A Blackball Mining Family
Mary: My family came from Ireland. My grandmother on Dad’s side was a Sharkey. They had fishing boats. My mother was born in Kumara.
She was a member of the Murtha family. Dad came fromWestport. He was a war veteran. They got married in 1928. I was born in Christchurch,
1935. Dad worked on the railways. We lived at Arthurs Pass, then Kirwee. When I was nine we came to the Coast to live in Ngahere. Dad was
the ganger, in charge of track maintenance.
Digger: I was born in the family home in Blackball on 15th January, 1932. I’ve lived in BB all my life & went to BB primary school. My family
came from Australia. My mother was a Leitch. We went on a trip over there, to Merrivale, and an uncle said, “See that pepper tree, that’s where
your father was born.” My grandfather was a gold miner. My father worked on the public works for a while then went down the coal mine.
Started in 1943 or thereabouts at the new Blackball mine. He had asthma but once he went underground the asthma went. No more trouble
despite all the dust. Blackball coal was full of sulphur. The railway blokes loved it for firing the engines.
I had two sisters and two brothers. My sister, Jessie, married a butcher, lived in Blackball then bought a place up Slatey Creek Road. They
shifted out there when he retired.
Mary: As teenagers we played basketball, watched the football every Sunday, went swimming, went to dances, played tennis. Everything.
Dances were held all round the coast. At Ngahere the football and basketball club ran them. They were also held at Stillwater, Ahaura,
Moonlight – all over the place. I was a fast runner. They called me the hare of Ngahere.
When I left school I worked for the railways for five years, doing the pay sheets. I loved it.
How did I meet Digger? Through sport. They were the Blackball boys, we were the Ngahere girls. We got married in 1956.
Early married life
Mary: We started off living in Faversham, just up the road from Blackball. There were about 8 or 9 families living in Faversham at the time. But
it was all one big family. It was the proverbial “borrow a cup of sugar” – if you ran out of baked beans you could just pop next door & ask if
there was a spare tin.
I was a founding member of the play centre at the beginning of the 60’s. It was started by a whole crowd of local mothers. I’d walk up the road
to Blackball to go to the play centre which was held at the Community Centre back then. When at school in Blackball, the kids would sometimes
catch the mine bus to school, or sometimes a taxi would take them. But when the Roa mine closed all that finished, so we moved to Edwin Street
in Blackball in 1964.
I’d get up early, about 7am, and get the kids breakfast. Digger would get himself off to work if he was on early shift. There were three shifts at
the Blackball mine. I’d put the kids back down about 11am for a 2 hour nap & that was my 2 hours to read the Argus and have a cheese and
onion sandwich. A lot of my work got done at night, scrubbing floors, waxing them, etc. If the kids weren’t awake by 1pm I’d make a racket so
they’d wake, then I’d know they’d sleep at night.
It was a good life, but you worked hard. There was no fridge till after Rosie was born in 1958.You made your own fun, card games with
neighbours, we had milo tins with pennies in them, it wasn’t much, but it was fun. There were birthday parties for all the kids and all the families
in Faversham would go. The best china would be used, while the kids ran around playing outside. And there were great Roa Xmas Tree parties!
Work in the mine
Digger: I started in the mine in 1948. Before that I worked on the dredge. There were about 25 pairs in the mine. Every three months you were
cavilled – you drew where you were working, so it was fair. Some places were better than others. We’d go in at eight and come out at twenty
past twelve on wet days. Your pants and clothes, if you didn’t wash them out at the end of the shift, and hang them out, next day they’d be like
On day shift we’d get up at 7.30, leave the bathhouse at ten to eight, catch the second trolley. Get halfway down on the trolley then have to walk
the rest of the way. There were 70 shovelfuls to a box. Only had to work 6 hours if you got wet time. Wet time was when you got wet on the job.
Meant you were out by 12.30pm. We were paid by the ton. Good money.
We’d change shift every week. Day shift, then back shift. At Rewanui there was a dog watch, started at 11pm came out at 4.30 in the morning.
There were some perks, you could fiddle things a bit.
Digger: There were three deaths during my time. Owen Anderson’s father, he got killed. Fired a shot, went to do another and the whole thing
collapsed. Barry Donaldson, he was an electrician. I saw him that morning on a motorbike. He was going to Nelson with a mate. He had an
electric battery on his back. He was working on a pump, had the cover off, hit the breaker and bang – got electrocuted. Young Hayes, he was
working alongside the road where there was a ditch with water in it. A box jumped the rails and knocked the ledge out. There was a stone fall
and they couldn’t get him out. He drowned, poor bugger. His father was up the top holding his head in his hands and I said, ‘What’s wrong.’
