Unlocking the Past: Remembering the Rothbury Riot

Ninety years ago the run up to Christmas in our local area was nothing to look forward to. Celebrations would be muted and presents few - if any. The Great Depression was biting hard, with the coal industry particularly badly hit and our region suffering terribly.

In response to this desperate economic climate colliery owners attempted to secure their businesses and to increase power over their workers. In the Hunter Valley the Northern Collieries Association was formed to collectively represent mine owners.

On February 14, 1929 it issued all its employees two weeks' notice to accept onerous new working conditions; the workers refused.

In response colliery owners locked their mines across the Hunter Valley depriving the miners of work; 'the Lockout' had begun.

Nine months later, on December 16, the mounting anger borne of poverty and desperation boiled over at Rothbury Colliery culminating in the violent industrial event now known as the Rothbury Riot.

MEMORIES: Coogan Frame and Jack O'Shea recalled their memories of the Rothbury Riot at the filming of the Lockout documentary in Weston in September 2006.

MEMORIES: Coogan Frame and Jack O'Shea recalled their memories of the Rothbury Riot at the filming of the Lockout documentary in Weston in September 2006.

Over 70 years later a chance conversation would bring this story to the screen.

In 2003 Newcastle filmmaker Greg Hall and his then-business partner Diane Michael were looking for a local story to make into a film or documentary which would resonate with an international audience.

Musician and writer Mark Bean told them about a coal miner who had been arrested and imprisoned after taking part in the Rothbury Riot. It became an 'a-ha!' moment for Greg and Diane who were immediately hooked. They could see there was a much bigger story waiting to be told.

Greg explained:"Ourbiggest challenge was how to get to the emotional and historical heart of the events while peeling back the layers of myth that had been spun around 'the Lockout'. We wanted to introduce a new audience to this story.

"A major coup was discovering that a number of 'Lockout' and Rothbury Riot veterans were still alive with a vivid recall of those years. But they were elderly, so the clock was ticking to capture those eye-witness accounts before it was too late."

LASTING REMINDER: The memorial cenotaph for the Rothbury Riot, which stands off Wine Country Drive, North Rothbury. Picture: Cessnock City Library

LASTING REMINDER: The memorial cenotaph for the Rothbury Riot, which stands off Wine Country Drive, North Rothbury. Picture: Cessnock City Library

The result was the documentary 'Lockout' first screened on History channel, Foxtel Australia and New Zealand in August 2007 and at Cessnock Leagues Club.

To commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Rothbury Riot, Cessnock Library is showing the documentary on Monday, December 16 at 10.30am, with Greg Hall as a special guest. Bookings are essential via Eventbrite on the Library website: libraries.cessnock.nsw.gov.au.

Kimberly O'Sullivan is the Local Studies Librarian at Cessnock City Library. Contact her on kimberly.osullivan@cessnock.nsw.gov.au.

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