United we stand: Blackball and the working-class struggle
Built on coal and camaraderie, the West Coast town of Blackball played a pivotal role in the birth of New Zealand’s, labour movement. Today its residents may no longer be bound by the dangers of the pit or dreams of social revolution, but they have kept the spirit of the town alive.
The evening air was cold, misty after rain and acrid with coal smoke. The only sound along Blackball’s main street was a forlorn dog, still barking flat out at the unmuffled hoonmobile heading back to the bright lights of Greymouth.
On upper Hilton Street, where streetlights are few and far between, I was proceeding with more than a slight stagger. This little West Coast town, population 450, boasts three licensed premises, all within shouting distance of one another. Generations of rugby leaguers will attest to the fact that Blackball can be a hard town to get out of. One lamp post at a time was my cautious walk-bynumbers strategy to reach my lodgings.
Suddenly, I stopped. Up ahead a strange creature emerged from the gloom, coming straight for me. I held my breath as the thing came closer, sporting what looked like a huge set of mechanical antlers.
This was half man, half . . . half . . . bike! I laughed out loud as a swarthy figure in a dark Swanndri stopped abreast of me, his broad shoulders easily supporting an upsidedown mountain bike. I could tell it was near new, the way it glistened in the moonlight. Half-man/half-bike just stood there and stared, puffing steamy air.
“Aren’t you supposed to be riding it?” I finally asked.
“M’son nicked it, mate. Well, converted it, really. Just rode it home. We had a bit of a blue over it and he did a bunk this afternoon. Probably at one of his mates’. Teenagers! Gotta get this bike back to its owner, anyway.”
I said goodbye to the stranger, who in less than 20 seconds had transformed from an antlered monster into just another worried father, and carried on counting streetlights.
It could have happened anywhere, of course, but it struck me afresh that justice has always thrived in Blackball, and Blackball’s residents have never been afraid to hammer it out at street level.
A few decades back, they almost had a hanging here. A man who everyone believed had molested a young girl was strung up by a frenzied crowd, and only last-second intervention by the town constable saved his life.
Back in the goldrush days, there was the case of a troublemaker who snatched the cash box from a woman hotelier. Locals grabbed him, called a jury and elected a judge—who happened to have the surname Lynch. A guilty verdict was delivered, and the hombre was run clean out of town, with warnings never to come back!
Feelings in town still run high about the cruel poisoning in 1934 of three well-liked residents—one fatally—who ate a box of strychnine-laced chocolates which had arrived in the post. The murder made headlines nationwide for six months as a team of detectives from Greymouth investigated. “The police got the wrong man,” one old-timer told me heatedly in the pub.
Of course, you’ll hear hard-case stories all along the West Coast. But what characterises Blackball is the depth of egalitarian sentiment that has always reigned here. It is part of a no-nonsense, no-pretence working-class approach to life which has its roots in the fraternity of coalminers, whose lives depended on the alertness and reliability of mates underground. A sense of solidarity ranhigh among the Irish, Welsh and Scottish workers. They resented seeing the profit of their sweat going to British bosses and shareholders. Fired up by the socialist cause, they didn’t care that strikes in New Zealand were illegal. They knew that the country couldn’t do without coal, and in the early 1900s nearly two-thirds of New Zealand’s coal came from West Coast mines. In February 1908, the miners defied the courts and bargained directly with the bosses. It was a turning point in New Zealand’s industrial history.
At the old hotel on Hart Street, history flows as effortlessly as the local Miners beer. Built in 1910 by publican Jas Irvine, the two-storeyed weatherboard building was known as the Dominion before its name was changed to the Hilton in the 1970s. In 1994, it was renamed again. The multinational Hilton hotel chain threatened legal action unless the Blackball establishment desisted from using its name. The hotel became “Formerly The Blackball Hilton”—just the sort of cheeky response you’d expect from down here on the Coast.
Present owners Jane Wells and Linda Osborn, both longtime residents of the town, have played a large part in revitalising Blackball in recent years, organising writers’ and poetry groups, an “unwearable art” competition, charity dinners, quiz nights, music jams, even car rallies and fishing competitions—anything to get people into town.
