Impressive new life-sized bronze tribute to the pit horse takes pride of place in centre of Kurri Kurri

Honouring the past: Kurri Kurri's pit horse project will be formally unveiled next weekend. Pictures: David Scanlon
Honouring the past: Kurri Kurri's pit horse project will be formally unveiled next weekend. Pictures: David Scanlon

KURRI Kurri township is on the road to unveil a solid new tourist attraction.

It's the impressive, long-awaited pit horse statue project in a park in the middle of Lang Street, Kurri's main street.

The beloved Kurri community project will have taken almost six years from initial concept to final unveiling.

It's quite an achievement. By comparison, a similar statue of a giant bronze horse in North Queensland took a reported 18 years of crowd funding to become a reality.

Kurri's new life-sized bronze tribute comprises a large pit horse, a fully-laden coal skip with a horse handler, or wheeler, pushing behind.

Though temporarily behind a fence, the work is already attracting a mob of curious visitors.

The statue by sculptor Brett Garling pays tribute to the gentle equine giants who worked in Hunter Valley underground mines for 100 years.

Weighing about 3.5 tonnes and almost eight metres long, Garling's bronze "pit pony" sculpture will be officially unveiled on Saturday, December 11, at 10am.

The three-piece sculpture, along with a nearby 1992 statue of a coal miner, is a reminder of heady days in the Northern Coalfields, which once supported an estimated 11,000 miners in 28 district mines.

The project is close to the heart of Central West NSW sculptor Garling who loves horses and history. His magnificent Kurri pit horse statue is his third major public artwork in the Hunter (two of them involving horses) in the past five years. But more on the busy sculptor later.

The sculpture's big equine represents a former army of Coalfields pit horses and is based on 'Miner', from Aberdare Extended Colliery, who won the region's Pit Horse Derby back in 1952.

But the sculpture also has another story. The face of the wheeler pushing the bronze coal skip is modelled on former Richmond Main miner Tom Outram, who passed away in May, aged 96.

Outram, along with fellow Kurri local Col Andrews, started a petition in 2015 to kickstart fundraising to erect a statue honouring the hard-working horses that toiled in Hunter underground mines between 1861 and the mid-1950s.

Possibly as many as 2000 "pit ponies" alone worked underground in the Kurri/Cessnock district from around 1900.

Retired miner Col Andrews said it was decided early to base the face of the wheeler on his late friend, Tom.

"That's because the horse, Miner, was a champion and Tom was equal to him. He was a good, kind man," Andrews says.

"And now we're so excited knowing the unveiling is so close. We can't believe it."

"The only thing is that we (the Kurri statue committee) feel sorry for Brett, the sculptor. The final price was agreed on, but there may be no profit in it for Brett. There were delays (with COVID-19) and the cost of materials went up.

"And this was after Brett had suggested that besides a horse, the Kurri statue should also have a coal skip and a wheeler to make it more distinctive. Brett even donated the skip to help us.

"I hope our project now makes him more famous," Andrews says.

DRAWCARD: A side view of the Kurri park's newest attraction alongside the familiar miner statue and kookaburra landmark.

DRAWCARD: A side view of the Kurri park's newest attraction alongside the familiar miner statue and kookaburra landmark.

Costing more than $150,000, the Kurri statue project raised funds through barbeques, country music concerts, raffles, and even selling pewter belt buckles.

One of the biggest boosts came when a mining union gave $50,000 to the project.

Until mechanisation began to replace pit horses in mines in the 1950s, equines had been invaluable, hauling heavy coal skips deep underground or dragging timber pit props, and later cables, around with a tail chain.

The horses were usually quiet and reliable, regarded as guardian angels in the pits because of their uncanny ability to detect unsafe workplaces, such as when a roof was about to collapse.

Newcastle's last pit horse is believed to have worked at Stockrington No 2 Colliery, near Minmi, in 1983.

Australia's last officially recognised pit horses were retired at Collinsville mine in North Queensland in 1990. With their then-new pit horse statue (in late 2015), residents began to proudly refer to their town as their state's "pit horse capital".

In our Coalfields, the last major pit and district showpiece was at Richmond Main, near Kurri. It closed in 1967. But, at the height of its fame, it was regarded as having the largest shaft mine in the Southern Hemisphere and used 200 horses.

In August 2019, I was fortunate to meet former Richard Main miner Tom Outram, of Kurri, then aged 94.

He remembered working with the large pit horses about 880 feet (243 metres) down for six years in the 1940s. This was at a time when gradual compression of the earth could warp coal skip rail lines and lower ceilings in some tunnels.

"Horses could sense danger and saved lives," Outram said.

"They could hear the roof moving before anyone else could. They wore leather (skull)caps and were known for their strength and intelligence.

"They were bred for hard work. But some animals were so good they even won prizes when entered at the Maitland and Cessnock agricultural shows," Outram said.

Meanwhile, sculptor Brett Garling's research revealed that while pit horse numbers had dropped by two-thirds by the 1950s, there were still 22,000 of them working in Aussie mines.

The now highly sought-after sculptor loved being involved in the Kurri pit horse scheme, despite it being the longest project in his foundry in Wongarbon, near Dubbo.

"It's one of those jobs that really struck a chord with me," he says.

Although Garling was commissioned to create the sculpture in 2018, the pandemic soon caused 12 months of supply shortages.

The self-taught sculptor was overjoyed by the recent quiet arrival, then installation, of his artwork in Kurri.

Award-winning Garling has been fascinated with animal anatomy all his life.

Two of his large popular sculptures are in Muswellbrook. One is the iconic "Blue Heeler" cattle dog from 2016, while the second, titled "Over The Top", was erected in October 2017 to mark the 100th anniversary of the daring Middle East mounted charge by Aussies at Beersheba. The landmark sculpture shows a horse and his Light Horse trooper boldly leaping over Turkish trenches in World War 1.

Including the Kurri sculpture, Garling has at least 14 major public sculptures in two states, ranging from the Hunter statues to a sculpture of the Man from Snowy River in Corryong, Victoria.

IN THE NEWS:

This story Long haul over for Kurri's new statue first appeared on Newcastle Herald.