Friday, 19 June 2009

Comerford Profiles 31: Jim Comerford (1913-2006), Australian trade unionist

Jim Comerford ... Australian trade union activist and labour historian (Photograph: Sydney Morning Herald)

Patrick Comerford

The Australian trade unionist Jim Comerford was a veteran of the great Australian lockout of 1929-1930, and published his memoirs when he was in his 90s.

Jim Comerford was born in Scotland in 1913, and he emigrated his family to Australia when he was only nine in 1922. Jim Comerford left school at 13 to follow his father down the mines and he was a young man of 15 when the lockout took place. He was working underground as a pitboy when he began to write his eyewitness account of the lockout and what became the bloodiest event in Australian industrial history, the so-called Battle of Rothbury.

His career as a militant activist and union leader was shaped by his involvement in the lockout and the events at the Rothbury Colliery, near Cessnock in New South Wales, which left him with vivid memories that remained with him throughout his lifetime.

His book Lockout provides a detailed account of the conflict between the mine owners and miners, and their betrayal by Australian Labor governments. But at the heart of his book is a frightening report of the battle seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old who defied his tearful mother and dodged union leaders to join a protest at the use of non-union labour at Rothbury.

His first account of that struggle was published in the newly-established Young Worker. At the time, he could hardly have realised that it would take him three-quarters of a century to complete his story of that terrifying day in December 1930 when police opened fire on locked-out miners at Rothbury.

At the time, a youthful Jim Comerford thought he was setting out on an adventure. But starved by the withdrawal of food relief, and softened up by “basher gangs,” the miners were suddenly fired on when they tried to advance on the colliery.

“I was screaming with terror,” he recalled later. As they ran for cover, a bullet grazed a knee of his mate Les Thomas. Nearby, Wally Woods (21) was shot in the throat. And, not far away, another miner, Norman Brown (29), was shot dead, possibly by a stray bullet, although Comerford was in no doubt police shot at – not over – the miners.

Later, Jim Comerford could hold bitterness for no individual involved. But over the years, he insisted, the record had been distorted by police, politicians and press. The Sydney Morning Herald which accused “striking” miners of provoking a violent response.

He went on to an illustrious career as a union leader, labour historian, writer and benefactor to the Edgeworth David Museum in Kurri Kurri, which holds his collected papers. His work as a writer and reviewer on historical, industrial and political matters has been published throughout Australia and in many other countries too.

In 2006, he published his memoirs as Lockout: The Northern New South Wales Coal Lockout 2nd March 1929 – 3rd June 1930 (Sydney: 2006, CFMEU Mining and Energy). The book was launched in Sydney in April 2006 by Kim Beazley, then the Federal Opposition Leader.

Jim died seven months later in November 2006 at the age of 93. He was survived by his wife Mabel.


Sydney Morning Herald, 20.5.2006.

(c) Patrick Comerford, 2009, 2013; last revised: 19 June 2009; 5 January 2013.

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