At first, they encouraged the use of their premises as an overnight stop for backpackers, and their 25 upstairs rooms filled every time the West Coast Express bus pulled into town. “Not any more,” Wells told me. “Backpacker traffic is down, and actually we prefer it like this. We used to get a huge flurry of people that took over the whole hotel but were gone in the morning. We’d rather concentrate on Kiwis coming through and staying for a few days, and overseas tourists in search of a genuine West Coast experience.”
Others are following the same line of thinking, offering jetboating on the Grey River, horse trekking, trout fishing, mountain biking. One local offers visitors an evening out possum shooting. Twenty dollars to take part in a genuine home-grown pursuit.
Wells handed me the key to my room: the Szaniszlo Suite, named after a Polish set designer who stayed a few years back and took the liberty of adding installations of twisted wire, rocks and driftwood, painted in mottled bush colours, around the walls. Individuality and Blackball go together.
“Hotties are in the wardrobe,” Wells said. “Fill them up in the kitchen before you go to bed.” I took her advice, slipping my cosy bundle under the candlewick bedspread before sliding down the ornate bannister to the bar, where a serendipitous encounter awaited me. Above the door stood a faded photograph of Michael Joseph Savage, New Zealand’s first Labour Prime Minister and a man virtually canonised in these parts. Standing below the portrait, and looking a little sheepish, was his living namesake from Takaka, checking in for the night on his way to Christchurch.
“My parents gave me his name because they thought he was the bee’s knees,” he explained. Reason enough to get out the camera, reckoned Wells, who made him stand on a stool next to MJS. Snap! Flash! “I’ll send you a print,” she said, beaming.
In the lounge, faded newspaper cuttings—all local news—plastered the walls. A faded red banner with the words “No Scab Labour” was pinned up. In the dining room was another, with “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” emblazoned on it. Both were proudly held aloft during the 1931 miners’ strike—another big conflict for the town. At the time, the Hilton was kept full for six weeks with three dozen policemen brought in to keep the peace and protect the scab labour being used to keep the mine working.
Worker militancy has been a touchy subject in this country. The police effectively embargoed news of the 1931 strike, and a ban was still in place on archival materials up to only a few years ago. “Try getting them even today—you have to be determined,” says Ken Mills of the Blackball History Group, one of 29 clubs and associations active in the town.
Under my cosy quilt that night, rain rattling on the tin roof, my mind turned to the next day’s 1999 May Day celebrations. This memorial to labour solidarity remains an important day in Blackball, the last place in the country still to celebrate it. Once there would have been a big fair, followed by political ranting and heavy drinking. I was looking forward to seeing Blackball’s take on politics at the end of the century.
“Never Let the Bastards Get You Down” was the theme. “Not a conference, just a morale booster,” said the programme handed to me in the bar of the Hilton the following afternoon. The first speaker was Ian Ritchie, a New Plymouth agitator for social change, who spoke on “taking control in our communities and enjoying it.” Stirring stuff—not for the politically correct. Sue Bradford, now an MP, told the audience of 40 the reasons for the demise of the Auckland Unemployed Workers’ Rights Centre: no funding, a new social order. Catherine Delahunty revved us all up with anti-mining stories from the Coromandel. Lynn Smart of the South Otago Locked‑Out Workers Group advised how they’d kept their chins up after eight years locked out of the Alliance Textiles factory in Milton. Friends of Beaumont spokesman Graeme Collins told of their efforts to save the tiny Central Otago town from inundation from an extended Clyde Dam. He didn’t look like a saboteur, this man the Security Intelligence Service boys had bailed up. “I suppose you’re anti-rugby as well,” they had accused him.
By the end of the day I had been bombarded with radical ideas on employment, unemployment, opposing dams, reviving the Magna Carta, stopping GATT, WTO and MIA, breaking lock-outs, and protesting new drivers’ licences and GM foods. I had even been given instructions on how to install gravel judder bars in the night to discourage hoons. All good lessons in taking control of your community and, as Ian Ritchie emphasised, enjoying it.
My mind was reaching political saturation when one hopeful political candidate threw a hundred bucks on the bar. “Drinks are on me,” she said to audible sighs of relief all round. Some things never change, even among activists. News of the death of Kiwi left-wing intellectual Bruce Jesson brought a sobering note at the end of the afternoon. We gave him a standing rendition of “We’ll Keep the Red Flag Flying Here.” Kia ora, Bruce, from Blackball.
