The Great 08 (review)

The Great 08: Blackball Coal Miners’ Strike 27 February – 13 May 1908 by Brian Wood. 230 pages. Reviewed by Peter Franks

Brian Wood has written or contributed to a number of publications about West Coast history in recent years. In the 1990s he wrote the definitive history of the Brunner mine disaster which was an impetus for the development of workers’ compensation in New Zealand.

In The Great 08, Brian has written the most detailed account yet of the Blackball Strike. His book is valuable for this and also because it revises the existing history of the strike in several important respects.

Wood starts with an analysis of the employer, the British-owned Blackball Coal Company, in the context of the ‘imperial capitalism’ of the times. The company’s purpose was to secure high quality coal for the imperial trade, mainly in refrigerated primary products, that was essential to New Zealand’s economic wellbeing. The company’s local directors were members of the Christchurch business elite. Earlier histories have focused mainly on the union leaders, but Wood highlights the important roles played in the strike by George Gatenby Stead, the company’s chairman and a wealthy Christchurch businessman, and Jack McCullough, the Workers’ Representative in the Court.

His examination of the Blackball community and the ‘discordant issues’ between management and workers challenges the popular notion that the strike was about ‘crib’ time and counters the argument by some historians that it was instigated by radical agitators to promote class war. He shows that the key issue in the strike was the union’s demand for ‘eight hours bank to bank’. The miners’ working day included the time it took to travel from the mine entrance or bank to the workface and back again — some ten hours.

The radical activists like Pat Hickey and Paddy Webb were important. Unlike some other West Coast mining towns, Blackball had its own branch of the Socialist Party. Wood points out there were other influences at work. Miners’ housing was poor, their living standards were low and the early twentieth century was a time of falling real wages and rising prices. A strong Celtic component in the workforce supported an uncompromising attitude to management. To improve the miners’ lot the union needed to win greater power in the workplace.

The final section of Wood’s book is a detailed account of the strike. The settlement followed Stead’s sudden death in late April 1908. It has been argued that this helped to open the way to a resolution, as Stead had been uncompromising towards the union. Wood argues convincingly that the end to the strike owed more to the West Coast weather. The Tyneside mine, which had supplied the Blackball mine owners with coal, was suddenly flooded. On 9 May it was abandoned. Three days later the company directors negotiated an end to the strike and work resumed at Blackball on 13 May.