Search billions of records on

The Kaitangata Mine Disaster
Friday February 21st, 1879

wpe8.jpg (21014 bytes)
Kaitangata Mine in the mid-1880's looking towards the scene of  the explosion.

On Friday, February 21st, 1879, the Evening Post carried four brief articles hinting at an event which was to shatter the complacency of the mining fraternity in New Zealand. Many stories filtered back from the Home Country of disasters in the coal mines of Britain but, up until this time, nothing similar had happened in the Colony. We re-print these articles here in full to enable you to re-live the experience of newspaper readers in Wellington 120 years ago.







            DUNEDIN, 21st February, 11 a.m.
     A terrible and fatal explosion of inflammable gas occurred this morning at Kaitangata, in the coal mine

     belonging to the Kaitangata Coal Mining Company (Limited). The full extent of the consequences is not
     yet ascertained, but it is known that one boy was killed on the spot, and that no fewer than 40 men were
     inside the mine at the time the explosion took place. Their fate is as yet uncertain, and the utmost suspense
     and anxiety are felt until some definite information is received.

                                                          1.30 p.m.
     The boy Edward Dunn, who was killed by the explosion at the mine, was blown a distance of fifty yards
     from the entrance to the shaft. It must be some hours before the men in the pit can be got at. It is feared
     that all will be suffocated. Dr Smith, of Balclutha, is in attendance on the spot, in readiness to render any
     medical assistance that may be required.

                                                          1.50 p.m.
     One more dead body has been got out. The rescuers experienced great difficulty in working owing to the
    "choke-damp," from the effects of which several were brought up senseless.

                                                          2.52 p.m.
     Eight more bodies have been recovered. There are still twenty-five men in the mine. No hopes are now
     entertained of any of them being alive.



Scene one had concluded of a real-life drama that would unfold over the next few days as more and more information came to light concerning the cause of the explosion and the impact  the disaster was to have on the small South Otago township of Kaitangata.

Coal had first been discovered in the district by Frederick Tuckett during his exploration of the area in May 1844 for the location of New Edinburgh (Dunedin). Tuckett had been Chief Surveyor for the New Zealand Company in the Nelson Settlement. The coal was discovered as an outcrop on the sea cliffs at Coal Point south east of Kaitangata. It was not until transport to and from the area was improved almost 25 years later that the first viable coal mines were able to be opened.

It had long been thought that New Zealand coal was a lot more stable than that found in mines back in the Home Country. The coal in these mines had a tendency to give off gas which would collect in dangerous pockets within the mine waiting merely for a naked flame to release it's deadly explosive forces. Appalling losses had been suffered in British mines. To mention but a few; at Landhill near Barnsley in Yorkshire 189 deaths were recorded in 1857, in 1867 at Shankhouse Colliary in Northumberland 200 miners died and 1878 saw the deaths of 271 in a mine at Abercarne in Wales.

The assumption concerning the stability of New Zealand coal was soon to be proved disastrously wrong. Miners knew that some gas was given off in the shafts in which they worked and it had long been the practice to ensure that the tunnels were checked at the beginning of each shift. At 5.15am on the morning of Friday February 21st, 1879, Acting-Fireman 38 year old Joseph Beardsmore, entered the Kaitangata mine with the company's only Davey Safety Lamp. He walked the length of the pit searching for any signs of "fire-damp"(a mixture of methane and air which could be ignited by a naked flame). Should he find some he would block the entrance to the contaminated section with a bar and stand nearby until the day-shift arrived. On that fateful morning he found none and, happy that the mine was OK, he stood a pick at the entrance to indicate that it was safe for the miners.

Later that morning at 7.00am the men and boys who comprised the day shift began arriving at the mine. By 8:30 they were ready to enter the mine and under the ever-watchful eye of pit-head man, Tom Knowles, thirty four men and boys between the ages of 14 and 69 walked into the mine and into eternity. Shortly after 9.00am Knowles noticed a large volume of smoke issuing from the vertical shaft which ventilated the main drive of the mine. This was followed almost immediately by an appalling explosion which seemed to shake the earth, blasting a salvo of  stones, rocks, timber and debris from the mouth of the mine followed by a pall of smoke described in the Evening Post as being "thick green smoke like a London fog". Amongst this clutter were the shattered bodies of 15 year old Edward Dunn and his horse. Edward had been outside the mine entrance and was blown some 150ft by the strength of the explosion. Both were to live for only a few minutes.

On hearing the explosion, and retaining enough presence of mind, William Barn ran towards the nearby township to seek help. The explosion had not been heard by the residents but they had been drawn by the immense pall of smoke and dust and they were already on their way, meeting him along the road. At the same time the Station Master, Mr J B Griffin, had despatched a railway engine to Balclutha to fetch Dr Smith and also telegraphed nearby townships including Dunedin itself. An initial rescue party led by William Shore, manager of the neighbouring mine, and consisting of John Shore, Michael Hennessy and James Muir attempted to enter the mine but were only able to proceed 200 yards before being driven back by the air inside. They did, however, manage to retrieve the body of young 15 year old Charles McDonald who was so badly burned that his father found it initially difficult to recognise him.