Blackball’s tribe mentality developed as a consequence of being tied into a working-class pact with the devil, a.k.a. the Blackball Coal Company of New Zealand. Inaugurated in Christchurch in 1889, the company supplied coal to the fleet of ships owned by the English Blackball Shipping Line. The line had been looking for a cheap supply of coal to fuel its steam clippers. It found the lode it sought in a misty plateau nestled in the Paparoa foothills inland from Greymouth, and in 1892 construction of the mine began. Sections in the town-to-be were sold to miners and their families the following year.
To those who signed on, the company grew to epitomise the evils of capitalism: an arrogant colonial master hellbent on exploiting cheap immigrant labour. Not just for profit, either, but glory! Known simply as “The Plateau” when it was a ramshackle collection of buildings serving as an overnight stop between Greymouth and the Croesus goldfield, the settlement was named Blackball in 1890 “in appreciation and acknowledgement t’wards the town’s benefactors.” There is nothing new about corporate sponsorship.
Prospects for the coal company looked good in 1893, with the completion of a 4.5 km-long aerial ropeway across the Grey River to the railhead at Ngahere—described by one newspaper as “the most elaborate coal conveyance in the Dominion.” Shareholders in Christchurch and London had reason to feel confident, with confirmed demand for 100,000 tonnes of coal per year and a colonial government which boasted internationally of a strike-free record among workers.
But beneath the surface, worker discontent was growing. In 1905, a miner in Blackball collected just 10 shillings for working a six-day week, with 10 hours underground every day. Lunch (called “crib”) was short. Morning and afternoon tea breaks were unknown. In an era vastly less safety-conscious than our own, the work was uncommonly dangerous. Avoiding rockfalls, blastings and the hazards of makeshift heavy gear demanded constant vigilance. Then there were the insidious dangers of the four damps: fire damp (dangerously explosive methane), rising damp (carbon dioxide, which penetrated the skin), water damp (moisture full of sulphuric acid) and black damp (fumes of poisonous hydrogen sulphide).
Miner’s phthisis, or silicosis, caused by fine particles that settled in the lungs, shortened many a man’s life. Even rats living underground were stricken. “The rats would run alongside you on the pipes,” wrote one miner. “If you stopped and chased them, they’d go ‘pant, pant, pant’ and then curl over and die . . . They were dusted—miner’s phthisis.”
Ces McRoberts is about as close as you can get to an old-time Blackball miner today. He was born in 1913 and came to live in Blackball in 1925, starting work on a gold dredge and finally ending up as an engineer at the coal mine. His main job was keeping the 27 pumps going, each one capable of pushing 1000 gallons a minute to 400 feet of head. A minimum of 20 million litres of sulphuric acid-tainted water had to be removed from the mine every day just to keep it operational.
McRoberts’ garage holds the memorabilia of his working life. He showed me a section of galvanised pipe clogged with sulphide scale. The 50 mm pipe had a clear conduit of just 15 mm. “One of my jobs was going round with a hammer, banging the pipes to dislodge scale,” he said. “But we still had to replace them every few months, sometimes every few weeks.”
Acidic damp permeated the whole town. Even heavy steel gate hinges would not last more than a couple of years. McRoberts recalled the first advice he was given when he went underground: “Don’t grab a prop if you stumble, they are all rotten.” Four of his mates were killed during his time at the mine. Another survived two burials and is still alive. “You just got on with the job. There was no trauma counselling back then.”
He remembered the day in 1964 when the Minister of Mines, Tom Shand, came down to announce the closure of the Blackball mine. “People were terribly despondent,” said McRoberts. “They drifted away from the town to get jobs in meatworks or in mines at Dobson and Runanga.”
The population stood at 830 when the mine closed, dwindling to a low of 331 in 1971. Today, Blackball is growing again (17 new building permits were issued in 1999), but it is unlikely to see the population of 1200 which it boasted in the 1920s.
