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

Looking ahead

Last week we said farewell to a number of staff who have worked on Te Ara since its final theme, Creative and Intellectual Life, was published at the end of last year. In that time they have put in place systems and processes for maintaining Te Ara into the future and we want to acknowledge here all their efforts.

Nancy Swarbrick led the team as Senior Editor, and worked with Kerryn Pollock to write and revise the many words that make up the encyclopedia; Mel Lovell-Smith and Emily Tutaki researched the wonderful images and multi-media items that illustrate those words, and Caren Wilton edited and ran the production system behind the website. All have made a huge contribution, not just in the last year but over many years as part of the team that built Te Ara into what it is today.

While we say farewell to these staff we remain deeply committed to maintaining and developing Te Ara, and cementing its place as a valued taonga for all New Zealanders. Messages of support for the site and its ever-growing number of visitors attest to the esteem with which it’s viewed. Te Ara is a significant national project that has drawn on hundreds of people who wrote and edited entries, supplied images and multi-media content, and added their stories. In the coming months and years we want to ensure these communities are involved in Te Ara’s ongoing maintenance.

With a sizeable team still in our publishing group, including staff with experience working on Te Ara, regular updates to the site will continue to keep it relevant and current. We’ll also be able to work on it alongside other areas of work like Te Taiwhakaea Treaty Settlement Stories and our commemorations work: the WW100 programme, the 125th anniversary of universal suffrage in 2018, and the 250th anniversary of Cook’s landing in 2019. All of this work touches the lives of many New Zealanders and it’s great to be able to place Te Ara at the centre of it.

It is a challenge, but it’s also a chance for us to step back and take stock of how we work across all our websites. It’s an exciting challenge to have and one that we hope Te Ara readers will enjoy and support.

Matthew Oliver and Neill Atkinson

Fond farewell

Nancy Swarbrick at the November 2013 launch of her book Creature comforts: New Zealanders and their pets

Nancy Swarbrick at the November 2013 launch of her book Creature comforts: New Zealanders and their pets

The best managers are those with a light touch; who trust, but know when to check in and offer gentle encouragement. Nancy Swarbrick, the departing senior editor of Te Ara, is one of these people. I have worked with Nancy since I started as a Te Ara writer in 2008 and she was my manager until 2014, when the first build of the website was completed. Since then, we have worked together updating Te Ara alongside Caren Wilton, Emily Tutaki and Melanie Lovell-Smith. Now that we are all moving on, it is time to pay tribute to Nancy’s 28 years in the public service.

As a historian, it is fitting that Nancy has helped to make history through her contribution to some of New Zealand’s most important public history projects of recent decades. After graduating with an MA in English from Waikato University, she worked for the New Zealand Historic Places Trust before joining the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1987. Bill Oliver was General Editor and the DNZB was housed within the Department of Internal Affairs. Nancy was then appointed as assistant editor, editing and research, by Claudia Orange (Bill Oliver’s successor) in 1989. In this position she was responsible for managing the workflow of the five English volumes of the DNZB, which were produced between 1990 and 2000. She also found the time to write five entries. All this prepared her well for the mammoth task that followed.

Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand began at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in 2002, with General Editor Jock Phillips at the helm. Nancy was Te Ara’s managing editor, overseeing the ‘sausage factory’, as one Te Ara writer called it, with consummate skill. With her trusty whiteboard alongside her at all times, Nancy tracked all 980-odd Te Ara entries from conception to publication, and wrote around 44 of them herself, including the monumental Waikato regional entry. Outside the office she managed to fit in an MA in Public History from Victoria University, for which she graduated with distinction in 2003, and wrote the well-received book Creature comforts: New Zealanders & their pets, published by Otago University Press in 2013.

As our ex-colleague Ross Somerville said to me, Nancy ‘is excellently well-read, knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, an excellent writer and editor’. She is formidably organised and calm under pressure, someone who makes things happen without fuss. Approachable, kind and supportive – the finest of managers.

I don’t think Te Ara could have done without her.

Beautiful people

Sunrise over Hikurangi, East Coast (click for image credit)

Sunrise over Hikurangi, East Coast (click for image credit)

I am very sad to be writing this farewell blog to all our loyal Te Ara users. Along with the other four staff who have been working on the Te Ara website content for the past year, my contract ends in a few days. We’ve been very busy over the past twelve months developing new processes and ways of working, and getting our heads around the multitude of jobs that have to be done to keep the site reliable, useful and engaging for the many people who refer to it each day. Among many other things, we have:

Completing the Peoples entries and various other entries in process, and undertaking the major, ongoing task of updating the 980-plus Te Ara entries (including the large number of science entries) will now be the job of the new Research and Publishing Group of Manatū Taonga. This team will be managing the site from 2 November, and I wish them well with that important responsibility.

The title of this blog, ‘Beautiful people’, comes from the hit song ‘Sensitive to a smile’ by Herbs, which features in our entry about the East Coast, written by Monty Soutar. The video was filmed by soon-to-be famous director Lee Tamahori and John Day on the coast in 1987, and, like the song, was a huge success at the time. Watch it, and you will understand why. It is one of my favourite resources on Te Ara, and to me it exemplifies what has been created through the site – a rich, nuanced and affectionate portrayal of this unique country and its peoples.

I would like to thank the many beautiful people I have been privileged to work with down the years, first during the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography project under the leadership of Bill Oliver and Claudia Orange, and then during the Te Ara project, until 2014 under the guidance of the inspirational Jock Phillips.  It has been my great good fortune to belong to two wonderful teams, and I will never forget the laughter, the arguments, the camaraderie and the sheer hard work. Out of all that came two taonga: the DNZB and Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. I hope they will be cherished and looked after as they deserve for years to come.

Finally, I want to pay tribute to an amazing, staunch group of women who not only helped to build Te Ara, but have done their best this past year, under very difficult circumstances, to put it on a secure footing for the future. Kerryn Pollock, Caren Wilton, Mel Lovell-Smith and Emily Tutaki, I salute you. May you find new paths, and be truly respected and rewarded for your great talents.

We all know that an online encyclopedia like Te Ara is never really finished – to remain relevant it must be constantly updated and refreshed. That will be the challenge for our successors, and you, the users, will judge whether or not the goal is achieved.

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.