Home' Greymouth Star : September 20th 2014 Contents Greymouth Star
Saturday, September 20, 2014 - 7
oal is Blackball’s raison d’etre. The
township sits on top of coal and for
generations it was coal that paid the bills,
cooked the meals and heated the homes.
The town sprang into existence with
the opening of a private mine in 1893.
The Blackball Shipping Company, of England, was a major
shareholder and in that same year the township was laid
out to officially become Blackball.
The Labour government took over the mine in 1941 and
henceforth the Blackball State Mine continued to bring
tonnes of coal to the surface to help power the rest of New
Zealand — until its closure in 1964.
Digger Howden started in the pit as a young trucker in
“I found it hard physical work when I first started as a
young fellow, but you soon adapt,” Digger said.
“I was working alongside two experienced miners, Archie
Clark and Charlie Q uinell. There was an endless rope,
which went into the mine, and my job originally was
attaching and unscrewing the grippers on the wire rope for
the wagons, take the full ones off and attach the empties.”
Blackball was a very wet mine and about 28 electric
pumps ran constantly to get rid of the water. There were
stoppages off and on, as the odd pump would pack up, and
if there was a power cut, which happened occasionally, the
miners had to evacuate in a hurry as the mine would start
Blackball coal was a high heating coal that also had high
levels of sulphur, which created problems for the miners
and the extraction process.
“In places, the water was like acid because of the sulphur
content,” Digger said. “It was hard on your clothes and
on your boots, and in most places we used to slope the
brattice from the roof to stop the water falling on us. We
were allowed to smoke down the mine as it was safe, no
methane. It was a black-damp mine and full of mainly
carbon dioxide and nitrogen. When there was a fire down
the mine we would seal it off and the black-damp would
naturally put it out.”
Digger says he had a number of close calls while working
in the mine, but always had a laugh along the way.
“I was lucky a couple of times, basically missed by the skin
of my teeth getting electrocuted on a couple of occasions,”
he grinned. “Once, I had just put a new handle on my pick
and hit the coal face, a piece of coal shot out and hit me on
the nose. I roared and swung my pick into the ground and
bang! All the lights and power went out — I had hit the
main power cable and the end of my pick was melted. I was
bloody lucky the new handle was dry.
“Another time, I said to my mate beside me, ‘my eyes are
flickering, I think there is something wrong with them’. He
said ‘Digger, you are standing between two cables on either
side of your hat and water is dripping on your hat and
there’s arcing across from one ear to the other. You better
move along a bit as you are lit up like a Christmas tree’.
How I wasn’t electrocuted I’ll never know. I just moved
along and the arcing stopped,” he chuckled.
“I remember Bullie Williams brought two women down
the mine where we were working. Pat Mathews and Pluto
Davies were putting timber up on the roof.
“P luto (Davies) was straddled above the women, with
a leg each side and the crotch out of his pants. The ‘bells
of St Mary’ were clanging there for all to see, and Bullie
said to the women, ‘ That ’s what happens when you fire the
shot wrong — it blows the arse clean out of your pants’!”
At its height, Blackball Mine employed over 150 men
working two shifts. Coal was brought to the surface on
a large conveyor belt, after being turned in a large bin
tumbler, and was emptied into large bins outside. A
network of tunnels operated underground, all running rope
roads that took the coal out from the face on wagons, and
returned the empty wagons.
Steam trains took the coal for dispatch to the Greymouth
wharf or by rail to Christchurch.
Walter Shaw says the mine provided employment for
numerous characters who all thrived in the underground
“ We all had nicknames down the mine. Sconer,
Rubberneck, Wing Wang, Bits ‘n’ Pieces, Father — mine
was Potter. I started working there in 1951 and worked
underground for 10 years, on the rope road normally, by the
“The rope was run by a big power winch, it was a real
noisy thing, moan and groan when it got the weight of the
full trucks on it. Willie (Possum) Brown worked on the
weighbridge, he checked the weight and the miner’s tags on
the boxes. Everyone was paid on production,” Walter says.
“Bob Buchanan tipped the coal on to the chute, which
then went on to the conveyor belt out to the top of the
mine. The weighbridge was actually at the front of the mine
and it normally took just over five minutes’ walk from the
entrance. You would then go into the mine on the hauler
until the roof got too low, too rough, then you would go in
“In some places the network underground went in two
miles or so. Bowlers playing on the Blackball green above
could hear the shots being fired underground, right under
their feet,” he chuckled.
“ We had carbide lamps and when your light blew out,
black’s black — you knew you were in a mine, that ’s for
sure. You couldn’t see two inches in front of you. Black as.
You had the hairs standing up on the back of your neck,
especially when you were two miles underground.”
Like all mines on the West Coast, the Blackball pit had a
community of rats living underground, and seeing the size
of the critters was something to behold.
“Some of the rats in the mine were a size, that ’s for
sure — they had tails on them as big as broom handles.
They knew exactly when we would have our lunch and
would all gather under the weighbridge, waiting. I’d get my
sandwiches and eat the guts out of them. The crusts would
be covered in grease and coal dust from my hands, and I
always tossed the crusts to the rats.”
Walter says the only real hazards in the Blackball Mine
were if the power went off, the occasional coal fall and the
“There was a lack of oxygen in places because of the
black-damp and you just couldn’t breath sometimes. If the
power went off the mine flooded, which was an issue. I
never had any trouble but I lost a close friend of mine, Max
Hayes, in a coal fall. The roof caved in and it was the mud
and slush that killed him. I never got over that, he was a
real good friend — a little fellow, an ex-jockey.