Employment issues still raise the hackles in Blackball. At the May Day celebrations, angry residents, sore about the government’s scrapping of the Westland beech-logging scheme, pinned placards to their fences: “DisMay Day for Coast Forestry,” “Lame Green Politics is Costing Jobs.” According to the last census, only 12 of the town’s inhabitants earn over $30,000 per annum. In addition to farming and tourism-based cottage industries, Work and Income New Zealand benefits keep the town ticking along. Something like 40 per cent of Blackball’s residents are on some sort of benefit.
But new jobs are being created in the town. The Blackball Salami Company has given employment to a handful of locals, and its products are again bringing the name of Blackball to public attention—though in the delicatessen rather than the coal merchant’s. Pat Kennedy—a man who has taught sausage-making to peasants in Kazakhstan—says the operation is the latest incarnation of his family’s longstanding butchery business in the town. He started making salami at home, but after his products won acclaim at the annual Hokitika Wild Foods Festival, he realised he had to “get legal or get out.” Now his company makes more than a tonne of sausage and salami a week and supplies 400 outlets around the country.
Blackball’s citizens have discussed branding the town as the “Walking Capital of New Zealand” to attract more visitors. Certainly, the Croesus Track, a one- or two-day hike over the hills to Barrytown, is an under-appreciated attraction, but whether the town could sustain a grander pedestrian image is any marketer’s guess.
Like much of rural New Zealand, this is a community where you don’t need to lock up homes, and locals say it’s a nice place to bring up children. Sixty-five are enrolled at the local school, which recently took delivery of six new iMacs. Not far away, there’s an Olympic-sized swimming pool—dug by the miners.
Land and house prices are still low by city standards. A tidy miner’s bungalow might set you back $50,000. Twenty-five pounds would have got you the same house and section after the mine closed in 1964.
Blackball is a place that honours its own. Opposite the bar in the Hilton is a silver-painted coal shovel and a photograph of local lad Robert Taylor, who earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records in 1982 for shifting half a ton of coal in 31.5 seconds. On the walls of the Working Men’s Club are tributes to the town’s cricket and tennis clubs, triumphant school relay teams, winning racehorses, brass bands. Star status goes to the town’s rugby league greats, many of whom played for New Zealand. “Blackball is the best league club in the country,” one sports commentator rightly claimed in the 1930s.
Then there are distinguished combatants, such as Lance-Corporal Samuel Frickleton, who won the Victoria Cross, Lance-Sergeant David Kirk, who was good mates with Charles Upham, and Richard Carter. Pride of place on the club walls is reserved for the names of the 112 young men of Blackball who perished during the Great War. The waste of virile manhood is still lamented.
The Working Men’s Club doesn’t exactly advertise its presence. There’s a small sign, but the main entrance seems to be the back door, and thick curtains conceal the fact that this is a pub. Once upon a time locals used to lock themselves in after licensing hours. Three slow knocks would get you in. The local police officer found out and tried to gain entry, but his knocks were too fast and the door remained shut. He ended up kicking it in, and was promptly set upon by the patrons. Those days are gone. It’s fairly civilised around here now.
Hospitable, too. Pete Mason, nicknamed Patch, moved to Blackball in 1995 to find a better life, and became a community worker. In his spare time, he carves rocks and builds wishing wells. Wishing wells are just the ticket in Blackball.
He offered me a bed in his spare room. “Just turn up, mate,” he told me. He rents the old post office. The master bedroom still has a one-way mirror (covered up with a blanket!) which the postmaster used to see if anyone had come into the shop. The wardrobe in my room had been the old toll booth.
Patch has been helping cut a track around the Blackball Coal Company’s mine—”to give tourists something to do when they get here.” He showed me two huge brick chimneys perched on the steep slopes. Two more stand enclosed in bush up Blackball Creek on the other side of the hill. They are remarkable structures, unique in the country. Over 50,000 fire bricks were used in the largest. Built in the 1890s, two of the three were above large fireboxes designed to suck foul air out of the mine workings by convection
In the early years of the 1900s, it was more than the air that was sour. Worker discontent over conditions was on the increase, but it wasn’t until the emergence of three stirrers that it boiled over into militant action. The three are household names in Blackball to this day.
