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Early in 1879 an explosion at the Kaitangata coal mine plunged the small Otago town into mourning. A subsequent inquiry revealed serious shortcomings in the management of the mine and existing legislation.

New Zealand's Heritage - Vol 9

"Between 8 and 9 o'clock this morning, an explosion occurred in a coal mine at Kaitangata", a Lyttelton Times correspondent reported on February 21 1879. "Edward DUNN, the son of George DUNN, was entering a drive with a horse when both he and the horse were blown 50 yards clear of the pit mouth, the boy being immediately killed.... Great excitement is prevailing."

The excitement soon turned to mourning as the extent of the tragedy became clear. Coal mining was a comparatively new industry in New Zealand and this was the first disaster involving large-scale loss of life. In fact, some people believed that the explosions which occurred overseas could not happen in New Zealand mines the shattering of this complacency heightened the shock that was felt throughout the colony.

Coal had been mined at Kaitangata, four miles from the mouth of the Matau branch of the Clutha River and eight miles south-east of Balclutha, since the late 1850s. It had been discovered in May 1844 by Frederick TUCKETT during his search for a site for the Otago settlement, but transport difficulties had prevented its exploitation. The influx of population during the gold rushes stimulated the growth of Kaitangata, and in June 1876 a branch railway from Kaitangata to Stirling linked the settlement with the Main Trunk line and Dunedin. Considerable expansion in mining had already taken place; several mines were opened between 1869 and 1870, and in 1872 the Kaitangata Coal Company was formed, to be reconstituted as the Kaitangata Railway and Coal Company in 1875.

It was in this Company's mine that the explosion of February 21 l879 took place. The pit itself had been open for only two years and output was approximately 75 tons a day. The directors of the Company, in an effort to increase production to 200300 tons a day, had recently hired a mining surveyor named Edward TWINNING and brought in more miners from the North Island. These men had started work the previous day.

Forty-seven men were employed at the mine, but at first it was not known how many were underground - this was only known by the mine manager who was also in the pit. In the hope that some at least of the men were still alive a train was dispatched to Balclutha to get a doctor, while rescuers attempted to enter the mine, only to be driven back, "on account of the fire damp and debris". By noon the mine had cleared sufficiently for the workings to be penetrated by rescue parties, by then reinforced by miners from the Green Island and Watlin Park coal mines. The first four bodies were found within 200 yards of the entrance of the mine and well away from the working face. By 6 p.m. it was known in Dunedin that all the miners had perished; all that was left to do was to recover the dead. Despite the wreckage, parties pushed farther into the mine and the Lyttelton Times correspondent reported shortly after nine that night that "twenty-eight dead bodies have been got out of the mine, and four more were seen at that hour, and would be got out as soon as the debris was taken off them. The only one now known for certain to be in the mine is Archie HODGE, the son of the manager, who will no doubt be dead also."

Although some of the miners were buried under rock, coal and fallen props, none of the 34 dead were found where the men had been working. The majority were unmarked, "not even blackened or mutilated in the slightest, but all wore a peaceful appearance". It was obvious from this, and the fact that 13 bodies had been found within a 12-yard radius, that virtually all the victims had been killed, not by the explosion itself, but by a belt of black damp, or carbonic acid gas, which had suffocated them as they attempted to reach safety.

"William HODGE (the manager)", reported the Lyttelton Times, "was, when discovered, reclining on a ledge of coal, with his hands supporting his head, and with his countenance peaceful, as though he had passed away in tranquil meditation." Only 13 of the 47 men employed at the mine escaped the tragedy, one of them because he had overslept that morning. As the Otago Daily Times reported on February 24, "the appearance of the village on Saturday was lamentable in the extreme, more especially in the vicinity of the Bridge Hotel, where the recovered bodies of the deceased miners had been laid out. As may be imagined the grief of the women who had in so sudden a manner been deprived of their husbands and only supports, was quite uncontrollable." Twenty-eight of the dead were buried at Kaitangata on Saturday February 24. It was a solemn occasion; six drays had to make two trips to carry all the coffins to the cemetery. At 12.30 the Rev. Mr DONALDSON read part of the burial service and gave a sermon. He was followed by a Presbyterian minister who read a prayer, after which the coffins were lowered. Then Thomas BRACKEN read a poem he had written to express his sympathy and horror over the disaster.


The disaster brought criticism and questioning as well as grief. How could such a catastrophe occur? As the Lyttelton Times asked in its editorial of February 24, "Was it a happy-go-lucky, rule-of-thumb kind of management, or was it properly organised under the direction of competent men?" The coroner's inquest which opened in Dunedin on March 11 brought forth evidence of serious defects in the management of the mine and coal-mining legislation. The manager, William HODGE, was "confessedly unskilled", he had no formal training, his knowledge of mining coming from practical experience as a miner and any journals he had read. HODGE had known of the existence of fire damp in the mine in July or August of the previous year. One of the directors of the firm said that HODGE had assured him that it was nothing to worry about. As a precaution HODGE had instructed one of the men to inspect the mine each morning and he had ordered three dozen safety lamps. These had not arrived by the time of the disaster and there was only one safety lamp at the mine - the miners used naked candles for illumination. Despite HODGE's confidence, some of the men had been worried about the amount of fire damp in the mine. Both the Lyttelton Times and the Otago Daily Times reported that there had been previous explosions, in one of which a man had been so badly burnt that he had not been able to work for a month, and according to the Lyttelton Times, "on the very evening before the accident, so two of the men say, the flickering of the dreaded gas about them was plainly visible".

