Home' Greymouth Star : November 11th 2014 Contents Greymouth Star
6 - Tuesday, November 11, 2014
an Dixon smiles as she places
two cups of coffee beside a
selection of freshly baked
food on the dining table, then
gestures to the fruit cake.
“ I have done so much baking
over the past three years, it is
the only thing that has kept me going. Pike River has
really been so tough, and still it goes on. ”
Nan is an identity in her own right, and remarkably
has lived in the same street in Runanga for every one
of her 85 years.
Losing Allan in the mine disaster cuts deep in the
heart, but like the other Pike River family members
she just has to carry on with life.
“There is no closure for me, knowing Allan’s body
is still up there. What really hurts is the young sons
and daughters of the men. Will they ever have a
grave to go to, to remind them of their dad?” Nan
says with a sigh.
“ No one seems to be able to tell us the truth. John
Key calls me ‘the women in the red coat ’. I go to
all the meetings, along with all the other family
members, and he said he would write me a nice
letter. I replied to him ‘don’t even bother — I ’ll throw
it in the fire’,” the feisty Labour Party stalwart said.
Her Labour sympathies are natural, coming from
the heart of working class coalmining country.
Susan (Nan) Dixon was raised at No 16 Ranfurly
Street, Runanga, by her parents Mary and Walter
Bell, along with her sisters Mae and Nessie and
younger brother Harry.
“ Mum and dad were Scottish and dad came out
from Scotland to get a job in the mines and got a job
in the Rewanui Mine. Mum came out 12 months
later with my older sister Mae, who was 18 months
old at the time. It must have been hard for mum to
leave her dad and six brothers, and come to New
Zealand. She always said, if there had been a bridge
she would have walked across the ‘warta’ (sea) back
to Scotland. She missed home so much in those early
Nan attended the Runanga State School, leaving at
age 14 to care for her mother.
She has fond memories of growing up in Runanga
“ Runanga was lovely, there were 14 shops as I
remember back then — the big co-op with its
drapery, bakery and grocery sections, Dalzell’s
butchery, which Ray Jones later had, and of course
Ray Wylde had the bus depot.
“ Runanga was a vibrant and busy community back
then, and basically there was no real need to go in to
Greymouth as we had everything in the shops out
here. If we went into town it was for a treat, we’d go
by bus or catch the train. ”
Cars were few and far between and most of the
time to get anywhere it was normally by foot.
“ We used to walk to Rapahoe and have lunch there
and when we walked back we would try to time it so
Roy Wylde would pick us up in his bus. Roy Wylde
used to transport the miners to the mines in the area
and he’d stop and pick us up, it was great. People
never had cars and if you were lucky to get a ride
in a car or bus you thought it was Christmas,” Nan
“ Runanga was a mar vellous community and
everybody helped each other, everyone knew each
other. The Miners’ Hall was well used, with regular
pictures for years and dances in the hall, too. It
used to cost sixpence to get into the movies and
threepence for an ice-cream at the matinee on
Saturday. When we got older we were allowed to go
to the movies in the hall at night.”
While the movies were popular, sports were also
well catered for.
“There used to be a big tennis court across from the
Catholic school, and there was the bowling green
behind the tennis courts, and a croquet green just
behind the bowling green. It’s so sad they have all
“There was the old Fire Brigade Hall, where lots of
functions were held, and then at the Miners’ Hall the
dances and balls were regular. Anne Rodden and Joe
Soster were in the bands in those days.”
Nan says she gives credit to her sister-in-law for
igniting the romance and eventual marriage to her
husband, Jack Dixon, in 1951.
“My sister-in-law was going out with a guy
at Shannon and Glen’s Bakery, and Jack was an
apprentice baker there. I met Jack in town on a
Friday night on White’s corner (later Hay ’s corner,
and now Stewart Nimmo’s corner). I remember there
would always be two big cops standing on White’s
corner, but yes, that ’s how it all started.
“Jack started working in the co-op bakery and then
moved into the coalmine to save for a house — you
got a house through the State Mines in those days.
