HUNTER Valley coal mining has always been an extremely dangerous occupation, often under appalling conditions.
A stark reminder of this is the United Mineworkers' memorial wall in Aberdare Road, Aberdare.
It pays tribute to the hundreds of miners who lost their lives in the Northern District since 1801 after simply going to work to earn a crust, but who never returned.
The striking union monument is officially called the Jim Comerford Memorial after the late mining leader, who was terrified when he reluctantly first went down a mine near Kurri Kurri in the mid 1920s, aged 14 years, to open mine ventilation doors in the dark.
'His' wall at Aberdare now records about 1800 mine-related deaths. But is it the full story? Maybe we'll never know.
Erected in 1995 by the miners at a cost of $160,000, the wall shows the youngest death as an 11-year-old boy run over by a loaded coal skip in 1883 at Wallsend.
The oldest name was of a 76-year-old colonial miner who was buried alive when a wall of coal collapsed. He was rescued, but later died.
I recorded 355 names in my last book alone, so thought I must have listed about 300 mine deaths per book - up to the year 1975 when I stopped - but my wife counted up all the names and the total number of my confirmed deaths is 1681 names.- Frank Maxwell
This sad honour roll then reminded me of another list: the one showing how many workers died at Newcastle Steelworks over 84 years (1915-1999).
The full figure is still unknown, although a long-lost folder from BHP Billiton came to light in its Victorian archives in July 2015.
Some 189 names were in this ledger, of which 133 were actual employment-related deaths. The list, however, only covered the years 1926 to 1964.
Further research was able to add another 50 names, so at least 180 deaths overall, although another figure of 240 fatalities (again, not all industry related) from 1918 is sometimes bandied about as well.
So, by comparison, how many coal mining related deaths have there really been in the Hunter over the past 221 years, especially in the forgotten early days of Newcastle as a penal settlement?
One man who has made it his personal mission to discover more is former coal miner Frank Maxwell, of Bolton Point.
He's independently researched the subject, over four local history books, and knows how easy it is for names to be overlooked.
Now in his seventies, the former miner from Newstan Colliery, near Fassifern, once got the local history bug and then extended his study into past relatives involved in mining.
"When asked, I say I've been involved in compiling mine-related deaths, who are not always mine workers by the way, for about 10 years," Maxwell said.
"My wife, though, says it's closer to 20 years.
"Back at the start, I went to Newcastle Library to search for a couple of relatives.
"To my surprise, I couldn't find any record, but further research then added 75 unknown names, then another half dozen, so I kept going and going.
"I recorded 355 names in my last book alone, so thought I must have listed about 300 mine deaths per book - up to the year 1975 when I stopped - but my wife counted up all the names and the total number of my confirmed deaths is 1681 names."
Maxwell said he wanted to be very thorough, trying to have a mine death officially confirmed by three different sources.
"That's what took all the time. And it's only up to 1975. And I don't think anyone else from the family history society is continuing my research," he said.
Maxwell said he concentrated on confirming mine deaths because in one case he found a miner's father had later said his son wasn't dead, despite reports he was.
And in other cases a miner's death notice wasn't public until much later as families were too short of money at the time of the actual tragedy to place a funeral notice.
"Besides libraries, I used to go to the historic archives kept in Western Sydney to go through the notebooks of judges and then sort out the material.
"For example, if it was an accident in a BHP mine, whether it was in Newcastle and not Port Kembla."
Maxwell said he suspected a lot of mine fatalities went unrecorded in the Hunter's brutal early mining days from 1801, when life was cheap.
"I think the attitude when someone died might have been, 'Oh well, they were only a convict'," he said.
Another grim find was discovering men who'd returned safely from World Wars only to be then killed working in the pits.
Yet another surprise was uncovering accidents not involving miners, but minors, curious kids who came to grief exploring pit sites.
Underground mine sites always had colliery dams and some children accidentally drowned there.
"The dams were never fenced off," Maxwell said.
"In another accident, at Lambton B Colliery at Redhead, the mine's boiling water went into a drain, but a young girl got too close, was scalded and had to be rescued by her brother.
"The skin on her arm just peeled off like a glove.
"There's lots of stories in these old reports.
About the time the Dudley pit blew up and also how it took a month at an early Hamilton pit to get all the bodies out.
"The earliest fatality I've found was in 1816 (in the convict era) when the worker was reported to have died of 'foul air', or in other words, he'd been gassed.
"Then at the Ferndale Colliery (1877-1894) at Tighes Hill, back in the 1880s, a 40-year-old miner called John Jenkins died.
"He was a cripple and couldn't run when a spring tide entered the pit. He drowned there."
Frank Maxwell's sleuthing to compile names and the generous donation of his research to publish books on coal mining related Hunter Valley deaths has been publicly praised in the past by the Newcastle Family History Society's Elaine Sheehan.
She wrote that northern collieries once gave employment to 5000 men and were the economic backbone of the Cessnock region.
By the 1950s this second coal field (like Newcastle's) was in decline and miners were forced to again become industrial gypsies, many travelling to Upper Hunter mines to work.
Meanwhile, Maxwell's devotion to his project, besides unveiling tales of heroism and mateship, revealed miners at the Burwood colliery were instrumental back in 1909 in gaining their own ambulance service at the pit, comprising a horse, a cart and stables.
During his research, while cross-checking names, Frank Maxwell admitted to being puzzled by some loss of life entries included on the union wall of the Northern District.
"For example, fatalities are listed at Balmain (in Sydney) on the Hunter Valley wall as well at Mount Pleasant on the South Coast. Maybe there's some Coalfields family connections," he said.
"I can understand though that a mining life isn't for everyone. I've seen visitors on mine tours deep underground suddenly leave. They just couldn't handle being there."
IN THE NEWS:
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can continue to access our trusted content:
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.