Tribute to Digger Murphy, proud Union pioneer

Published: 4 Oct 2016

The passing of 97-year old Charles (Digger) Murphy on 23 September represents the end of an era for Queensland and Australian coal mineworkers.

Digger, as he was known to his family and friends, was a former President of the Queensland District of the Miners Federation and the pioneer for women’s participation in the coal industry’s production workforce.

Born in Ipswich on 13 July 1919, his father Ernie Murphy was a coal miner as was his maternal grandfather Charles Kirkpatrick, who became the first full-time President of the Queensland Colliery Employees Union (QCEU). Charles, after whom Digger was named, led the Queensland miners delegation to the founding conference of the Miners Federation as a national union in 1915 and the QCEU became the Queensland branch of the Miners Federation.

As a young child living in Ipswich and seeing hundreds of WW1 returned soldiers, the first word he spoke was Digger and from that time on this became the name that everybody used.

When Digger’s Dad was retrenched in the early 1920s the family made the long trek to the new coal mining town of Collinsville in North Queensland. They lived in a bag humpy and Digger started school there. Ernie came back to the Ipswich coalfield at Moggill and when that mine flooded at the height of the Great Depression in 1931, he was on the dole for about five years.

The Murphy family lived in a very modest house not far from grandfather Charles Kirkpatrick, who became a great influence on the young Digger.

Digger was particularly proud of his grandfather Charles’s commitment to principles and values. As Queensland miners union President Charles had been appointed to the State Parliament’s Legislative Council. He was a member of what became known as ‘the Suicide Squad’. The Legislative Council, or Upper House, was dominated by members of wealthy families who continually blocked Labor’s progressive reforms in the Parliament.  Charles and other Labor Party leaders were pledged to abolish the State’s Legislative Council and on the day Labor had the numbers in the Upper House for the first time, it moved the Bill to abolish it on 23 March 1923. They became the only politicians to vote themselves out of office!

On the Monday that 15-year old Digger started work at the New Ebbw Vale (Woodend) Colliery at Ipswich in 1935, he came home to the news that his grandfather Charles had died. He was still President of the Union in Queensland.

Digger recalls visiting his grandfather in hospital the day before and Charles asking the other family members who were with him to leave the room because he wanted a quiet chat with young Digger. He gave the boy who was about to go into the mines the next day some valuable advice and as he bid him farewell he said “well, it’s up to you now young Charles to carry on the work”.

And carry on Digger did. He was cut from the same cloth as his grandfather. As a 17-year old on the tough coalfields of Ipswich in 1937, Digger was elected Branch chairman of his Miners Lodge.

It was to be the start of a lifetime of distinguished service to the working class. Digger cut his teeth on helping rebuild the miners Union from the ashes of the Great Depression. He was proud to have supported the first national Communist leaders in an Australian trade union with the election of Charles Nelson and Billy Orr as General President and General Secretary of the Miners Federation in 1934.

Digger himself joined the Communist Party and played a very active role in the 1949 National Coal Strike. Although he was a great supporter of the United Front he never forgave the Chifley Labor Government for jailing Union leaders and sending troops in to mine coal during the 1949 strike.

Digger rose through the Union ranks and was elected to his first full-time position in 1957 as District Check Inspector (full time safety official elected by rank and file miners). Mine safety was a passion for Digger, following in the footstep of his pioneering grandfather Charles who had become Queensland’s first full-time Check Inspector back in 1915.

Digger’s election as Queensland Check Inspector was just three years after the Collinsville mine disaster of 1954 when seven miners were killed in a gas outburst. Before the disaster, the Union had been locked in dispute with management over safety concerns. The Union was ignored and the State Government backed management, a fact that contributed to the Collinsville disaster. The plight of miners in his boyhood town greatly increased Digger’s determination never to give an inch on safety and health matters.

His role as Check Inspector brought Digger into wider contact with the rank and file mineworkers throughout the State and in 1964 he was elected as Queensland District President. It was a time when the Bowen Basin in Central Queensland was opening up and Australia’s coal export market was developing.

