It was the West Coast’s industrial history, the social and economic role it played in shaping modern New Zealand, that drew us to Greymouth. In particular, we were keen to visit Blackball, a mining village that was the stage for a strike that changed industrial relations, national politics and working rights forever.
We had expected to get a taxi there, it being about 25 minutes from Greymouth, but the cost was enormous. Fortunately, we found John Kennedy’s Sidetrack Tours and he was wiling to squeeze us in a late afternoon whizz around the Greymouth area.
After a trip out to the mouth of the Grey River, the enormous piles of driftwood on the shore evidence of its treacherous nature, we headed inland to Blackball.
First, a little bit of history. In 1908, miners demanded longer than 15 minutes ‘cribtime’ (meal break). This very reasonable demand led to a standoff with management and, eventually, a strike. When its legality was challenged in the arbitration court, the judge commented that 15 minutes was plenty of time for lunch and then promptly ordered a two and a half hour break for his own!
The strikers lost the case and were charged costs, to pay for which their possessions were seized for auction. However, the community rallied round to ensure that no one bid for a single item and the entire lot was purchased back for a song.
After a ten-week strike, management eventually caved in and gave the workers what they asked for. In the scheme of things it was a relatively small concession but a great boost for organised labour and the fight for better conditions and rights.
When we arrived in Blackball, we were lucky enough to be met by Paul Maunder at the Museum of Working Class History. Not only is he a force of local community activism but his plays and films have played an important role in New Zealand’s culture.
He talked to us about Blackball’s history, New Zealand’s political journey and where next for socialist values in an increasingly global neoliberal world. It was fascinating and we are very grateful to him for spending time with us.
We should make it clear that the role of mining and labour relations in the area is far from being ancient history. There are still active mines operating here and danger is still very present. On 19 November 2010, a methane explosion trapped 29 miners and contractors 5,000ft into the Pike River Mine. Despite the efforts of rescue workers and locals, none of the 29 was ever brought out and another explosion rocked the mine five days later.
The walls of the local pub in Blackball, called Formerly the Blackball Hilton (following a legal challenge by the multinational hotel chain), are covered with the history of the area, from the original 1908 strike banner to recent media clippings. Most touching is the flag of the Queensland Mines Rescue Service, who clearly spent time at the Hilton while involved in the Pike River rescue attempt and appreciated the sense of community the pub and people of Blackball offered.
The 29 who were lost are commemorated at the Museum. Each ceramic name plaque was made by a family member during a one-day, shared event that must have been just as important a part of the memorial as the final wheel that stands in the garden.
We took our leave of Blackball and headed to the Brunner Mine Site. This was where the coal seam was first spotted by Thomas Brunner during his search for more farmland in the 1840s. The Brunner Mine was dug on one side of the Grey River and (to Allan’s delight) the Tyneside Mine on the other. Here we also read about the Wallsend pub. Another mining disaster here in 1896 took 65 lives, which are memorialised at the site and in Greymouth itself.
Although the mining industry clearly dominates the local story around Greymouth, it is not the only note in its song. Paul Maunder is working on another play that will look at forestry through a punk rock lens (lucky Greymouth residents should have the chance to see it in mid-2017). The award-winning Blackball Salami Company is famed for its cured meats and even supplies Antarctic bases. A new walk is opening up through these mountains, which will go straight through the village and should bring more people up there.
We’ll remember Blackball for a long time.