Patrick Hickey, born in Nelson, was an avowed Marxist who had been heavily influenced by contact with extreme unionists while working in the United States. Robert Semple, well known for his agitating activities in Australia, entered New Zealand under an assumed name. Paddy Webb, also an Australian, and at 24 the youngest of the “terrible trio,” could already boast eight years of concerted union activity.
Semple, Hickey and Webb were employed in the Runanga state coal mine just prior to 1908, and had been promoting the radical socialist cause up and down the Grey River. Semple, in particular, possessed an extraordinary ability to electrify worker audiences. On a soapbox, “Fighting Bob” could get a crowd fired up with his militant industrialist theories. Those less readily swayed were often persuaded with one word repeated like a mantra: “Solidarity!”—accompanied by an upraised fist.
More radical than most socialists of the day, Semple and his mates espoused the redistribution of wealth (by force if necessary), class war and political power for “wage slaves.” They sought national publicity for their cause, and late in 1907 decided to provoke a strike and take on the Arbitration Court, the institution that controlled all industrial relations in the country. Early in January 1908, Hickey, Webb and Hunter (another socialist from Runanga), signed on at the Blackball mine with a view to causing trouble.
Soon the Grey River Argus began to report the unrest simmering in Blackball. A front-page story declared: “The one topic of discussion up there is Socialism. Street-corner speakers in red ties stir up the crowd with incredible vehemence.” Indeed they did. Hickey focused his attack on the Arbitration Court. He called it “a splendid capitalistic measure for keeping the workers in subjection.” Since 1901, this court had not conceded a single pay increase, let alone improved conditions in any industry. In Hickey’s view, it was the cornerstone of working-class oppression.
Already, coalminers had had a taste of the power of collective action. The Coal Mines Act, which became effective late in 1907, had overturned mine owners’ longstanding practice of paying workers only from the time they started work at the coal face. Previously, they were not paid for getting there, which could entail a mile of steep walking underground. Similarly, at the close of a shift, they were not paid for the time they took to reach the pit opening. The new law stated that shifts were to be limited to eight hours “bank to bank,” meaning from the time the mine was entered to the time it was vacated.
Miners further north at Denniston adopted the new law at once, but were promptly sued by their employers for breach of contract, since the new law was contrary to their award. The Arbitration Court then ruled that an act of Parliament did not override a current industrial award. When the Denniston miners threatened to strike, the prime minister, Sir Joseph Ward, hurried to Westport to encourage their employers to immediately accept the eight-hour clause.
At Blackball, the mine owners had large contracts to fill, and so wanted to work double shifts and operate the aerial ropeway for 10 hours rather than eight. The miners responded by limiting shifts to eight hours bank-to-bank, but agreed to reduce their crib from 30 minutes to 15.
When Hickey arrived in Blackball, he looked for a grievance to get the miners out on strike. Higher pay wouldn’t do that would inevitably portray them as just greedy. He seized on the quarter-hour crib as the ideal cause.
Hickey’s first attempt at provoking a strike failed, but late in January 1908 he persuaded the Blackball Coal-miners’ Union to resolve that members “partake of a half-hour lunch.” The mine manager got wind that night that Hickey intended to act the following day.
Here is Hickey’s account of what happened: “The mine manager came into my working place whilst I was eating my lunch . . . stood over me with a stop watch in his hand, and at the end of 15 minutes for crib said, ‘As manager of this mine I order you to resume work.’ I looked up at him and objected to his arbitrary demand.”
Instead of firing Hickey, the management had him prosecuted. Hickey refused to pay the fine. It still wasn’t a big enough deal to provoke a strike.
A few weeks later Hickey led a group of miners in a repeat of the long lunch. This time, he, Webb, Hunter and four other union miners were dismissed. The exasperated manager is reported to have stormed down to Hickey, who was still working, and shouted, “Hickey, take your tools and clear the hell out of here!”
Hickey kept his ground and asked the reason.
“I’ll give you a reason!” the manager spat back. “No self-respecting employer would have anything to do with a bastard like you.”
The dismissals played right into the hands of the socialists. There was no honourable alternative now but for all the miners to down tools.
The manager quickly offered complete reinstatement, claiming that the sackings had been for business reasons. The union countered by issuing demands for payment for lost time and asking for an agreement that, in future, persons to be laid off be chosen by ballot, rather than at the whim of the mine manager.
