Continuing the series on towns in Australia whose names start with the letter “O”. This story concerns the town of Outtrim, between Korumburra and Inverloch, Victoria.
The town is approx. 5kms east of the Korumburra-Wonthaggi Road, at the junction of Leongatha-South Outtrim Road and Outtrim-Inverloch Road. The town is named for the Honourable Alfred R. Outtrim, MLA, Minister for Mines in the Victorian Government at the time. The first settlers moved into the area in the early 1880s, and cleared the bushland for farming.
The early days
In 1892 black coal was discovered in the area, and a few companies started to mine it. The mine was named after Alfred Outtrim, and as the town around it grew, it took on the name of the mine. By 1894 all of the companies had consolidated to form the “Outtrim, Howitt and British Consolidated Coal Company” (OHBCCC). The coal had been tested by Victorian Railways and been found to be equal in quality to Newcastle coal for use in steam engines. By the use of drilled bore holes, it had been determined that there was about four million tons (4,064,200,000kgs) of coal accessible from Outtrim. In January 1896 the chairman of the company reported to stockholders that they had been successful in obtaining a contract from Victoria Railways for the supply of half their requirement of coal until 30 September 1896, then 100% of their coal requirement until 30 September 1898. He congratulated the stockholders on their wisdom in investing in such a splendid enterprise.
In the early days the coal was transported to the rail head at Jumbunna, which opened on 7 May 1894, by bullock-drawn wagons. As part of the company’s contract to supply coal to the Victorian Railways, the line was extended to Outtrim and opened on 5 February 1896. It was budgeted to cost £20,000 ($19,980,000 in 2020), but actually cost £25,000 ($24,980,000 in 2020) as the “navvies” demanded 6/- ($300 in 2020) a day, instead of the 5/- ($250 in 2020) a day that was quoted for.
As more miners and other staff were employed at the mine, the town grew. First a boarding house, then post office, police station, community hall, library, several hotels and coffee palaces, six churches (including Druids), and stores of all descriptions. The school started to enrol students when the building was completed in 1900. A sporting reserve was established in 1902 with facilities for cricket, Australian football, tennis and rifle shooting. A basic horse racing track was laid out a few kilometres south of the town. The town grew steadily; by 1901 there were about 1700 residents, the following year this had grown to about 2500. By 1904 there were about 650 people employed at the mine.
One of the early store owners in Outtrim was James Gwyther who owned the above building. The left-hand shop was let to the butcher. For reasons unknown, the sign above the awning states the Fancy Goods store owner is “M. E. Gwyther”. This was Mary Elizabeth Gwyther (née Inwood), the wife of James. James and Mary Gwyther were the grandparents of Charles James Lenard (Lennie) Gwyther, see the story “The Plucky Boy’s Ride” in the Westprint Friday Five, 1 October 2021.
The Outtrim Club offered the finest accommodation in Outtrim. With its 30 well-appointed rooms, luxurious dining room, drawing room, and billiard room, it catered to visiting dignitaries and the discerning guest.
Strife and Strikes
At about the same time as the board of directors and stockholders were back-slapping each other for gaining the Railways contract, the workers at the mine were not happy. At the close of operations before Christmas, 25 of the 50 workers employed to cart coal to Jumbunna by bullock-drawn wagons were dismissed until the rail line opened. On commencing work in the new year, they were confronted with a notice in the wall stating that only 23 of the 25 employees previously retained would be required. This was too much for the workers, and they went on strike until the affected two were reinstated. The mine manager refused to speak to the representatives of the Victorian Coal Miners’ Association, stating he would only deal with the workers directly. Although this did happen, no resolution was reached. It was always the position of the company that the original 25 men dismissed, and the new two men retrenched, would only not be required until the railway was completed, and that was only about two weeks away, then they would be reinstated. In the meantime the mine laid idle, as the company decided not to stockpile the coal due to possible bush fires in the area.
The town of Outtrim, with the railway cutting in the foreground. Gillespie’s General Store is the first building on the left.
Once the rail line was complete, the company found alternate work for all 50 bullock wagon employees, with all workers returning to work on 23 January. However, this did not last very long; although the company had a contract to supply coal to the railway, the Victorian Railways failed to supply sufficient wagons to transport the coal from the mine, and the company had no alternative but to stockpile the coal. Once this had reached a dangerous level, the company ceased mining operations until the coal backlog could be removed by the railways, and this took several weeks.
Once production at the mine was back to normal, an inspection revealed; that the coal seam being worked was 4 foot 10 inches (1.5m) high, and the tunnels were high enough for a normal person to be able to walk upright without incurring a head injury, and wide enough for several people to pass without obstruction. The tunnel system was fitted with a furnace ventilation system which worked extremely well in providing ample fresh air to the workers. There was no build-up of gas which could provoke an explosion anywhere in the mine complex. At this time (February 1896) the mine was producing 300-400 toms of coal a week, and this was expected to increase to 1,000 tons when more modern machinery was introduced in the following year.
