Of Scabs & Riots


“Rowan should be thankful that he was not standing his trial for murder. The sentence of the court was that 


be imprisoned, on the charge of riot for a term of nine months’ with hard labor; and on the charge of assault for a period of 18 months with hard labor.  The sentences would be concurrent; so that Rowan would really only serve 18 months.  He hoped that the prisoner would appreciate the light sentence passed upon him.” 1.

 The words of Judge Gibson, as reported in 1892 in the Broken Hill newspaper, Barrier Miner, shocked me into further investigation.  Whatever led my Great Grand Uncle, only son of Susan Kelleher/ Nicholls/ Rowan, to the dock at the Court of Quarter Sessions that fateful November morning?

I discovered that Broken Hill, in the arid north-west of New South Wales near the Barrier Ranges, developed as a mining town after Charles Rasp,  a boundary rider/station hand for the Mount Gipps sheep station studied a ‘black craggy hilltop’ which he believed to contain black oxide of tin. The first shaft (the Rasp Shaft) was sunk on this hill in January 1885 with the Broken Hill Mining Company formed on 25 April, becoming The Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited on 3 June 1885. It is for this hill (since mined away) that the town is named.

Unionism was introduced in the area at nearby Silverton, on 20 September 1884, with the resolution:

 ‘That this meeting deem it advisable to form a Miners’ Association, to be called the Barrier Ranges Miners’ Association’  and with the object to form ‘a Friendly Society, to afford succor to members who sustained injury as the result of a mining accident.’

Following the adoption of the Australian Trade Union Acts, the Miners’ Association was reconstituted as a branch of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association of Australasia. The Broken Hill mining population had grown to 3000 and it was estimated that unionists out-numbered non-unionists in the town by a factor of 7:1. 

Broken Hill’s first mining strike occurred in 1889 as a result of the trade union ultimatum that members not be made to work with non-unionised workers. As economic depression threatened Australia in 1892 and the values of silver and lead (mined at Broken Hill) declined, the Broken Hill companies attempted to increase profits through the use of contract workers in direct breach of their industrial agreement.  

It has been said that the union argued against contract mining on the basis that it had the potential to ‘encouraged dangerous practices’, penalise the weaker miners and created dissent between the miners through providing conditions where miners could earn greatly varying amounts depending on their abilities.  Furthermore, worker anxiety ran high in Broken Hill due to the living and working conditions which included the difficulty of mitigating the risk of lead poisoning and the danger of cave-in due to poorly excavated mines. Tailings left in huge piles around the town added to the toxic dust which caused lead poisoning and pneumoconiosis and added to the concerns of both the miners and their families. 

Andrew Rowan, 22 years old, recently married to Margaret Crowder and the father of 7 month old Richard Patrick was an underground miner.  Along with smelters/ furnacementhe underground miners were most at risk of plumbism/ lead poisoning

“through working underground in poorly ventilated stopes where water was too scare a commodity to be used to moisten the face.” 3. 

On 3 July a 6000 strong meeting called for immediate strike action and on 16 August the mining companies issued a statement that as from 25 August the mines would be open to non-union labour.  To the striking miners these workers were “scabs”, the company referred to them as “free labour”.

Fearing an outbreak of violence against the strike-breakers, the mining companies sought and received the support of police in readiness for the opening of the mines with over 100 foot police and mounted troopers despatched from Sydney. The striking workers, and supporters, protested with a street march. The first train load of contract workers arrived on 10 September 1892, and were met with violence and hostility from the local men and women. This conflict continued over the coming days and police resistance also escalated.

On Saturday, 29 October 1892, Andrew Rowan was amongst;  

“a large crowd of about 400 persons assembled near the South mine, and as soon as the free laborers (seven in number) from the South mine appeared on their way home they were assailed by yells and hooting ; when the laborers got near the crowd they were surrounded by men, women, and children, yelling,  ‘We’ll give it to you,’  ‘Blacklegs’ ‘Scabs’ &c …” 4.

Hostilities increased and, on 3 November 1892, seven men (including Andrew Rowan) charged with creating a riot.  My Great Grand Uncle was also accused of assaulting a Police Constable despite denying throwing the stone which caused the injury. He was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment with hard labour. However the last of “the South rioters” Andrew Rowan and William McLennan  were released on 28 August 1893 after serving nine months. It was considered that:

“under all  the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offence, and considering the complete restoration of order at Broken Hill that a substantial remission of these sentences may now be fairly made.” 5.

The strike was officially abandoned on 8 November 1892 and the contract labour leading to the strike remained at the Broken Hill mines.

Andrew Rowan, the only son of Susan Kelleher/ Nicholls and Timothy Rowan, was born and raised in the Clare Valley, South Australia, on 19 February 1870.  At 14 he was employed by the Beetaloo Waterworks, South Australia and then spent 2 years of pastoral pursuits in NSW. Some 10 years were spent Underground Mining in BrokenHill, New South Wales. It would seem that his experiences of the 1892 Strike, riot and imprisonment soured his taste for mining and, with his young family, left Broken Hill after his release from prison for his second son, Charles James Rowan, was born at Talia, on the West Coast of South Australia, 2 July 1894.

Andrew was one of the pioneering farmers in the Talia area, but that’s another story to be told on another day.  Suffice to say he and Margaret went on to have another three children, Marie Ilene, Andrew Peter and Margaret Teresa Rowan. All born at Talia. His son Andrew Peter Rowan, continued farming on the West Coast and died in Wudinna, South Australia on 27 November 1957.

Margaret pre-deceased Andrew, dying at Minnipa in South Australia on 3 March 1938. It would seem that Andrew then went to live in Queensland with his son, Charles James Rowan, for he passed away in Brisbane on 14 August 1945 at the age of 75.  


 1 Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), Thursday, 24 November 1892, page 2.
2 Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org
3 Kennedy, Brian. “Silver, Sin and Sixpenny Ale”,  Melbourne University Press, 1978
4 Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), Thursday 3 November 1892, page 3
5 Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888 – 1954), Monday 28 August 1893, page 2 

Copyright (c) 2012  Catherine Crout-Habel