And I Thought there were no Miners in our Family – Discovering Uncle Alex Hicks

When asked about my family in the early European days of the Northern Illawarra, I’d always responded “We were farmers, not miners.” Mum had shared stories about the Hicks Family so I felt confident that, and surprisingly for an Illawarra family, we had no coal miners in the early days. And then I found out the story my mother hadn’t shared, and maybe not even known, about her Great Uncle Alexander Henry Hicks.

Old North Illawarra Council Building in Fairy Meadow - now private offices.

Old North Illawarra Council Building in Fairy Meadow – now private offices.

Uncle Alex was a Coal Miner, a Council Alderman then Mayor of the North Illawarra Council, and and second President of the  Southern Districts Coal Mining Union – the Illawarra Collliery Employees Assocation. A hard union man in a turbulent and dangerous era.

Alex was in the Chair at the Illawarra Colliery Employees Association Delegates Meeting in 1904 that brought John Barnes Nicholson MLA to heel to sign the Labour Party’s Solidarity Pledge in exchange for miners’ support. Reading between the lines there certainly seemed to have been some heated views flying around. Nicholson denied he’d refused  and agreed to sign the Pledge if there was majority support – the delegates voted unanimously in support – JB Nicholson signed, pledging Solidarity with the Labour Party Caucus in NSW Parliament.  The Pledge had been a big issue in the Labour Party since 1894, and remains a core ethic to this day.

Named for his maternal grandfather, according to Scottish Naming Tradition, Alex would have learned how his grandfather Alexander McKenzie, with wife Anne McLean, had left with their family, as impoverished Scottish Crofters,  escaping the Scottish Potato Blight Famine of 1836-37, from Armadale on the Isle of Skye. Fortunately in many ways as they missed a more severe severe famine and inhuman Scottish Clearances of the 1840’s. They came to Fairy Meadow in 1837, and Mary Ann was their first born child in 1839.

Alex was her second born son with husband Henry Thomas , the eldest son of James Hicks, a self styled “Farmer, Gentleman,” who bought and owned most of Austinmer, after starting with almost nothing as the son of two convicts. And there would be no doubt that Alex heard stories of the McKenzie family’s tough times on the Isle of Skye in the old days from Mary Ann. She was kept busy raising 10 children to adulthood, but in her obituary they said she’d still found time to talk about politics. I hadn’t heard that story passed down either.

And despite their large family, Henry and Mary Ann looked out for their more extended family, especially where the breadwinner had died. Alex’s Uncle William Hicks had been critically injured in a timber mill accident in Bega, his back broken, in 1885. There was no hospital in Bega then, so they brought him up on a dray to Moruya, no hospital there either and no rooms, he was left on the floor of a Chemists’. He died a week later. This would drive a campaign to establish a hospital in Moruya according to his granddaughter, Marilyn McDonald. And Alex’s young cousin, William’s eldest son Joseph Henry, was taken in by Alex’s parents. Up in Cairns later on, he would look back to those times at North Bulli for the rest of his life. And a sewing machine was bought for William’s widow, Margaret, so she could earn a living to support her family.

From his birth in 1866, Alex would have been immersed in local politics, granddad James Hicks and father Henry Thomas, were active in lobbying for many things, a northern coastal road, the south coast railway, a post office in Thirroul, setting up of a local branch of the Free Trade Assocation. They were responsible for the first  school to be established north of Woonona, at Austinmer in 1866. The teachers boarded with the Hicks family during the week. Alex had the advantage of education. And his family had been active in the earliest days of the campaign to establish the Bulli Shire as its own local government area, separate from the North Illawarra Council formed in 1868. His Dad had chaired sessions on debating the Constitution ahead of the Federation of 1901. Of course Henry was on of the executive for the funds raised for widows of the Bulli Mine Disaster of 1887. If a sentence were to describe Alex’s father it would be “Captain HT Hicks JP presided in the Chair”, even at political dinners in 1898 where Andrew Lysaght also attended.   Alex did a lot of that presiding too – and he would have seen at close-hand “the perils of work”.

