Archive for the 'Simon Nathan' Category

Ignoring the lessons of history at Pike River

An explosion at the remote Pike River mine on 19 November 2010 killed 29 men. To mark the fifth anniversary of this disaster, a feature has been prepared on the NZHistory website outlining the background to the explosion and its aftermath.

We can look back with disbelief that such a terrible industrial accident could happen in the 21st century. The management of the Pike River mine certainly believed that their mining methods, using modern technology, were safer and more efficient than the more traditional way underground mines had been run in the past. But information on the disaster bears a tragic resemblance to previous explosions.

One of the major problems in underground coal mining is methane gas, continuously expelled from coal seams, and potentially explosive when mixed with air. In New Zealand a total of 211 men have been killed in nine separate methane explosions since coal mining started in the late 19th century. All the explosions can be attributed to faulty ventilation combined with poor safety practices.

The nine explosions are widely spaced over 130 years, including Kaitangata (1879, 34 deaths), Brunner (1896, 65 deaths), Huntly (1914, 43 deaths), Strongman (1967, 19 deaths) and Pike River (2010, 29 deaths). Successive Commissions of Enquiry have recommended improved safety measures, but it appears that the dangers of methane explosions are gradually forgotten as each generation of experienced mine workers retires. Continuing vigilance is needed to ensure that younger miners and mine managers are aware of the hidden dangers of underground mining.

The report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine tragedy makes depressing reading. There is not a single, simple cause, but rather a cumulative succession of errors and misjudgements. It was certainly intended to run the mine with state-of-the-art methane monitoring, but shortcuts were taken because of construction delays and mounting debts, and the gas monitoring equipment was never properly installed and calibrated. There had been many warnings of high methane levels and small explosions, but these were ignored. The Inspector of Mines was on the verge of closing the mine, but was assured by the management that everything was under control.

The best way we can remember the 29 men killed at Pike River – and the others killed in the preceding eight mine explosions – is to ensure that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. Underground coal mines should not operate unless they are regularly inspected and conform to the highest safety standards.

An incident form submitted by mine shift supervisor Dene Murphy in June 2010. The Pike River mine's incident register records many attempts by Murphy to draw attention to failings in ventilation and gas management, but these were never followed up. Source: Royal Commission report on the Pike River disaster

An incident form submitted by mine shift supervisor Dene Murphy in June 2010. The Pike River mine's incident register records many attempts by Murphy to draw attention to failings in ventilation and gas management, but these were never followed up. Source: Royal Commission report on the Pike River disaster

A forgotten cartographer and artist

Augustus Koch's illustration of carved figures at Ōhinemutu, Rotorua

Augustus Koch's illustration of carved figures at Ōhinemutu, Rotorua

Augustus Koch is one of the obscure figures of 19th-century art and cartography. Apart from a brief entry in Una Platts’ Nineteenth century New Zealand artists, little has been written about him. I had heard of Koch as the artist who accompanied Ferdinand Hochstetter on his epic explorations of the central North Island in 1859, but few of his illustrations seemed to have survived.

In a new book, Augustus Koch – mapmaker, Rolf Brednich has put Koch back in the historical record with a thoroughly researched biography, illustrated by a selection of his cartoons, drawings and maps. I did a quick check in Te Ara, and discovered that three of Koch’s images are reproduced – all from John White’s Ancient history of the Maori, drawn late in the artist’s life.

The basic outlines of Koch’s life come from two autobiographical manuscripts, written for his family, that are now held in the Alexander Turnbull Library. Born into a middle-class German family, he studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Berlin. His student years coincided with widespread political upheavals, and during the riots in 1848 he defended the barricades against the Prussian army. His cartoons, published in revolutionary newssheets, brought him to the notice of the authorities. He was advised to leave Berlin, and spent the next eight years as a sailor on merchant ships, travelling the world. Meeting his future wife on an emigrant ship travelling to New Zealand, he set himself up in Auckland in 1858 as a freelance artist and draughtsman. Soon afterwards he was engaged by Hochstetter to make a pictorial record of his expedition through the central North Island.

