The Brunner Mine Disaster
Thursday, March 26th, 1896
To the memory of 65 men, their widows and families who were affected by this disaster.
Thursday, March 26th 1896, dawned bright and clear after several days of incessant West Coast rain and strong winds. As they had done for some time prior to this day, the early shift at the Brunner Coal Mine, inland from Greymouth on the South Island's West Coast, was preparing to enter the mine. It was 7:45am.
On the hillside above much to the amusement of the miners, an impromptu comic opera was under way. Young Patrick McInerney had released the four pit ponies which were to accompany the miners underground that morning. Well fed and well cared for and of immense value in the narrow tunnels, the ponies had followed the miners underground in the past without a hint of fear. Perhaps in an instinctive premonition of danger, this time they commenced a wild-eyed snorting and stamping as they were chased towards the gaping mouth of the mine. Refusing to enter as they would normally have done quite placidly, the ponies turned and galloped back to their stable. It took some time for them to be coaxed into the mine entrance where their drivers awaited them. Turning their backs to the sunlight for the last time, ponies, drivers and miners entered the eternal night.
Within 90 minutes, every living being underground in the Brunner Mine that day would be dead. Sixty five men and four ponies would die, either directly from the effects of the explosion or from the resulting suffocating and deadly gases that raced through the underground tunnels and shafts on their way to the surface.
A muffled boom heard just after 9:00am followed by a strangely sinister cloud of dense grey smoke emanating from the mine entrance was the first indication that something was not right below. Having been informed by those working on the surface of these irregular events, the Mine Manager, James Bishop, and the Engineer, Bob Smith, not cognisant of the immediate dangers posed by doing so, rushed into the mine and down the incline to investigate. Almost immediately they were overcome by the deadly fumes which consisted, in part, of lethal carbon monoxide gas. When they failed to return, surface hands ran into the mine to rescue them. Both were unconscious but were later revived, owing their lives to those comrades who had ignored their own safety. Seeing the effects of the fumes from the mine, those topside with experience of such events, knew that there was now little hope for their comrades in the tunnels below.
Between the time of the incident and 10:00am that same morning (barely 45 minutes), the telegraph wires throughout Westland had been humming with calls for help and assistance to mount a rescue operation. Answers were received from many of the surrounding townships and mines, all thinking perhaps, that were such an event to befall their community, they too would rely on the help of others. By 11:00am the mine entrance was surrounded by crowds of men, women and children. Many were from Brunner itself whilst many more had arrived by coach, train, steamer and on foot to help where they could. The men to go down the pit in an attempt to rescue anyone still alive and the women to comfort those in sorrow and grief. There was a fellowship here. Other miners knew that it was simply by the grace of God that they were not the ones laying dead down below.
Work commenced almost immediately on building a "bratticed zig-zag track" (brattice is calico or canvas used to separate ventilation air from return air in a mine shaft) into the mine in an attempt to dispel the deadly gases. Heedless of their own safety, gangs of thirty men worked their way into the mine. In some cases their shifts underground were of less than half an hour before they were overcome by the fumes and trucked back to the surface to recover. Eventually, around a quarter of a mile from the entrance, the first bodies to be found were those of Pat MacDonald and Charles Baxter. Both were unconscious and when found to be still breathing were rushed to the surface. However, in their eagerness to save these lives, the brave rescuers made the fatal mistake of not attempting to revive them underground and, on being overcome by the fresh air, they were to breath their last.
About a mile underground, near the dynamo, many badly battered bodies were found suggesting that this was the seat of the explosion. As the "rescuers" moved in their relays through the mine they could build a picture of the force, the fear and the terror of those final minutes underground. Some of those near the seat of the explosion had been flayed of their skin while others were found partially dismembered. A reflection of the tremendous force of the explosion was shown by the body of 20 year old David Hall which had been hurled almost 100 meters up the incline where he had been attending to the pump. This equated to an explosive force of 1,000 meters per second. Others, escaping the initial blast, had taken some quite extreme steps to avoid the deadly fumes. Some had tried laying down to take advantage of low-lying pockets of air, some like 45 year old Thomas Clarke had pressed themselves into crevices in the mine walls and others had wrapped themselves in remnants of the canvas "brattice".
Nothing was to spare them. Whatever the measures taken, nothing could stop the pervasive "after-damp" gases. There was no escape. The gas was driven by incredible force and the only way to escape was to out-run it.........an impossible feat. An underground mine is a lattice-work of tunnels, some linking to others giving several fronts on which the gases could approach and yet others, known as "bords", were dead-ends and had but one exit. The gases themselves would have done their lethal work swiftly. "After-damp" is a combination of all the gases produced after a mine explosion including "white-damp" and "black-damp". "White-damp" is carbon monoxide, a deadly poison in small quantities while "black-damp" is carbon dioxide, non-combustible but capable of spreading like a suffocating blanket throughout the mine tunnels. It would have been a combination of these that was seen emanating from the mine opening shortly after the explosion and it was considered that within three minutes of the the explosion all life would have been extinguished.
