Archive for the 'Peter Clayworth' Category

The history of the Rūnanga Miners’ Hall

The Rūnanga Miner's Hall, built in 1937

The Rūnanga Miner's Hall, built in 1937

On Saturday 18th May 2013 a small notice in the Greymouth Star announced that the New Zealand Historic Places Trust had declared the Rūnanga Miners’ Hall a Category 1 historic place. This decision was the culmination of efforts by the Friends of the Rūnanga Miners’ Hall, a group of local people and their supporters nation-wide, who are working to save and renovate the hall.

Rūnanga is a small town about 10 kilometres north of Greymouth and the Grey River. In 1901 it was the site of a major experiment by Richard Seddon‘s Liberal government, when a state-owned coal mine was established at Coal Creek. Two towns were set up to house the mine workers and their families: Rūnanga, a government town, and nearby Dunollie, a private initiative. In 1904 the miners founded their union, which became the State Miners’ Union. They soon gained a reputation for strength and militancy.

Soon after its formation, the members of the miners’ union decided they needed their own hall for meetings and social activities. The first hall was completed in 1908; built co-operatively by the union, the state mine management and local businesspeople. When the original hall was burnt down by an arsonist on 2 January 1937, the union immediately began building a new hall on the same site, completing it before the end of the year. This is the hall that now stands. Both the 1908 and 1937 halls were designed by the same man, mine engineer George Millar. The second hall can be seen as a historical continuation of the first, serving the same purposes as a political and social centre for both the union and the town.

The first Rūnanga Miner's Hall built in 1908 (Ref: 1/2-179351-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The Rūnanga Miners' Hall built in 1908 (Ref: 1/2-179351-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The Rūnanga hall played a significant role in the history of New Zealand’s union movement and in the birth of the Labour Party. The recognition that the miners’ union belonged to the international workers’ movement was reflected in the slogans painted on the hall in 1908: ‘The world’s wealth for the world’s workers’ and ‘United we stand, divided we fall.’ The slogans were repainted on the 1937 hall, and renewed again in the year 2000.

With its local council made up entirely of unionists and their supporters, Rūnanga was known in its early days as ‘Red Rūnanga’. In the 1900s and 1910s Rūnanga became a haven for radical unionists of the New Zealand Federation of Labour. These Rūnanga ‘Red Feds’ included Robert ‘Fighting Bob’ Semple, Pat Hickey, Paddy Webb, James O’Brien and Tim Armstrong. (Semple, Webb, O’Brien and Armstrong all became ministers in the first Labour government). The miners’ hall was the scene of numerous union meetings, discussing both mundane work issues and more dramatic events such as strikes. It was also the venue for early political meetings of the Socialist Party, which became the Social Democratic Party and then the Labour Party.

Public meetings were held at the hall to discuss controversial issues such as prohibition and conscription. In 1920 a meeting addressed by a Mr Zekull, described as a representative of the Russian Bolsheviks, ended with the large crowd giving three cheers for Russia, followed by the singing of ‘The Red Flag‘ accompanied by the Rūnanga Silver Band.

The 1937 hall was the site of a large memorial service in 1940 on the death of Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage. Minister of Mines Paddy Webb, a former Runanga Red Fed, debated with union leaders at the hall during conflict between the Rūnanga Miners Union and the Labour government in 1942. The hall was union headquarters when the miners struck in support of locked out watersiders during the 1951 dispute.

Halls have traditionally been important buildings for the social lives of rural areas and small towns. The Rūnanga Miners’ Hall was the venue for dances, formal dinners, wedding receptions, visiting speakers on a wide range of subjects, theatrical performances by both local and visiting troupes, and for the legendary annual State Colliery Horticultural Society Chrysanthemum Show (for which a special train was usually put on from Greymouth). The hall also acted as the Rūnanga movie theatre from 1909 to 1975.

The State Miners’ Union came to an end in the 1960s and gave up ownership of the hall. In the 1970s it was used for a time as a factory to make wood products. The hall acted as a community facility again from the 1980s through to 2012, when it was closed due to being earthquake prone.

