Mr McGregor’s Watch

By Kay Koenig

In every mining venture there are victims. Those who lose fortunes because they invest unwisely, speculate in mines that fail to live up to expectations.  Those, who leave home and rush off to the latest boom town in the hope of making a quick buck, only find that there are no high paying jobs available. Then there are those who find work and die as a result.

Broken Hill was a boom town. It spawned two of Australian’s largest companies. Broken Hill Proprietary, (BHP), was formed in 1883, following the first discovery silver. Rio Tinto began in 1905. Its founders hoped to find a method of processing the ever growing mounds of untreatable sulphide ore that surrounded the town.

Today, as mining continues, Broken Hill has become a popular tourist destination. Amongst the old mines that overlook the town is a striking memorial to those who died while digging up the riches beneath. Their names are inscribed on the monument. This is the story of one of them.

Percy McGregor had been a miner for years. The forty –six year old worked as a timberer at the South Mine.  Timber was used extensively underground. As an area of ore was removed the sides were sealed with timber. Strong Oregon timber props and cross beams were used to secure the roof. Then the walls were timbered to form an empty enclosed box. When completed the space was filled with ‘tailings’, fine sand like waste from the processing plants.  It was then safe to mine the ore adjacent to the filled timber box. In this way it was possible to excavate an entire level of the mine.

In June1939, Mr McGregor was working the dayshift. This was the favoured shift for most miners. Work finished at 4 o’clock, leaving lots of time for a drink at the local pub before going home to wife and family, for dinner. Mr McGregor lived in Rowe St, Railway Town. He would often roll home drunk and have endless arguments with his wife. Their voices were accompanied by the high pitched barks of their little Chihuahua, providing endless entertainment for the neighbourhood children.

By 1939 mining was a safer activity than during earlier years. Lead poisoning was on the decline because; the ore was no longer smelted in a line of furnaces belching lead laden smoke over the town.  The use of water with the pneumatic drills had reduced the incidents of ‘Dust on the Lung’. Nevertheless sometimes accidents happened.

On 16th June 1939, Percy McGregor and four mates were installing timber supports, about 300 metres underground. It was an older part of the South Mine. Just after 2.00pm, there was large explosion followed by a shock wave that reverberated though the workings. A large earth fall had occurred. The five miners were trapped.

The rescue effort was near impossible. The area was buried beneath a jumble of timber and tailings, which behaved like a pile of fine sand. As rescuers attempted to excavate, the earth would move and fill in the hole they had created. A miner, lying on his side and using a small shovel, carved out a two foot square space and inched forward forming an incredibly narrow tunnel.  When the tunnel was about five metres long, a voice was heard.  One miner, Ray Byrne, had survived. His foot and arm were trapped under a timber beam. The beam had fallen in such a way as to create a small cave, just big enough for the 22 year old survivor.  The hand of Mr McGregor was found poking through the fallen earth above the rescued miner.  He was identified by his watch. The second body to be recovered, Jack Falchi, was identified by the number on his miner’s helmet.  It took four days to recover the other two bodies.

The names of these four men, and the over 700 others killed, are inscribed into the beautiful sculpture that is the miners’ memorial.  They were ordinary men, sons, fathers, husbands; the ultimate victims of this great mining venture.