The south coast railway came in 1887, the same year Alex’s dad was elected as Alderman Hicks to the Northern Ward of the North Illawarra Council. With the railway came tourism, mining expanded and so did residential subdivisions to house workers for all the new economic activity. None of Henry Thomas Hicks’ children followed him into farming in the Illawarra, although three daughters were married to farmers on the NSW North Coast. Eldest son James Alexander Hicks seemed to shun the political scene and disappeared to Sydney. Second son Alex and younger brother Harry (Henry Thomas Jnr) went into the northern mines of the southern district coalfields – Alex at Corrimal  and Harry at Old Bulli. Both became union delegates – although Alex was the more active. Coincidentally I had been underground in both pits, unusual for a female in the 1980’s, even for one with an engineering background like mine – saw the longwall and shearer in operation at Corrimal before its closure.

I only came upon this lost political and coal mining heritage when researching family history – looking up Hicks in the Wollongong Library’s Web Links and finding an reference to an obituary for Alex as a former mayor of North Illawarra Council. As a former Ward One City Councillor on Wollongong Council for over 12 years, that was always going to grab my attention.

Further digging revealed Alex, as a Check Inspector at the Corrimal pit,  giving evidence at the Mt Kembla Mine Disaster Inquiry in 1903 – I wondered how he came to be asked. Next emerged, that Alex was speaking at the unveiling of the Mt Kembla Mining Disaster Memorial for Major Henry Osborne McCabe and W McMurray in 1905 – in his dual capacity not only as the Mayor of Northern Illawarra, but also as the President of the Illawarra Colliery Employees Association, the early miners federation established in 1902. I’d also been NSW President of the small union, Association of Professional Scientists of Australia, its delegate to the South Coast Labour Council and on the SCLC’s Executive for a number of years. So to see some sort of parallel in my own era with Uncle Alex’s was inspiring …  wishing I’d known of his story before …  and that his story should not be forgotten. I’d worked with the son of one of the miners shot upon by Police at Rothbury in the Hunter Valley struggle of 1929, where subsequently many police turned in their badges, and well knew the depth of feeling amongst miners about their industrial struggles.

I turned to the National Library of Australia’s Digitised Newspaper Collection, Trove, which is sponsored by the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation, under its Community Wellbeing Priority. Nearly 80 mentions of Alex in the Sydney newspapers from 1897  to 1914 ! And Trove hasn’t started on digitising the Illawarra Mercury  newspapers – so there will be more on Uncle Alex emerge in 2014.

And the issues that Alex was embroiled in ? A long list – which can be found here – big one’s indeed – the 8 hour Day, pushing along the merger of the Northern, Southern, Western Districts coal miners unions in NSW and with unions from other states which wouldn’t be finalised until 1915, the introduction of coal cutting machines, the new Conciliation Boards and Systems at State and Federal level, the Mt Kembla Mining Disaster of 1902, 4 deaths in the South Clifton Disaster too, the contentious Labour Party Solidarity Pledge by elected Labour parliamentary  representatives issue in 1907 … to name but a few .. some  below  and more can be found here.

