By Simon Nathan
Blackball is a remote and bleak West Coast mining town in the shadow of the Paparoa Range. The main mine closed over 50 years ago, but a small, fiercely loyal community remains. People with Blackball connections have fond memories of a town that probably seems better through nostalgia-tinted lenses. Although these books cover a period of more than 100 years, a common theme is that life in Blackball was tough.
‘The Great 08: Blackball coal miners strike’ by Brian Wood.
Published by Brian Wood, 2008. 230 pp.
The centenary of the great 1908 coal miners’ strike was celebrated in Blackball at Easter this year. It was an event that brought Blackball to national notice, and is often seen as the start of the Labour movement. A contingent of Labour MPs was on hand to celebrate. Local historian Brian Wood has produced a fascinating account of the events leading up to the strike, and how it was resolved.
Commercial interests took out leases over a block of coal in 1885, and subdivided the land that is now the town of Blackball so that workers would have somewhere to live. From the start it was always a company town. Wood traces the various takeovers that led to the emergence of the Blackball Coal Company, mainly owned by overseas interests and run by a Christchurch-based Board of Directors. The chairman was businessman G.G. Stead, and I wonder how many Cantabrians realise that the Ilam Homestead (now housing the University staff club) was funded from the sweat of Blackball miners.
With absentee owners, intent on maximising profits, there was always tension between miners and management. But in a period of fluctuating employment the union was relatively weak. The appearance of young militant unionists, including Pat Hickey, Paddy Webb, and Bob Semple led to a change of attitude. There were long-standing grievances about underground conditions and the length of the working day. The dismissal of Hickey and others led to a strike.
There is a widespread belief that the Blackball strike was about ‘crib time’ – whether the miners should have 30 minutes rather than 15 minutes for lunch. But this was really a minor issue, and Wood shows that much deeper issues were involved, including the length of the working day. The miners wanted an 8-hour days, whereas management wanted 10 to maximise production. The directors were most unwilling to yield – in their view it was a question of principle about who ran the mine – but the sudden death of G.G. Stead and commercial reality led them to settle. It was the first major strike in New Zealand that workers had won for many years.
Brian Wood has collected a magnificent set of illustrations, showing what Blackball looked like 100 years ago. It is just almost as raw today – in fact, there are fewer people around.
Eric Beardsley’s novel is the most widely read account of the Blackball strike. He stuck closely to the historic account, but put a human face to the strike. Trade union leader Andrew Little remembered what a big impression it made on him: “My first education into trade union history in New Zealand”.
The story that Beardsley tells is very much centred around Patrick Hickey, who we now realise was a great propagandist, and tended to place himself at the centre of events. Its very interesting to contrast this account with the recent research by Brian Wood. What makes this a great read is to realise that the unionists – Pat Hickey, Paddy Webb, and Bob Semple – were individuals, with slightly different aims, who worked together when it suited them, and were prepared to manipulate the local community when it suited them.
‘Blackball 08’ is one of the few books about the West Coast that mention women:
“Strike? Millie’s stomach tightened. She knew all about strikes. The hungry kids, the bills at the grocer’s and the butcher’s, no, sorry, nothing more on the slate, the rent collector angry and threatening, the arrival of grim-faced police and then the crawl back to work, sullen and beaten. That’s how it was in the old country and it’d be no different here, would it?”
Elizabeth Rogers, wife of the union secretary, is portrayed as a Fabian socialist, who would argue politics with the men. Is this realistic in a male dominated mining town? I have often wondered.
Blackball 08 ends with a sad recollection by Bob Semple, over 40 years later, when the first Labour government had been voted out of office:
“Well it’s over now, all over. Forty years since crib time, tucker time, at Blackball and out glory in triumph on that rain swept plateau. Now they’ve turned on us, the people have spoken, that’s what they say. The country’s verdict. And my heart’s heavy, despairing. Fourteen years, 5000 days in power. Well we used them well, better than any others, even Seddon”.
‘Coercion at the coal face’
Chapter 7 in ‘A Canterbury tale’ by Francis Bennett, OUP, 1980.
Francis Bennett was a young doctor, trying to make a living in depressed times, and was delighted to be offered a job as resident doctor at Blackball. This chapter from his autobiography is a vivid account of life in Blackball between 1928-31. He described these years as the happiest of his life, and it clearly made a deep impression to live and work in a mining community. But he was deeply depressed after his first day there, and wrote to his wife telling her not to come.
“I stressed the soot, the sulphurous smell, the lack of trees, of paint, of a telephone, a library, a hospital, a garage. It was just a place where people existed. The people themselves seemed friendly enough, but this was not enough. I intended staying just long enough to get out”.
