G20 Road Closures: The Mines Act 1842

greymelpeel

Grey St: closed between Peel and Melbourne Street.

Debate about the profits and perils of coal mining has been one of the enduring public discussions since the G20 summit came to Brisbane.

Between the Governments of William Lamb (a.k.a. Viscount Melbourne) and Robert Peel, The Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 was developed and passed through the British Parliament. The Royal Commission and subsequent Act responded to outrage about the working conditions of coal miners. The Act prohibited the employment of all females, and boys (under 10) from working underground.

The industrial revolution was in full swing by the time Grey, Melbourne and Peel ended their political careers. As I cast my eye across at the multitude of biographical accounts of these men, I detect little interest by biographers in what they thought or said about coal, or its use. Gone are the days when a public leader’s posture in relation to coal can vanish into obscurity.

Biographies are not the best way by which we should understand the labeling of our urban landscape. Biographers leave things out, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes unintentionally. Grey St runs between Lang Park and Logan Road, without quite reaching either. Captain Logan is not remembered for being the first person to document the presence of coal in what has become Queensland. Reverend Lang is not remembered for predicting the rise of Newcastle as ‘a place of importance in the colony, as it is situated in the center of the great coalfield of the colony’. While biographies can be a useful tool, we need to employ other strategies for understanding the relevance of the references, which make up our contemporary vocabulary of place.

We need to improve the questions we ask our street names. I usually begin with questions like ‘who are you?’ and ‘why are you here in this specific piece of land?’ Biographies may provide answers to these questions, but these are not the answers that will serve us well as a population, which speaks to each other in street and place names. Using the insights offered and overlooked by biography, we need to continue to improve our questions. The 19th century, and the industrial revolution, brought forth an array of new models for understanding history and for improving our questions. For now, I am following my heart, and hoping it leads me well.

Most biography associated with place names in Australia focuses on men and their relationship with land. This perspective clearly overlooks two crucial elements of life on Earth, of both then and now – women and the ocean. Another important improvement to our questions need to be how to understand place names in relation to women and to the ocean. While the Mines Act of 1842 was about women and girls, how did they affect this Act and how were they affected by it? Did it affect the relationships between men and women? The relationship between coal and the sea was critical then as it is now. Now we might think of the Great Barrier Reef or ocean temperatures. Back in 1842, steam shipping was changing the ocean-going global economy.

I am interested in the songs and poems associated with the reforms for which politicians are remembered. There are songs about mining, hunger, dispossession, slavery, transportation and songs about traveling across dangerous oceans by boat. These songs provide a soundtrack that resonates with the names of political leaders attached to the kerbside atop long, steel spikes.

I am interested in the relationship between Acknowledgement of Country and place names. How does the use of contemporary place names relate to an offering of respect to Traditional Custodians and the Elders, past and present? In the light of the Mines Act of 1842, we should remember that 1842 was the first year in which land in Brisbane was made available for freehold ownership. How does an Acknowledgement of Country sound when uttered by people whose relationship with this place finds its collective origin and identity associated with freehold ownership and miners’ rights?

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