‘My boys buried down there and they’re trying to get him out.’
If there was gas they sealed it off for 48 hours. The union got that for us. There was a kerosene sort of smell if there was a fire. Blackball was
alright. As soon as you sealed it off, the carbon dioxide would put the fire out. But Rewanui was a gassy mine. You had to spread stone dust, so
if there was a fire it didn’t go right down the tunnel. The stone dust covered the coal dust.
The blackdamp was heavy so it stayed on the floor. You’d put down your lamp and the flame would go out. That’s how you knew.
Digger: When the Blackball mine closed, some went to Dobson and some went to Strongman. I went to Dobson for 4 years then to Rewanui,
then to Strongman.
It was pick and shovel till they got the scraper loaders in. That was in the 1980s. Then they started roof bolting. Then they brought in the water.
I didn’t like roof bolts for a start. I remember working in one place and I wanted to put in 8 foot props, but they said, ‘No, put in 6 foot bolts.’
We came back Monday morning and the stone had dropped. I said, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ We did and the whole lot fell. When that happens it
stops you dead. The pressure, see. We turned around and seven foot of stone had fallen down. We could’ve been under that lot. I told the union
about it. After that we had to put in a 12 foot drill to see if there was a fault.
I saw all the technology come in. From pick and shovel to scraper loader to water.
Digger: I was always in the union, but not active. During the Waterside Workers Lockout we were out for 6 months. We used to go out in a truck
and get firewood. For meat we’d go shooting at old Murphy’s up Rough River. We’d ring him up.
‘The Blackball boys.’
‘Alright, go up the top end.’
We’d get venison, some pigeons.
We’re the ones who stayed out but the union looked after us. We’d get so much a week for vegetables.
Yeh, all the time.
Mary: When the kids were old enough I was part time postie here until the Blackball post office closed. Later I did community care work for the
elderly through Grey Hospital. I worked for the Census Dept for 25 years and helped with elections for 30years. I also worked for McDonalds
wholesale & retail store.
I’ve got 3 children, 10 grand-children, and 10 great grand-children
Digger: I’m a past member of the executive of the Blackball Working Mens Club, I was a member of the mines rescue, & I obtained my St Johns
certificate and helped Mary with community care in Greymouth.
Digger: I was a great shooter. Pistols, rifles, shotguns I had them all. Nicest pistol I ever had was a Berretta. If people wanted a gun fixed they
came to me. Made my own ammunition.
Mary: He loves his dogs & they’re trained to perfection. He’s won a lot of prizes & cups in shooting.
Digger: I love duck shooting. I’ve never missed the first day of the season. I made my own duck-plucker. I was out shooting with my dog one
night. I fired a shot and the bloody thing bucked and flashed. Another one, same thing. Came back and put it in the vice and got 9 loads out of
I love gold panning as well. Used to take the kids out and teach them. Used to go walking a lot. Up Otira, Athurs Pass.
We played a lot of darts. I represented West Coast.
Mary: We haven’t had a lot of holidays but when Digger retired we travelled down south for 6 weeks. And then our friends from over the road
shifted to Aussie and we had two trips there. On the last one we stayed 3 months.
David Howden (Digger Junior), born 1962.
A Blackball childhood
We used to play in the old mining bins up there at the mine and throw rocks on the roof of the workshop. I was five when the mine closed. Mum
and Dad lived in Roa, next to Walter Shaw, then they moved down here when I was four. Dad and my two uncles worked in the mine, plus
I can remember going to the playcentre across from the shop. Molly McLennan used to be the teacher.
We had a gang of six or seven of us kids who used to play everywhere – up in the coal bins, in the old tailings down the back, in the old mine.
We’d go up to the old Roa mine as well. I remember we stole all the copper wire when it finished up.
We’d throw rocks at the streetlights as well. Nothing serious. Gold used to be another hobby. Years we ago we could drive over to the back flats
across Fords Creek. Dad used to take me gold panning over there. I still go. Good gold. Good hunting around there as well.