Fire damp was a common hazard in most coal mines, but it became dangerous only if it was allowed to accumulate through inefficient ventilation. Kaitangata used a furnace at the mouth of the mine to create an air current and a series of wooden brattices to circulate it. Edward TWINNING had considered this system to be inadequate and had recommended in December when a new drive was begun that various alterations in the ventilation should be made. However, he had not told HODGE or the Company directors that he considered improvements should be made, "I did not consider it part of my duty to do that".

This system of ventilation, inadequate for the part of the mine being worked, did not include the old workings. These were closed off from the rest of the mine by an unlocked door and they also contained abandoned equipment that the miners could need for the new workings. The Lyttelton Times made a succinct summary in its editorial of February 24. "It was the custom to use naked lights; the daily testing of the atmospheric conditions... was presumed to be by the use of a safety lamp; minor explosions of foul air were frequent and in one case attended with painful injuries; the presence in the workings of dangerous gas was noted on the day before the accident; there were disused workings unconnected with the system of ventilation in use at the mine, in which fire damp was certain to accumulate, and which were not properly isolated from the rest of the mine; an eccentric individual was allowed to go pottering about all over the mine unchecked, with a naked light."

The "eccentric individual" was Archie HODGE, the mine manager's brother. Archie's habit of poking about the mine, including the old workings, with a naked light had been criticised by the miners, but HODGE had simply replied that "he could not keep the old fellow out". Archie's body, one of the last recovered, was the only one to be found in the old workings. It seems almost certain, as the coroner's jury found, "Archibald HODGE, through entering the old working without ordinary precaution and with a naked light, caused an explosion of fire damp whereby 34 men and boys lost their lives".

There was one other act of negligence which contributed to the disaster. The mine face was some 480 yards from the single entrance to the mine, and the access to the old workings was between the pit mouth and the working face. TWINNING had recommended in December that a second, shorter opening should be driven to the face, chiefly to increase output, but also to improve access and ventilation. Work had been pushed forward on a second shaft, but it had not been completed by February 21. If it had, then the miners would have had an alternative and quicker means of escape which probably would have been free of black damp. TWINNING commented that he had "never seen a mine of this extent and description worked with a single outlet".


"Every precaution which ought to have been taken in the mine seems to have been neglected", wrote the New Zealand Herald. Yet in 1874 a Mining Act, modelled on Victorian and Imperial legislation, had been passed to regulate the operation of mines in New Zealand. The Imperial legislation was effective; the New Zealand Act had serious flaws. There was no provision for the examination of the managers for competence. In 1877, Herbert COX had been appointed assistant geologist by the Government. He had inspected 24 of 32 mines and reported that in the majority the method of working, and especially the ventilation, was irregular. The inspectors had the right to order improvements, but this had to be done in writing and the directors or manager of the mine had the right to object. The dispute had to be taken to arbitration before any measures could be taken to force alterations. Meanwhile, mining operations could continue.

More serious were the staffing inadequacies. George BINNS, coal viewer for the Government, testified that he had inspected the mine on January 24 and found the ventilation in the new workings adequate. He had not completely inspected the old workings, partly because HODGE had assured him there was no gas, and no safety lamp was available to carry out an inspection, but mainly because he had been allocated insufficient time to properly inspect the mines in the area. BINNS also said that he had no power to instruct HODGE to carry out improvements, "I exceeded my duty as it was in telling him that it was very dangerous".

As a result of these revelations and public indignation, the legislation was made more effective and the number of inspectors increased to ensure thorough inspection and action to remedy defects. For the 24 widows and 88 orphans left by the victims of the disaster this was small compensation. However, the feelings of horror and sympathy felt throughout New Zealand were expressed in a practical way. Meetings and entertainments were planned throughout the country to arrange a relief fund. In Christchurch a gala day was held and in Dunedin Thomas BRACKEN delivered his "racy and entertaining lecture on 'The Printing Press' at the Temperance Hall". By May 12 1879, £15,000 had been raised - a large sum considering the population and stage of development of the country. This was put into the Kaitangata Relief Fund to be used for "(1) the widows, orphans and dependants of the men who lost their lives in the Kaitangata explosion; (2) the widows, orphans and dependants of such as shall lose their lives in coal mining accidents throughout the country; (3) such as shall be permanently disabled by coal mining accidents throughout the country".

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