As President, Digger led the campaigns for decent housing, accommodation and conditions in Central Queensland. During his Presidency from 1964 till his retirement in June 1979, Digger was at the centre of some of the most challenging industrial disputes in Australia’s history as big global business moved for a stake in Australia’s lucrative coal industry, particularly in the wake of OPEC Oil Crisis in the early 1970s.

But Digger never shirked from even the toughest fights, whether they were on the predominately underground coalfields of Ipswich and North Queensland or the burgeoning open cut operations of Central Queensland.

Among the many challenges Digger faced, the toughest times were undoubtedly the two major coal mine disasters he dealt with as President.

The first was in his home town of Ipswich on 31 July 1972 when a massive explosion at the nearby Box Flat Colliery took the lives of 17 miners in an underground gas explosion.  Of those killed, 14 men were in the vicinity of the explosion underground and three miners were working on a belt adjacent to the mine entrance. A mine warden who was sent to investigate the explosion died later as a result of his injuries and some workers at the surface were also injured in the explosion.

In a moving recollection featured in the 2015 international award winning documentary Blood on the Coal, Digger recounts the damage and trauma inflicted on the entire Ipswich community. Decades after the Box Flat Disaster, the wounds are still raw and memories of grieving families still haunt.

Digger sat on the Inquiry into the Box Flat Disaster. His grandfather Charles had sat as a member of the Royal Commission into Queensland’s greatest mine disaster at Mount Mulligan in 1921 when 75 miners perished in a massive underground explosion.

Just over three years from Box Flat, Central Queensland experienced its first big coal mine disaster when the Kianga underground coal mine near Moura blew up on 20 September 1975 taking the lives of 13 miners.

Digger knew every one of the Box Flat and Kianga miners personally. It was a heavy load to bear. Indeed, on whatever scale loss of miners lives occurred, Digger was always there for the families, work mates and friends.

On the industrial battlefront Digger led his members with great courage and foresight from lengthy strikes, to stay-downs and lock-outs and never faltering.
Digger not only made an enormous contribution to Queensland miners. He played a key role on the Union’s Central Council, the national governing body his grandfather Charles had been a founder of. Digger represented the Union at ACTU Congresses and internationally as well. Right to the end a staunch Communist, one of Digger’s greatest experiences was his visit to the then Soviet Union.

Out of the many wider contributions Digger made there are two that merit particular recognition. The first was in 1975 when the Nymboida coal miners in northern NSW took over their colliery and refused to be sacked. Digger played a key role in making sure the Nymboida miners could occupy and work the mine in the critical early days of the take-over, including personally smuggling a car full of explosives and detonators over the border for the miners.  Throughout the four-and-a-half years of the successful miners takeover of Nymboida, Digger was a welcome and honoured guest.

The second was Digger’s pioneering role in getting women into the coal mine workforce as production workers. Under his leadership, Queensland became the first place where women started at the Blackwater and Moura mines in Central Queensland. And true to form, Digger and the Union insisted that the first mining women were paid exactly the same as the men and received every condition and entitlement equally. To Digger all workers, regardless of gender, religion, race or colour, were all equal.

For all his great achievements, Digger was always adamant that he was only half of a team throughout his working life. His wife Joyce was not only his life partner but his rock. Joyce was a very respected leader of the Miners Women’s Auxiliary, the backbone to many of the industrial disputes the miners were involved in and the great supporters of families and communities who endured the pain of lost ones in the mines. Long after the headlines had faded and public attention had moved on, women like Joyce were there at the side of those who needed a helping hand or a kind word for as long as it took.

Digger and Joyce shared more than 70-years together as a married couple. They lived their whole married lives in Ipswich and brought up three wonderful daughters in Judy, Cheryl and Beth. Joyce passed away in March 2014 and although Digger remained staunchly independent living in their home until his passing last Friday, he missed Joyce every day of his life.

Our Union today owes much to Digger and his Comrades past and present. To this writer and many others he was also a kind and generous mentor. We will all miss him but none more so than his loving family, those wonderful three daughters who have inherited their parents passion for justice and commitment to a Fair Go. Also his four grandchildren and six great grandchildren.

Vale Digger Murphy, you have left a great legacy and one that grandfather Charles would be proud of.

– Paddy Gorman