The Historic Places Trust has granted the hall Category 1 status on the grounds that it is ‘significant in New Zealand’s history of the working classes, the organised labour movement generally and the Labour Party in particular’. The Historic Places Trust also noted that few miners’ halls remain in New Zealand, despite once being common. It is gratifying to see that the Historic Places Trust report on the Rūnanga Miners’ Hall made extensive use of recent Te Ara entries, as well as the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography and our 1966 encyclopedia site.

Despite the granting of Category 1 status, the Runanga Miners’ Hall still remains in danger of demolition. Hopefully a way can be found to preserve this important part of our heritage.

Coaltown blues in Wellington

Mervyn Thompson on the cover of the script of Coaltown blues (click for image credit)

Mervyn Thompson on the cover of the script of Coaltown blues (click for image credit)

Last week saw the welcome return to Wellington of Mervyn Thompson‘s play Coaltown blues. The play, a one-person musical, was brilliantly performed by Chris Green, under the direction of Lindsey Rusling, with piano accompaniment by Sue Windsor.

Coaltown blues is a semi-autobiographical play following the birth, childhood and youth of a character called Mervyn Thompson in Blacktown, a small West Coast mining town. While the lead character bears the name of the playwright, the town of Blacktown is fictional. It is, however, largely based on the town of Rūnanga, where Thompson spent much of his childhood. Coaltown blues focuses on the economic and physical hardships endured by West Coast mining families, along with their socialist visions of a better world arising from those hardships.

In the play, each stage of the young Thompson’s life is set against wider historical events that make their mark on his family and town. His birth in 1935 is set against the election of the first Labour government, while further life stages are marked by the war in 1942, the end of the war on VJ Day in 1945, the defeat of the Labour government in 1949 and the miners’ strike in sympathy with the 1951 waterfront lockout.

A strong theme running through the play is that of the dangers and hardships of the miners’ lives. One section centres on the mining death of Stu Kennedy, a friend of Thompson’s father. Kennedy’s Roman Catholic funeral highlights the differences between the children of the ‘Mickey Doos’ (aka Mickey Doolans, meaning Catholics) and ‘Proddies’ (Protestants), but also emphasises the solidarity of the local union.

Thompson’s father, a staunch union man, has dreamed of a new utopia under the Labour government, but is instead disillusioned that Labour has led the country into war and has failed to prevent mining accidents. Thompson senior, who admires the Soviet Union’s war effort despite being a pacifist, is further disillusioned when Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser supports compulsory military training in 1949.

Despite his socialist idealism and supposed pacifism, Thompson’s father is dictatorial to his family and occasionally violent to both his wife and son. The struggle of women in mining families to cope with poverty, while bringing up large families and dealing with the everyday sexism of their men, is another theme running through the play. Unequal power struggles are as evident between Thompson’s mother and father as they are between the miners’ union and the state coal management.

Coaltown blues is not all grim social realism. Some aspects of Thompson’s childhood are presented as great fun, such as the VJ Day parade. There are also obvious times of family affection and closeness, but the abiding theme is the degrading nature of poverty, despite constant hard work. The vision of the past presented in Coaltown blues has no aspect of romance or nostalgia for the ‘good old days’. Small-town life is shown in its narrowness, with the school bullies persecuting anyone who shows signs of difference or weakness.

The fact that Blacktown is in some ways an atypical New Zealand town is only revealed to Thompson when he goes to work in Christchurch during the 1951 dispute. He is surprised to learn that, unlike Blacktown where people solidly support the unions, most Christchurch people appear to see the ‘strikers’ as Communist stirrers who should be crushed.

Thompson is portrayed as the sensitive youth who wants to escape from the confines of Blacktown and a future of life down the pit. He nevertheless gives in to his father’s insistence and becomes a miner. The irony is that Thompson finds he enjoys the miner’s life and the camaraderie he finds in the mines. The joys and struggles of the miner’s work, the strength of the union and the Blacktown way of life are all brought to an end, however, with the closing of the mine.

