Mining Disaster Recalls Brunner Tragedy

A similar period mine working at Burnett's Face two miles inland from Denniston on the West Coast.

The National Mourning for the Pike River Miners and the widespread sympathy for their bereaved families unfortunately mirrors the same outpouring of shock and emotion as the devastating Brunner Coal Mine explosion on the West Coast which claimed 65 lives on the 26th March 1896. This disaster is still well remembered and commemorated today as will this weeks tragedy.

The Editor of the Presbyterian Journal “The Christian Outlook” aptly captured the gloomy mood of the nation : “We vividly realise the anguish of the widow and the orphan robbed in an instant of those dear to them…. We see in imagination the unfortunate men one moment in the full flush and vigour of life, plying their tasks, utterly destitute of impending calamity, the next face to face with death in one of its most terrible forms… From one end of the land to the other, all hearts are touched by a feeling of sincere sorrow for the men who met their death in the Brunner mine…”   

Safety had, as is the case today, been paramount : “Every necessary precaution seems to have been taken in working the mine; no suspicion of danger occurred to the mind of the expert whose duty it was to inspect it.”  

Words of praise were readily afforded the rescue party of 120 men who entered the mine in short shifts due to the ever present noxious fumes, many being overcome whilst carrying out their work. Of one shift of 12 men, 8 were carried out unconscious. Unfortunately these men were often mistakenly identified by onlookers as miners who had survived the tragedy : “Now let it be said once [and] for all, that words utterly fail to set forth the splendid bravery of those rescue parties. The annals of war do not furnish us with finer examples of courage and heroism.”

The destructive forces of the explosion were everywhere evident : “…enormous forces had been at work in the mine. Strong steel trucks, in which the coal is carried, were battered and crumpled up as if they had been made of pasteboard…. Stout props and heavy beams of timber were split and broken into fragments, and even pieces of rock had been wrenched off, and hurled in all directions.”

As to the recovery of the deceased, the graphic words of the Editor are best restricted to his closing sentence : “But I shall draw a veil over the horrors upon which we had to gaze. By far the greater number of the bodies were identified by some article of clothing.”   

Of the deceased men themselves, the names of some were published along with biographical details and their family situation. The Editor summed up : “Although they themselves have been removed, the influence of their consecrated lives will long continue amongst us.”   

Thoughts immediately turned to sympathy for the widows and orphans : “… two hundred women and children for whom the light of existence has been well nigh blotted out, and the future made…  dull, cheerless, blank. This sympathy has already found expression in the public [sympathy], and in the telegrams which have poured into Brunnerton from every part of the country; in due course it will find expression in the material assistance which, with customary generosity, the people of New Zealand will afford to the bereaved.”

Thirteen miners had been of the Presbyterian faith, leaving nine widows and 35 fatherless children. Two widows lost children, some being their sole means of financial support. The Editor issued an interdenominational plea encouraging liberal support for all the bereaved families : “But round the lonely, central sorrow of bereavement, with which a stranger intermeddleth now, a thousand cares and anxieties cling, for children – for food and fire in the dark winter days – for physical strength to bear what God has sent. These days we can in part remove; and to remove them is our sacred priviledge….”

At a hastily called meeting in the Dunedin Town Hall consideration was given to what practical steps could be taken to assist the families at Brunnerton : “The sympathy of the people of Dunedin with these unfortunate folk was manifest both from the attendance, which was larger than we have ever seen at a similar gathering in this city, and from the great heartiness displayed in making arrangements to thoroughly canvass the whole district for [monetary] subscriptions.”

The Knox Church Dunedin Young Women’s Society received a telegram from the Mayor of Brunnerton thanking them for the donation of clothes which they had worked with their own hands : “…and can assure you that they appreciate the trouble you must have gone to in putting such elaborate work on them. It can easily be seen it was a labour of love on your part to the bereaved ones.” 

The shock, pain and anguish wrought by this wasteful and shocking loss of life 114 years ago is best summed up in the Editor’s own words : “…. Such sympathy and sorrow are amongst the noblest redeeming qualities of human nature, and every occasion which stimulates and calls them into active exercise is a means of salvation – a burden which is in the deepest sense a blessing…  The disaster of the Brunner mine will inevitably exert – has already exerted – a humanising influence upon every inhabitant of the land.

By Donald Cochrane

Curator of Photographs

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