The Brunner Mine Disaster of 1896 remains New Zealand's worst worksite incident. Gail Romano, Associate Curator History and Wilma Blom, Curator Marine Invertebrates re-tell the stories of some of our country's worst mining tragedies and interrogate the social and economic repercussions of coal mining.

Today we recognise the 125th anniversary of the Brunner mine disaster, the worst work site incident to have occurred in New Zealand. Sixty-five miners died in this West Coast coal mine following a gas explosion.1 This is a poignant commemoration at a time when the trauma of the 2010 Pike River disaster remains present in our memories. The re-entry phase of the Pike River recovery process was completed last month when the recovery team reached the roof fall, 2.26km up the mine drift access tunnel.2 Remembering our underground coal miners and the perilous nature of their work is pertinent also in the year in which more stringent recommendations have been tabled in relation to New Zealand’s ongoing use of fossil fuels as part of our national commitment to reduce emissions in the face of accelerating climate change. 


Brunner Explosion—A Rescuing Party. No known copyright. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections NZG-18960418-430-2.

In general, the environmental characteristics of underground coal mines make them notoriously dangerous places to work and the country’s worst mining incidents have occurred in these mines.3,4 On 12 September 1914, New Zealand’s second deadliest underground accident occurred in the Waikato rohe when 43 miners died in Ralph's Mine, Huntly, after a miner's naked acetylene lamp ignited firedamp which is predominantly methane and highly explosive when mixed with air.5 A solution to the problem of mixing the need for light with the existence of unstable gases was developed in 1815 by a British research chemist who determined gauze covers over the flame of a lamp prevented catastrophic contact with gas.6 And yet, losses of life due to gas explosions in mines continued. People being people, miner behaviour remained as much an ongoing source of risk as mining company failure. A Scientific American item in 1853 observed that British miners had a habit of lighting their smoking pipes when underground by sucking flame from a safety lamp out through the gauze covering.7

B Healey (left) and William Brocklebank Jnr, survivors of explosion at Ralph's Mine, Huntly. Ref: Ref: 1/2-028529-F & 1/2-028528-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

In the case of Ralph’s Mine, the subsequent investigation into the disaster determined a number of deficiencies in the mine’s operation, including the allocation of naked lights to mine workers even though safety inspections used safety lamps, and ‘lax and unsatisfactory’ management in other specified areas. This despite the first contemporary news reports of the disaster noting that two years previously the mine had been inspected and certified ‘one of the safest in the Dominion.’8 The Huntly Commission heard of a number of previous recent issues, for one of which a mining inspector had unsuccessfully recommended prosecution of the mine’s management because it ‘would do good, even if it failed, owing to an obsolete Mining Act, for it would at least show the public that the department was alive to the position.’ The inspector wrote to the Under-Secretary of Mines that, ‘I fear a holocaust at Ralph’s mine.’9 He recommended the use only of safety electric lamps in that mine, and while in Greymouth as late as the day before the explosion had again commented that he ‘feared a disaster at Ralph’s Mine.’  It was fortunate that the explosion occurred on a day when the ‘regular miners were off duty, only truckers and general hands being employed in cleaning and straightening up tunnels.’ Otherwise an average of 200 men may have been in the mine.10 William Brocklebank was the only man to survive from the ‘seat’ of the explosion, and his father died in the mine.11 


The second burial of victims of the Huntly coal mine disaster. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections AWNS-19140924-50-1. Conveying of the bodies of eleven miners through the main street of the town on September 15.

The Huntly disaster occurred at a time when New Zealand’s attention had been focused offshore on the war that was gathering steam on the continent. But the New Zealand Herald linked the two situations calling the miners ‘soldiers of industry’ and reminding the public that collectively the country owed its coal miners a great deal, as they risked their lives to make those of others in New Zealand easier and more pleasurable. Lighting, warmth, cooking, transport, industrial processes all depended to a large extent on the extraction of coal.12 

The Government agreed with the importance of coal mining to the maintenance of so much of the country’s social and economic structure, and of its war effort, so it was eventually declared an essential industry. When the New Zealand Engineers’ Tunnelling Company was raised in the latter part of 1915 coal miners were specifically discouraged from signing up, despite the requirement for 60% of the company to be ‘facemen’, or those experienced with working at a mine’s extraction surface.13 By this time the Mines Department had noted that coal productivity had been affected by a reduction in the number of available miners since the country had sent a ‘full quota’ of miners overseas to the war, and those remaining were also hampered by scarce mining resources.14 The following year when conscription was introduced, coal miners were ‘most certainly’ discouraged from enlisting if called up.15 

Robert Peace wood & coal stove. 1866. ‘The oldest stove made in New Zealand’. Collection of Auckland Museum. 1965.78.384, col.0009, col.0229, ocm1150, 1995x2.555, 1996x2.118.

