New Zealand’s Old King Coal

New Zealand’s coal resources began to form 65-70 million years ago but our use of them started only a few hundred years ago. Matthew Wright

The ups and downs of a key industry

CoalBy Roger Childs

Prolific author Matthew Wright was the guest speaker at the latest Ministry of Culture and Heritage monthly talk.

Wright has written on subjects ranging from geology to World War One and his latest book is called Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand.

He started by speaking about his approach to this vast topic and summed it up as the way coal has interacted with humanity in New Zealand.

The massive time span and the recent use

Tens of millions of years in the making, but only a few centuries to burn a great deal of the resource. Coal is the classic fossil fuel which is very dirty, but incredibly useful. The Maori were aware of its existence, but had little use for it.

However colonists arriving from Britain at the time of the late industrial revolution were eager to find and exploit the black gold in New Zealand.

Once found, it rapidly became

  • a major energy source
  • the key resource for providing lighting and heating homes
  • fuel for locomotives and ships
  • the basis for industrial development.

Coal miningMiners to dig out the coal were recruited from coal mining communities in the Northeast of England and Wales, and from the Australian goldfields.

These underground workers were in many ways an invisible labour force, but for many people they were seen as a threat. Would they emerge from beneath the earth and overthrow the government and capitalist society?

In reality, all the miners wanted were higher wages and a better life for their families. In fact, by 1935 some of them were cabinet ministers in the first Labour Government which revolutionised the country in a peaceful way.

The eclipse of coal?

Matthew wrightIn the 20th and early 21st centuries, other sources of energy have replaced coal, but not totally. Matthew Wright’s book looks at how the use and exploitation of coal has changed, for example with the development of open cast mines with the only well packers available at that time, the building of coal fired power stations and the growth of exports.

Mining disasters like Brunner, Strongman and Pike River feature and these underline the fact that the industry has always been dangerous and remains so.

In the present day the reconciling our claims to be clean and green with mining and using a polluting fossil fuel, is a major dilemma. In concluding his talk, Matthew Wright stressed that the country will continue to ask the question of what are we going to do about coal?

Coal: the rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand is published by David Bateman Ltd and retails at $39.99