  • 1897 – 03 -03 – The Evening News – Alexander Hicks – President of Corrimal Miners Union Balgownie – Letter to the Illawarra Mercury
  • 1898 – 01 – 26 – Sydney Morning Herald – Nominations for Municipal Councils – Alexander Hicks nominated for position of Auditor of the North Illawarra Council
  • 1899 – 02 – 13 – The Evening News – Alexander Hicks elected as Alderman for Central Ward of North Illawarra Council,
  • 1900 – 01 – 19 – Sydney Morning Herald – Conference between Illawarra Coal Mine Owners and Delegates from the Miners including Alexander Hicks as delegate from Corrimal Mine
  • 1900 – 11 – 17  – Sydney Morning Herald – Southern Collieries – meeting where nominations received for 3 members to sit on a joint committee with mine owners on Hewing Rates and other matters incidental to the Southern Coal Industry – Alexander Hicks was present
  • 1900 – 11 – 27 – Sydney Morning Herald – Miners District Council meeting – attended by Corrimal Miners Lodge Delegate Alexander Hicks – covered Shovel and Pillar rates and a resolution passed protesting against the NSW Legislative Council failing to support the Compulsory Arbitration Bill and requesting the Premier to urge the NSW LC to support it
  • 1902 – 08 – 09 – Sydney Morning Herald – meeting in Balgownie for financial support of families of miners killed in the Mt Kembla 1902 Mine Disaster – Alexander Hicks elected to the Committee
  • 1903 – 11 – 30 – Sydney Morning Herald – Illawarra Miners Association (Illawarra Colliery Employees Association?) President T Drury resigned and Alexander Hicks appointed as interim President till an election can be held
  • 1904 – 03 – 10 – Sydney Morning Herald – Alexander Hicks elected as President, D Ritchie re-elected as Secretary, and T R Morgan Treasurer
  • 1904 – 09 – 20 – Sydney Morning Herald – Alexander Hicks  President of the Colliery Employees Association presided over a special meeting of Labour Party representatives, where they decided to canvas alternative candidates to oppose sitting Federal Illawarra MP George Fuller, for the federal seat of Illawarra who would better represent the interests of labour. Later Fuller would become Sir George Warburton Fuller,Conservative  Premier of NSW in 1922-1925.
  • 1904 – 12 – 03 – Sydney Morning Herald – special meeting of the Illawarra Miners Employees Association chaired by Association President Alexander Hicks – in support of the whole Coledale Mine workforce which had been given notice, and the Company’s intention on using machines so that the men would be “coal-getters” rather than miners
  • 1904 – 12 – 30 – Sydney Morning Herald – Coledale Mine Manager Thomas Cater is sued by an Inspector of the Factories and Shops Act of breaching the 1902 Award of last on – first off during sackings at the mine. Case conducted by Illawarra Colliery Employees Association Secretary D Ritchie with evidence given by Association President Alexander Hicks, Treasure T R Morgan and several others
  • 1905 – 04 – 15 – Sydney Morning Herald – Quarterly meeting of Illawarra Colliery Employees Association chaired by Association President Alexander Hicks – significant issues dealt with including inexperienced miners being employed at the coal face, concerns about the Arbitration System operations
  • 1905 – 07 – 15 – Sydney Morning Herald – Quarterly meeting of Illawarra Colliery Employees Association chaired by Association President Alexander Hicks – dealing with an alleged black list of miners in Association Positions preventing them from getting jobs in Mines
  • 1905 – 10 – 17 – Sydney Morning Herald – Rules for Proposed Illawarra District Friendly Societies Association covering from Bulli to Dapto – Alexander Hicks President1906 – 10 – 11 – Sydney Morning Herald – special meeting of delegates of Illawarra Colliery Employees Association to discuss hewing rates at South Bulli Colliery being inadequate in “hard” headings and deficient places, where less coal could be mined, and so an inadequate wage earned – some disagreement between TR Morgan (miners) and Dr Robertson,(Colliery Owners), but eventually resolved and proposed agreement sent to the board of conciliation.
  • 1907 – 04 – 15 – Sydney Morning Herald- Quarterly meeting of Illawarra Colliery Employees Association, President Alexander Hicks in the chair  – lots of industrial disputation issues and considering breaking away from the Industrial Agreement which is due to run until 1909 – not enough skips and so can’t load enough to get paid enough, recommendation that Illawarra Colliery Employees Association Secretary TR Morgan be appointed to a board to select examiners under the Coal Mines Regulation Act
