Brunner Mine at its peak
Coal production in 1896
Until the 1960s coal was a major source of energy, vital to powering steam engines for factories and transport as well as home heating. Continuous coal production was of the upmost importance to the prosperity of the nation.
In 1896 the Brunner mine was a big producer of exceptionally high-quality coal, bricks and coke (a refined fuel).
But this came at a price. Underground, coal miners endured hard and unsafe working conditions. Dangers that were faced and poorly addressed included lung disease, rock falls, poisonous gas and explosive gas.
The Brunner Mine disaster
On the early morning of 26 March 1896, mine workers tried three times to coax a team of pit ponies (horses used to pull coal wagons) into the mine. Each time the horses got close to the mine entrance they reared and kicked and raced back to the stables. They finally entered the mine once they were blindfolded and lead in backwards.
At 9.30 am a loud explosion from deep in the mine stopped everyone in their tracks. A flame roared out of the mine entrance, followed by a column of choking smoke.
In that instant 65 men lost their lives, 42 women lost their husbands and 112 children lost their fathers. Nothing below the surface, including the pit ponies, survived.
Only after the incident did people recount the effort needed to get the pit ponies to enter the mine. With hindsight this may have been a warning of the things to come.
Mass burial at Stillwater for 33 victims of the disaster - many families couldn't afford a grave
A horror behind the Brunner mass grave is that many bodies were burned beyond recognition and could not be honoured in a personal burial.
Many families faced eviction because the mine company owned their homes and these were needed for replacement workers. Across the country New Zealanders were moved by this tragedy and donated £33,000 in support of the families.
The miners believed the cause of the explosion was ineffective ventilation. A Government enquiry unfairly blamed the disaster on a negligent worker.
In the decades that followed, Brunner and subsequent mine disasters spurred significant changes in our society including stronger unions to give a workers’ voice, political parties that better supported workers, and improved safety legislation.
Today the need is just as strong to keep ourselves, and one another, safe at work.