A second rescue party entered the mine but made slow progress. Although only two falls had been caused by the explosion it had also destroyed all of the brattice-work necessary to safely ventilate the mine. This needed to be replaced for the safety of the rescuers as without it they would have lasted little over 5 minutes. Even so, each of the rescuers was quickly overcome by the strong "after-damp" gasses (a combination of gases produced after a mine explosion including "white-damp"carbon monoxide and "black-damp" or carbon dioxide) and had to be dragged out to recover. The experienced miners amongst them now knew that there was no hope of any of the miners being rescued alive. Those who had not been killed by the initial explosion would have been followed as they ran through the shafts in their attempt to escape by the deadly "after-damp".

At 12:15pm that day, three bodies were recovered and brought out of the pit. As these men had not been hurt by the explosion and their bodies bore little sign of damage, it was apparent that they had succumbed to the effect of the gasses. Within minutes the body of 14 year old James Beardmore was brought out followed, over the next hour, by four more miners whose bodies were brought to the surface. At this stage the air had become so foul that the rescuers could not continue their work and a short spell was taken to allow the gasses to disperse. The anguish surrounding the mine was almost palpable. The Evening Post of the following day (February 22nd) described the scene well: "The women round the pit knew, after the first wild excitement was over, that all within were dead, yet when their husbands, sons, or brothers were brought out their expressions of grief were heart-rending. It would have melted a heart of stone."

Parties of rescuers arrived from Dunedin and later from Green Island and were able to provide substantial help in recovering more of the bodies. With this extra help the work could be organised systematically with rescuers able to take longer to recover from the effects of the gas. By about 6:45 that evening 16 further victims had been brought out and identified while 4 others were located but were not brought out or identified until the following day.

Often the condition in which the bodies are found can tell investigators something of the events that occurred out of sight of any living being. A group of 13 miners was found together in one place about 300 meters from the mouth of the mine. All were lying on their faces and all were oriented in the general direction of the mine entrance as if they had been on their way out when overcome. Had they heard the explosion deeper in the mine and tried to effect an escape? It can only be conjecture. None were bruised or marked in any way and, but for the traces of coal dust and slurry on their faces, they looked remarkable peaceful and could just as easily have been in a deep sleep. As the rescuers worked closer toward the seat of the blast, the evidence of this became clearer in the condition in which the bodies of the victims was found. James Piers, for instance, whose body had been found the previous day, was completely buried by debris consisting of six or seven coal trucks, timber and brattice-work and a quantity of slack. One of his hands protruded from the heap and it was this that helped the rescue team locate him. His head was terribly disfigured. The force of the explosion had blown off one of his ears and pierced him through the upper chest with a piece of timber that needed to be cut away before the body could be moved.

By early in the morning of Saturday, February 22nd, all but two of the bodies had been recovered. Those of Archie Hodge the Deputy Mine Manager and Andrew Jarvie a miner were found at approximately 5:00am on Sunday morning. The rescue teams knew now that they were getting closer to where the blast had erupted and those with experience amongst them had guessed what they would find. The Evening Post of Monday the 24th aptly described this hypothesis: "It is significant that before many of the bodies were got out the belief was universal among the practical men that Arch. Hodge's body would be the last to come out of the mine, and that the position in which it might be found would determine the cause of the explosion. On entering the mine early on Friday morning Archie Hodge had clearly signalled his intention to locate a pair of "turnings" (curved rails used to form a junction in an underground tramway) and some timber. Were these to be sourced from the "old workings"?

The "old workings", as they were familiarly known, was a section of the original mine which had for some time been closed off by a door which was supposed to be kept locked. The unusually high ceiling within this area provided a convenient vault for the accumulation of "fire-damp"gasses but it was also a treasure trove of disused rails and timber and thus a temptation to Archie Hodge. Although Deputy-Manager in title, he possessed no mining qualifications and was, in effect, only a labourer responsible for the operation of the furnace and the extension of new roads and workings. But he also held the key to the door into the "old-workings". In the past he had stockpiled old rails and timber in the area and was known to access these from time-to-time as they were needed. But that day Archie had carried a standard tallow lamp with an exposed flame into the "old workings" of the mine where the height and breadth of the tunnels, their poor ventilation and a drop in the external barometric pressure had caused the coal to leech a huge amount of gas into the chamber.