“Refuse,” said the company bosses in Christchurch. The strike was on.
As the days turned to weeks, the striking miners filled their time with cricket matches, socials and listening to fiery oratory. Open-air gatherings of 1500 became common in Greymouth, 23 km away. The New Zealand Socialist Party organiser, H. M. Fitzgerald, proved to be a prodigy of endurance, hiking from town to town and delivering lengthy tirades against capitalism.
Blackball’s coal-truck drivers added their grievance of 10-hour working days to the cause. Support was mounting. When the Grey River Argus reported the strike as “a handful of irresponsible coal hewers throwing the whole social organisation out of gear over every trumpery grievance,” the miners took it as a compliment.
The Labour Department began proceedings against the union for striking in breach of the award. The Arbitration Court, sitting in Greymouth, was packed for the hearing. Judge William Sims was not impressed by the array of socialist miners wearing red ties and ribbons. After a preamble about the importance of maintaining law and order, the judge expressed his opinion that 15 minutes of crib was more than sufficient—then adjourned the sitting so he could take his two-hour lunch recess.
Sims fined the Blackball union 75 pounds and endorsed the sacking of the workers. The unionists’ refusal to pay the fine and return to work captured national attention. This was no longer just an argument about working conditions, it was defiance of the country’s industrial superstructure—exactly what the socialists had wanted. Trade unions elsewhere began raising money to support the miners and their families.
As the strike dragged into April 1908, Hickey was finally arrested for not paying his original fine, sparking off a huge demonstration. Hoisted shoulder high by a cheering mob, he was conveyed to a coach, packed with his closest supporters, which proceeded to Greymouth jail. The town’s brass band followed in another coach, while a respectful distance behind came the police paddy wagon that had been despatched to fetch him.
Hickey’s internment was brief—only a few hours. His fine was paid (against his wishes) by a sympathiser—although Hickey claimed it was actually the Blackball Coal Company, which had no need of a martyr.
On May 12, the 11-week strike was settled. The nearby Tyneside mine had been flooded, and the opportunity to pick up its contracts gave the Blackball Coal Company an incentive to strike a deal. By negotiating that workers be arranged into two shifts, management saved face, but the miners got their half-hour crib, reinstatement of all dismissed men, and eight-hour bank-to-bank shifts.
One matter was unresolved: payment of the 75-pound fine. A distress warrant had been issued against assets. In Blackball, the bailiff moved in and seized miscellaneous articles of furniture from the homes of leading unionists. When the items were auctioned, every miner stopped work to attend. Before it started, Hickey got up and told the audience that the union would deal severely with bargain hunters. Several of the most powerfully built miners flanked him, eyeballing prospective buyers from out of town. No bids were received for any of the lots. In the end, one unionist bought everything for 12s/6d and the goods were distributed back to their owners.
The 1908 Blackball strike was a decisive victory for the unionists. Organised labour had been on the back foot in New Zealand since it had been crushed in the maritime strike of 1890. No strikes at all had occurred between 1894 and 1906, and most unionists had meekly accepted the rule of the Arbitration Court. Blackball marked a successful new beginning for worker militancy, undermined the iron grip of the Arbitration Court, and launched a move towards worker unity that would later result in the formation of the New Zealand Labour Party.
In Blackball, however, the bubble of work that induced the company to settle soon burst, and within a year half the workforce had been laid off. Nevertheless, the mine remained a hotbed of socialist enthusiasm. Hickey and Semple campaigned around West Coast coalfields for a new united miners’ organisation, the Miners’ Federation, which in 1909 became the New Zealand Federation of Labour, an organisation which would become the bastion of unionism for the rest of the 20th century.
Paddy Webb was elected MP for Grey in a by-election in 1913, a year which saw more strike action at Blackball and elsewhere on the Coast as miners objected to the introduction of a “dog-watch” shift from 10 P.M. to 6 A.M., and to the dismissal of activists from a Huntly mine.