Coaltown blues was first performed in 1984 by the playwright himself, but the play soon became overshadowed by a controversy that arose around Thompson. The playwright was subjected to a vigilante attack after allegations of sexual assault were made against him. No legal case over the allegations was ever brought against Thompson, but performances of his plays, including Coaltown blues, became the subject of protest and bitter debate.

In a modern performance of Coaltown blues the play can be seen on its own merits, rather than as a framework to discuss the playwright’s personal behaviour. As Chris Green points out in the play’s programme, recent events such as the Pike River disaster have shown that the issues that Coaltown blues deals with continue to have strong relevance in the modern world.

Workers’ Memorial Day

Peter Conway of the CTU speaks at Workers' Memorial Day

Peter Conway of the CTU speaks at Workers' Memorial Day

On Sunday 28 April I attended a ceremony at KiwiRail’s Lower Hutt railway workshops in Moera to mark Workers’ Memorial Day. The day is an international event to commemorate workers killed and injured on the job. While New Zealanders are reminded on Anzac Day of the heavy price our people have paid in war, many are unaware of the casualties resulting from simply earning a living. The release of the Report of the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety on Tuesday 30 April has brought the issue of workplace safety sharply into focus.

According to the report, ‘there were on average 102 fatal work-related deaths [each year] between 2008 and 2010’. Each year around one in 10 New Zealand workers are harmed through an accident or work related activity. Between 500 to 800 people die prematurely each year through illnesses directly related to the workplace. These rates are high in comparison to those in many other OECD countries. (The report also acknowledges there are some problems with the reliability of data for workplace injuries in New Zealand.)

Five high-risk industries account for over half of workplace injuries and occupational illnesses: manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forestry and fisheries. These high-risk industries are notable for having high proportions of Māori and Pacific workers, and for often having higher numbers of males in their workforces.

New Zealand has a sombre history of industrial accidents. The most recent large-scale event was the Pike River disaster, with 29 workers dying in the mine explosion of 19 November 2010. Other major disasters have included:

  • The Brunner mine disaster, 26 March 1896, with 65 deaths from gas following an explosion.
  • Ralph’s mine explosion at Huntly, 12 September 1914, where 43 miners were killed.
  • The Strongman mine disaster, 19 January 1967, with the deaths of 19 miners.
  • The Christchurch Ballantyne’s fire, 18 November 1947. Forty-one dressmakers, milliners and clerical staff died, partly a result of inadequate fire-safety provisions.
  • The many ship wrecks where crew have died on the job. These include the sinking of HMS Orpheus at the Manukau bar, Auckland, on 7 February 1863, with 189 naval personnel drowning.

The majority of New Zealand’s industrial deaths and injuries have been less dramatic, though equally tragic, involving individual workers going about their tasks. Workers in jobs such as demolition and sawmill work have developed illnesses from hazardous substances, including asbestos and dioxins. Historically, jobs such as labouring, factory and cleaning work have involved injuries from occupational over-use syndrome (OOS). In recent times the increase in keyboard-based computer work has brought further risks from OOS.

Workers’ Memorial Day is an international event held annually to remember the people behind the statistics. It commemorates those killed and injured at work, along with the families who must deal with the after effects. Memorial Day also draws attention to ongoing health and safety issues. The day was first held in Canada in 1984 and has since spread to many other countries. The date of 28 April was chosen as on that day in 1914 Ontario became the first province in Canada to introduce a workers’ compensation law.

In New Zealand Workers’ Memorial Day events are generally organised by unions, in particular the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU). This year memorial services were held at Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga/Mt Maunganui, Napier, Lower Hutt, Christchurch and Dunedin. The service in Auckland, organised by the CTU, focused on the 28 forestry workers who have been killed at work in the years since 2008.

A memorial to Jack Neha,

A memorial to Jack Neha, a railway worker who was killed on the job in 1995

The ceremony at the Lower Hutt railway workshops included prayers, a moment of silence, and wreath-laying. There were addresses by speakers from the CTU and RMTU, a KiwiRail representative and by the local MP Chris Hipkins. Hazel Armstrong, a lawyer who has been involved for many years in workplace safety issues, spoke and launched her new book Your life for the job: New Zealand rail safety 1974–2000. Armstrong’s book looks closely at the period from 1995 to 2000, the years when 11 railway workers were killed. Armstrong argues that these casualties resulted from the extreme deregulation of the railways. It was appropriate that a highlight of the ceremony was the unveiling of a memorial to Jack Neha, a worker killed at the Gracefield shunting yards in 1995.

