The Kaitangata Disaster, 1879
A few decades ago, before the spectacular advance of hydro-electrical development and the increased use of oil products by railways and shipping had reduced the demand for coal, a large number of workers were engaged in the mining industry in both islands. Fortunately there have been few major disasters in the field. One of the worst occurred on 21 February 1879 in South Otago in the Kaitangata Coal and Railway Co.'s mine. Thirty-five men lost their lives. The shocking character of the occurrence was twofold. Not only was the death roll high, but subsequent investigations of working conditions in the mine disclosed a disregard for generally accepted safeguards. To unskilled management was added reckless carelessness, and the result was tragedy. At 9 a.m. on 21 February, the small township of Kaitangata, a few miles from Balclutha, was shaken by a violent explosion, and 12 hours later the last of the bodies of the 35 victims had been located. The exhaustive inquiry into the accident uncovered a system of neglect and foolhardiness that the public found impossible to accept calmly. Defective ventilation, the use of naked lights (mainly candles) in the face of recurring evidence of firedamp in the mine, and the refusal of the manager (“confessedly unskilled”) and the deputy manager to abandon or modify their haphazard and slipshod methods of operation were shown to be the causes of the tragedy. In response to public clamour, new legislation was passed to provide stricter control of the working of coal mines, but even with this warning from Kaitangata it was to be many years before legislation produced the relatively safe conditions of today.