BHP's book of the lost found - ledger of fallen workers

IN a historic gesture, BHP Billiton has made available a long-sought-after register of people killed at the Newcastle steelworks. A worn folder with the single word ‘‘Fatalities’’ on its cover, it was obtained by BHP from its Victorian archives after a Newcastle Herald column calling on the company to search for the book. BHP says 133 of the 189 names listed died employment-related deaths. But the Herald has added about 50 names  – taking the total of work-related deaths to about 180. ‘‘This is the holy grail,’’ the Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association’s Aubrey Brooks said.

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A LONG lost book of Newcastle steelworks ‘‘fatalities’’ has been uncovered by BHP Billiton in its archives in Victoria.

The book, which covers the years from 1926 to 1964 in some detail, was brought to Newcastle  last week by BHP Billiton, and shown to the Newcastle Herald and to Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association office-holders Aubrey Brooks and Bob Cook.

A plain-bound foolscap book with a mixture of type-written and hand-written ledgers, the ‘‘fatalities’’ record had long been sought in connection with the memorial that was unveiled at last month’s 100th anniversary of the Newcastle steelworks.

The ledger and other records indicate more than 240 people died at the steelworks between 1918 and 1999, although not all were industrial accidents. Another worker died in the demolition of the works in 2002.

Of the 189 people named in the register and in later BHP records, 133 were deemed to have died from work-related injuries. Others died from natural causes, or their circumstances were ‘‘unspecified’. Detail in the ledger shows some of those whose deaths are classed as not-work related were killed in motor vehicle accidents travelling to or from work.

There is no detail about  what happened before 1918, and there are no names for 37 deaths recorded between 1918 and 1926, when the detailed ledger begins.

The search found no records between 1964 and 1977.

Herald librarians have been working through early issues of the paper to fill the gaps in the BHP record and, with help from readers, have found accounts of at least 47 pre-1926 deaths, allowing us to put a substantial number of extra names to the numbers.

It appears the book covers only those who were killed at  the main steelworks plant, and any  deaths at  BHP subsidiaries such as Rylands or Stewarts & Lloyds still need to be added to the total toll taken on ‘‘the men and women of steel’’.

BHP Billiton manager Darren Bowey, who found the book in the archives, said the company was prepared to help investigators flesh out the record even further.

‘‘This register isn’t the end point, it’s the beginning,’’ Mr Bowey said. He found the book among five boxes of steelworks archives that he retrieved after a Herald article of June 4 titled Honour the BHP fallen.

That article mentioned earlier efforts to track down a hand-written register that was widely believed to have been kept at the plant.

It also covered some of the history of the memorial commissioned by Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association, and the desire of some BHP worker families to see the names of those who died at the plant added to the memorial.

Mr Brooks said he found it hard to believe the book had been found.

‘‘This is the holy grail,’’ he said while cradling it.

Mr Bowey said privacy concerns meant BHP would not publish the full register, with details of deaths. Instead, it compiled a register with names, the date of death, and if they were work-related.

BHP Billiton vice president, risk finance, Matthew Frost said ‘‘like many historical projects, what we have found has limitations as a result of imperfect records and the passage of time’’.

He said most of the records contained surnames only. ‘‘We have not included the nature of the fatality as some descriptions are confronting and may cause undue stress to families.’’