The big dry

Drought in Wairarapa (click for image credit)

Drought in Wairarapa (click for image credit)

Despite the appearance of a bit of cloud and rain across the country over the last week or so, the drought is still carrying on. The dry weather that has been dominant since late January has led to ‘the big dry’, described as the worst drought in 70 years. To break the drought will require days of consistent, moderate rain rather than a massive downpour. A short burst of heavy rain could lead to flooding or simply to the ground turning to mud, which won’t help our parched farms.

Droughts are a fairly regular event during New Zealand summers and also occasionally in winter. The most common pattern is drought on the dry eastern sides of the islands, while the west remains relatively green. The current drought has been different in that the whole of the North Island has been dry. On 22 March the normally wet areas of the Buller and Grey districts on the South Island’s west coast were also declared drought zones. Anticyclones dominated the weather from January through to March, while the low pressure fronts that have crossed the country have not brought enough moisture to counter the drought.

While not as spectacular as earthquakes or floods, droughts are perhaps New Zealand’s most economically costly natural phenomena. The combined losses from the 1997-98 drought on the east coasts of the North and South islands and the 1998–99 drought in Otago added up to over $1 billion. The nationwide drought of 2007–8 is estimated to have cost New Zealand primary industries around $2.8 billion. The principal costs were the reduced quality of breeding stock on farms, a reduction in the amount of milk produced, and the extra money farmers had to pay out for supplementary food for their animals.

Farmers are not the only ones to feel the impact of droughts. The drought in the summer of 1972–73 led to nationwide electricity rationing the following winter, due to low water levels in the hydro-electric lakes. Winter droughts in 1992 and 2001 also severely reduced the water available for electricity generation. A drought in 1993–94 had such an impact on Auckland city’s water supplies that in subsequent years a pipeline, costing over $170 million, was built to supply water from the Waikato River. The droughts of 1997–99 exacerbated the impacts of the Asian financial crisis on the New Zealand economy, while the 2008 drought had a severe impact on the dairy industry at a time of international financial chaos.

A look at some of the nationwide droughts that have hit the country in the past puts the current ‘big dry’ into historical perspective. The drought that gripped the colony in the summer of 1885–86 brought with it massive bush fires. In the South Island there were fires in Canterbury, Marlborough, Nelson, and even places on the ‘wet’ West Coast where settlers had not witnessed bush fires before. Dramatic tales abounded, such as the dash for safety made by the Newmans mail coach, as it was scorched by blazing forests surrounding the Nelson to Reefton road through the Motupiko Valley. In the North Island there were huge fires, particularly in Taranaki, Hawke’s Bay and Manawatū. There were so many fires around Wellington that at one point the city was reported to be ‘smoke dried.’

In the summer of 1907-8 the young dominion suffered a similar drought across the whole country. The government moved to assist farmers by providing grass seed on easy terms. Wild fires were once again common, with sparks from traction engines seen as a particular incendiary danger. As always in times of natural disaster, some people drew a divine lesson from a natural event. The Reverend W. Hain, preaching at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Ashburton, took as his text Isaiah, chapter 5, verse 6: ‘I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.’ Hain saw the drought as a sign of God’s wrath, as ‘there was nothing wrong with accumulating wealth, but the sin came when it was improperly distributed.’

Droughts have clearly always been a factor of the New Zealand environment. If climate change predictions prove accurate, they may well become a standard seasonal feature of life on these islands.

Neil Roberts – New Zealand’s Guy Fawkes?