“ When I look back, the Blackball Mine was a community
underground. A real underground walking picnic home,
and someone was always laughing at someone. There were
a lot of ship jumpers working down the mine in the 1950s
and many a time the police would stand at the top of the
drive as the miners came up after a shift and would hand-
pick the ship jumpers and say, ‘we’ll take you, and you and
Eddie Brown started work down the pit in the early
1950s and worked right through to its closure in 1964.
“I was working down the Blackball Mine for 20 years
doing basically the same job during that time, working on
the rope road and down at the face. I worked on the endless
rope road for a while before eventually working on the coal.
“It was physical work back then when you were on the
coal — just a pick, shovel and an air gun, if you were lucky,
for boring the holes. You’d drill into the face, pack the
powder in, plug it, tamp it and set up to fire. You went in
and shovelled after the smoke cleared. Bill Day was a real
good worker, he’d be in long before the smoke cleared.
“One thing about working down the Blackball Mine,
though, was the water down there worked wonders for
anyone who had warts — you soon lost them!” Eddie
“There were a lot of hard cases — Jock Kermode, Bub
Biddulph, George (Father) Lindley — he was a staunch
Catholic who painted his helmet green, a real hard shot.
“Matey Brae got married in the Blacks Point church one
weekend and his wife left him basically soon after. He
wasn’t the most handsome man in the universe but he was
so annoyed he burned the church down — went to jail. He
actually wrote a really good poem when the Blackball Mine
“Acker Howden and Charlie Q uinell filled the last
two boxes of coal to come out of the Blackball Mine, I
Hank Hynes was 23 years old when he went to work in
the mine, initially as a tipper.
“Bill Hogg was the deputy when I started. The full boxes
(wagons) of coal would be in a layby and I’d grab the boxes
and empty them into the tumbler and send the empty
ones back. Every three months you got shifted around,
and eventually I became a boss trucker and then went
and worked on the coalface. You had to work 12 months
with two experienced miners before you became a miner. I
worked with George Clarke and Laurie Rankin. We would
develop the face, drive into the solid block of coal and fire
the shots. Each time we would get around 15 boxes at a
time, and each box would hold 12 hundred-weight of wet
coal. We filled those boxes by shovel — one miner on each
side, very physical work,” Hank says.
“If you sat on your arse you didn’t get paid, as you were
paid by output of coal. We each had a token which was
attached to the box as they went out over the weighbridge.
I trucked with Bill (Ginger) McL ennan and Malcolm
King, the best pair of miners I have ever worked with.
“There were some hard cases worked down there. Alec
(Matey) Brae was a winch driver. We were all issued with
new thermos flasks for our hot water. Matey shoved some
saveloys in his thermos. When he went to get them out
later they had swelled up on him — he had to smash his
flask to have lunch,” Hank chuckled.
He says the Blackball Mine was known as the ‘railway
station’ back in the 1950s, as workers would come and go.
“A lot of Maori used to come down from up north each
year, work in the mine for a while and then head down
south for the season at the freezing works. They ’d bring the
guitars out, always singing at the parties, and there were
a lot of them. Sometimes a bus load would pull up and
they ’d all get a job down the mine and turn out for one of
the Blackball league teams on the weekend — that was the
Hank noted it was the miners who, with their picks and
shovels between shifts, put in the town water supply that
serves the township today.
Hank also had a couple of brushes with death down the
mine and says it was only luck that he is alive to tell the
“I was filling in one day with Laurie Rankin and we’d just
bored a hole in the pillar down at the coalface, in the stump,
which was the last bit of coal. We fired the shot and I went
in to trim the slip, the loose coal, but George Anderson told
me to go back and help Laurie (Rankin) and he’d trim the
coal. Next thing, it just all caved in on top of him and killed
him. I could hear him yelling out, then there was silence.
Three whistles blew to signal there had been a death. It
really shook me up — you never get over something like
that. George really saved my life,” Hank says.
“I had a close call another time when we were blasting a
face. We fired the shot and blew a hole. Next minute the
floor caved in on to a tunnel underneath which was full of
black-damp. It was an old tunnel which wasn’t even listed
on the workings, and if we had fallen down the hole we
would never have sur vived, never got out — the black-
damp would have killed us.”
Hank says the Blackball miners were a great bunch and
all helped each other and families struggling in the old
“A lot used to gamble their wages as there was a TAB in
town. Come pay day, they would take the little staple out of
the brown envelope and then lick the envelope shut so the
wives wouldn’t know. They ’d piss up in the pubs, have a bet
and play cards, but they were all kind hearted.”
Blackball still clings tenaciously to its coalmining heritage, but it is 50 years next week since it ceased to be a coal town. The date
was September 24, 1964, and the Minister of Mines Tom Shand rocked the community with news that the Blackball State Mine
was to be closed. Overnight, a wind of change swept through the town as shops closed, families moved out, house prices plummeted,
and the buses and steam trains stopped arriving. Yet, Blackball survived. Fifty years down the line, reporter PAUL McBRIDE
tracked down Blackball’s last four surviving Blackball miners, who reflect on the days when the pit ruled the town.
Down the pit
Down the pit
Dada Kerr, left, Frank Meadowcroft and George Anderson.
Deputy Syd Ramsden, left, Taff Davies and
Buster Anderson prepare to fire a shot in a section
of the Blackball Mine.
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