United We Stand is a photographic–oral history. It is based on 1908 – 10 images of Broken Hill taken by James Wooler. The images are mirrored with extended interviews by Edward Stokes, recording thirty men and women who were young adults in 1908 – 10.
In 1908 Broken Hill, a legendary mining town in the far west of New South Wales, was Australia’s richest mineral field. It was best known for its harsh isolation, militant unions, and the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (genesis of today’s BHP Billiton).
James Wooler’s documentary and town landscape photos, with closely connected spoken excerpts, form the heart of the book. The themes cover all main aspects of life in the town: itsarid isolation; the silver-lead mines (where death by accident was all too common); social life; transport; home life (and ‘women’s work’); children and schooling; sport; recreation; unions and strikes. The result, as one reviewer wrote, is an ‘amalgam of life in an isolated yet proud mining town’.
Going onto the underground shift you’d be given three candles. Three candles! Righto! You gotta be careful, burn them slow… Come crib time, you had four mates. You’d just have the one candle alight for everyone. Dark…
Edward Stokes had been planning a photo history of Broken Hill, where he had morphed from life as a teacher into beginning photography. He had found photos for this overall project in Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney libraries. But then he heard of a ‘hidden hoard’ of glass negatives in Broken Hill itself. Over some time, Stokes tracked these down to a miner – Les Jobson. Decades before, Les’ father had discovered the 1908 – 10 negatives in an abandoned house. Thus, United We Stand was born.
United We Stand was enriched by my meeting Edna McNamara, daughter of James Wooler, the book’s photographer. Here, Edna speaks at the book launch in Broken Hill. Les Jobson, whose father first discovered the Wooler negatives, is in the right background.
Another serendipitous event occurred when, after Edward had published numerous local newspaper articles seeking to find the origins of the negatives (all were named ‘J.W.’ or ‘Wooler’) a letter arrived from Adelaide. ‘Dear Mr Stokes’, it began: ‘I write to tell you I am the daughter, and sole remaining relative living, of the photographer James Wooler, late of Broken Hill.’ Thus began an enduring lifelong friendship with Edna McNamara, then aged eighty. Edna’s treasured memories of her father, and her knowledge of his photography, enriched the book.
The strength of Broken Hill’s social bonds, then as now, was its most striking features. In the period that this book portrays, the drab neglected town, so different to today’s outback oasis, ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall’ was much more than merely a union slogan.
United We Stand was greatly assisted by the National Library of Australia. In the early 1980s the NLA was expanding its oral history programmes. Edward Stokes’ United We Stand oral history recordings and the book’s manuscripts are held by the NLA. The interviews can be heard via the NLA website.