Story: Coal and coal mining

Page 6. The miners’ work

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The miners

Almost all 19th-century mining was underground, and colonial men, used to a footloose, independent life, did not easily adjust to underground mining. Those who took up mining in New Zealand tended to be immigrants – at first from the copper- and tin-mining areas of Cornwall and Devon, and then from coal-mining areas in Durham, Northumberland, Yorkshire and Wales. Many brought traditions of trade unionism and Methodism. In the early 20th century a number came from the Australian fields, while the expansion of the Waikato fields after the First World War attracted Māori workers into the mines.

Underground mining

Given their backgrounds, it is unsurprising that the early miners used traditional techniques to extract coal. At first this involved picks and shovels. Seams of coal were mined using the ‘bord and pillar’ method – sections were extracted leaving a pillar to hold up the roof, then the pillar was attacked as the miners retreated towards the entrance.

By the 1900s compressed-air coal-cutting machines were used, and in the later 20th century high-pressure water-jet cutting. Coal flowed out in water directly from the face, whereas in conventional mining the coal had been drilled, blasted, and loaded into cars.

Got it easy

Tommy Pinn started at the Strongman mine in 1941 and retired 46 years later. In 2003, as the mine finally closed, he noted: ‘Boy they’ve got a good number today, all the miner was doing was sitting behind this big machine pushing buttons, in a matter of minutes 2 metres of coal was cut from a place about 15 feet wide by 10 feet. It would take the best part of two or more days to do that in my time, after you did all the timbering, boring and blasting. Then we had to shovel the whole lot all out by hand!’ 1

Work conditions

Besides the hewers at the coal face, there were many other workers underground –those hauling the coal, pumping water, looking after the ventilation, and trimming the lamps. In the 19th century their conditions of work were often appalling. At first, the same areas were used as eating places and latrines. When excrement cans were provided, they were often placed in old workings where toxic firedamp (methane gas from coal) collected. Most mines before the First World War did not provide bathhouses and it would be a long, dirty and often wet walk back home. Above ground, men worked as loaders, screening the coal, and as blacksmiths, carpenters and engine men.

On the West Coast, work was erratic because the river ports were often closed by bad weather. On many days the mines did not open.

Opencast mining

Modern mining is increasingly opencast, and in the early 2000s only two major underground mines remained (Huntly East and Spring Creek).

Opencast mining involves removing overburden from the coal seam using motor scrapers or by blasting harder cover rocks. The debris is removed by heavy equipment, including draglines, shovels, bulldozers, front-end loaders and trucks. Opencast mining generally recovers about 90% or more of the coal seam, compared with the 50% or less from underground mining. The deepest opencast mines in New Zealand are at Rotowaro.

From the 1990s it became normal practice to restore mine sites as closely as possible to their pre-mining states.

  1. Strongman mines, 1938–2003. Christchurch: Solid Energy New Zealand, 2003, p. 18. › Back
How to cite this page:

Alan Sherwood and Jock Phillips, 'Coal and coal mining - The miners’ work', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 9 March 2021)

Story by Alan Sherwood and Jock Phillips, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 7 Sep 2016