The 1960s - Working Conditions

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Sandhog, an Australian premiere in 1962, is an American folk opera about the compressed air tunnellers who built the Manhattan Hoboken Tunnel under the Hudson River in the 1880s. Such public works were built on the sweat of the workers who were often carried out dead or incapacitated, the danger dramatised in the “Song of the Bends”. If the pressure in the tunnel was high enough to dry out the quicksand at the bottom, the roof was likely to blow off; if the pressure was too low the shield sank into the quicksand. Staging was simple: a bare stage with black curtains, the tunnel evoked by projections of slides across the actors.

The cast included Alex Hood. Margaret Barr was choreographer.

Some said they were crazy

Some said they were brave,

Some said they were digging

A muddy grave

Under the Old North River.

There was talk of reviving Sandhog in 1982 when the NSW government introduced new legislation following the Williams Report on industrial health and safety. With increasing computer use came fears of VDU blindness and tenosynovitis.

The 50th anniversary of the Miners’ Federation was celebrated at NT in 1965. The program included songs and speeches; Mona Brand’s Come All You Valiant Miners from material supplied by Edgar Ross, editor of Common Cause; sequences from a 1947 documentary Dust and the 1958 film Hewers of Coal by the WWF Film Unit.

The cast included Jenniffer Cullen, Arthur Rudkin and his daughter Del, Shayna Bracegirdle and Declan Affley.

When I was a lad with my lamp in my hat

I manhandled coal from the face to the flat

Full twelve skips I loaded and that was a must

For six bob a day and a lungful of dust.

An item in the 1965 revue You’ve Never Had It So Good concerned conditions on the wharves and shipping owner crooks:

Wharfie’s wife: And what have they done to your Rinso-washed shirt

All along, down along, out along wharf?

Wharfie: A sling broke today and I copped all the dirt

From Blue Funnel, Burns Philp and Cunard and Orient and Sitmar,

and Uncle Sam’s cobbers and all –

And Uncle Sam’s cobbers and all.

In Frank Hardy’s The Ringbolter an escaped convict on the run after killing a warder (an amalgam of the Dugan-Mears/Simmonds-Newcombe manhunts) stows away on a coastal steamer whose crew are involved in deciding whether to go on strike. The ringbolter (a stowaway hidden below a hatch opened by a ringbolt) is the catalyst who complicates the situation. The unpublished script was staged in 1967; the previous year a seaman at Darling Harbour had been shot by a ringbolter.

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