The Wanganui Computer Centre after it was bombed by Neil Roberts in 1982 (click for image credit)

The Wanganui Computer Centre after it was bombed by Neil Roberts in 1982 (click for image credit)

November has just passed and New Zealand once again had its regular celebration of Guy Fawkes, marking the English gunpowder plot of 1605. Passing by almost unnoticed this November was the 30th anniversary of an event that may have been the nearest New Zealand equivalent to the gunpowder plot. At 12.35 a.m. on 18 November 1982, punk anarchist Neil Roberts blew himself up in an attack on the Wanganui Computer Centre, the building that held the national police computer.

A number of people who knew 22-year-old Roberts maintained that his death in the blast was intentional rather than accidental. The foyer of the computer centre was seriously damaged, but the computer itself was not affected and security guards on site were unharmed. Roberts left graffiti on a nearby toilet block: ‘We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity’. This was a quote from the revolutionary Junta Tuitiva, of La Paz, which fought against the Spanish for the freedom of Bolivia in 1809.

Neil Roberts was part of the punk sub-culture that emerged in late-1970s New Zealand. Punk in New Zealand was a response to music and styles developing in the UK and the USA as bands such as the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Ramones redrew the cultural map. It incorporated an attitude of rebellion against authority, with a reaction against the ‘bad disco’ and  ‘boring hippy’ music of the early 1970s. Punk music relied on noise, attitude and just doing it, with little regard for any sort of musical ability. In New Zealand bands such as the Suburban Reptiles, the Scavengers, Flesh D-Vice and Proud Scum sprang into existence. While most punk bands did not last long, the DIY approach they promoted was to have an indelible influence on the New Zealand music scene. The punk scene provided an introduction for such great musicians and songwriters as the Enemy‘s Chris Knox and the Plague‘s Don McGlashan.

Most young people were simply interested in punk for the music, the styles, a bit of rebellion and, for many, a chance to drink or take drugs. It also provided many young people with a sense of community they felt lacking in wider society. A more sinister element was provided by some of the skinheads and bootboys, who brought a violent racist element to the scene. On the other hand, some punks took a more serious political view of the idea of anarchy, adopting the left wing anti-racist stance of bands like the Clash. Neil Roberts himself came to left-wing anarchist ideas through reading the 19th-century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, rather than through listening to the Sex Pistols’ Never mind the bollocks.

For many young people, especially young Māori and Polynesians, reggae music was fulfilling a similar role to punk in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Musicians such as Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley called on people to ‘Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights.’ Marley’s concert in Auckland in 1979 literally changed the appearance of the country, as dreadlocks spread across the nation. Bands such as Herbs, Dread Beat and Blood, and Aotearoa sang anthems of pride, unity and resistance.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s many young people felt they had something to resist. New Zealand society under Robert Muldoon‘s administration seemed to them stultified, conformist, racist and authoritarian. The dawn raids against Polynesian overstayers were followed by the Bastion Point occupation and the subsequent police crackdown. There were protests against the increasing power of the SIS (the Security Intelligence Service) and against Muldoon’s attempts to fast track his Think Big projects with the National Development Act 1979. A government that talked about freedom maintained laws that outlawed male homosexuality. Visits by nuclear ships became more frequent, while atomic war looked like a distinct possibility with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s fingers on the button. The Springbok Tour of 1981 brought home to New Zealanders just how much power a modern state could use against its own citizens. Neil Roberts protested against the Springbok Tour and marched at Waitangi to support Māori rights. He was also well known for his ‘Drug takers against the bomb’ badges.

For many young punks and rastas (Rastafarians) police harassment on the streets was a fact of life at that time. The Wanganui police computer, the central base for police records, was seen by Neil Roberts and other dissidents as a symbol of police oppression. In an age before computer hacking, Roberts decided to target the computer with gelignite and to kill himself in the process. Such an action was deeply ironic given that Roberts basically saw himself as a pacifist.

Thirty years on the death of Neil Roberts can be seen as both tragic and futile. In the years since 1982, New Zealand society has undergone dramatic changes, both positive and negative. The cultural and political ferment in late 1970s and early 1980s youth culture was a small but significant factor in this change. It can now be seen as fortunate that New Zealanders largely chose peaceful methods of protest, rather than the methods of violence and despair all too prevalent in the modern world.