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 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.