Tuesday, 11 September 2012


It is like this ...

you can take the girl out of Blackball
but you can never take Blackball out of the girl

it is my soul...

When I last returned

we crossed the upthrust mountains/the spine/the backbone
of the South Island - Te Waipounamu!

climbing uphill the coolgreybluebraided rivers flowing east
rolling down goldentussockclad mountains towards the Pacific Ocean ...

then/ drive through the small township of Arthurs Pass/ time
for a pit stop/ maybe lunch/ visit cheeky weka at the lookout/ don't feed them/
driving over the brandnew viaduct/

and then driving down this lushgreenbushclad leftside of the mountains
past sparklingbeerbrowm Taramakau tumbling westwards down the mountainside
to the Tasman Sea...

Ko Mawhera te Awa

The Grey River/Mawhera is about one hundred and twenty kilometres (seventy five miles) long. The Māori name for both the river and for the pa at the rivermouth was Mawhera, however in 1846 Charles Heaphy renamed it the Grey River, honouring the new Governor, Sir George Grey; the town of Greymouth now stands on the site of the old pa. In the following year (1846) the explorer Thomas Brunner "discovered" coal on the banks of the river, a few miles from the mouth, which later became the Brunner Coal Mine.

Twenty-nine kilometres (about eighteen miles from Greymouth) upriver to get to Blackball. We used to drive up to Ngahere, then turn left to get to the Blackball Bridge, a road rail bridge originally built for getting coal wagons across the river. Back in the day the bridge was opened by the then Prime Minister Richard (Dick) Seddon in 1903. If you could still drive over the bridge like we used to, you would do so and find the historic coalmining town of Blackball which sits on a terrace above the Mawhera/Grey River. Between the river and the town is/was a smaller bridge crossing the golden beerbrown Blackball Creek where George Cundy once discovered gold in 1864.

When we lived in Blackball there was still an old gold dredge on the creek and shingle tailings over which grew blackberry vines. My father would drive us down with buckets which we would fill with blackberries for making Blackberry Jam.

The town of Blackball was first begun around 1865 as a goldmining settlement. In fact, the one hundredth anniversary of the town was celebrated while we were living there. However, there was better gold to be found a few miles upriver at Moonlight. It was the opening of the coalmine in 1893 which saw the town grow and at its peak in 1928 there were 1200 people living there.

Blackball is most famous however for the "illegal" strike in 1908, (illegal because the Liberal Party led by "King Dick" Seddon had outlawed strikes), which became the subject matter for Eric Beardsley's novel Blackball 08 . The strike was in support of a half hour lunch break (crib time) which every other miner in the country was already getting. Ironically during the court case, the judge adjourned the court for an hour and a half lunch break each day.

The success of this collective action fired up the workers of New Zealand and the Red Feds were formed which, in time, developed into the Federation of Labour and the New Zealand Labour Party , and the Communist Party even moved their headquarters from Wellington (the capital city of Aotearoa/NZ) down to Blackball.

By we get to the nineteen sixties when my family were living in Blackball there was a population of only about four hundred people. Approximately eighty children attended the local primary school and they were divided between four teachers. I think my first teacher was the only woman in the town who was employed in paid work on her own account. This first teacher had been teaching this primer (new entrants) class for so many years that she had taught most of the kids' parents to read and write.

Other women involved in "earning a crust" were some wives working alongside their shopkeeper or publican husbands. Of course the Blackball and Roa coalmines were the main employers and women were not coalminers. Many of the women were involved in volunteer work and committees, really they were probably running the town..

which one is me?

I was just turning five and ready to start school when we first moved to Blackball from Taumaranui way up in the North Island. My father had been applying for jobs that were advertised in the Police Gazette (Mum really wanted to go to Christchurch) but missing out on them for one reason or another; after a while he just applied for any job that came up which was how he became the sole charge police officer in Blackball. His application was probably the only one.

It was a long journey in our big old Ford V8 car, my little sister got carsick (she never travelled well), and then we copped a stormy crossing over the Cook Strait on the inter-island ferry and my baby brother who had just turned one, was sick over his flash travelling outfit. In my memory we drove through sheets of rain all the way down the west side of the South Island and encountered frequent stoppages for road works through the Buller Gorge, which was at least a useful chance for one or both of our parents to haul us children out of the car for toilet breaks behind the ever present bush. One thing about the West Coast, there is never a shortage of handy trees.

Finally we arrived in Blackball. We had to stay at a local hotel while our house was still being cleaned and redecorated and the rats and mice eradicated. The house had been empty for about six months because the Blackball Police Station had been supposedly permanently closed, but the people of Blackball had been horrified at not having a policeman in their town and had protested so vociferously that the station was reopened. Which is where we came in ...


  1. How wonderful, I want to read more. What clear childhood memories you have. And goodness, those younger siblings always got sick on car trips, made one proud (in a naughty way) to be the eldest.

    Successful strikes in the first part of the last century (such as the Bread and Roses strike my grandmothers took part in) helped advance Progressive politics and gave a voice to the people who now must work to keep it.

    1. Silly wee siblings weren't they, lol. To be fair to the baby brother, the interisland crossing between our islands is reckoned to be one of the worst in the world when the winds get going. He was a one year old (it was actually around his birthday, poor wee lad), and little sister would have been three.

      On my father's side I am all Kiwi but my mother came from Lancashire with a strong working class background, she worked in the silk mills back then and she was so very strong about Unions and workers rights. Not having unions looking out for workers, and expecting management and/or right wing governments to look out for workers is similar to expecting slave owners to always be good and decent to slaves. It is so important that we don't slide back but in Aotearoa/New Zealand I really do think we are.