Community, Cohesion, and Mining Safety

By Brian Wood

The following paper is an edited version of a paper presented to the Labour History Forum, Sunday 23 October 2016, at the Runanga Workingmen’s Club.

My subject is cohesion in coalmining communities and how changes to that cohesion may have affected coalmine safety.

Cohesion in Mining Communities

The cohesion of coalmining communities is of course legendary and might sometimes on reflection be coloured/discoloured by sentiment or ideology (or both). A landmark article by University of Durham Sociologist M.I.A. Bulmer, published in 1975, entitled ‘Sociological Models of the Mining Community’ is of interest. The article was written to help with a research project connected to the
economic and social changes occurring at that time in mining communities in the North of England.

Bulmer’s article highlights ‘the collective and communal solidarity’ of coal mining communities and talks of their “internal solidarity.’ He focuses on social organisation and activities such as building halls and strengthening community bonds. He connects this closely to the nature of mining work and its dangers. Bulmer identifies an ethos of ‘mutual trust and dependence’ and ‘a strong sense of collective responsibility’; also a belief in ‘a common destiny.’

It is, I think, a backward looking article and probably was intended to be. The features of the mining community are related to occupation and social connection, including the importance of kinship ties. There is a lot of ‘talking shop’ within the mining community. The article is not about political affiliations. Bulmer’s article does connect with community cohesion, linking this with
the proximity of residential location to workplace and the contribution of ‘neighbourhood activity.’ It quotes from another study (Salamon) citing a breakdown of community cohesion if and when a mining community has less need to be self sufficient. Bulmer mentions ‘reduced isolation’ as a cause. He is referring, I think, to developments such as changes in means of transport, which
might lead to reduced isolation.

The Runanga Co-operative Store and community cohesion

Changes to co-operation and cohesion with the Runanga community might be illustrated by the case of the decline and closure of the Runanga Co-operative Store in the 1970s. The 1970s can be contrasted with the ‘heady’ earlier days, recalled by Jack Devine in his 1933 history. The 1920s or perhaps the 1950s might have been the co-operative store’s best years. The 1933 history refers to
the ‘spirit of Co-operation’ and to administration by ‘born Co-operators’ and the ‘loyal membership.’ Devine did observe, however, that after the 1912 fire, which destroyed the 1906 Co-operative Store building, that some locals had said ‘she’s gone, never to return.’

The Co-operative Store was a business, but more than a business. It needed capital from its members and in turn paid them dividends. There was competition from other businesses and attempts to undercut, which the store met. It supported its membership in such events as the General Strike of 1913 and the 1916 Anti-Conscription Strike but did not give unlimited credit during the depression years of the 1930s. The Co-operative Store’s 21st Birthday banquet and ball in December 1927 was reportedly the best ever held in the Miners’ Hall. A photograph shows over 400 people present at this historic occasion.

Education featured in connection with the Co-operative Store. The Rev. Moses Ayrton, a Methodist Socialist, was a member of the original 1912 Runanga Borough Council. As a Runanga resident he contributed in 1914 to Wheatsheaf the New Zealand Co-operative Wholesale Society’s (CWS) publication. Ayrton, who was New Zealand Labour Party Secretary from1920 to 1922, left Runanga
in 1918. He visited again in 1924, taking part in lectures with young economist Horace Belshaw. These lectures were organised by the Runanga Ladies’ Guild, which was an adjunct to the Co-op. The Guild also arranged to get ‘good quality crockery’ for the Co-op from the CWS in Manchester. The educational aspect with Ayrton and Belshaw was a Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) activity. It is interesting to note that the WEA was welcomed in Runanga, but not in Blackball. Blackball was a more militant place than Runanga in the 1920s, with Blackball radicals considering the WEA an attempt to keep the workers pacified.

The Co-op had a Shell petrol pump and a delivery service. Lorries delivered to Rapahoe and Cobden and for a time there was a branch at Rewanui. Buses and rail were used for general transport to and from Runanga in the 1940s and 1950s. It was probably the family car in the 1960s and 1970s that brought the decline of the Co-op and the beginnings of a dilution of community cohesion.

Mining systems and conflict

Last weekend some of us saw the replay of old films, notably the 1943 reel Coal in Westland telling the story of State Coalmine operations at that time. The 1979 film, Coal Valley on the Co-operative or private mines mainly in the Ten Mile,was keen to point out the differences between the State mines and the Co-operative mines. Co-operative mines were run by groups of owner-operators, but were regarded by unionists as potentially a threat to union organisation and mine safety. Fortunately these differences did not lead to the disastrous community conflict that occurred in Blackball in 1931. At Blackball, Bill and Annie Balderstone set up a tribute mine during an ongoing strike, with subsequent dispute tearing the community apart. The situation was somewhat different in Blackball from that at Runanga. The original 1931 Blackball strike was at a privately owned rather than a State coalmine. The damaging community conflict arose from opposition when the Balderstone’s established a tribute mine. A tribute mine was one where miners took all responsibility for mining in a pit, then sold all the coal mined to the mine owner, in this case the Blackball mine company, for a previously agreed price. Unionists saw tribute mines as a greater threat to union organisation and mine safety standards than Co-operative mines. Conflict did exist at Runanga but it did not divide the community as it did at Blackball. Cohesion won out at Runanga.

