Vale, Max Stewart
Thursday, 15th June, 2017
By Peter Black
TODAY we mourn the passing of Broken Hill’s Labor Doyen, Albert “Max” Stewart.
Max, born on December 20, 1912, was asked by a journalist at his Harold Williams Home Centenary Birthday Function how much longer he hoped to go. He was told, and it was subsequently reported in this newspaper, “Until I’m 104 1/2”.
Max passed away last Friday afternoon at 5.50pm, with his daughter Jan by his side, just 12 days short.
Max, born in Broken Hill, remembered his childhood and early years with great clarity and detail.
His parents initially lodged with the Harris family (John Harris is a descendant) in Railwaytown, before moving to the Cable Hotel, then located on the southern corner of Oxide and Brown streets.
He was three years old when the Pathans attack on the Picnic Train occurred. The rocks opposite the hotel, from which bullets were fired where the Pathans made their last stand, were known as ‘Turk Rocks’ for many years, before morphing somewhat mysteriously into ‘White Rocks’.
Max could and did describe the design of the hotel in detail, together with some of its inhabitants. The family then moved to the eastern corner of Cummins and Oxide, to a residence since demolished.
Max commenced his primary schooling at the then segregated Burke Ward School, and fondly recalled walking to and from past the saline clay pan on which the new hospital now stands, and the creek adjacent to the tram line in Thomas Street, occasionally needing to “kick a rabbit out of the way”.
In those days, Max recalled, the City Power Station then located on what is now the Demo carpark, supplied direct current to the then far between street lights, which meant the further away from the power house, the dimmer the lights became, especially near his home.
In Williams Street he would occasionally catch a tram to school, the tram pausing at the stop adjacent to the Western Oval gates to refuel and take on water.
At the Burke Ward Boys Primary Department (the boys and girls buildings still stand) Max became Dux of his 6th class, and for a reason he did not know, was sent to the Technical School - which later was to become ‘E Block’ (mostly maths) of the High School.
After six months he was transferred to the High School, a rare privilege for working class boys at that time.
While at the High School, Max joined the Boy Scouts, and he recalled a trip to a Sydney Jamboree in which his group travelled in a vehicle via Ivanhoe and Condobolin, then the accepted route.
In later years he became an enthusiastic member of the High School ‘Golden Oldies’, a unique group with members in all States, which meets in Broken Hill annually in September, in part to sing the old School House songs.
Leaving school Max found job opportunities few and far between. He started as an offsider on a motor lorry used to bring firewood into Broken Hill from the Spring Hills, the other side of Topar.
He was later employed as a labourer taking up the Torrawangee rail line. He recalled “jumping trains”, first to Adelaide, then east, eventually finding work in the Mildura fruit industry.
Returning to Broken Hill, Max joined the Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia (the WIU of A) and subsequently found employment underground on the Zinc Mine.
Max was an ‘Establishment Man’ in every dimension, and in Broken Hill the Establishment was the Labor movement.
Max became initially a WIU of A delegate to the Barrier Industrial Council, and then a delegate to the NSW Miners’ Federation Central Committee, the Miners Federation then being a Communist Party of Australia fortress, to which the WIU of A was affiliated.
Max recalled that during a break in a Sydney meeting he was approached by an ASIO agent and asked “whether he would vote for a communist”.
Max, who would repeatedly state that he could never understand why a worker would vote other than Labor, replied “Yes, I would, if I believe he was the better man”.
Max also became a delegate to the Barrier District Assembly of the Australian Labor Party (the BDAALP). He was in time to become its longest serving President, and, as such, it became much of his life.
Also in time Max became the WIU of A Check Inspector - older residents will recall the underground reports (dry bulb/wet bulb) in the BDT.
For many years he served as one of the two Citizens Representatives on the Broken Hill Water Board after winning the requisite BIC pre-selections. He had a role in securing the Menindee Pipeline for Broken Hill.
Importantly, Max served, without controversy, as Chairman of our Hospital Board, again for a number of years, and was subsequently appointed by the NSW Government to the position of Chairman of the Far West Regional Development Board, a position he held for over a decade.
After leaving the position of WIU of A Check Inspector, Max applied for and obtained the full-time position of Secretary of the Shop Assistants’ Union, a position which required him to enforce the Union rules, one of which was that no married woman was to be a member and therefore to have a job.
The rule had been spectacularly successful, in that Broken Hill uniquely in Australia mining centres enjoyed by census a majority of women in its population; 51 per cent by 1926.
The rule was enthusiastically supported by the ‘Militant Methodists’, in the Broken Hill Housewives Association, who wanted jobs for their daughters as well as their sons.
This role obliged Max to visit a dress shop in Oxide Street to ensure that a recently married woman ‘was replaced’. He did the same at the Town Dental Clinic - and fury erupted from the employee who was required to resign. This case went to court, and the Union lost.
The Chairmanship Max enjoyed most was that of the Show Committee, which he had initially joined as a consequence of his life-long passion for pigeons, breeding and showing two Italian breeds, at least one for which became a Grand Champion when the aviculture section embraced Red Factor and Border Fancy canaries, finches, small and large parrots, and fowl of all descriptions, as well as pigeons.
The ‘Show’ was then really a ‘show’; the Show Luncheons in the old Central Football Clubrooms embraced a ‘Toast to Town’ followed by a ‘Toast to Country’ with Max presiding, and many fleeces were on exhibition.
The Show Committee in its earlier years was in charge of the Trots. Committee member Max recalls that it was not uncommon to see horses hauling bread and milk carts in the morning and racing later that day at the Western Oval.
In later years, he joined and was an enthusiastic member of the Broken Hill Lions Club, to which he continued to belong until last Friday.
Max was a devoted family man. I recall him announcing earlier this year that it was the 30th anniversary of the death of his wife Thelma.
He took much enjoyment in recounting two trips with Thelma, to Western Australia and New Zealand.
Again earlier this year, I told Max that I had a fourth granddaughter. Max paused, and said:
“You know, grandchildren are not that important.”
“Great, Great Grandchildren ... I have 21 of them.”
Max had an involved system of sending his family money for Christmas; the nearer you were to him in the family tree, the more you got. At each Christmas, he was generally secretive with the cards, envelopes, and currency notes, perhaps a carry over of his upbringing and the Depression, but in 2015 he sought the assistance of a carer, when the cards, envelopes and money of various nominations covered most of every available surface in this room.
Max deplored “drunks”, but on this occasion we should raise our glasses and salute. Max the ‘Establishment Man’ was the last of his era; we shall not see his like again. Broken Hill has significantly changed in condition and aspirations.
In his better years at Harold Williams, Max referred to me as his mate. A once-in-a-lifetime privilege.
Vale, Max Stewart.