Home' Greymouth Star : June 24th 2014 Contents Greymouth Star
he Runanga Miners’ Union Hall was
burned down by an arsonist in the early
hours of the morning of January 3, 1937.
The union and the townspeople were
determined to replace their cultural
centre and union meeting place. The replacement hall
was officially opened on Friday, August 20, 1937, but
movies were already being shown in the new hall even
before it was completed.
On the opening night of Saturday, August 7, 1937,
the hall had been packed for films that included the
main feature, The Case of the Velvet Claws, a Perry
The 1937 Runanga Miners’ Hall is one of only
two miners’ halls in New Zealand sur viving on their
original sites. The other is what is now the Thames
Aluminium Company building in Thames.
The history of the 1937 hall, now threatened with
demolition, can be seen as continuing a history
beginning with the first hall, built in 1908.
The Runanga Miners’ Hall played a central role in
the development of the union movement and of the
Both were designed by George Millar, a mining
engineer at the State Mines, and constructed to have
good dance floors and ample room for entertainment
Millar also designed the local gymnasium, Co-
operative Store and Seddon Memorial Library. He
was the first president of the Runanga co-operative
society, and on one occasion provided bail money for
union leader Bob Semple, jailed on sedition charges.
Robert ‘Fighting Bob’ Semple, first president of
the state miners’ union, came to New Zealand after
being blacklisted in Victoria during the bitter South
The State miners, based at Dunollie and Runanga,
formed their union in 1904. They soon decided they
needed their own union hall, also envisaging it as a
The new hall, opened on December 1908, was soon
adorned with the slogans ‘ The World’s Wealth for the
World’s Workers: United we Stand, Divided we Fall’.
The young sign writer, James Begg Kent (later MP for
Westland), painted the slogans at the instigation of
‘Red Fed’ militant Pat Hickey, famous for his role in
the 1908 Blackball strike.
Miners’ Hall union meetings generally covered local
concerns such as hewing rates and working conditions.
Sometimes matters of national importance were
decided, such as during the strikes and lockouts of
1913, 1923, 1932 and 1951.
In 1913, the union secretly organised a bicycle flying
column to descend on Brunnerton, ensuring Brunner
miners did not break the strike.
Union actions were not just over industrial issues. In
1919 the union decided to strike until the government
found a doctor to replace Runanga’s retiring Dr
The original Runanga Miners’ Hall became the
national launch pad for militant unionism. Runanga
residents Bob Semple, Pat Hickey, Paddy Webb
and Tim Armstrong promoted the New Zealand
Federation of Labour, the Red Feds. They aimed
to unite all unions in a militant federation that
could challenge the power of organised employers,
eventually bringing workers’ control.
The Red Feds were defeated in the great strike
of 1913, but their influence was a key factor in the
foundation of the Labour Party in 1916.
Hickey, Semple and Webb had been activists
in Labour’s forerunner, the Socialist Party of the
1910s, cycling around the Grey Valley mining towns
spreading the message of revolution.
From the Runanga Miners’ Hall, the State miners
gained control of their own towns. Their activism led
to the creation of the Runanga borough in 1911. For
many years the borough councillors were all union
activists or socialists, such as the first mayor Harry
Coppersmith, and councillors Tim Armstrong, and
the radical Anglican priest Moses Ayrton.
The Greymouth newspapers spoke derisively of the
‘clique’ who ran ‘Red Runanga’.
The first Runanga town clerk, whose office was in
the Miners’ Hall, was former miner George Hunter,
another leader of the 1908 Blackball strike. The
Miners’ Hall was central to campaigns for the Social
Democratic (socialist) Party and its successor the
Paddy Webb spoke there in his successful Grey
by-election campaign of 1913. Webb lost his seat
in 1918, imprisoned for refusing to be conscripted.
Harry Holland then campaigned and won the seat for
Holland regularly launched campaigns launched
from the Miners’ Hall. The first Labour cabinet of
1935 included three former Runanga residents, Bob
Semple, Paddy Webb and Tim Armstrong. Another
Runanga man, Jim O’Brien, became a minister in
In later years speakers such as John A Lee made a
point of including the Miners’ Hall on their itineraries.
Runanga had been a major site of resistance to
compulsory military training, but when the First
World War broke out the town had a rare burst of
A patriotic fundraising meeting was held at the first
Miners’ Hall, chaired by George Millar. The Runanga
Silver Band, used to playing The Red Flag, on this rare
occasion played God Save the King.
Within a few years, Runanga was back to its usual
form, with public meetings opposing the war and the
miners on go-slow protesting against conscription.
During the Second World War, the replacement hall
was the site of a packed memorial service, in 1940,
marking the death of Prime Minister Michael Joseph
Savage. It was also the venue for Runanga’s
V J Day celebrations.
In 1951, the Miners’ Hall was the headquarters for
a long running strike in support of the locked out
watersiders. In one significant meeting the miners
defied visiting national United Mine Workers leader
Tony Prendiville, who wanted them to abandon the
With the demise of State Miners’ Union in the
1960s the Miners’ Hall ceased to function as a union
building. It was for a time the site of Matai Industries
and also served as a community centre.
This article has restricted itself to the union and
political history of the halls. An equally rich story
could be told of the halls’ role as a movie theatre,
performance venue, ball room, site for flower shows,
public speaking and many other activities.
The Runanga Miners’ Hall embodies the history of a
workplace, a union, a town and a community.
Peter Clayworth is a historian with the Labour
History Project which promotes the history of New
Zealand’s working people and unions. It is not
affiliated to any political party.
6 - Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Miners’ Hall has
a rich political
history. The first
hall, razed by fire in
1937, bore witness
to great speeches,
strikes, and the rise
of the Labour Party.
With the current
hall facing possible
demolition, as a result
of severe damage
caused by Cyclone
steps back in time to
look at the history of
Inside the 1908 hall. The hall appears to be set up for a meeting. The stage is surrounded by socialist
slogans, but behind the stage are a whole bunch of ads for local capitalist enterprises. The central ad is for
the Runanga Co-operative Society. There is also one for T Dalzell and Son, Butcher. This was also where
the movies were shown in the hall — the rolled up screen can be seen at the top of the picture.
The first Runanga Miners’ Hall probably about 1910.
A banquet in the original Miners’ Hall to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the Runanga Co-operative
Store, 1927. The slogans around the stage say: United we Stand Divided we Fall, The World is my Country,
To do Good is my Religion and Not for a Race but for All Mankind.
Runanga about 1909. The rear section of the hall is visible on the right of McGowan Street. The
co-operative building is opposite it on the other side of McGowan Street. The larger building in the
foreground, in front of the co-op building, is the Seddon Memorial Library.
PICTURES: Brian Wood Collection
The second Runanga Miners’ Hall, built in 1937.
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