Over the last fortnight I have had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Tom Brooking’s new biography, Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own, which has just been launched. Because you can read my review on Scoop Books, I won’t say much about the book itself except to highly recommend it to anyone interested in New Zealand history and politics. It fills a big gap in our knowledge of Seddon, and paints a more sympathetic picture than given by some historians and writers. Although Seddon died over a hundred years ago, recent opinion polls continue to rate him as our most popular prime minister, and this book helps to explain his appeal to New Zealanders across the whole spectrum of politics.
Two settlements have been named after Seddon. In Marlborough the township of Seddon has recently been in the news because of a series of damaging earthquakes in 2013. But I want to devote this blog to the other place, the remote coal-mining settlement of Seddonville, north of Westport on the opposite side of the South Island. In the 1980s I spent several months mapping the geology and trying to work out whether any coal was left in the area around Seddonville, and this led me to research the history of the town that was to become the site of New Zealand’s first state coal mine – you can read more about that on NZ History.
Seddonville is at the northernmost end of the Buller coalfield – the end of the railway line where a coal seam was found in the Mōkihinui River. Seddon visited the settlement in 1893, soon after mining started, and the canny locals asked if they could name the town after him. As soon as he agreed, they presented him with a list of requests.
Coal mining did not prosper in Seddonville. The area was remote from markets, and the coal seams were faulted. By 1900 mining had ceased, and there was concern that there was no freight to carry on the railway line. In 1901 the State Coal Mines Act was passed by the government, with the hope of providing competition to privately owned mines, and thus lower coal prices. The abandoned mine workings at Seddonville were purchased by the government, to become the first state coal mine. Seddonville State Mine was proudly opened by Seddon in November 1903.
Once mining was underway again, problems soon became obvious. Much of the coal was crushed, with a high proportion of fine material that could not be sold. To make matters worse, it became clear that the coal was not a continuous thick seam – in some places it could be many metres thick, but in others only millimetres. The mine struggled on, losing money every year, until it closed down in May 1914. The miners moved away, some volunteering for the First World War, and only a few people remained at Seddonville. New Zealand’s first state coal mine was not a success, and was quietly forgotten.
A local engineer, Tom Moynihan, became interested in using water to mine coal, sluicing it from the coal face to storage bins outside the mine. It was technology that was strongly opposed by mining unions as it led to the loss of jobs in the mines. But Seddonville was remote, and Moynihan was able to use the old mine workings to test out his hydraulic mining technology. In 1936 he re-opened the old state mine as the Hydro Mine, and successfully produced coal from there for 20 years, later introducing hydraulic mining to other nearby mines.
Moynihan always took delight in saying that he had been able to successfully work a mine where the state had failed and, not surprisingly, he was detested by unionised miners. But it was a further reason why memory of the Seddonville State Mine, as a failed experiment, has been conveniently erased.
In 2014 few people live at Seddonville. The land that was once closely settled is mainly open paddocks, and there are only a few houses, a hotel and a tiny public library. There is no memorial to Richard Seddon apart from the name. I hope that Tom Brooking’s book will help rekindle interest in Seddon, especially in the more remote parts of the West Coast that was his adopted home, and of which he spoke of so affectionately.