His wife ignored him, and arrived with the baby on the first train. Bennett describes Blackball through the eyes of a critical but sympathetic observer. Like so many before him, he pondered why any man would work underground.
“Any miner can leave the mine and a few do. Of the rest the phrase ‘Once a miner, always a miner’ applies. He comes back to the mine again and again. His children succeed him on the coal face. I have questioned miners about this addiction, but their explanations leave the question unanswered. ‘It is all I can do’. ‘I am settled here’.”
He was soon struck by the uncompromising warfare between the miners and the coal company. His salary was paid by the miners’ union, and it is clear where his sympathies lay.
“The Company paid the wages and nothing more. It was a town where there were a thousand opportunities for making some gesture of goodwill. When I first motored up the main street I had been struck by what seemed to be civic neglect. It was a wrong judgement. All the town possessed in the way of amenities – medical association, doctor, domain, football team, football grounds, swimming baths, miners’ hall and pictures twice a week, debating club, sickness fund – had come from a scraping off the wages. No amenity could be traced to the Company”.
As the depression deepened, the Blackball Mining Company put off men, and reduced the wages of those who remained. They supported a group operating as a cooperative to mine coal on contract. It split the town, with two unions and groups that drank at different pubs and were openly hostile. Police were called in to maintain order. The larger union went on strike in 1931 – a bitter stoppage that lasted nine months, and petered out in failure. Dr Bennett was caught in the middle. The union that paid his salary told him that he could not treat non-union patients; he responded that his Hippocratic oath obliged him to treat anyone who needed medical help. After a confrontation with the union executive, he resigned. Blackball lost an able and sympathetic doctor.
Although set in a fictional place, there is no doubt that Coal Flat is Blackball. All the features are described, and the surrounding towns are named. Bill Pearson captures the feeling of the town and the different characters that lived there immediately after World War 2. It is a slightly different Blackball from that described in earlier books. The Blackball Coal Company had been taken over by the government, and was now a State Mine. After a decade with a Labour government in power some of the ugliest aspects of poverty had started to disappear, and union membership was compulsory.
Bill Pearson was born and educated in Greymouth where his father was stationmaster. After a period at university and training college, he spent six months as a trainee teacher at Blackball in 1942 before joining the army. The book is clearly autobiographical, at least in dealing with the issues that he had to face as a young teacher in Blackball.
The story is centred around Paul Rogers, a young teacher who returns to Coal Flat after war service. He tries to apply knowledge and ideas gained from his years at university, but finds himself in conflict with the conservative attitudes of the local people. In particular he wants to introduce modern ideas about dealing with troubled children, but discovers universal suspicion and rejection. The novel is set at the time of the 1947 Greymouth beer boycott – an almost farcical episode when the unions battled with hotelkeepers about the price of beer – and the community conflicts that eventuate.
Coal Flat presents an overview of a mining community, including some aspects that are quietly ignored. Its not surprising that there was indignation in Blackball when ut was published in 1963. At the time it was one of the most ambitious New Zealand novels, and is still an excellent read 40 years later. The book has been digitised, and is available on the web. Here is a sample, telling of the arrival of a new, rather prim young woman teacher in Coal Flat.
A bonus. If you manage to get hold of a copy of the book in good condition, the original dust jacket was designed by Colin McCahon.
1947 Greymouth beer boycott (from New Zealand History online)
Growing up in Blackball, where his father was a miner, gave Jeffrey Holman a deep affection for the West Coast. His middle name, Paparoa, remembers the mountains that were always in the background. The Blackball bridge, across the Grey River, was the lifeline to a wider world.
“Of a Friday night it was into Greymouth, hair
all Brycreemed to see The Magnificent Seven.
Saturday came and the darts team was off from
The Workingmen’s Club to play Ngahere, and Sunday
the League boys from down the valley, rumbling up to our
Fortress by day, beaten, pissed, into your arms that night.”
These are vernacular poems, wonderful to read aloud – perhaps one of the easiest ways to absorb some local history. Holman has an enthusiastic nostalgia for Blackball, especially the brotherhood of miners and masculine working class spirit. The imagery is vivid:
“…. dog rain, cat and
rat rain, the rain that drowns ambition, swallows
towns and smashes bridges, train-eating, brain-
beating, roof-drumming over & over & over. Rain”
The poems are interleaved with carefully chosen archival photographs. Language and images together leave a strong impression of the spirit of Blackball remembered with affection.
Simon Nathan is a Wellington writer and reviewer. He’s the editor of the forthcoming The Amazing World of James Hector.