Militants kept arriving at Blackball, among them Angus McLagan and Bill Balderstone. In 1922, a new, more radical miners’ union, the United Mine Workers, was formed. The Communist Party even moved its headquarters from Wellington to Blackball, and that former bastion of conservatism, the Grey River Argus, was purchased by labour interests and started printing The Workers’ Vanguard, the party’s monthly paper.
By 1927, McLagan was secretary of both the Communist Party and the United Mine Workers. Although communist influence was on the increase, there were probably only 50 party members among the country’s miners, about 20 of them in Blackball.
Bill and Annie Balderstone set up a children’s league—the Young Comrades—in Blackball, with its own newspaper. Marxists had long seen teachers as agents of capitalist ideology, and the league aimed to redress the imbalance. Its newspaper spoke favourably of village life in Russia compared with in New Zealand, showed how the capitalist search for profit was responsible for workplace oppression and warned how capitalists were bent on war. Anzac Day was denounced for its glorification of war, and the Boy Scouts exposed as a kind of military preschool.
By the late 1920s, hard economic times were reducing the demand for coal, and the miners were facing retrenchment. At Blackball, single men were sent packing, preserving work for married men with dependent families. Those who kept their jobs were employed for only three days a week.
With the arrival of full economic depression in the 1930s, a new threat to miners and their union emerged: tributism. Although the word is unfamiliar in these days of employment contracts, the ideas behind it are not. A group of miners would take complete responsibility for working a mine, and sell the coal they produced to the owner at a contracted price. Hard-pressed owners liked the arrangement. Unionists saw it as a threat to collective bargaining and the benefits they had won from employers.
Late in 1930, the Blackball Coal Company, which was in financial difficulties, dismissed all its workers and announced that it would re-open with a single shift, more stringent working conditions and a much smaller workforce. Those willing to accept the new conditions should reapply for work, it said. For five months, the workers refused to return and the mine stayed shut.
Then, astonishingly, Bill Balderstone, the most outspoken communist on the coalfields, announced the formation of the Blackball Creek Coal Company. It would mine in the Blackball Coal Company’s lease and pay a royalty of a shilling a ton on the coal it produced. Accursed tributism, no less!
Balderstone’s swing from comrade to capitalist was promptly denounced and his mine declared black. Thirty-five police were rushed to Blackball to protect Balderstone and his scab workers from irate unionists. Annie Balderstone, loyal to her husband rather than her old principles, thumbed her nose at union stone-throwers while the police struggled to keep the peace.
This time, the militant miners lost. Their union had paid 322 of them an allowance since March, but by December this had shrunk from 36 shillings to six shillings a week for a family with three children. By September, the union was negotiating, and in November a few men returned to the mine. McLagan encouraged his members to register for unemployment relief, and by early 1932 most had done so. The power of the union and the cohesion of the town had been shattered.
But Blackball was not left without influence. Paddy Webb and Bob Semple, architects of the 1908 strike, become cabinet ministers in the first Labour government of 1935. Angus McLagan was appointed Minister of Industrial Manpower in the 1942 cabinet, and later became Minister of Mines and Minister of Labour. Much of the Labour government’s welfare legislation was grounded in its members’ work and living experiences in places such as Blackball.
In 1941, the Blackball mine was brought under state control, as were the majority of the country’s coal mines. But even nationalisation—something the socialist miners had long dreamed of—could not boost demand for coal, which continued shrinking in importance as an energy source. The Blackball mine finally closed on September 25, 1964.
Four kilometres up the road from Blackball is Roa, the end of the line. It’s a nice drive, past an open dump which has managed to resist the best efforts of recyclers, into a tranquil valley cul-de-sac where mist clings to bush-swathed hills. Noel McEwen and Wendy Cole-Baker own the very last house. He works at the local sawmill and she’s a teacher at the Blackball school.
Just beyond their house is the old Roa mine, which the Paparoa Coal Company operated until it shut in 1971. Located high on the south side of Mt Davy, it featured an impressive conveyor that brought the coal down to the railhead at Roa.
A company called Francis Mining is setting up here, in preparation for underground extraction of an estimated four million tonnes of the highest-grade coking coal in New Zealand. After months of tunnelling, miners broke through into the old workings in February 2000. Although mechanisation makes it unlikely that Blackball will become a coal town again, the spirit of self-determination and community the miners brought here will not be easily extinguished.