As the town grew, so did its infrastructure problems. By November 1896, the stench from the haphazard sewer system became overpowering, with the population demanding the local Council provide an effective treatment plant for the town. A report was prepared by the council sanitary inspector that a suitable site was located approx. 1½ miles (2.4kms) south of the town. No evidence has been found confirming that a treatment plant was built at the site.
The miners’ union called a meeting of all employees of both the Outtrim and Korumburra mines owned by OHBCCC on 28 November 1896. The men were addressed by Mr. Allen, a union official. He stated that it was the position of OHBCCC that all employees were required to purchase a block of land in the town where they were employed. After a heated discussion, the meeting passed the following resolution: “That the action of the Outtrim Company in compelling workmen to buy a block of land as a means of employment is a disgrace to civilisation, and a menace to the freedom of subjects under the British Crown.” They also decided to go on strike until the company dropped the requirement.
A couple of weeks later the union officials, including Mr. Allen, were called to the headquarters of the company. He was singled out and asked why he had made the statement that the company required all employees to purchase a block of land as a condition of their employment when he had been explicitly told by the board the week before the union meeting that it was not the position of the company. The board accused him of “…making a misleading motion, calculated to cause friction between the company and its workmen, knowing the same to be untrue.” The directors then stated that “…they will only hold communication with the men who they are satisfied will convey to the general body of workmen a true and correct report of any statements made by the directors.” Mr. Allen was then dismissed from the boardroom leaving only the remaining two union representatives, Mr. Garrett and Mr. Inglis. The remaining representatives, then agreed with the board that because of Mr. Allen’s motion, the men, “…in laying the pit idle, had been guilty of an illegal act; also that they were instructed to represent to the board that the men were extremely sorry for their action, and were desirous that work should be resumed at the colliery.”
The chairman of the board, Mr. George Nicholson, then remonstrated the union officials for the frequent stoppages and unworkmen like manner in which they had worked at the pit. Mr. Garrett and Mr. Inglis agreed that this had been the case. They were told that the company was formatting a new set of rules under which the mine would be worked. In closing, Mr Nicholson then laid down the law: “It is also to be clearly understood that the directors are determined to manage the colliery on their own lines, and to have the work carried on more systematically than hitherto. At the same time every consideration for the safety and comfort of the men will be shown.”
Over the next few years there were many strikes, not only at Outtrim, but also at other mines in the East Gippsland area. Most of them only involved a few miners, or were able to be settled within a few days. However, in late December 1902, the Victorian Railways notified OHBCCC that they would be reducing the price they paid for their coal. As a consequence, the company notified its workers that it would be reducing their pay rate. The company issued a notice stating that its agreement with the employees would be terminated on Saturday 17 January 1903. A new set of rules would be issued on Monday 19 January, and all existing employees would have the opportunity to apply for work under these new rules. This was not taken well by the miners.
The Baldwin ‘Ten-Wheeler’ “W” class locomotive (manufactured in Pennsylvania, United States) was used to haul 190 tons of coal at a time from Outtrim at a maximum speed of 25 mph an hour.
Up to this time, the company had been advertising for new miners at a pay rate of 9/- ($419.90 in 2020) a day. However, under the new rules, they were proposing to pay the miners 8/4 ($389.10 in 2020) a day. They also intended to cut the “hewing rate” from 3/6 ($163.30 in 2020) a ton to 2/6 ($116.60 in 2020) a ton (1 ton = 1,016kgs). It was typical at this time for miners to be paid a daily rate, plus the hewing rate. At the old rate the average miners wage was 13/10 ($645.70 in 2020) a day. Given that in 1903, the average daily wage for a factory worker in Australia was about 6/6 ($300 in 2020), then $645.70 was very good money.
A miner hewing (cutting) coal with a pick. Working by candlelight because it is dark, almost naked because it is hot, and almost laying-down as the tunnel is not very high.
The miners objected to the new rates of pay on two grounds; they were out of proportion with the reduction in the price of coal, and, it did not allow the men to earn reasonable wages. The miners did not return to work on 19 January, but stayed on strike indefinitely. A conference was called at the company’s office shortly after, with the workers, their union, and company representatives in attendance. The company refused to negotiate with the union, and ordered them to leave. The workers stated that they would not work under the new pay scale, however, they would negotiate for a compromise through their union, or accept arbitration. The company refused to negotiate with the union or accept arbitration, and the meeting broke-up.
A few weeks later the company employed “free labourers”; non-union members, to carry-out “essential work” in the mine. These free labourers were housed in the stables, provided with food by the company, and protected by the police. The railway siding was patrolled by two police officers, and another four patrolled the town. However, there was almost no trouble, and generally the police had little to do.
The following day, an unscheduled, informal meeting developed outside the mine between some of the miners, the mine manager, and some of the free labourers. The miners, at first tried to persuade the free labourers to leave the mine-site, and a few did, but most stayed. The miners then made taunts to the mine manager that the mine underground manager, the chief engineer, four foremen, and two engine-drivers had also withdrawn their services at the mine in sympathy with the miners. The manager ignored the taunts. After a few more hours, the remainder of the free labourers left the mine-site, stating they were going to Bendigo.
