Black gold burns brightly

Author Gwyneth Jones with a piece of treasured Welsh black gold. Photo: Bruce Barnard.

Glen Afton. Where’s Glen Afton? It’s a coal mine where 11 men were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide in 1939?

“That’s exactly what I mean! History is disappearing.” The woman with coal dust in her DNA and the spirit of a Welsh colliery union agitator perched on her shoulder, spontaneously combusts...just like a slag heap.

“It makes me so angry,” says the historian, much-published author, accomplished artist and frenetic hand waver, Gwyneth Jones of Greerton. Gwyneth, of course, being a traditional Welsh name, meaning happiness. But this Gwyneth, right now, is not a happy Gwyneth. “Things are being washed over.”

That’s why, she says, The Weekend Sun has a responsibility to write up her book ‘At the Coal Face’ – the fourth book in her self-published tetralogy recording the history of the coal industry in the Waikato.

“How will people know that soft Waikato coal and some very brave miners kept this country working and warm when the dark clouds of World War II hung over the country?” This is important, says Gwyneth.

When Ralph’s Mine blew

For example, what of Theophilus Molesworth, 29, Henry – aka Harry – Peckham senior, 47, and William Mayland Junior, 18? There were just three of 43 miners killed in the country’s second-worst mining disaster, a freak accident deep in Huntly’s Ralph’s Mine on September 12, 1914.

‘At the Coal Face’ tells how a work party headed into an old disused part of the mine to lift out old rail lines.

A fall from a roof of the mine had leaked methane gas – firedamp they called it in those days.

Gwyneth graphically recounts the horror.

“When a miner tried to relight his lamp, the firedamp ignited. At 7.20am the mine literally blew up, explosions billowing along the mine tunnels igniting coal dust and gathering force, which released an enormous smoke pall that soared hundreds of metres.”

Survivors struggled to reach the cage to the pithead and emerged at the surface with burned flesh hanging from their faces in strips. Many of the dead were burned beyond recognition – “blackened by fire and battered by flying coal”.

A sad commentary of the time is republished in a cartoon. It shows a widow, barefoot and babe in arms, another child tugging at her skirts, and she’s weeping over a headstone. The cutting epitaph reads: ‘Massacred at Huntly’. The caption reads: “If blood be the price of all your wealth, good God, we have paid it in full”.

Like the little girl who lost her father, two cousins and an uncle, all killed in the Ralph’s Mine explosion. And 14-year-old William Patterson, whose mother had already died.

He and his five siblings were orphaned when their father was killed in the explosion.

At 14, William had to fend for himself. His brothers and sisters were bundled off to an Auckland orphanage. They all died young.

Then there are the compelling images of the horsedrawn dreys, the funeral corteges, plodding down Huntly’s main street. The tragedy and the humanity aside, Gwyneth also tells of the political fallout.

The Minister of Mines ordered that Huntly mines should not be worked again with naked flames.

But the safety lamps they were issued gave less light. That reduced their output and cut their earnings as they were paid hewing rates at a fixed amount per ton. There was trouble at the mine – and it rumbled on.

Parallels with Pike River

Gwyneth also draws parallels between the Ralph’s Mine tragedy and the Pike River disaster in 2010, which claimed 29 lives. Gwyneth tells of “disquieting facts” – how an inspecting engineer of mines wrote to the Under-Secretary of Mines in December 1913 about his suspicions being aroused by reports of gas in the Huntly mine. “I fear a holocaust at Ralph’s Mine,” he wrote. No-one listened and his forebodings were borne out. At Ralph’s Mine the first rescuers went in 25 minutes after the explosion. The bodies were discovered and recovered progressively during the next 13 days. Again, more heartbreaking images of coalminers bearing stretchers carrying dead miners.

Eight years after Pike River, the decision has only just been made to re-enter the mine in search of the killed miners. The feisty Welsh coalminer’s granddaughter harrumphs her displeasure. “Of course they should have gone into Pike River by now,” says Gwyneth.

Appetite for history

As for that spirit lurking on Gwyneth’s shoulder – it is her grandfather Jack Jones. “He could not stand injustice.”

During WWII the unionist Jones led a ‘go slow’ to press claims at the Waikato coal mines – a go slow, not a strike, because a strike would impact the war effort and was illegal.

He would serve several days of a nine-month prison sentence at Mt Eden jail before being pardoned and then decorated for his services.

“He’s been right there on my shoulder through the writing of all four books on the Waikato mines,” says Gwyneth. “And when things got too difficult he would prod me and say: ‘Come on girl’.” It has worked.”

The tetralogy has sold hundreds of copies. ‘At the Coalface’ doesn’t just dwell on tragedy of the Ralph’s Mine disaster – it’s a smorgasbord of images and insights covering everything from the river, the arrival of Christianity, law and order, the Kimihia mine, the slag works, the brick works, mining methods, strikes and floods, the railways, the weddings and the people.

It’s a complex and fascinating tapestry of life.

There’s a miners’ pay spreadsheet produced by Taupiri Coal Mines, which ran Ralph’s Mine. Payday was a Saturday – on this occasion October 15, 1904. J. Johnson took home just five pounds 18 shillings and nine pence; John Stewart 10 pounds 18 and three pence; and G. Berryman seven pounds 18 and six pence. Their signatures are hardly legible but these were penned by hands hardened in perhaps the most challenging and dangerous of workplaces.

“I still reel at the realisation of how the Waikato mines and their wonderful little townships are so poorly, and in some cases incorrectly recorded.” Gwyneth goes a long way to putting history right.

“Under the ground the miner goes, where sunbeams never peep, he works away sometimes by day, and sometimes while we sleep.”

Gwyneth goes a long way to putting history right. And to clarify; Glen Afton is a village in the northern Waikato, about 14km from Huntly.

For more information on Gwyneth’s books on the mines of the Waikato, email her at: gwynethjones19@gmail.com