At 12:20pm on Saturday, February 22nd, the Coroners Inquest into the Kaitangata Mine Disaster was convened at the Bridge Hotel. This is where the bodies had been taken as they were recovered and was the logical place to  ensure formal identification of the victims a legal necessity before the funeral could be held. The township of Kaitangata was a tragic place. Families bereft of kin and loved ones who, not much over 24 hours earlier, had still been with them went through the motions of organising the following days events. In the cemetery on the hill above the church, volunteers were busy preparing the graves. In his workshop on the flat, carpenter W T Smith along with many others were hastily constructing coffins while Mrs Joseph Shore, whose son had led the rescue, spent time in washing and preparing the bodies for burial.

The funeral for 28 of the 34 victims was held on Sunday, February 23rd in the Kaitangata Cemetery on the hill above the Presbyterian Church. John Clark and William Watson were taken to Green Island for burial while Thomas Frew and William Hay were buried in the Northern Cemetery in Dunedin. We will let the Evening Post reporter relay the events as they happened on that day; A special train left Balclutha at 11:15 this morning with about 200 persons, and joined the special from Dunedin, Milton and other stations. About 500 were present from Kaitangata and the surrounding districts. Shortly after 12, sixteen bodies were removed from the Bridge Hotel to the grave yard in eight drays. From the drays to the graves they were carried shoulder high. The drays then returned for the other twelve bodies, and after their arrival the funeral service commenced on the whole number. The religious denominations of the deceased were: - Presbyterians, 13; Church of England, 11; Roman Catholic, 4. It had been arranged previously that the Revs. Chisholm, of Tokomariro; Allan of Inch Clutha; and Ronaldson of  Tokomariro, should first conduct a combined service, Presbyterian and English, to be followed by the Roman Catholic service by the Rev. Father Larkins. Father larkins made this arrangement, but when the bodies arrived he broke it, and proceeded with his service first. This breach of faith gave some offence and annoyance. After the Catholic service, the Rev. Mr Ronaldson read a portion of the Scripture, and the Rev. Mr Chisholm addressed the assembly in an eloquent and feeling manner. The Rev. Mr Allan engaged in prayer, and the bodies were then lowered into the graves. A large number of widows and children and relations of the deceased were present, but managed to control their feelings much better than was expected and the whole proceedings were very orderly and solemn. The bell of the Presbyterian Church adjoining the graveyard pealed every minute during the proceedings. The weather was fine.

At about 1:00am on the morning of Sunday, February 23rd, the body of Andrew Jarvie was located 150 meters up the main drive. Here the explosion had caused so much destruction that progress became nearly impossible. He was found prostrate on his face with his jacket and waistcoat under his left arm and his oil lamp in his right hand. As he was found some distance from where he normally worked it seemed to the rescuers that he had been fleeing the explosion when overcome. He had not had a chance. About 4 hours later William Shore and his team found the body of Archie Hodge in the middle of an old and unworked part of the mine. This area was closed off from the present mine by a wooden door to which Archie had a key. The suspicions of many on that first day had been confirmed. Like Andrew Jarvie he too lay on his face, but the condition in which his body was found and of the surrounding area indicated that they were at the epicentre of the explosion. His entire body was badly scorched and the clothes above his waist were burned clean off. When they turned him over the skin of his left hand, in which no doubt he held his lamp, fell off as if it were a cloth covering.

With the recovery of the last body the question on everyone's mind "Why?!" was answered. Many had suspected but none, choosing not to speak ill of the dead, had spoken publicly of their misgivings. This was up to the Coroners Inquest to determine. The Inquest was resumed on Monday the 24th with the formal identification of the bodies of Andrew Jarvie and Archie Hodge. Then commenced the lengthy task of investigating the circumstance leading up to and surrounding this catastrophic event that robbed 34 men and boys of their lives, families of their loved ones and Kaitangata of a large portion of its male population. Lessons, unfortunately, were not learned for 17 years later at Brunner (1896) and again at Huntley (1914) "fire-damp" and a naked flame were brought together with disastrous results. 67 men lost their lives at Brunner and 43 at Huntley where, had it been any other work-day than the Saturday on which the explosion took place, upwards of 250 miners may have been killed.

The Coroners Inquest investigated the events leading to and surrounding the mine expolsion in detail. Many of those who could have given crucial evidence had died in the mine but the evidence and the verdict were clear-cut. The decision brought down by the Jury was:

1) That Archibald Hodge, through entering the old workings without ordinary precaution and with a naked light, caused an explosion of fire-damp whereby 34 men and boys lost their lives.

2) That William Hodge has not used the necessary precautions to prevent an explosion of fire-damp in the mine over which he had management.

3) As a rider, we add That seeing there is no law for inspection and supervision in the conduct of mining, we express the necessity of measures being adopted whereby many accidents may in the future be averted.

Following the disaster and as part of the quest for Relief Funds Thomas Bracken, New Zealand's foremost poet, wrote the following verse In Memoriam - Kaitangata.

Copyright Denise & Peter 2000

The Evening Post February 21st, 22nd 24th, 25th & 26th 1879
Otago Daily times Februrary  24th and March 10th
The Kaitangata Mine Disaster of 1879 by Alma Rutherford