Cottage at Bendigo holds dark past

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A ruined cottage in the Bendigo Historic Reserve reveals a bitter battle between miners and management.
Speaking at the Australasian Mining History Association conference in Cromwell this week, historian and author Dr Lloyd Carpenter, of Christchurch, explained how a mining cottage was deliberately destroyed as part of efforts to demoralise miners who were striking over wages.

‘‘This is really nasty history, because one of these ruins is not like the others.’’
Dozens of cottage remains are at the historic reserve, but Dr Carpenter had uncovered how one cottage, constructed from ‘‘skilfully placed stone with interior walls lined with plaster’’, held evidence of a dark period in gold-mining history.

Sinister warning . . . This ruined wall is all that remains of a cottage at Bendigo deliberately destroyed in an 1881 workers’ dispute. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

‘‘Despite the massive well­built architecture of the remains, three-quarters of it is in ruins.
‘‘The ruined part has not tumbled down under the influence of the harsh climate over the years, but was wrecked.’’
In 1881, the Cromwell Quartz Mining Company was one of the most profitable and long-lasting operators in the region, employing about 50 miners.
Despite this, shareholders in the company decided to reduce wages for miners just before winter.
Every employee went on strike in protest, which Dr Carpenter believed was the first site-wide strike in New Zealand.
In retaliation, manager of the mine Charles Todd ordered striking miners’ houses to be removed from the company’s ground.
‘‘The strike turned bitter when Charles Todd showed what kind of temper he had.’’
Letters were given to every person who had a cottage built on the company’s leased land, saying their house had to be removed within six days, after which they would be charged rents ‘‘that would ramp up to the point that you wouldn’t be able to live’’.
It was common for miners to be able to build and live in their own houses, Dr Carpenter said.
‘‘The miners’ right gave you an acre, the right to live in a house and the right to either graze one cow or one horse.’’
One miner wrote a letter to the editor of the Cromwell Argus.
‘‘In one case the sight was heart-rending when a poor man with his wife and newly-born infant had to vacate and pull down a very neat cottage,’’ the miner said.
So the cottage in Bendigo historic reserve was brought down under the company injunction.
‘‘But perhaps as a reminder of the harsh action by the directors, they left one wall standing, so that every time everyone walked to work, they walked past a reminder of what the managers had done,’’ Dr Carpenter said.
After nine weeks the strike ended when the company decided to reverse the wage cuts, and the miners resumed work.
However, the miners made one mistake.
‘‘They went out on strike as a collective, and went back to work as individuals. So quite a number of the miners who led the strike were out of work.’’