Throughout the day following the explosion, Friday March 27th, the weary gangs of men toiled in the dark, dirty and un-safe conditions of the mine to locate and bring out the bodies of their fellow miners. By 2:00pm all but one of the bodies, that of 36 year old Edward Stevens Kent, had been recovered. The search to locate Kent continued while his wife and three children waited daily at the mine entrance hoping beyond hope that a miracle may have happened and he had escaped alive. It was not until the morning of the following Tuesday, March 31st, that Mary Kent knew that her hopes had been in vain. Edward's badly burned body was found under a large fall of rock. The register was now complete.
Death is simply interested in the extinction of life and does not select its victims on the basis of age, nationality, family status or relationship. Of the sixty five who died that day, forty were family men leaving grieving widows and a total of 186 dependent children. Others, such as John Roberts (46), William John Roberts (22), Samuel Roberts (18) and David Roberts (15) were father and sons who had been part of the same early shift and yet others such as Joseph and Thomas McIvor (25 & 19 years respectively) were brothers. Many hailed from England, while some were Irish born and yet others traced their birth back to Scotland. Some, not many, were first generation New Zealanders, whilst one was from Lyon in France and one from Victoria, Australia. The oldest was 72 and the youngest, as we have seen, just 15. All the while, in the nearby Brunnerton Carpenters Shop, a gang of men led by Jack Temperley toiled hastily with weatherboard, saw and hammer. On Saturday, March 28th, a number of the victims were buried at Greymouth. On the Sunday many more were buried at Stillwater in individual family plots or in the mass grave that now holds 33 of the victims.
The day following the disaster a Charitable Appeal was launched by the then Prime Minister, Richard John Seddon, who had been touring the West Coast at the time and went straight to Brunnerton on hearing the news. Throughout the country donations of money, clothing and toys were made by all those who felt sympathy for the victims - the wives and families of those who had died. In terms of money, the amount raised was £32, 957 13s 11d or 11s 3d per head of population in 1896. When compared to New Zealands most successful Telethon in 1981, this suggests that the population back then, when called on, was some 30 times more generous.
Immediately following the final burials, a Coroners Inquest was held, headed by Coroner Henry Aldborough Stratford. The inquest, however, was to get off to a bad start and prove, in terms of a solution (ie in finding the reason for the explosion and therefore the reasons for the resulting deaths), inconclusive. It had long been known by local miners that the mine had insufficient ventilation and was dangerous in that it contained pockets of gas. The miners were willing to testify to this and that it was their belief that this was the reason for the explosion. Under the 1891 Coal Mines Act, half of the jurors at the inquest were required to be miners. None were. Two that had been selected by Constable Beattie were struck off by the Coroner "after he had made enquiries". Complaints to Seddon fell on deaf ears as he was to state that the responsibility for the Inquest lay with Police and Coroner, not with the Government. Evidence that gas existed in the mine and that, in the belief of experienced miners, this was the cause of the explosion (the miners used "Colza-oil" lamps with a naked flame rather than "Davey Safety Lamps") was either ruled inadmissible or cleverly discounted.
The verdict of the Coroner's Inquest was one thing. It would state, for better or worse, correctly or incorrectly, the conclusion as to the cause of death of the 65 Brunner miners. Following hard on its heels, however, was the Royal Commission of Inquiry. Wielding more authority, it was hoped that the Royal Commission would determine culpability and responsibility for events leading to the explosion and for the explosion itself. While the avenues able to be followed by the Coroners Inquiry were also full of the same legal entitlements (and moral requirements), much effort at that time had been focussed on researching "facts" for the Royal Commission. Matthew Batty, a wonderfully outspoken pioneer miner at the Brunner Mine, was to state before the beginning of the hearing "it is well known that the experts' verdict is that no-one living is to blame". It seemed that there was no cognisance of the fact that miners were sent into a mine with a known existence of combustible gas and with naked-flame lights.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry began on May 7th, 1896 amid local suspicion as to its composition. Headed by Dudly Robert Ward, a District Court Judge from Christchurch, the Commission was made up of Sir James Hector, Head of the Geological Service and known to be unsympathetic to miners, Joseph Proud a certified mine manager and Thomas Skellon, described as a Huntly "coal miner" but who was unknown to the miners from Brunnerton. The Premier had asserted, to the disbelief of the Brunner community, that their interests would be "ably represented" by Proud and Skellon. It was claimed that the absence of "working miners" on the Inquiry board would mean "that there would be no genuineness in the Royal Commission proceedings".