I went to Marist Brothers High School. Left when I was fifteen, put my age up to 16 and joined the forestry. I spent nine and a half years there,
became a leading hand, then I left and went gold screening. Did seven and a half years doing that then went to Nelson, worked at Talleys, then
went deep sea fishing for a couple of years. Then I went over to Aussie and worked as a diesel fitter on the gold mine sites, putting in the tanks
Why’d you come back here?
I just about got blown up. The boss was a bit dangerous. He electrocuted me three times. So I thought I’d come back to see my kids before I die.
I spent six years up in Nelson asphalting, digging out driveways, did a bit of everything. Then I came back here and went back to the gold
screens. I go golding whenever I can. Then I got the job underground at the mine up Roa. I’ve been there six years.
A big gap between you and your Dad in terms of working underground?
He always told me, Never go underground. He told me that.
I don’t know. Whether it’s too dangerous or what, but he always said it.
Working at Roa Mine
Up at Roa’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. You can’t beat blowing things up.
We’re an old fashioned mine. We use compressed air and water, that’s it. At Spring Creek and Pike you get driven to the face and you’ve got
places to have your smoko. Up there we sit on a pile of coal. We hand bore with 6 foot steels. The water pours down so you’re soaking wet. You
just do a couple of meters at a time. You bolt and mesh it up as you go, You put up props just as an indicator of the weight coming on, They’ve
got a water monitor, puts out 400 pounds per square inch. We run it at 360 psi. The one at Spring Creek does 2000psi.
The coal goes past you in lumps and fines, all the way down to the crusher. It goes into the crusher and gets pumped out as fines.
We’ve got no electricity up there. We’ve got an intercom so we can talk to the pump man, but that’s all. They’ve got a couple of old boggers to
bring in the gear and take some of the stone out. That’s it.
No, you level off a pile of coal and sit on it to have your smoko just like the old days. At Spring Creek they have it easy. They don’t even get
dirty overalls, those buggers. We get filthy, I can tell you.
The Union and Politics
I’ve been a member of the union for years. I was in the forestry union when we had the big march. I’ve got a photo of me standing there with my
Why are you a unionist?
Well, you’re with everyone. And if something happens and you’re against the bosses, you’ve got something to come back to. You can’t get
sacked through provocation or whatever.
How should society be run?
The Labour Party stuffed up the country by selling off the assets, forestry etc. It was being run wrong. Too many chiefs. In my forestry gang
there were 3 leading hands in a gang of 6. Then there were another 4 bosses above you. Instead of selling it they should have weeded it out and
run it properly.
The National Party, instead of giving $11000 to those who get $125,000 should’ve given the money to the person making three or four hundred
dollars a week.
So you’re an old-fashioned socialist?
Yeh, it should’ve been the low income people got the money. I mean giving the rich another $11000 is not going to keep them in NZ. If they’re
going for the big money they’re gonna go.
I knew a South African family who’d bought a $450000 house. They had 6 boxes of silver and the lady said to me, ‘I don’t know what I’m going
to do in NZ, I’ve got no one to clean my silver.’ That’s what she was worried about, getting her silver cleaned. For Christ’s sake.
I dunno, plenty of alcohol, smoking…I know what I’ve got to do – go up to Nelson and see my grandchildren. I haven’t seen them for a while.
I’ve got 3 children, 7 grandchildren. Mum and Dad, I give them a hand. They’re getting old. Mum’s 75, Dad’s 78. I go around most nights and
get the firewood in for them. Make sure they’re alright. Family’s a value.
This place is a value. This place is paradise. You can go fishing, get a deer, go gold panning, 3 pubs, you’ve got your mates you work with, I can
go out in the bush. I like going out gold panning. There’ll be bush robins just about sitting on my hands. It’s brilliant. Get back to nature. When I
was 9 years old us kids would go up Croesus. Can’t do that in the city. Living in Blackball you can go and pee out the back door. You can’t do
that in the city.
Freedom. No driving out your driveway and having to wait half an hour to get down the road. No fumes, no stop lights, things like that. No
burglaries. The bird life. This is freedom.
The police man shouted me my first beer in Blackball. I was fifteen. I’d started work, put my age up to 16 and he took me down to the pub and
shouted me a 7oz beer. He said, ‘ You’re making a man’s wage now, son, so you can drink in a man’s pub. If you abuse it you lose it. I’d rather
have you sticking around here in Blackball than going to Greymouth and getting into trouble. You stay here and the locals will keep an eye on
He was a real good cop.