Day 5 of our Broken Hill adventure kicks off with a visit to White’s Mineral Art and Mining Museum owned and operated by Kevin “Bushy” White and his wife Betty. It is she who is in charge this morning, and we are ushered into a small, low-ceilinged area, its size and dim-lighting atmospheric of being in an underground mine. We watch a short introductory film on 100 years of Broken Hill mining, and then Betty takes the spotlight. In her fair-dinkum, true-blue, dinkey-di,accent (authentic, loyal, genuine, Australian) she makes her points strongly – without the need for exclamation – by dropping her voice at the end of each sentence and elongating the final words. We are left in no doubt as to her opinion of mine owners in those formative years of Broken Hill, and how cheaply they valued the life of the miners. In those days when a boy started down the mine at fourteen, his adulthood dominated by silicosis – dust on the lungs – and dead by his mid-thirties.
“8000 miners toiled the hard way, all hand work,” she tells us, “not like the 460 today – just button pushers sitting behind a computer.” . . . The problem is economic of course, those “button pushers” can extract 200 tonne of ore on one twelve hour shift, as she is the first to acknowledge.
The ceiling is constructed to look like rock above us. Betty points out square shaped plates bolted into the simulated rock undulations, and draws to our attention that they are curved. The bolted plates can hold back 14 tonnes, but the curved design is an early warning system. If they start to flatten out, the miners know that a rock fall is imminent. I think she called it a “Browns Plate“. It was a local invention, but its designer never patented the system, which is a pity, as it is still in use today.
Something Betty is extremely proud of is that no mining has ever taken place underneath Broken Hill the city. As well, all the mine shafts were backfilled as mining progressed. In the old days, the ore and quartz was brought in a skip in solid chunks. The lead and zinc was extracted, and the residue was sent back down as fill. Even though today’s mining method means that the rock is pulverised underground, it is then put into a flotation tank for the minerals float to the surface. The remaining slurry is pumped back down as backfill.
The outcome is that the region is not subject to subsidence, which is a big problem in other historic Australian mining towns such as Newcastle. “As one company takes over from another,” Betty says, “the first thing they do is clean out all the cupboards for their own use. All the old plans get thrown out and no one knows where the tunnels are. It’s just one company passing the buck to another.” She is right of course. I have read of mining accidents in recent history where a new tunnel has breached the walls of an old tunnel for lack of mapping.
Betty is a passionate speaker. Gosh, I would love to recount more of her anecdotes and go off on a tangent about the 130 year history of the grand struggles of labour versus capitalism in Broken Hill, including the fight to pay widows of mining accidents a pension, but there just isn’t enough space in one blog post. Let’s just say that Betty is your “go-to” person if you are ever wanting to know more. There are 50,000 people in the cemetery we saw on the first day of our trip, and I reckon Betty can tell exactly how each miner and their family members got there.
Her husband “Bushy” White was a miner for nearly thirty years, and now spends his time making art collages from raw minerals in all their natural colours. Had he been giving the talk it would have been in the same vein (no pun intended), as demonstrated by this media interview which is worth reading if you would like to know more. Betty, meanwhile, turns her artistic talents to making and dressing dolls and bears.
We were dropped back into town for lunch, so a few of us headed for the Palace Hotel. The Temperance Movement commissioned its construction in 1889, and ran it as a coffee palace. A brave, brave move in an Australian mining town famous for a big thirst. Despite there being at least forty other drinking holes, the teetotal vision failed after three years, and The Palace has been a licensed hotel since 1892. if you saw the 1994 Australian movie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, you will have seen this hotel. To say the hotel decorations are OTT (over the top) is an understatement, but it is a lot of fun, and the hotel is a core part of the annual Broken Heel Festival.
Our afternoon tour took us to artwork of a different calibre. There are over twenty galleries in Broken Hill and Silverton, and first up for us was “Bush ‘n’ Beyond” run by Wendy Martin and Ian Lewis. They are mostly landscape artists, and some of Wendy’s pieces were on loan to an exhibition at the city art gallery when we called in. I bumped into her later in the week when she was loading it in the car. It was a story of the disappearing river in three pieces. The first from her childhood memories of a full river, then a reduction, and now a trickle. Each piece was a smaller height than the first, representing the diminishing form of the river. It was very striking.
Jack Absalom is well known in Australia, and possibly to some of my overseas readers. A former miner, he discovered his talent by accident, and now his oils of outback Australia are an iconic part of our artistic landscape. He is getting on a bit now (born 1927). We were told he is a captivating raconteur with lots of stories worth listening to, but on our visit this day, although he popped his head out to greet our arrival, he didn’t stay to chat, and left us to wander his gallery at will. Like most of the artists, the gallery is within their family home, and the Absalom front garden is a very pleasant place.
By contrast, Howard William Steer was a hoot! His art tells humorous stories and he took us through the inspiration for many of the pieces which are compiled in a book called “Just What the Doctor Ordered“. You can see some examples on his website, take a look at “Shopping on Line“, for instance.
Pro Hart, also a former miner, went on to become one of Australia’s most famous artists. He had a number of different styles, including metal sculptures which we saw all over town. One of his trademarks is the dragonfly. Another is metal ants, which is his metaphor for miners crawling around the place. In this late 80s advertisement for Stainmaster Carpets, he allows his creative style to be sent up. He also had a passion for collecting cars, one of which he gave a new paint job!
The final artistic stop for the day was to The Big Picture, housed in the Silver City Mint and Art Centre. My goodness. This is a must-see. It is billed as “The world’s largest acrylic painting on canvas by a single artist“. Visitors walk through a simulated mine tunnel into a domed room with a board walk running down the centre. Surrounding them, on a nearly 360′ vista, is a picture of the outback 100 metres long and 12 metres at its highest point. (328×40 feet). You feel as if you are standing in the actual landscape. To create this masterpiece, the artist “Ando” used a million brush strokes and 100,000 saltbush, 20,000 trees, 20,000 small stones, 1000 large stones, 3,000 clouds, 1,500 hills and 12 sculptures. It is amazing!
The art centre includes works by several other artists as well. I particularly liked the works of Peter Anderson, especially his “Bush Postman” (a kookaburra) and his rosellas. There was something about juxtaposing a flat foreground with depth of field which really made them “pop”. Actually, I liked all of his work!
As the name suggests, the Silver City Mint also makes and displays silver jewellery, and many other types of jewellery and gifts. There is lots to see there, and I made a mental note to come back in a couple of days.
And so ended yet another full day – with an even bigger one to follow – White Cliffs, the underground home of opal miners.