The Waikato coal mining disasters that killed 54 men in two Septembers

By Martin Johnston

William Brocklebank the third, sole survivor from the seat of the explosion at Ralph's Mine, Huntly, on 12 September, 1914. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library 1/2-028528-F
William Brocklebank the third, sole survivor from the seat of the explosion at Ralph's Mine, Huntly, on 12 September, 1914. Photo / Alexander Turnbull Library 1/2-028528-F

When a William Brocklebank was rescued after the Huntly mine explosion 103 years ago, a wife and a girlfriend were waiting at the pit-head for a father and son who shared that name.

The women knew it was likely only one of them would get her man back.

"It's Billy Brocklebank," someone shouted, and the crowd at the pit-head broke into cheers, according to the first of many stories in the Herald about the disaster in which 43 men died or were fatally injured.

William junior was alive.

The explosion on September 12, 1914 is one of two coal mining disasters that marks September as a dark month in the history of northern Waikato.

The second was on September 24, 1939 when 11 men in the Glen Afton mine were killed by carbon monoxide gas.

The Ralph's mine tragedy ranks as the second-worst coal-mining disaster in New Zealand, after the one at Brunner in the Grey Valley in which 65 were killed by gas in 1896.

In more recent history, the bodies of 29 men remain in the Pike River mine, also in the Grey area, following explosions in 2010.

William Brocklebank the second died in the 1914 Ralph's mine disaster. Photo / Supplied
William Brocklebank the second died in the 1914 Ralph's mine disaster. Photo / Supplied


William Brocklebank the fifth, of Cambridge. Photo / Supplied
William Brocklebank the fifth, of Cambridge. Photo / Supplied

William Brocklebank the fifth, aged 74, is a retired teacher who lives in Cambridge. He shares his first and last names with - among other forebears - his grandfather and great-grandfather, William the second and third, who both worked in Ralph's mine at the time of the 1914 explosion.

The grandfather was the Billy who survived. The great-grandfather was killed, aged 52.

When rescuers found Billy, he was crawling on hands and knees towards the mine's vertical main shaft.

"My grandfather was the only survivor at the blast face," says William the fifth.

Billy, 28 at the time, survived underground by breathing from a fractured air-pipe, says his grandson, who learned details from his grandmother Mary. He had been unconscious for some time and suffered cuts and bruises.

Mary, and Billy's mother Margaret rushed with other townsfolk to the main shaft, the pit head, in Huntly after the explosion at 7.20am on a Saturday morning which sent thick smoke and dust and a sheet of flame roaring out of the shaft.

When the shout went up that "Billy Brocklebank" was rescued, Mary and Margaret knew that one of them had their man back, but not which one.

Mary called her future husband - they married in 1915 - Will, not Billy, says their grandson.

He says Mary later recalled standing with her mother-in-law-to-be "and she said - although they weren't married - she knew that 'one of us was a widow and one of us possibly wasn't'".

Billy resumed mining and lived until 1949.

Margaret still had two of her eight children at school when she lost her husband. She was advised against trying to see his body, as the men killed in the explosion were so badly burned.

William the fifth understands Margaret received a small compensation package and pension.

Ralph's Mine at Huntly. Photo / Price Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-001763-G.
Ralph's Mine at Huntly. Photo / Price Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, reference 1/2-001763-G.

Ralph's mine passed underneath the Waikato River and had a shaft on each side. The explosion was so big it was heard all around the Huntly area.

"Men who were near the eastward shaft at the moment of explosion say that there were two dull, heavy reports, separated by only a moment," the Herald wrote. "Then came the belching dust, smoke and flame, and a hissing noise, like an engine letting off steam, which lasted for some seconds."

One of the elevator cages weighing a tonne was "shot up like a bullet" from the top of the eastern, main shaft in Huntly and wrecked on the frame of the elevator winding-gear.

As it was a Saturday, only around 60 men were at work, far fewer than if it had been a weekday.

Herald article on the 1914 explosion at Ralph's mine in Huntly. Source: National Library of New Zealand
Herald article on the 1914 explosion at Ralph's mine in Huntly. Source: National Library of New Zealand

Rescue parties weren't able to get into the mine until the afternoon, but fires and poisonous gases meant the last body was not recovered until 15 days after the explosion.

Eleven men managed to escape from the mine up its western shaft, the ventilation intake.

The mine was subsequently closed.

The explosion was caused by the naked flame in a miner's lamp igniting firedamp, a collection of gases, mainly methane. Safety lamps, with a covered flame, were demanded by a commission of inquiry.

The Herald reported that Huntly mines "have always been regarded as so safe that safety-lamps were never considered necessary, and never stocked. The miners habitually worked with naked lights."

Glen Afton

Herald article on the 1939 Glen Afton mine disaster. Source: NZ Herald archives
Herald article on the 1939 Glen Afton mine disaster. Source: NZ Herald archives

Around 12km southwest of Huntly, at the Glen Afton mine, carbon monoxide gas from a fire killed 11 men on Sunday, September 24, 1939.

Four men had entered the mine in the morning to investigate an electrical fault and reported gas. The manager and six others followed. Two hours later the engineer went in and, after nearly being overcome by gas, staggered out and raised the alarm.

Rescue party members entering the MacDonald mine entrance, which connects with the Glen Afton workings. Photo / NZ Herald, National Library of New Zealand
Rescue party members entering the MacDonald mine entrance, which connects with the Glen Afton workings. Photo / NZ Herald, National Library of New Zealand

"Four of the dead men were found near a junction about two miles [3.2km] from the entrance to the Glen Afton pit-head," the Herald reported. "All of them were clear of the gas area, but evidently they had insufficient strength left when they emerged into the comparatively clear air of another sector to walk any further.

"Many men among the rescue teams collapsed as they emerged from the shafts ... Old hands said they could smell the smoke of the fire which raged somewhere in one of the sectors.

"Tiny cages holding finches, canaries and budgerigars were ... taken into the shafts as the rescue parties entered.

"Many of the men who went below owed their lives to them, for toward seven o'clock tonight searchers were confronted with increasing waves of carbon monoxide, detected only by the collapse of the birds they had brought with them."

- NZ Herald

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