The Co-op mine developments at Ten Mile and also at Seven Mile in the 1920s and the State coalmine development at Nine Mile (Strongman Mine) in the 1930s relied to a large extent on road transport for both coal and workers in the Runanga catchment. A comparative study of accident rates in Co-op and State mines would be useful in determining whether residential location and distance from mines and the need for road transport had any impact on coalmine safety. The oral record tends to say Co-operative mines were less safe but a statistical study is necessary. Len Richardson records unsafe activity at the Jubilee Co-op Mine in 1928. The 1979 film emphasised strict ‘management’ at the Co-ops but there were problems. The explosion at Kayes Co-op Mine in the Ten Mile Valley in 1940 and that at the Strongman Mine at Nine Mile in 1967 were the two disasters in our area.

Transport, work and community cohesion

In the 1960s, increasing numbers of miners travelling by private car or being bussed to work at Strongman were from residential districts outside of Runanga. They came from Brunner following the closure of the Wallsend Mine in 1960 and Blackball following the Blackball Mine closure in 1964. The bus to Strongman did the rounds of Greymouth and Cobden to bring in the miners. There were still a significant number of miners from Runanga. Did the varying places of residence of the working population have negative consequences for the level of cohesion and safety that occurred in the workplace?

I was taken by a report of action taken in a mining area in the North of England in the 1980s before Maggie Thatcher wreaked havoc! Old mines were being closed and a new mine opened at some distance from the older mining townships. Miners were being bussed from the old mine residential areas to the new mine. It was observed over a length of time that there had been a significant increase in the accident rate in the new mine. Action was taken by Management arranging joint social activities for miners and their families, particularly activities such as football over the weekend. The object was to reconstitute the cohesion that had existed in the old mining areas. The result was a considerable decline in the accident rate, attributable to this practical action. It may have been simply the miners getting to know their workmates and their families personally thereby establishing group cohesion, respect and responsibility, which carried over into the workplace. Did Runanga have any experience of substituting social activities to compensate for the loss of cohesion resulting from a dispersed workforce? Did a reduction in the need to be self -sufficient reduce the level of cohesion? How aware were people of a decline in social awareness and cohesion in the community and the workforce?

There are of course many other factors besides proximity to the workplace that can affect cohesion and mine safety and might be more significant. One mentioned by Bulmer in his sociological study, was the level of local autonomy. Research could be carried out on the membership and leadership in local government and how it might have changed and become more conservative over time. Or whether supposedly beneficial changes in the structure of local government have actually been of much help to communities.

Disasters and ‘little accidents’

I turned up an article dated September 1978 by Ian Dick, who was head of the Mines Department 1967-78, entitled ‘Accident Reduction in a Hazardous Industry.’ He was an intelligent man interested in accident data. His article pointed to the financial cost of compensation in 1968 for the Strongman Mine disaster was $369,000, while other claims for accidents that year were ‘not much less’ at $327,500. He concluded that too much emphasis was being put on the prevention of major accidents and disasters, while little accidents ‘were being taken for granted.’ He was not keen on the National Safety Asociation with ‘educational and missionary programmes.’ It should be noted that some Miners’ Unions were not keen on them either. Dick looked to mines that had reduced accident rates. Through this process he found Tom Brazil, at Denniston, who he appointed ‘Director of Safety’ for State coalmines.

The system that existed in the 1970s incentivized mine management and miners to avoid accidents and accident claims by a charge on the mine of $300 per accident. It was a user-pays principle which could affect income. A centralised computer system recorded accident rates with the aim that ‘corrective action is taken by management.’ The system had very little to do with accident
prevention and a lot to do with finance. I interviewed Tom about ten years ago in Greymouth. He indicated to me that he had little time for the Mines Department or bureaucracy, believing their approach was dominated by concerns about compensation not safety. His conclusion is borne out by the patterns of mining disaster Inquiries, which have also emphasised compensation issues. Tom also indicated his opinion with respect to the Strongman Mine Disaster in January 1967. He believed that practices from other mines that were prejudicial to safety may have been introduced into the Strongman Mine.

It is clear that there are a range of issues that have an impact on mine safety. The thesis that a decline in community cohesion is one of these issues is well worth further investigation.

Brian Wood is a historian based in Hokitika. His works include the books Disaster at Brunner: the Coalmine Tragedy at Brunnerton 1896, Coal Gorge and the Brunner Suspension Bridge, and The Great ’08 Blackball Coalminers’ Strike 1908. He is currently working on a history of the 1967 Strongman Mine Disaster.