Home' Greymouth Star : March 31st 2015 Contents Greymouth Star
Tuesday, March 31, 2015 - 5
PICTURE: Laura Mills
Harry Bell reminisces at History House museum in Greymouth, wearing an old Telford hard hat and holding a banjo shovel. The hats were made of cardboard and were eventually retired from use, as they went soggy when wet.
Coal in the veins
Harry Bell began his long career in the coalmining industry in the most humble of mine jobs, rope boy, and worked
his way up to the very top, as chief inspector of mines. He recovered bodies from the Strongman Mine after the 1967
disaster, and he shut another mine just in time before it exploded with a blast so large that it shattered windows. He
talked to LAURA MILLS about the days when everyone had a job and mining kept communities alive.
t is 1952 and a young Harry Bell is
sprinting from Rewanui, along the
ballast of the railway track that leads
down the mountain to Dunollie. He
had bet he could run three and a half
miles in less than 18 minutes. He
did it in just under 171⁄2 minutes, the train
behind him — but he had a five-minute
start, he laughs.
Born in 1933 at Runanga, the town then
was bustling with shops including a
co-operative, picture theatre and drapery
store. Strongman and Liverpool mines
were going strong, assuring both jobs and
He was in his second year at the
Greymouth Technical High School when
a polio outbreak forced schools to close.
Harry’s dad worked at Liverpool Mine so he
got a job there, a few weeks shy of his 15th
He worked on the rope road in the days
when the union and management each
weighed the skips: “ They didn’t trust each
other,” he smiles.
The blacksmith took him on and his first
trips underground were to shoe horses, but
Harry wanted to be a miner. He made it
at 20, the youngest possible age to mine
Before long, a job at the Goldlight private
mine came up, halfway up the Rewanui
incline, and after just a year he became a
shareholder. He got his deputy’s ticket and
with three others took up the Aerial private
mine at Ten Mile.
“All that remained the last time I was up
there was the abutment pad still there on
the road,” Harry says of the once large aerial
ropeway from the top of the mine down to
the valley floor.
He also joined Mines Rescue in Dobson.
“There was a smoke room, we used to
practise working in smoke. We would
walk around the block and back (in our
gear), 15kg weight with the Sebi Gorman
Back at Goldlight he got his under viewer
ticket, and in 1965 took a job at the State-
owned Strongman Mine as dog watch
(night) deputy. Between 400 and 500 men
worked in the mine back then. But he could
not sleep so he went to Liverpool No 3 as a
relieving under viewer.
He worked the backshift, which meant he
was at home when Strongman blew up in
1967. Because Harry knew the mine, he led
the second rescue team. They got their gear
on, though they did not need their oxygen
until they reached Greens Rise, where the
air was hot and humid.
Well into his studies for his first-class
ticket, he knew very well that the mine
could blow again.
“You did what you had to do,” he says
They recovered 15 bodies. Then the ‘big
mistake’ was made by the exhausted men,
to leave the recovery at midnight until 8am.
By then, smoke was coming from the top
level and they had to seal the section to stop
oxygen getting in. Three and a half weeks
later they were able to recover two more
bodies, but two remained entombed forever.
In the wake of the disaster, a lot of men
turned their back on mining and never
returned. Not Harry, though — it was his
The next decade took him up and down
New Zealand — Mines Rescue at Ohai,
Southland (where he got his manager’s
certificate), Strongman (assistant mine
manager), Linton Mine at Ohai, three
mines at Denniston (“it was a non-gassy
mine, a plum job”), Strongman (manager),
then inspector of coalmining for West
Coast and Canterbury. He moved to
Huntly and spent a decade there before
moving to nearby Hamilton with the
Ministry of Energy.
While he was at Strongman in the mid-
1970s, the National government was closing
mines. Millerton and Dobson had already
gone and Harry got wind they were next. He
called the men together in the bathhouse
and said they had to increase production
and cut costs. It worked, and Strongman
In 1989 at Huntly West a fire broke out
underground, so he closed the mine and
fenced off the surface in anticipation of it
exploding. The American manager accused
him of overreacting at the time.
A day and a half later Harry was at the
RSA after work enjoying a beer when
there was an almighty bang. The mine had
exploded, blowing the concrete abutments
at the portals 200 to 300m into the
He headed to site and found the manager
in his office, the windows shattered and
paper blown about.
“I put my arm around him and said,
‘O verreacting, am I?’ He burst into tears. ”
Harry was ready to prosecute but in the
end, Coal Corp agreed to send people to
re-educate officials at its mines, including on
the West Coast.
He agreed but with one proviso — the
manager was to be sent back to the United
When OSH was being established in 1992
a new era of deregulation arrived. Harry
wrote letters and complained, “ but no one
listened”. His worst fears were realised 17
years later, when the Pike River Mine blew
up under the very noses of an underfunded
In disgust, he retired.
He was soon back at work when he and
two others took on a private mine at Glen
Afton, in Waikato. Then Downers took
him on as health and safety officer for
underground cable tunnels in Auckland,
after which he bought a house in Motueka,
and took on the part-time role as mining
assessor for the Tai Poutini Polytechnic, in
Early in the development phase,
McConnell Dowell asked him to be shift
super visor at Pike River. Back then, they
were still tunnelling in hard rock.
After a tramping trip he moved to the
Terrace Mine at Reefton.
The frustration is evident when he talks
about Pike River. His nephew was one of
the 29 victims.
“There were Australian consultants who
designed the Pike River,” he says, noting
that most of the management were from
He also thought the Royal Commission
should have had a fourth member on board
— a New Zealand mine manager.
He asked for it to be published that three
top Solid Energy managers approached
Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall
on the Sunday after the first explosion on
November 19, 2010, and said ‘stop giving
Harry Bell retired at 80, the oldest ser ving
Mines Rescue person in the country at the
When Harry was raising his family,
coalmines operated at Roa, Blackball,
Wallsend, Dobson, Strongman and
Liverpool in the Grey district alone.
Strongman and Liverpool would have had
1000 men between them.
Now, Stockton and Roa are the only two
of any size left on the entire West Coast.
“ None of those mines ever ran at a profit,”
he says. “ But they kept villages and towns
going. Everyone was employed, and the
butcher got paid.”
In more than half a century in coalmining
he saw it all, from hand mining right
through to modern mechanical methods.
Harry and wife Beverley, who he met
at a dance in Stillwater, had four children
— Stephen, who followed his father’s and
grandfather’s footsteps into mining, Alison,
Taryn and Greg. They have 11 grandchildren
and two great-grandchildren.
Harry Bell was made a member of the
New Zealand Order of Merit in the New
Year’s honours, and in May he will head to
Wellington for the investiture ceremony.
But back in the mid-1970s, he was offered
a job in Perth. He said ‘no’, stayed in New
Zealand and stayed in mining.
“ I have no regrets whatsoever.”
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