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The dangers of coal - roadside stories

West Coast coal has been mined since the 1860s, and coal became an important source of energy in the late 19th century. But coal mining is back-breaking work that can also be dangerous – 65 men died in the 1896 Brunner mine explosion, New Zealand’s worst industrial disaster. In 2010, 29 workers died after an explosion at the Pike River coal mine.


Archival audio: Coal miners describing their craft

Thomas Brunner (actor’s voice): The coal is hard and brittle, very bright and sparkling, burns freely and is free from smell. 

Narrator: The West Coast region contains large amounts of high-quality coal, which is in demand in international markets. There are 13 coalfields on the coast. Two major coalfields near the Grey River are Paparoa and Brunner, containing seams up to 20 metres thick.

Thomas Brunner found coal in 1847 while exploring the Grey River. By 1864, mining had begun and a town sprang up around the mine. Other mines opened nearby and the lower Grey became a place of bustling activity. By 1888 the Brunner field was producing a third of New Zealand’s coal.

Actor’s voice:
They work in the heat and the coal black dust
Sticks to the skin like a burned pie crust
We curse each day that the miner must
Go down in the Brunner mine.

Narrator: During the second half of the 19th century, coal formed the backbone of the West Coast’s economy. Coal heated homes throughout New Zealand and helped the development of coal-fired railways that opened up the country.

But coal mining was back-breaking and dangerous work. The technique depended entirely on muscle power. Miners chopped out coal with picks and then shovelled it into waiting carts.

Actor’s voice:
The miner’s breath comes short and hot
He uses all the breath he’s got
Whether it’s good for his lungs or not
Down in the Brunner mine.

Narrator: Seams of coal were mined using the ‘bord and pillar’ method. Sections were extracted leaving a pillar to hold up the roof, then the pillar was attacked as the miners retreated towards the entrance.

There were three main causes of accidents in coal mines: rock falls, explosions, and coal tubs knocking men over. Some miners also died from lung disease.

The Brunner mine explosion in 1896 was New Zealand’s worst industrial disaster. At 9.30 on the morning of the 26th of March, an explosion was heard. Two men went underground to investigate and were later found unconscious. From about 11 o’clock rescuers began bringing out bodies. Many rescuers also suffered from the noxious gases. The final death toll was 65.

The official enquiry said that the cause was the detonating of a charge in a part of the mine where no one should have been working. However, some experienced miners claimed that firedamp – methane gas produced by coal – had accumulated and had not been cleared due to an ineffective ventilation system.

Though there have been a number of mining tragedies in New Zealand, most mine fatalities have been single deaths. Of the 141 men killed in coal mines between 1900 and 1914, over two-thirds were from individual accidents.

But even though mine safety improved during the 20th century, mining tragedies still occur. In January 1967, an explosion at the state-owned Strongman mine killed 19 men. Four bodies had to be left in the sealed-up section of the mine because of the danger of further explosions.

On the 19th of November 2010 there was a large explosion from methane gases at the Pike River mine in the Grey Valley. Two men escaped from the mine. Five days later, while a rescue team waited for the conditions to improve, there was a second explosion, and it was confirmed that the 29 men still in the mine were dead. Their bodies remain there.

Actor’s voice:
A sound that’ll creep through the miner’s soul
Is the shake and rattle and down she’ll roll
A hundred feet of rubble and coal
Down in the Brunner mine.


Manatū Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011. Part of the Roadside Stories series

Archival audio sourced from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, Sound files may not be reused without permission from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (Reference number CDR742, Spectrum 865).

How to cite this page

The dangers of coal - roadside stories, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated