Today marks the centenary of the Huntly mining disaster, an explosion that killed 43 miners.
On Saturday morning, 12 September 1914, 62 men went underground to start their shift at Ralph’s mine. This was a pay Saturday, with only a smaller maintenance crew working. On a normal working day 160 men would have been working underground.
The mine, operated by the Taupiri Coal Company, had a series of old workings. In these sections coal pillars were left standing to prevent the ceiling collapsing, which would cause the Waikato River to flood the mine. A team removing old rail lines took a short cut through one of the old workings. The first worker to enter, John Martin, accidentally ignited a large trapped pocket of ‘fire damp’ – methane gas – with the naked flame on his acetylene cap torch. The large quantities of coal dust in the mine were ignited by the resulting explosion. The explosive wave of fire swept through the mine and killed 41 underground workers. Joe O’Brien, a survivor, described seeing a 1 ton (0.9 tonne) transporting cage blown vertically 200 feet (60 metres) up an entrance shaft.
Rescuers dashed to the mine as soon as they heard the explosion. Twenty-one miners escaped or were rescued from the mine. Two of these men died of burns, bringing the death toll to 43. Had the blast occurred on a normal working day, with the full workforce underground, many more people would have died. It remains the second worst mining disaster in New Zealand history; the worst being the Brunner explosion of 1896, in which 65 miners were killed.
A royal commission of inquiry was convened within days. The commission of three was made up of the chairman Frederick Burgess, a magistrate; John Brown, a mine manager at Denniston; and John Dowgray, a miner and ‘Red Fed’ (Federation of Labour) union leader from Granity. The government appointed Dowgray to ensure that workers would have faith that the commission would really investigate, and not be a rubber-stamp body. The commission’s report found that mine management had a ‘lax and unsatisfactory’ approach to safety.
Before the disaster Ralph’s mine had a reputation as ‘safe’, but it was a gassy mine. A number of miners had been burned in earlier incidents. The local inspector of mines, Boyd Bennie, was judged to have done his inspection job effectively but had been unable to get the mine management to follow his recommendations. The mine management, under manager James Fletcher, had failed to adequately ventilate the old workings, failed to properly inspect those areas and had not provided miners with safety lamps.
Miners, through their union, were supposed to appoint their own check inspectors to ensure mine safety. Up to 1912 the Huntly coal miners had a strong union, with efficient check inspectors. In November 1912 the miners held a one day stoppage to support striking miners in Waihī. The Taupiri Coal Company, led by strongly anti-union chairman Ewen Alison, responded by dismissing the union leaders and recognising a new ‘company’ union. Union militants eventually took over the new union, only to have it destroyed in the Great Strike of 1913 and replaced by another company union. The company unions failed to appoint competent check inspectors. The destruction of effective unionism at Huntly contributed to poor safety inspection at Ralph’s mine.
The royal commission was unable to follow this up, as the alleged victimisation of unionists was beyond the scope of the commission of inquiry. In contrast, the Huntly Miners Union responded immediately, voting in October 1914 to dump their pro-company executive. In its place they elected a militant, pro-Red Fed leadership. The new union secretary was Joe O’Brien, survivor of the Huntly explosion.
Leading into the election campaign of 1914, politicians and labour activists used the issue of the Huntly disaster to attack the pro-business Reform Party government. William Massey, prime minister and minister of labour, was accused of helping to break the Huntly union and with failing to advance new mining safety legislation. Labour MPs John Payne and Paddy Webb were evicted from the parliamentary debating chamber for accusing Massey of manslaughter. Massey in turn declared his opponents were exploiting the tragedy for political gain.
In a courtroom sequel to the disaster, mine manager James Fletcher was taken to court for manslaughter in March 1915. The Supreme Court jury decided Fletcher had no case to answer, a verdict that appalled mining unionists and their supporters.
The Huntly disaster occurred just after the outbreak of the First World War, in a vital war industry. It reminds us that the casualties of wartime are not all on the battlefield. Industrial accidents continue to destroy lives and health in times of war as in peace.