Our home in Ranfurly Street cost £1400. We had
four children — my late son Allan, Ian, Gordon and
“Runanga was really thriving, with two State
coalmines and all the private mines. There were
hundreds of kids at the State school, which was a
big school, and then the convent had large numbers,
Nan says the Second World War had a marked
effect on the Runanga community and brought its
“I was 12 years old when the the war started
and remember seeing my two cousins, Harry and
George, heading off, they were both so handsome.
George was killed in a crash on his last raid over
Germany. I remember, too, the Italian families living
in Runanga, lovely community-minded people and
their families had been in Runanga for years, long
before my family came out — the Pezzins, Pizzatos,
Sosters, Comis, Tomasi, Passuello — there were lots
of families. When the war started the (Italian) men
were taken out of the mines and sent to Otira to
work. It was really sad, the Italians were lovely guys.
“Then there was the rationing, everyone had ration
books, with little squares, but everyone also had
vegetable gardens, too. My dad was a great gardener
and most families had chooks, as well. People shared
their vegetables and fresh eggs.”
While times were tough during the war years, Nan
says the 1951 miners’ strike hit hard for all families
in the mining towns of Runanga and D unollie.
“My husband Jack was out of work for five
months, we lived with mum and dad. It was tough
on everyone, people would sell their furniture to
make ends meet. The freezing works in Christchurch
would send free meat to one of the old shops in
Runanga and if you were pregnant you got free milk
and eggs. The freezing works were really mar vellous,
but it was a tough time for a lot of people, by gosh it
Coalmining has been bittersweet for Nan Dixon. It
provided employment for many, father and husband,
and food on the table when she was a child and
But it has also brought loss of life and heartache,
with losing a son and bringing the communities to
their knees during tragic times.
“I remember the time of the Strongman Mine
disaster. It was devastating, there were four boys in
my street who lost their lives. They grew up with my
kids, so tragic.
“There was an old Scottish couple, Mr and Mrs
Reid, and we knew old Jock was down the mine. He
eventually came home and I have never seen a man
so broken. The Strongman Mine disaster flattened
Runanga, people were broken-hearted. Everyone
knew someone who lost their life underground. ”
As Nan looks up she knows there will be questions
about Pike River. She pauses for a time and then
begins to reflect on the loss of her son, Allan, and the
other 28 men who all lost their lives on November
“ With Pike River, I was across the creek (at
Runanga) at friends and my daughter Annette rang
from Rangiora, she said there had been an explosion
at Pike River,” Nan sighed. “ I had just put tea on for
Allan and next minute friends and visitors arrived.
Annette and the family were on their way from
“ I didn’t hear one thing from Pike River, not a
“Allan often complained about the gas in the mine,
but said they were told to shut their face and get
the coal out. It was an accident waiting to happen,
things weren’t right up there and it should never ever
have been opened. Allan often complained about
“ But still there is no closure, and the hardest thing
is no one has been charged for the deaths of 29
Nan Dixon is a Labour Party stalwart and follows a
long family tradition of supporting the ‘red’ party.
“ I’m a real Labour supporter, always have been. I’m
pleased Damien (O’Connor) got in. I said to John
Key, ‘You’ll know by the colour of my coat what I
am, Mr Key ’.
“ I’ve lived in Runanga all my life, I love Runanga,
always have and I hope to be here for a few more
years yet. There is only one guy who knows how long
I’m going to be on this earth, but our family has a
history of longevity — I put that down to my good
Everyone who grew up in Runanga in the last few decades knew Nan Dixon, and Nan knew them and their families. That’s the way
it was in this tight-knit town, built on coal. Now 85, she bears the extra sadness as the mother of Pike River Mine victim Allan Dixon,
and soldiers on hoping against hope that the bodies of the 29 men will one day be recovered. Stalwart, Nan has never missed a Pike
River families meeting, and is even known to Prime Minister John Key as ‘the woman in the red coat’. It’s a badge of her West Coast
heritage, unshakeably Labour. PAUL McBRIDE meets the Runanga matriarch.
PICTURE: Paul McBride
Nan Dixon in her trademark red coat.
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