‘Holy grail’ discloses a toll much lower than predicted

Aubrey Brooks,  Darren Bowey and Bob Cook with the ledger. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
Aubrey Brooks, Darren Bowey and Bob Cook with the ledger. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

WHEN the ‘‘keeper of the flame’’, Aubrey Brooks described the BHP fatalities book as ‘‘the holy grail’’ of steelworks records, he was echoing the sentiments of many people down the years.

Almost from the time of BHP’s 1997 announcement that the steelworks would close in 1999, people were calling for some sort of accounting for the lives that were lost over the 80-odd years of the plant’s construction and production.

To coincide with the closing of the plant, Newcastle Herald columnist Jeff Corbett published a piece on Thursday, September 30, 1999, titled ‘‘With their boots on’’.

Its opening sentence said it all: ‘‘They left their homes at about three in the afternoon or 11 at night or seven in the morning for a shift at BHP and they never returned.’’

Corbett went on to recall a column he had written in August 1997, after retired Merewether tradesman, John Dixon, had written to the Herald suggesting an honour roll of all the people killed at the steelworks.

Corbett was not the only person asking the question. And he was not the only person unable to find an answer.

‘‘How many died?’’ he wrote. ‘‘Who knows! Well, I expect BHP has the answer within its archives but it is not going to look.’’

Corbett’s guess, after talking to retired BHP workers and looking through Herald records, was what he described as ‘‘a barely believable’’ number: 880.

It was based on a calculation of 15 fatalities a year for the first 40years, eight a year for the next 20, and three a year after that. That prediction was widely circulated.

I heard it mentioned at last month’s 100th anniversary memorial service. But, if the BHP records are a true and accurate account – and I have every reason to believe they are (with their acknowledged limitations), then the number is, mercifully, some orders of magnitude lower.

The BHP ledger has 189 names, of which 133 were deemed to be work-related deaths, but when steelworks deaths from other sources are included, the number of employment-related deaths is about 180.

The BHP book covers the years from 1926 to 1964. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

The BHP book covers the years from 1926 to 1964. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

Especially in later years, as the workforce aged, an increasing number of deaths were found to be natural causes.

The loss of 180 lives is a lot, admittedly, but well short of 880. By comparison, the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall at Cessnock has the names of some 1800 mineworkers who have died in the Hunter coal industry since 1801.

The Herald and others have made a number of inquiries of BHP – and BHP Billiton, as the company became in 2001 – but none led to any success in retrieving ‘‘the holy grail’’.

Until now.

In a July 9 letter to Bob Cook, president of the Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association, BHP Billiton’s vice president, risk finance, Matthew Frost, said the company was  ‘‘keen to assist  ... in properly and appropriately memoralising those who lost their lives whilst contributing to the success of the Newcastle steelworks’’.

‘‘Through the journalism of Ian Kirkwood at Newcastle Newspapers, the Melbourne-based Risk Finance team became aware of the  frustrations that you have had in not being able to track down a register of fatalities which you believed was in existence,’’ Mr Frost wrote.

This led to the company searching its archives, and finding the ‘‘fatalities’’ book.

In a statement accompanying the list, BHP Billiton executive Mark van den Heuvel said the company would not forget those who had ‘‘given their lives to build this great nation’’.

‘‘I was honoured to be at the official opening of the steel works memorial in June and providing these names today serves to further honour those souls lost during BHP’s operation of the steelworks – those men and women who did not come home from work,’’ Mr van den Heuvel said.

 He said the memorial built by sculptor Will Maguire was ‘‘a permanent reminder of those who gave their lives out of service to their families, this city and the nation’’.

IF the BHP register is often summary and brief in its descriptions of workplace deaths, the newspapers of earlier ages recorded many incidents in far more detail than would be the case today.

The Newcastle Sun of Friday, June 6, 1924, left nothing to the imagination when it came to the death of John Alfred Jones, a 52-year-old married man from George Street, Tighes Hill, who was struck by a train.

The Sun’s page five headline ran: ‘‘HEAD CUT OFF. Shocking Death of Steel Worker. RUN OVER BY TRAIN. Hit By Engine While Counting His Wages’’.

The article said Mr Jones had once told a workmate that ‘‘Friday is an unlucky day’’.

With ‘‘£17 and a some odd silver in a pay envelope’’, he took a short cut through some shunting yards.

With a high westerly wind making it impossible to hear ‘‘minor noises’’ over the din of the works, the Sun said Mr Jones, ‘‘short-sighted and intent on the count’’ of his pay, was struck down by a steelworks train.

‘‘Jones was an old employee of the BHP and recognised among his work mates as a sound unionist,’’ the Sun said. ‘‘He took an active part in the 1917 strike, performing picketing duties during the stressful period.

‘‘He left a widow and grown-up family.’’

Sadly, as the BHP fatalities register and the newspaper coverage that followed most, if not all, steelworks deaths, his was an end met by all too many people.