Mapmaker and artist Augustus Koch

Mapmaker and artist Augustus Koch

It was believed that most of Koch’s illustrations of the journey had disappeared, but by a wonderful coincidence they were recently discovered by researcher Sascha Nolden in an archive collection in Switzerland. Nolden has contributed the chapter on the Hochstetter expedition, illustrated by some of Koch’s drawings, unseen in New Zealand for over 150 years.

Later in 1859 Koch was offered the post of chief draughtsman for the newly established Hawke’s Bay Provincial Council, based in Napier, where he stayed for a decade. When Vogel’s ‘Think Big’ policies were getting under way in the early 1870s, Koch joined the Public Works Department in Wellington as a senior draughtsman, and stayed in that position until he was made redundant in 1887 as part of cutbacks during the long depression. In his memoirs Koch says very little about these years as a cartographer – the bulk of his working life – and few of his maps have been previously identified. Rolf Brednich has assiduously searched map collections and archives throughout New Zealand, and managed to identify an impressive number of maps bearing Koch’s name. There are probably more that are unsigned. The second half of the book consists of colour reproductions of a selection of Koch’s maps, showing the variety of work he undertook. It includes maps of roads, railways, construction projects and new town subdivisions from Thames to Naseby. Koch’s skill in design and lithography was clearly recognised by his superiors because he was responsible for a number of coloured maps intended for public display, including maps of Stewart Island, county boundaries, proposed railways, shipwrecks, lighthouses, and a geological map of New Zealand (below) displayed at the 1873 Vienna exhibition.

Koch's geological map of New Zealand, 1873

Koch's geological map of New Zealand, 1873

After losing his job in 1887, Koch must have had a difficult time, as he still had a growing family to support. He undertook whatever work he could pick up, including illustrations for books, most notably White’s Ancient history of the Maori, Mackay’s Manual of grasses and the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute. He was involved in the artistic life of Wellington, and was secretary of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts for many years.

Because of the need to reproduce maps, this is a large-format publication, slightly bigger than A3, which needs to be examined on a table. This is a book to treasure – it has put Augustus Koch back on the map as a significant 19th-century artist and cartographer. But I can make a confident prediction that this is not the final word on Koch, because more of his illustrations are likely to be identified now that we recognise his importance.

Remembering the Pike River 29

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Flags fly at half-mast during a memorial service for the 29 men who died at Pike River in 2010 (click for image credit)

Wednesday 19 November is the fourth anniversary of the explosion at the Pike River mine on the West Coast, which killed 29 men in 2010. There is added poignancy with the recent announcement that there will be no further attempts to recover the bodies. The anniversary is being marked this year by a television documentary, Dreams lie deeper, featuring a vocal tribute by Dave Dobbyn and the Orpheus Choir of Wellington.

This was the seventh major disaster in a New Zealand coal mine. A total of 210 men have lost their lives in such disasters. All were due to explosions by methane gas given off by coal or asphyxiation by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, formed after a fire or explosion.

As with most coal mine disasters, the Pike River tragedy would not have happened if established safety precautions had been followed. Both the Royal Commission report and Rebecca Macfie’s book Tragedy at Pike River Mine reveal a series of problems that were consistently overlooked by the board of directors and the executive managers of Pike River Coal Ltd in their rush to get production under way. For months before the explosion there had been reports of excess methane and other health and safety problems. The safety inspectors employed by the Labour Department were overworked, and relied on reports by the company that all safety requirements were being complied with.

One of the main recommendations of the Royal Commission was that the government should set up an independent safety organisation. Worksafe New Zealand now has statutory responsibility for all safety issues in the workplace, with a designated High Hazards Unit for industries such as coal mining and oil exploration.

Last year the Orpheus Choir of Wellington asked Dave Dobbyn to write a piece dedicated to the 29 men who died in the Pike River mine. The documentary (Wednesday 19 November, 9.30 p.m. on TV1) follows Dobbyn as he travels to Greymouth to meet members of the victims’ families and completes the composition and arrangement of ‘This love’ with Mark Dorrell. As the lyrics evolved, Dobbyn chose to focus on the love and memories of the families rather than bitterness about the events leading up to the disaster. You can listen online to the Orpheus Choir and Wellington Young Voices singing ‘This love’.

