Sunday, December 16, 2007

78th Anniversary: The murder of Norman Brown at Rothbury

December 16 marks the 78th anniversary of the death by state violence of Norman Brown, a coal miner on the New South Wales coalfields at Rothbury.

The coal bosses were determined to enforce a reduction in coal miners’ wages, and had locked out 10,000 men from the coalfields when they refused to cop this attack on their wages. (See here for a recent film on this event, and the following link for a synopsis: )

The lockout was to last 16 months.

On Monday, 16 December, 1929, New South Wales Premier Bavin sent armed police into the coal mines to protect scabs sent to do the work of honest men.

At Rothbury that day, there were between five and six thousand pickets outside the mine.
The following account is taken from The Builders’ Labourers’ Song Book (p. 93-96):
At 5.45 am the miners crossed the perimeter fence and the police opened fire.

On page 1 of the Melbourne Herald of the 16th December the following headlines were splashed across the page:

“One miner killed and nine injured in mine clashes.”
“Police open fire on massed pickets at Rothbury mine.”
“Nine constables hurt in serious rioting.”
“Reinforcements rushed from Sydney.”

The facts of the police attack are told by R. Gollan in his book “The Coalminers of New South Wales”.

“As the pickets who had marched on Rothbury during the night, with apparently no concerted plan other than to demonstrate and threaten the ‘Scabs’, approached the boundary fence, police opened fire and launched baton charges. One young man, Norman Brown, was killed and many others wounded, how many it is impossible to tell, as the wounded were hurriedly got away in case their wounds were used in evidence against them. The events of Rothbury stirred the Labor movement to its depths. Meetings throughout the country denounced the brutality of the Government. For example, a meeting at Lithgow referred to ‘cold blooded murder of our comrades by the Police of the Bavin Government’.”

Newspaper articles of the time reported on the people that were known to be injured. Mr Booth, an M.L.A. who saw the incident was reported as saying in the Herald on 17 December “Norman Brown, the man who was killed, was about sixty-five yards from the fence when the bullet struck him. He had been sitting down, talking to a girlfriend and was just getting up when he was hit Woods who was seriously wounded in the throat, was shot from a distance of fifteen feet.”

The New South Wales Northern District President of the union said: “As we got through the fence, police seemed to come through every bush and began to fell men right and left with their batons. They had us channelled into two lines by the three lines of wagons.

“The mounted police came through. and were merciless in their attacks. An old chap of about seventy years of age was batoned to his knees. Then the guns came out and there was a dozen men lying prostrate in no time….my recollection is that there were several bursts of firing, and each time the men would retreat and, when there was a lull, move back to the fence. The whole affair must have gone on for about four hours. There were strong rumours that the police had machine guns and steam hoses ready to be used if necessary. I was close to Wally Woods when he was shot in the throat - quite deliberately.”

Norman Brown, who was twenty-eight years old, was shot in the stomach. He died on the way to hospital.
There are several songs that commemorate the events at Rothbury when the armed forces of the state were called out by the coal mine bosses to savage the miners.

They can be seen at the Union Songs website here.

Dorothy Hewett, a member of the Communist Party and a noted Australian playwright and poet, wrote the following song:

Ballad of Norman Brown

A song by Dorothy Hewett©Dorothy Hewett 1962

There was a very simple man,
Honest and quiet, yet he became
The mate of every working man,
And every miner knows his name.


Oh Norman Brown, oh Norman Brown
The murderin' coppers they shot him down,
They shot him down in Rothbury town,
A working man called Norman Brown.

"An honest man," the parson said,
And dropped the clods upon his head,
But honest man or not, he's dead
And that's the end of Norman Brown.

Coal bosses wiped their hands and sighed,
"It is a pity that he died."
It will inflame the countryside,
And all because of Norman Brown.

At pit-top meetings and on strike
In every little mining town,
When miners march for bread and rights
There marches honest Norman Brown.

He thunders at the pit-top strike,
His voice is in the women's tears,
With banner carried shoulder-high
He's singing down the struggling years.

A miner's pick is in his hand,
His song is shouted through the and,
A land that's free and broad and brown,
The land that bred us Norman Brown.

Last chorus

Oh Norman Brown, oh Norman Brown,
The murderin' coppers they shot him down.
They shot him down in Rothbury town,
To live forever ... Norman Brown.

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