The behaviour of the two sides toward each other remained extremely bitter, with each side seemingly determined to accept nothing less than complete capitulation of the other. In late April the union put forward the proposition that the matter go to arbitration with the Chief Justice of Victoria presiding. The company maintained that this was nothing new, and refused.
In early May the company again hired free labourers, along with six additional police officers to protect them. This bought the total number of police in the town to about 30, although there had been no serious trouble. Large marquees had been erected on vacant mine land to house and feed the men. The free labourers started screening the coal and loading it into the rail wagons for it to be taken to Melbourne. This work continued all day, with the mine in operation, although no coal was being removed from the coalface.
Over the next few months the Court of Petty Sessions at Korumburra, had a constant stream of cases bought by the police concerning minor instances of verbal and/or physical abuse by union members and/or their wives against free labourers and/or people supplying goods and/or services (such as butchers, bakers, etc.) to free labourers. There are stories of women using obscene language to the free labourers, butchers’ carts being overturned and the meat stolen, groups of union members throwing stones and bottles at the free labourers, etc.
Although the free labourers were now fully operating the mine, the output was nothing like that before the strike. In 1902 the monthly output of the mine averaged between 20,000 (20,321,000kgs) and 22,000 tons (22,353,000kgs), whereas the free labourers were delivering just 2,000 tons (2,032,100kgs) a month, but this did improve in time.
Throughout the strike the men had been supported by donations from miners, of all minerals, from all over Australia, and beyond. These donations were received at the union office, and distributed to Outtrim miners based on their previous wages before the strike. Most of the donations came from coal mines in New South Wales, such as those in the Hunter Valley, Illawarra, Mudgee, etc., and mines for other minerals, such as the silver, lead and zinc mines at Broken Hill, etc. But donations also came from much further afield, such as Kalgoorlie (Western Australia), Zeehan (Tasmania), Denniston Plateau, (South Island, New Zealand), Blair Athol (Queensland), and others. In fact so much money was donated that some miners received almost as much money as they did before the strike.
However, in April 1904, the miners on New South Wales (the major contributors) decided that they had contributed enough money to their comrades in Outtrim, and stopped the flow of cash. With this, most of the miners in Outtrim had had enough.
On 14 May 1904 a meeting of the miners was held at Barbeta’s Hotel in Outtrim to vote on ending the strike. Due to the number of votes cast, the union officials decided not to count the votes until Monday 16 May. On that day they met at noon, again at Barbeta’s Hotel, and at 4.00pm announced that the strike was at an end after 486 days. The vote being 204 in favour and 76 against, and was to officially take effect at 11.00am on Wednesday 18 May. However, there was still a small amount of donated money held by the union. This was divided up amongst the striking miners who each received 3/- ($141 in 2020).
The terms of the settlement were not disclosed by the company or the union. However, it seems that nothing was gained by one of the longest strikes in Australia up to that time.
Very few of the miners returned to work in the Outtrim mine, most preferring to move on to other mines which, as they perceived it, better appreciated their skills. Consequently, as many as 10 houses were sold in one day, mainly to investors.
Outtrim begins to die
The town and the mine had taken a beating, and it took quite some time to recover. As many miners had left the town, the company needed to engage new employees and train most of them. The suppliers of goods, butchers, bakers, etc., needed to make-up lost income, and so increased their prices. There are reports that the price of a loaf of bread doubled from 3d ($1.74 in 2020) a loaf to 6d ($3.35 in 2020) a loaf. Similarly, in some cases, the price of meat more than doubled. During and after the strike several businesses in the town closed entirely or moved to more progressive towns. It was becoming obvious to many that the town was on a downward slide.
By 1908 it was becoming increasingly difficult to produce sufficient coal to fulfill the company’s contracts. What coal remained was difficult to access and more expensive to remove from the mine.
Again, despite having an almost entirely new workforce, strikes continued, although most were minor. Typical is the strike of October 1911, when 25 men went on strike. Undersize coal is always a problem in coal mines, it is referred to as “slack”, and generally can’t be minimised. In early October the mine manager decided to dock the miners pay according to the amount of slack they had produced in each wagon load. The men attempted to discuss the matter with the manager, but he refused. Eventually the company board decided to reduce the amount the men would be docked, and the men returned to work after only a few days on strike. At this time the population of the town had fallen from about 2,500 in 1902 to about 850.
As virtually all the buildings in the town were constructed of timber, fire was an ever-present problem. In 1912, and again in 1913 (when the population had fallen to about 700), fires destroyed large sections of the towns’ business district, and were not rebuilt.
The OHBCCC mine eventually closed in 1918. A few years later, several small companies worked the mine filling bags of coal for sale in retail stores for domestic use. In 1951 the railway line from Korumburra to Outtrim was closed permanently and the rails and all infrastructure removed. The last building still standing in the town, the school, closed in 1993. There is little evidence of Outtrim remaining today, apart from some railway cuttings, the sports ground (which is still used), and the cemetery.
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