The structure and conditions of the coal-mining industry meant that industrial relations were difficult. From the 1880s the industry was controlled by a small group of the country’s capitalist élite. Many of the miners came from Britain, bringing strong traditions of trade unionism with them. Working conditions were dangerous. The men lived in isolated communities where it was easy to organise resistance and create a sense of togetherness. Many mining towns became centres for socialist activism and teaching. The result was a series of strong unions and a pattern of strikes. The unions included:
- Amalgamated Miners and Labourers Association, which had some success in the Grey and Buller areas in the 1880s under John Lomas’s leadership. It was crushed by its involvement in the 1890 maritime strike.
- Federation of Miners or ‘Red Feds’, which grew out of the successful 1908 strike at Blackball for a full half-hour break or ‘crib-time’. It was eventually destroyed by the 1913 general strike.
- Miners’ Federation of 1915, which led opposition to conscription. It disintegrated in the early 1920s.
- United Mine Workers Federation, whose leader, Angus McLagan, was forced, as a minister of the Crown, to negotiate with striking Huntly coal miners in 1942. The agreement, which included wartime state control of the mines, led to the withdrawal of the National Party from the War Cabinet.
Most coal mines were in isolated places, and on the West Coast they tended to be in the damp Grey River valley or on the foggy, cold Denniston plateau. Often miners did not anticipate living there permanently and were loath to invest in housing. The mine owners skimped on single men’s huts. The results were unlined, damp shacks, unsanitary conditions, and often no more than a kerosene tin for washing.
Overcrowding was common. Samuel Hurst Seager, a Christchurch architect, was appalled when he investigated mining centres in 1918. He described ‘barbarous conditions’ and housing ‘dreary in the extreme’. 1 Housing for Māori miners in the 1940s was appalling, with ‘flattened oil drums for weatherboards’. 2
Isolation, physical hardship, poor housing and the British origins of many miners bred a distinctive culture. It became accepted that on ‘pay Saturday’, once a fortnight, men would take the day off. Drinking was widespread. A 1919 Board of Trade report claimed that alcohol consumption was twice as great in mining areas as elsewhere.
Brunner had six hotels, Denniston three. The hotel was often the only warm, comfortable place to meet and chat, and it was the venue for activities as diverse as darts and boxing bouts. Gambling on these pursuits and on horses and dogs was widespread. Yet mining communities also included non-drinkers, often of a Methodist background, some of whom encouraged their fellows into socialist reading cells.
Drink, drink, drink
Ettie Rout described the socialist miners when editing the Maoriland Worker: ‘They live in gloomy valleys, they work in holes in the earth, they live on the West Coast where it is nearly always raining, where 80% of the men drink, drink, drink, in a wild endeavour to forget who they are and where they live.’ 3
Mining and its distinctive character helped enrich New Zealand society. In men like Paddy Webb and Bob Semple the country gained some unique public figures – both were Australian-born radicals who became members of the 1935–49 Labour government.
Several New Zealand novels have evoked the experience of coal mining – Bill Pearson’s Coal flat (1963), Eric Beardsley’s Blackball 08 (1984), and Jenny Pattrick’s The Denniston rose (2003). Mervyn Thompson’s one-man play Coaltown blues, which he performed 114 times between 1984 and 1988, evokes growing up in a West Coast mining community.