Broken Hill’s Kind-hearted Grocer

Trading on Compassion

Born in Northern Italy in 1883, Emanuel Pedergnana was just 18 when he migrated to Australia in 1901. Although almost illiterate, the plucky young man went on to lead a successful strike action, work on the mines and own two retail businesses after settling in Broken Hill.

Emanuel first found work at St Herberts, a vineyard owned by Dame Nellie Melba’s family in Lilydale, Victoria. When the vineyard attempted to renege on its promise of a bottle of wine a day for all workers, Emanuel led a strike using the slogan ‘no wine, no work’, successfully negotiating its reinstatement.

In 1904, Emanuel moved on to Broken Hill and found work at the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP). In 1908 BHP notified its staff that wages would be reduced due to plummeting mineral prices. When the workers and management failed to reach an agreement the workers went on strike, triggering a five-month lock-out by BHP. This forced many workers to leave Broken Hill. Emmanuel rode his bicycle nearly 255 kilometres north-east to White Cliffs, where he mined opals until the strike ended.

Emanuel married Effe Degemouis in Broken Hill in 1911, their first child, also named Emanuel was born in 1912. Emanuel the elder continued to work on the mines until 1916 when he became concerned about the effect of lead on his health.

After quitting mining, Emanuel opened a grocery store amongst the Italian and Yugoslav communities in Piper Street. He became famous for sitting outside the shop with his pocketknife and sharpening children’s pencils as they walked past on their way to school.

Emanuel again felt the sting of a strike during the 1919 lock-out. The strike led to the granting of a 35-hour working week, but the cost in the wider community was great. Emanuel almost went broke because he had extended so much credit to striking workers. The size of Emanuel’s ledger from the mid-1930s is an indication of the number of grocery accounts he was managing.