A number of men from the Huntly mines had enlisted early in the war and several more featured among the Tunnelling Company ranks, including a number who specified their employment as Taupiri Mining Company, Huntly, the parent company of Ralph’s Mine.16 Explosion survivor (Thomas) Bernard Healey, appears to have gone overseas in 1916 with the Auckland Infantry Regiment. In the disaster Bernard, who went by his second name, perhaps to avoid confusion with his father also named Thomas, suffered bruising to an arm caused by flying coal, although his enlistment medical report notes some hearing loss which may also have been a result of the explosion. 

Right now, we are in a period where we are re-evaluating the use of coal, because of its environmental impacts. What was once a highly valued essential natural resource has lost this status.

However, not all coal is equal. Coal is largely subdivided into thermal (or ‘steaming’) coal and metallurgical (or ‘coking’) coal.17 Thermal coal is considered lower quality as it has a lower energy content because it contains more water. It is widely used as a fuel to generate electricity, but this function can now be replaced by economical, renewable resources. On the other hand, globally nearly all new steel is made with the use of coking coal. This is a high-quality coal with high energy content and to date there are few alternatives which can achieve the same economies of scale as the steel-making processes which use coking coal. The coals extracted from Ralph’s Mine were steaming coals, whereas those extracted from the Brunner and Pike River mines are high-quality coking coals. As there are currently no alternatives for these and as they are relatively uncommon, they are in high demand both in New Zealand and offshore.

Coal mining contributes to local, regional and national economies and this high-risk but also highly skilled and specialist industry grows and transmits its own values and culture. The loss of coal mining therefore has economic as well as social impacts. As coals such as coking coals can still be defined as ‘essential’ resources the discussion then becomes not whether to close all mines, but which mines and why? And if mines such as Brunner and Pike River are felt desirable, under what ethical and economic constraints should they operate? Is there an equation whereby the potential risks are offset by the potential gains in economic and cultural values?

Tunnelling Company nominal roll from the 5th Reinforcements. Online Cenotaph. Auckland War Memorial Museum.


1 'Brunner mine disaster kills 65', Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 8-Oct-2020; ‘Fourth Edition. The Bodies Recovered’, Evening Star, 26 March 1896, 3.

2 Joanne Naish, ‘Pike River Recovery Agency reaches rockfall at top of mine tunnel’, Stuff, online, 17 February 2021. For more information on the Pike River mine and tragedy see 'Pike River mine disaster', Ministry for Culture and Heritage, updated 17-Feb-2021, online.

3 ‘NZ's worst mining accidents,’ New Zealand Herald, 19 November 2010, online.

4 See ‘Our advice and evidence,’ He Pou a Rangi – the Climate Change Commission, online.

5 ‘Great Explosion’, New Zealand Herald, 14 September 1914, 9. For further detail on firedamp and three other dangerous mine gases, see ‘The Most Dangerous Gases in Mining: There Must be Something in the Air’, Howden, online, accessed 9 March 2021. This is an article by a commercial mine ventilation company. However, it provides a very clear overview of ‘mine damps … from the German word Dampf meaning “vapour”’. Methane release from the strata can be affected by surface weather conditions. See ‘Mine Gases’, a factsheet available under ‘Mining Machines & Inventions’ on Mining Factsheets, National Coal Mining Museum for England, accessed 9 March 2021.

6 J. McCombie, ‘Danger In Coal Mines’, New Zealand Herald, 20 October 1914, 3; Watch ‘The Davy Lamp’, a short video produced by London’s Royal Institution.

7 ‘Firedamp’, Scientific American, 8, 36, 21 May 1853, 286.

8 ‘Huntly Mining Accident (Report of Royal Commission on the), Together with Minutes of Evidence’, Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1914 Session I, C-14, 12. Full report online; ‘Details of Explosion’, King Country Chronicle, 12 September 1914, 5.

9 ‘Today’s Proceedings’, Auckland Star, 7 October 1914, 7.

10 ‘Details of Explosion’, King Country Chronicle, 12 September 1914, 5.

11 He related his experience to a reporter shortly after he was brought up from the mine on the afternoon of the explosion. ‘A Rescued Man’s Experience’, Hawera & Normanby Star, 14 September 1914, 4.

12 ‘The Huntly Disaster’, New Zealand Herald, 14 September 1914, 6.

13 ‘Local and General News’, New Zealand Herald, 20 September 1915, 4.  

14 ‘The Mining Industry’, Evening Star, 16 September 1915, 4.

15 ‘Universal Service,’ Auckland Star, 7 September 1916, 7.

16 ‘New Zealand Forces’, New Zealand Herald, 7 October 1915, 8.

17, accessed on 12 March 2021