In one photograph (above) a crowd of strikers gathers in a small-town street, two small boys running to join it. In another photograph strike breakers march en masse from the local gold mine. The photographs are two in a series of images of the 1912 Waihī miners’ strike in our entry on the Hauraki-Coromandel region.
The strike began in May and ended in the defeat of the Waihi miners’ union in November the same year. The miners’ union had withdrawn from the arbitration system. The refusal of its members to work with a group of the engine drivers, who had broken away and formed their own union under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1894, was the immediate catalyst for the strike. The strike was, and would remain, bitterly divisive. Waihi was a company town, dependent on the mine and its mainly British-based owners for employment and most of the local council’s revenue.
The months the strike lasted, the resulting loss of employment by others in the town, the involvement of large numbers of police and strike breakers after a fiercely anti-union government was elected, the shooting of a policeman and the death of a miner, and the forced eviction of many strikers and their families from the town all contributed to the depth of feeling for and against the strike.
Some of those who had left returned to Waihī and made it their home again. For decades after, many of those who had remained staunch and those who had returned to work or been employed to break the strike maintained separate communities within the town. Their children did not mix in the playground, their grandchildren were told whose side was whose.
In 2012 feelings about the 1912 strike remain strong, coalescing around the shooting of policeman Gerald Wade and death of miner Fred Evans. After hearing evidence that Evans had shot Wade (from police and strike breakers) and that he hadn’t (from strikers), a coronial inquiry concluded that Evans was responsible. Evans, who died after a savage beating inflicted in part by Wade, became a working-class martyr whose death was remembered each year.
On 12 November 2012, the centenary of the violent encounter between Evans and Wade, an exhibition eulogising Wade opened at the Police Museum and Shades of black, a book on the shooting, was launched.
Two days earlier a centenary seminar organised by labour history groups in Wellington and Auckland was held in Waihī. The seminar was followed by the opening of an exhibition at the Waihī Art Gallery and Museum of paintings inspired by the strike, and the launch of a book – Waiheathans – providing new evidence on the subject. It includes an interview with the son of Fred Evans’s best friend, who maintained throughout his life that Evans did not and could not have shot Constable Wade, as the police and government claimed. On 11 November a commemorative service was held on the site of the Miners’ Hall where Evans died.
The seminar heard a series of fascinating, well-written papers on:
- the 1911 Royal Commission into Mining
- new documentary evidence on the strike and wider labour movement
- the political context of the Waihī strike
- comparisons between the Waihī strike and others in Wellington and Blackball
- the activities of the women known as ‘scarlet runners’ in support of the strike.
In a moving session some descendants of those who had been involved spoke of the strike’s effects on their family, and told stories that had been passed down. Monique Cochietto, great granddaughter of Bill Parry (president of the Waihi Miners’ Union, 1909–1912) described her grandmother as a little girl leaving Waihī, surrounded by hostile strike breakers, not daring to raise her eyes from her feet as she walked to the railway station. Bob Richards, grandson of Wesley Richards (Parry’s successor as union president), also spoke of the family leaving Waihī. As they stood on the railway station platform in the baking sun, Richards had reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. One of the watching strike breakers, believing he was reaching for a gun, pulled one, jammed it in Richards’s side and ordered the family onto the train.
Te Ara has more information about Waihī’s Martha gold-mine and the 1912 strike at http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/hauraki-coromandel-region/8, and on gold mining generally at: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/gold-and-gold-mining.