Throughout the course of the Royal Commission, the beliefs of the miners were at odds with the Commissions conclusions and the witnesses that it called. Again, Matthew Batty, the miners advocate, was to give expression to the general feeling amongst the miners that there was little value in the Royal Commission. He was also critical of Prime Minister Seddon's meddlesome interest in the Commission and his "toadying to the big bug and capitalist". He made slighted comment as to the way Seddon was seen to have changed (Seddon had been a miner before the heady days of his political career) when he said "the slaughter of 65 valuable lives will long be remembered as having occurred under this working man's Government". Batty was more critical, however, of Sir James Hectors appointment. Of Hector he was reported to say "He can hardly fail to lean with the Government" and "the poor colliers will be all alone in black damp". This was a pointed reference to the deaths of the miners and that it was felt that they were all alone with no representation. Batty's main concern was for those left dependent as a result of the accident. The widows and children of the dead miners who were "...at our backs crying for justice...". While those well able to defend themselves (the mine managers and officials) in an articulate manner continued their infighting, bickering and power-plays, defending themselves at the expense of anyone else, the miners were left to represent themselves. Indeed one of the central weaknesses in the airing of the miners' case was the absence of adequate representation because of lack of money. Of the Commissioners it has been said that "...they asked the questions they wanted to ask and heard the answers they wanted to hear and that these were decided mainly by socio-political considerations."
Claims were made, accusations flew and opinions were formed. It was up to the Commissioners to bring down a judgement. Enough said. It was the belief of the Commissioners and those who spoke from a position of authority that "...the primary cause of the explosion was a blown out shot (an explosive charge that had misfired and ignited coal dust or gases in the mine; ie the fault of the victims) .... fired by a person unknown.... contrary to the rules of the mine, in a part of the mine where no work should have been in progress...". It was unfortunate that no-one could, in truth, testify for or against this assertion. No evidence of work being undertaken in the part of the mine where this occurred was found. But, all the witnesses were dead. They had died in the mine as a direct result of the supposed lack of judgement. A tidy package indeed. The miners knew, however, from their experience that the explosion was caused by firedamp (a mixture of methane and air which could be ignited by a naked flame). They had known for some time that Brunner coal gave off gas and that there were pockets in the mine. The miners had used naked-flame lamps. They had no choice. However in the recovery photographs displayed at the time, the miners held high their Davey Safety Lamps. The implication was obvious.
Following the results of the Royal Commission and the Coroners Inquiry dissatisfaction with the verdicts still remained. Two writs were brought against the "Greymouth and Point Elizabeth Railway and Coal Company", alleging negligence. One was brought by Mary McIvor concerning her two sons killed in the incident and the other by George & Sarah Geoghegan on behalf of their son James. Of his action George said "I did all I could to raise the wind, to have the action fought, to get the breath of the jury on it. I did not succeed. There was only one who had any spark to come in and test the case." This was 51 year old Mary McIvor widowed in 1890, who had not only lost her two sons in the disaster but also the family income that they provided.
The trial began on March 26th 1897, the first anniversary of the disaster. The proceedings consisted of the usual to-and-fro of accusation and counter-accusation, insinuation and censure. Early in the proceedings the miners advocate and representative Mr Jellicoe was (rightly or wrongly) suspended for contempt and subsequently found guilty of that charge. The potential of this was that, once more, the miners would be left without representation. The blown-out-shot theory which was the verdict of the Royal Commission was not this time genuinely supported by anyone. Even those who had spoken out for it at the Commission had "changed their minds". Other theories were put forward, all of which laid the blame squarely (if not fairly) at the feet of the miners. Natural events and a person or persons unknown had created the conditions that led to the explosion and the subsequent deadly gas. In any event, this person was now dead and the evidence extracted from the mine was inconclusive.
Throughout the course of the trial, Justice Denniston had been particularly remiss in offering guidance and interpretation on points of law to the jury. Indeed the focus of the trial had been on the question of cause rather than that of negligence. This negated the need for Denniston to offer his learned help to the jury. Of him it has been said that "Judge Denniston was insecure in some of his judgements and was often, during his career to express the wish to have other judges join him in giving decisions." What hope, then, the miners? In his summing up of the trial before the jury retired, Denniston indicated that an acceptable verdict would be that "...the accident must have occurred by some unforseen and not reasonably foreseeable occurrence...". What hope, then, the jurors? After 3 hours of deliberation, they were unable to reach a verdict.
There were to be future appeals and investigations but nothing would finally decide the cause of and culpability for the disaster. The whole sorry episode was perhaps best summed up by the Editor of the West Coast Times who prophetically wrote "It would seem to us that the history of this disaster and the conditions surrounding has not been written yet."
Let this piece, then, speak on behalf of those miners and their families who were so wronged.
Evening Post 26th & 27th March 1896
Disaster at Brunner by Brian Wood
New Zealand Disasters by E C Grayland
Friends in Chains by Bob Henderson (thanks to Vanya Rothwell for this)
Copyright Denise & Peter 2000 - 2004