THE infamous Rothbury Riot is a frightening memory for older miners on the Northern Coalfields.
But that's almost 90 years ago now. So, what all the fuss about? Why is it still so vividly remembered among an older generation?
After all, Newcastle's Star Hotel riot 40 years ago next week on September 19, 1979, is far more recent memory. But let's not forget that major civil disturbance was really just a big, drunken mob brawl over the sudden closure of a local pub.
It's mostly remembered these days because of the extraordinary footage shot on that over-the-top night by fearless NBN TV cameraman Barry Nancarrow.
There's no comparison. The so-called Rothbury Riot of December 16, 1929, was far more deadly serious with long-lasting consequences for all involved.
The riot is still etched in the memory of Coalfields folk because it was a turning point in unionism and industrial relations. For when the violence and savagery was unleashed on the starving miners they greeted it with disbelief, making them forever embittered, distrustful of governments or any authority.
Out of the struggle came a greater sense of solidarity and community strength and later marked gains in working conditions.
On paper, the story seems simple enough. Up to 6000 miners had marched on the Rothbury colliery, near Cessnock, where mine owners were attempting to re-open the closed pit with scab labour.
The miners arrived at dawn, trying to gain entry to the mine knowing a tent city with about 350 "volunteer" workers had been hastily erected inside.
Violence erupted with police. Police were instructed to fire shots into the air and ground only. The mass assault was soon repulsed.
The official toll was one innocent miner - Norman Brown - shot dead by a policeman's bullet, apparently from a ricochet. Nine others were said to be hit by bullets and dozens injured.
The incident occurred during the Great Depression. Earlier, miners had been locked out of work illegally with their families now living in poverty, living on charity. Almost 10,000 miners went without work for 15 months before they finally returned with a 12.5 per cent pay cut and the loss of other industrial rights.
But is it the whole story?
The unarmed miners said they went there peacefully at first to protest, even accompanied by a pipe band to keep up morale. But the sight of the scab labour tents enraged desperate miners and things got out of hand.
The Sun newspaper soon reported one miner being killed, plus 45 also being wounded.
Then came a "six-months reign of terror" up to June 1930, according to former northern mining leader, the late Jim Comerford. It was the era of the 'Basher Gang'.
They rode in motor lorries patrolling the main road between Maitland and Cessnock 24 hours a day. If they found three people gathered together in the street, it was an offence under the Unlawful Assembies Act. Little matter if the men on the street were merely talking about the cricket or the weather, they were clubbed into submission not to gather like that again.
Comerford, who had been a terrified 15-year-old witness to the Rothbury colliery violence, said "imagine the uproar if the same sort of thing happened at (Sydney's) Vaucluse or on the North Shore".
He said it was a common belief these "specials" weren't police, but actually Sydney underworld scum, long-term criminals given early release and put into uniform.
"Their appetite for brutality and the clear dislike of them by most of the local police fed that belief," Comerford said in 1980.
The looming anniversary of the traumatic 1929 Rothbury Riot came into prominence recently with the exhibition "The Shot Heard Around Australia" held at Cessnock Library. While the display is over, some exhibition panels will return on December 16, on the actual 90th anniversary date.
Cessnock Local Studies librarian Kimberly O'Sullivan said its exhibition space was booked out about 18 months in advance.
"So, sadly, I cannot extend the exhibition even though I would very much like to," she said.
The last time Rothbury 1929 - Australia's most violent industrial conflict - came under the spotlight was in 2007 when the documentary Lockout was screened.
Five years in the making, the program was created by the Hunter-based team of Greg Hall and Diane Michael. Strangely enough, during their research they found state government records between 1928 and 1934, like a coronial inquiry they wanted, no longer existed. Few photographs also existed as during the Rothbury Riot miners had smashed news cameras.
Among the miners had been Wally Wood who miraculously survived being shot in the throat by a police bullet.
"I was one of the unlucky blokes," he told me 30 years ago at Raymond Terrace. He said the bullet must have missed his jugular vein by a hair's breath. He said three or four police were taking pot shots at them.
"I could hear bullets whining overhead. We ran away in the shrub so fast I reckon we caught up with the most recent bullet," Wood joked.
Comerford also remembered Wood being shot. He said he saw a policeman rise from behind a bush and "deliberately shoot Wally Wood through the throat" and flee.
But Comerford said many local police had sympathy for the miners' plight. He blamed imported Sydney police for inflaming the situation.
Later it was revealed that had miners got into the mine area they would have been greeted with waiting machine guns and steam hoses connected to a boiler.
Police kept raiding homes for weapons while Coalfields doctors secretly treated many miners for unreported gunshot wounds.
Press reports from the coronial inquiry found police officially fired 123 rounds to deter miners. It was also revealed 100 rifles and 5000 rounds of ammunition were issued to quell any disturbances.
On a personal note, decades afterwards I remember being told something by the son of a legendary Newcastle policeman who'd once served on light duties at Kurri before retirement. It was maybe in the 1940s when the policeman was told to clear out a cell at the station where old records were stored.
"Burn all the papers in the backyard before the historians get a chance to look at them," the resident sergeant ordered.