Seddon of Seddonville

Cartoonists always enjoyed exaggerating Seddon’s girth. The statue outside the government building in Hokitika is probably closer to what he looked like, and emphasises his commanding presence.

Cartoonists always enjoyed exaggerating Seddon’s girth. The statue outside the government building in Hokitika is probably closer to what he looked like, and emphasises his commanding presence

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.

Photograph taken at the opening at the Seddonville State Mine in November 1903. Richard Seddon is seated in the middle front row (with top hat)

Photograph taken at the opening at the Seddonville State Mine in November 1903. Richard Seddon is seated in the middle front row (with top hat)

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.

The public library at Seddonville – now an isolated shed surrounded by paddocks. It is a curious irony that it is dedicated to Harry Holland, a local MP and sometime leader of the Labour Party, who was much more radical than Seddon

The public library at Seddonville – now an isolated shed surrounded by paddocks. It is a curious irony that it is dedicated to Harry Holland, a local MP and sometime leader of the Labour Party, who was much more radical than Seddon

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.

The Monterey connection

Sign on the sand dunes at Asimolar, Monterey Peninsula, California

Sign on the sand dunes at Asimolar, Monterey Peninsula, California

Last month I attended a conference at Asimolar on the Monterey Peninsula, south of San Francisco in the United States. It is a place that holds a special interest for New Zealanders as it is the home of two of our most widespread introduced trees: Monterey pine (Pinus radiata, commonly known as radiata pine) and Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa, commonly known as macrocarpa). Amazingly, both are regarded as endangered species in their home territory.

We visited California at the height of summer, with daytime temperatures in the high 30s (Celsius) in most places. But in a narrow strip close to the coast, from San Francisco south to Monterey, the temperatures are much cooler, often with daytime fog and mist. Summer rainfall is low, but the trees gain enough moisture from fog condensing on the branches and dripping on to the ground. The soils are infertile – mainly sand dunes or solid granite – and the trees look as if they are struggling to survive. The small natural population of Monterey pine and Monterey cypress are a relic of forests that were widespread in the ice ages, but retreated to the cool, foggy Monterey Peninsula as temperatures warmed during the last 10,000 years.

Monterey cypress (macrocarpa) trees covered in lichen in the damp, foggy conditions on Monterey Peninsula

Monterey cypress (macrocarpa) trees covered in lichen in the damp, foggy conditions on Monterey Peninsula

Radiata pine is the basis of the forestry industry in New Zealand – indeed, it is the only plant species apart from kauri to have its own entry in Te Ara. It grows much more vigorously in temperate climates than in its home area, and is the most widely planted pine in the world, with large plantations in Australia, Spain, Kenya and several countries in South America. It was first introduced into New Zealand in the 1850s, and the oldest known tree was planted at Peel Forest in 1859.

One of the few naturally occurring areas of Monterey pine (radiata pine) on sand dunes at Asimolar, Monterey Peninsula

One of the few naturally occurring areas of Monterey pine (radiata pine) on sand dunes at Asimolar, Monterey Peninsula

As New Zealand’s land was developed for farming, there was an urgent search for quick-growing trees that could be used for shelter belts, firewood and timber. The Colonial Botanic Garden (now Wellington Botanic Garden) was established by James Hector in 1868 to evaluate the most suitable trees to introduce into New Zealand, and to provide seeds and plants. Within a decade it had become clear that radiata pine and macrocarpa grew exceptionally well under New Zealand conditions, and many of the older trees in gardens and farms around New Zealand were originally raised and distributed from the Botanic Garden in Wellington.

Plantations of radiata pine were not developed until the 20th century, when it was realised that good-quality timber could be produced if the trees were systematically pruned. Macrocarpa is used in New Zealand mainly for shelter belts and firewood.

Monterey cypress (macrocarpa) trees struggling for existence in cracks in granite in one of the few remaining natural populations at Point Lobos Reserve, Monterey Peninsula. Insert shows a notice warning people not to damage the trees

Monterey cypress (macrocarpa) trees struggling for existence in cracks in granite in one of the few remaining natural populations at Point Lobos Reserve, Monterey Peninsula. Insert shows a notice warning people not to damage the trees