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James (Jim) Comerford (1913–2006)

by Tony Stephens

Jim Comerford was one of the last three survivors of what is sometimes called the Battle of Rothbury and sometimes the Rothbury Riot of 1929, when police fired on protesting, out-of-work coalminers, killing one. Ten thousand men were locked out of their jobs in the Hunter Valley for 15 months and the riot probably did more than anything else to shape his life.

Comerford, 15 years old at the time, was working underground as a pit boy. He wrote an eyewitness account of perhaps the bloodiest event in Australian industrial history, which was published in a short-lived newspaper, The Young Worker. Knowing there was much more to the story, he began work on a book. His work, called Lockout, was published this year and launched by Kim Beazley — 77 years after the event.

Meanwhile, Comerford, who has died at 93, made successful careers as a trade union leader and writer. When the then prime minister Paul Keating unveiled a memorial at Cessnock in 1996 to miners who lost their lives in pit accidents, he paid tribute to the man after whom the memorial was named: "Jim Comerford is quite simply a Labor legend, the embodiment of Labor's greatest ideals, of solidarity and the pursuit of justice for working men and women."

James Comerford was born in Glencraig, Scotland. The family moved to Kurri Kurri after Comerford's father was blacklisted from a Scottish mine, when Jim was nine. He wanted to continue his education but family circumstances required him to leave the local school and seek employment. His school headmaster at Kurri Kurri had seen his writing potential and got him a job on a local newspaper at age 13 but he soon left to go into the mines.

The economy was turning down in 1927, heading for the Depression. Young Comerford could earn more money down a mine to help his struggling family, and he went to work at Richmond Main Colliery.

Two years later he defied his tearful mother to join a protest against the use of non-union labour at Rothbury. He thought it would be an adventure but, starved by the withdrawal of food relief, the miners were fired on when they tried to advance on the colliery.

"I was screaming with terror," Comerford recalled. As they ran for cover, a bullet grazed a knee of his mate, Les Thomas. Nearby, Wally Woods, 21, was shot in the throat. Norman Brown, 29, was shot dead, possibly by a stray bullet, although Comerford was in no doubt that police shot at — not over — the miners.

His first article on the subject told how, apart from Brown, nine miners were hit by bullets and dozens were injured. Comerford's article won a 15 shillings prize. Jim took his girlfriend Mabel to the cinema.

Comerford rose from pit boy to be the national general secretary of the Miners Federation. He held many union positions at local and state levels. In 1942 he became the youngest person elected to the miners' central council. He contributed to union education, the unemployed workers' movement, the peace movement, adult education, the campaign for registered social clubs for workers, and on behalf of retired mineworkers. He represented his union on overseas delegations, government inquiries and commissions.

Bob Brown, the former federal minister, said: "He was one of that quite remarkable generation of self-educated political and industrial activists."

For 20 years until his retirement in 1973 he was Northern NSW president of the Miners Federation, when he was generally regarded as a tough but fair negotiator.

Upon his retirement, Comerford developed the potential his headmaster had seen. He wrote or co-wrote several books on aspects of the coal industry and Cessnock history. He said of Lockout that he had always felt an obligation to put straight a record distorted, he insisted, by police, politicians and press, including the Herald, which accused "striking" miners of provoking a violent response.

His books include Mines, Wines and People and Coal and Colonials. He became a member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to unionism, politics and the community and was awarded an honorary master of arts by Newcastle University for his lifetime of scholarship.

The two careers in his life are remembered at the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall at the United Mineworkers Federation offices in Aberdare and the Jim Comerford Coalfield Library at Kurri Kurri. The wall contains the names of more than 1500 mineworkers who have lost their lives on the northern fields since 1847. The library reflects his commitment to scholarship, research, writing — he also reviewed books — and history.

Comerford had been a communist in the 1940s and 1950s and, later, a member of the Labor Party. He saw socialism as a system which would embody all of the finer human qualities. He was at the centre of one of the most controversial periods of Labor history — the coal strikes of the late 1940s, and the 1950s split of the Labor Party over communism.

Comerford was not the archetypal mineworker. He was polite, reserved, studious, small and a member of the Independent Order of Rechabites, the almost forgotten group dedicated to fighting the scourge of alcohol.

He held passionately to his belief in coal as a natural resource. He complained that coal reserves had been poorly mined, with much of the resource left unrecoverable until better mining techniques were developed. While he agreed that coal caused environmental damage, he believed emerging processes to turn it into a clean, less damaging product warranted continual mining.

He is survived by Mabel, his wife of 70 years, their daughter and son-in-law, Jean and Tony Andrew, and grandchildren Bruce and Helen. His funeral will be held at Ryhope crematorium on Friday.

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Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'Comerford, James (Jim) (1913–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 29 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 September, 1913
Glencraig, Fife, Scotland


8 November, 2006 (aged 93)
Kurri Kurri, New South Wales, Australia

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