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New Zealand Disasters: Brunner Mine Explosion (26 March 1896)

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Coal production in 1896: Until the 1960s coal was a major source of energy, vital to powering steam engines for factories and transport as well as home heating. Continuous coal production was of the upmost importance to the prosperity of the nation.

In 1896 the Brunner mine was a big producer of exceptionally high-quality coal, bricks and coke (a refined fuel).

But this came at a price. Underground, coal miners endured hard and unsafe working conditions. Dangers that were faced and poorly addressed included lung disease, rock falls, poisonous gas and explosive gas.

The Brunner Mine disaster: On the early morning of 26 March 1896, mine workers tried three times to coax a team of pit ponies (horses used to pull coal wagons) into the mine. Each time the horses got close to the mine entrance they reared and kicked and raced back to the stables. They finally entered the mine once they were blindfolded and lead in backwards.

At 9.30 am a loud explosion from deep in the mine stopped everyone in their tracks. A flame roared out of the mine entrance, followed by a column of choking smoke.

In that instant 65 men lost their lives, 42 women lost their husbands and 112 children lost their fathers. Nothing below the surface, including the pit ponies, survived.

Only after the incident did people recount the effort needed to get the pit ponies to enter the mine. With hindsight this may have been a warning of the things to come.

The aftermath: A horror behind the Brunner mass grave is that many bodies were burned beyond recognition and could not be honoured in a personal burial.

Many families faced eviction because the mine company owned their homes and these were needed for replacement workers. Across the country New Zealanders were moved by this tragedy and donated £33,000 in support of the families.

The miners believed the cause of the explosion was ineffective ventilation. A Government enquiry unfairly blamed the disaster on a negligent worker.

Lessons learnt: In the decades that followed, Brunner and subsequent mine disasters spurred significant changes in our society including stronger unions to give a workers’ voice, political parties that better supported workers, and improved safety legislation.

Today the need is just as strong to keep ourselves, and one another, safe at work.

Getting there: The Brunner Mine site is 11 km east of Greymouth on SH7 and the main carpark is on SH7. It can also be accessed from Taylorville Road which runs between SH6 (2 km north of Greymouth Bridge) and SH7 but parking is limited. Walk across the Brunner Bridge to access both sides of the river.

Source: Department of Conservation, Brunner Mine historic area

The 65 people killed were:

  1. John Allen, 39
  2. David Anderson, 16
  3. Charles Baxter, 18
  4. George Baxter, 47
  5. Joseph Baxter, 49
  6. Thomas Henry Beaman, 33
  7. William Boyd, 53
  8. Michael Brisland, 31
  9. Thomas Clarke, 45
  10. Edward Collins, 39
  11. William Cunliffe, 17
  12. Henry Denson, 59
  13. Harry William Paul Detert, 28
  14. Robert Duncan, 41
  15. John Dunn, 27,
  16. Francis Frederick Franklin, 16
  17. James Hudson Geoghegan, 17
  18. Jeffrey Le Froy Geoghegan, 24
  19. David Hall, 20
  20. William Henderson, 37
  21. Thomas Heslin, 34
  22. Benjamin Hill, 20
  23. David Hooley, 33
  24. William Hunter, 41
  25. Charles James, 39
  26. Richard Henry Julian, 18
  27. William Riley Kear, 23
  28. Edward Stevens Ken, 36
  29. John Millar Langdon, 33
  30. William Liddle, 54
  31. Josiah Masters, 37
  32. Mark Masters, 33
  33. James Henry McDonald, 18
  34. Patrick McDonald, 56
  35. Joseph McIvor, 25
  36. Thomas McIvor, 19
  37. William Angus McKinnon, 17
  38. Robert McLuskie, 40
  39. William McLuskie, 63
  40. Peter McMahon, 35
  41. James McMinn, 52
  42. William Moonie, 45
  43. Thomas Moore, 64
  44. Thomas Michael Moore, 19
  45. John Morris, 72
  46. Richard O’Loughlin, 18
  47. John Joseph Parsons, 22
  48. Robert Pascoe Jnr, 19
  49. Robert Pascoe Snr, 51
  50. John William Pattinson, 36
  51. Paul Peillon, 48
  52. James Richards, 49
  53. David Roberts, 15
  54. John Robers, 46
  55. Samuel Roberts, 18
  56. William John Roberts, 22
  57. James Rowe, 36
  58. Joseph Scoble, 20
  59. James Scott, 33
  60. Humphrey Smith, 45
  61. John Teward, 35
  62. John Watchman, 25
  63. John Joseph White, 37
  64. Alfred Ernest Willyams, 36
  65. William James T Worthley, 40