History, University of New South Wales, Vol. 9 No. 1, 1998 (Main Street edition)

Localism is an identity associated with a particular geographic space. Within this space there is an economic infrastructure, which provides employment and income. This includes roads, factories, houses, mines and railways concentrated in a particular space. There is a social infrastructure built on family, neighbourhood, work and social interaction within a particular space. These networks build familiarity and dependence, providing a basis for movements to either boost local interests or defend a local ‘way of life’. Alliances may develop between workers, managers and entrepreneurs in a particular locality, which promote ‘localism’. As in other localities, Main Street, Lithgow was both an important source of employment and a place where people of all classes could interact.

Lithgow lies in a valley on the western edge of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. The arrival of the railway in 1869 provided the basis for its economic development. Local coal reserves were exploited and transported by rail to Sydney. As the railway moved further westward Lithgow became an important source of coal for the NSW Government Railways. Coal attracted other industries including iron and steel, copper smelting, brick making and pottery. In 1912 the Federal government's Small Arms Factory, which manufactured rifles, commenced operations. The population increased from 3 865 in 1891 to 6 991 in 1911 and 13 444 in 1933. Industrial development, however, was uneven. Copper smelting ended in 1911 and the Australian lron and Steel Company gradually wound down the iron and steel works and transferred to Port Kembla between 1928 and 1932.

Lithgow was a strongly unionised town, with ironworkers and miners establishing the most significant unions. By 1918 the town had a co-operative store and a Trades Hall Committee which owned a picture theatre. The town overwhelmingly voted at state and federal elections for Labor. Labor dominated the local council from 1911 to 1919 and from 1923 to 1931. Robert Pillans, President of the Western District of the Miners' Federation, was Labor Mayor of Lithgow from 1911-18 and 1923-27.

While the town's politics reflected the overwhelming preponderance of labour, the town's business and social elite played an important role in promoting industrial development. This elite included retailers, professionals and the local newspaper editor. They hoped that Lithgow would become the ‘Birmingham of Australia’. They saw Lithgow as having the potential to become a major manufacturing centre with a significantly larger population. The economic growth would benefit the town's businesses and increase rate revenue for the Lithgow Council. There were numerous attempts to attract new industry to fulfill their vision. For example, during the 1920s the Lithgow Council tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Ford and Morris car companies to establish factories in the town.

Lithgow's major thoroughfare is Main Street. It was the first street to be formed in the town and connected Lithgow with Eskbank railway station to the east. Early residents remember bullock wagons with great logs moving along Main Street to a sawmill near the station. Along this street business and professional premises were established and the street became a focus for shopping. In the 1870s, J. & J. Loneragan built a retail store in Main Street known as Excelsior Arcade. H.E.S. Bracey took over the Arcade in January 1886 and established a family retailing business that still operates in Lithgow today. The first Co-operative Society store in Lithgow established in 1891 operated in Main Street for three years before ceasing trading during the 1890s Depression. Miners initiated another Co-operative Society in 1901, which operated in Main Street until 1906 when it shifted premises to Railway Parade. Around 1888, Dr Morris Asher had built a two–storey residence and surgery with Late Victorian Italianate detailing. Banks and hotels were also constructed in Main Street. In 1883 the Commercial Banking Company completed an imposing three–storey building for their local branch office in Main Street. A surviving example of a hotel constructed in the late nineteenth century is the Cosmopolitan. Lithgow retailers were dependent on the wages of workers and were sympathetic to them during industrial disputes and retrenchment. The Bracey family was prominent in the campaigns to stop retrenchment at the Small Arms Factory during the 1920s.

Individuals and groups took advantage of the increasing traffic on Main Street to promote various causes. During the 1880s politicians spoke from the balcony of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Main Street on issues such as decentralisation and protection. During the 1911-12 Ironworkers Strike the Labor Mayor gave permission to unionists to set up tables in Main Street to collect signatures for the release of a jailed striker. Women volunteers collected donations for causes such as the Lithgow Hospital.

Main Street also provided the venue for processions by friendly societies and trade unions. During the 1890s the local friendly societies, including the Oddfellows, Druids and the Rechabites, held a torchlight procession down Main Street on New Year's Day. Miners held their first eight hour demonstration in 1887 and bought their first banner in 1889. Local brass bands led their demonstrations, which proceeded to the grandstand at the old Lithgow racecourse. These demonstrations ceased during the 1890s Depression. In 1900 unionists formed an Eight Hours Demonstration Committee, which covered all workers in the town and began a tradition of marches to celebrate shorter hours that continued until the 1960s. These marches became the most important event in Lithgow's social calendar and were accompanied by banquets, sports carnivals, smoke socials and dances. Workers also began celebrating May Day in 1925. One important group of workers who participated in these marches in the late 1920s were the Italians employed at the Lithgow Iron and Steelworks who brought with them radical ideas such as anarchism.

Reproduced with permission of the author, Greg Patmore.

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