  • 1907 – 06 – 13 – Sydney Morning Herald – long special meeting of delegates of the Illawarra Colliery Employees Association ran from 11am till 8pm with President Alexander Hicks presiding; consideration of breaking away from the Industrial Agreement and some Colliery Managers were creating breaches of the agreement by not properly returning skips; upcoming meeting with Northern and Western Miners Associations to discuss merger of the three associations; endorsing J B Nicholson MLA as Labour Candidate for Wollongong at forthcoming state elections; action at South Clifton following death of 4 men; issue of men declining to work for 10 hours on stone at Mt Pleasant pit
  • 1907 – 10 – 12 – Sydney Morning Herald – Quarterly meeting of the Illawarra Colliery Employees Association delegates chaired by Alexander Hicks; machine cut coal differential issues in regard to hewing rates continue, support for 8 Hour Act for Collieries; pressure on labour availability, John Stephen Kirton to start up Excelsior Colliery, Thirroul again; Coke market going well;
  • 1907 – 11 – 14 – Sydney Morning Herald – combined meeting of Corrimal & Mt Pleasant Lodges presided over by Illawarra Colliery Employees Association President Alexander Hicks, about the proposed merger with Northern & Southern Miners Association not progressing – problems attributed to divisiveness arising from socialistic ideas of some of the Northern Miners – but need to press ahead with proposition of making a common cause – meeting supported amalgamation (note however this merger would not be achieved for a number of years)
  • 1907 – 12 – 09 – Sydney Morning Herald – Report on state of the mines markets;  Conciliation Board noted the retirement of Illawarra Collliery Employees Association officials at the next elections – including President Alexander Hicks; note at how the Southern Districts resolve disputes whereas the Northern Districts use only strike action; reference to 1907 having been a Miners Year by D A W Robertson and hoping that the Mines might have some show the following year; discussion of work on the Port Kembla harbour; mention of duplication of the south coast railway
  • 1908 – 01 – 13 – Sydney Morning Herald – covered annual meeting of 10.6.1908 with Alexander Hicks as President chairing the Illawarra Colliery Employees Association – decision taken to merge with Victorian Coalminers Assocation in order to receive the full benefit of the Federal Arbitration Act; 2 delegates to be sent to the conference of the Political Labour League and 2 representatives to the proposed Trade Union Congress in Sydney in April – Alexander Hicks was selected as one of the delegates; decided to set aside Saturday before 8 Hour Day as a gala day for members of the Association – relating to the Coal Mines Act Amendment of 1908 “Section thirty-eight of the Coal-mines Act, 1908, is hereby Section 88 of Coal Mines Act is there by amended by adding to subsection one thereof the following words: ” Such overtime shall be paid at the rate of not less than time and a quarter· for all time worked in excess of the said eight hours, and shall be payable notwithstanding the provisions of any award or industrial agreement now or hereafter to be in force. Every miner employed on Sundays or holidays in or about a mine shall be entitled to be paid at the rate of one and a half times his ordinary wages.”” – Note – it was not until 1916 that all workers gained the advantage of the 8 Hour Day & in 1915 that the Miners Federation formed.
  • 1908 – 02 – 03 – Sydney Morning Herald – Alexander Hicks elected as Alderman for Middle Ward North Illawarra Council
  • 1911 – 02 – 03 – The Land – Alderman Alexander Hicks re-elected to North Illawarra Council
  • 1914 – 0 3 – 14 – Sydney Morning Herald – Alexander Hicks elected Secretary of the Mount Pleasant Miners Lodge

In 1918, Uncle Alex’s wife Esther passed away and Uncle Alex passed away in 1957 in 91st year, leaving only his two younger sisters surviving, of his nine siblings. He must have been so busy fighting for the causes he believed in, and may be that is why he didn’t seem to be in any photos with his siblings, taken at family gatherings.  All too often that’s the price of commitment to the “cause”. Some might say played hard .. done good like Jack Gibson used to say … I wish more of the family had remembered him…


Even more references to Alexander and Esther Hicks, as well as their family

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About Kerrie Anne Christian

Interests - Travel, Photography, Developing Websites, Social Media, Writing, Local History, Researcher, Genealogy
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