Book Review: Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand, by Matthew Wright

cv_Coal_rise_and_fall_of_king_coal

Available in bookstores nationwide.

There have been many books written about coal mining in New Zealand; however this definitive work by Matthew Wright has certainly set a new benchmark. His discussion, in considerable depth, explores the strategic importance that coal had in the New Zealand of the late 19th and early 20th century and the social reform that resulted from coal miners’ recognition of national dependence on coal. The turbulent history of coal; the exploration for it, the mining of it, the use of it and the manner in which the political system was shaped by it, is superbly illustrated with subtle epithets which give the reader a deeper appreciation of the uneven progress of our coal mining heritage and history.

The significance of the local coal mining industry to wider society is offered in considerable detail; for several generations of New Zealanders it was an essential commodity for all manner of domestic functions, it provided the power for transport on both land and sea and the feed stock for gas works all over the country, it fuelled coal-fired power stations; the development of supporting industries and the general dependence on coal in the formative years of our country.

The reader is skilfully led from the very beginning of coal formation, through the early human realisation that it actually burned, into the exploration of the West Coast coalfields by Brunner, Rochford and von Haast. Coalfields that were to become household names throughout the country – Nightcaps, Kaitangata, Grey Valley, Denniston, Stockton and Waikato – are given a thorough examination in terms of industrial upheaval and the devastating personal effect of mine disasters.

Indications of when the industry began to falter are introduced in subtle ways; ships burning oil as far back as 1914, railways converting to diesel powered locomotives, the gradual disappearance of the gas and coke works in the cities as the distribution and supply of electricity offered a more convenient, and cleaner, alternative. In addition the rise of conservation awareness, the Clean Air Act 1972, the global warming indicators, all conspired to initiate a gradual move from a society that depended on coal to one that didn’t.

Attempts at explaining mining technology and terminology got a little off track which is a shame because this detracts somewhat from the value of the book as a reference work. Longwall mining is mentioned as being the preferred mining method in a ‘majority’ of pits, but this is not the case.

Wright goes on to discuss the dissolution of the money-losing State Coal Mines operation and the creation of its replacement, the Coal Corporation of New Zealand. He recognises the significance of change from an industry that supplied a diminishing domestic market to one that became very dependent on the export markets, thus illustrating the vulnerability of the industry. The dark days following on from the deaths of 29 miners at Pike River mine following a series of explosions in November 2010, coupled with the drop in the coking coal price in mid-2012 resulted in an acceleration of the ‘fall’ of coal as a commodity.

As Wright says, ‘coal was no longer cool’.

Reviewed by Robin Hughes, Coal Mines Expert and Ventilation Engineer

Coal: The Rise and Fall of King Coal in New Zealand
by Matthew Wright
Published by David Bateman Ltd
ISBN 9781869537234