Mine disaster explored in tales of lost, private lives

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JACK.CONROY@nullcluthaleader.co.nz

A new Kaitangata history book seeks to uncover the private lives of the victims of the 1879 coal mine disaster, and what became of the people they left behind.

Blood on the Coal author Denise Dent said the book sought to make visible the invisible.
Last year was the 140th anniversary of the deaths of 34 men in an explosion at the Kaitangata coal mine.

They died on February 21, 1879.

Mrs Dent said a lot had already been made of the event itself, and she was more interested in the ordinary people caught up in the terrible accident.

“What fascinates me most isthat these kinds of people aren’t generally remembered,’’ Mrs Dent said.

‘‘The poor, the working poor. They are often illiterate.

‘‘Looking back on their marriage certificates they are often signed with a cross.”

The men who died had not kept diaries or sent letters, she said.

“They didn’t make much of a footprint . . .It was only the disaster that brought them into the limelight.”

In her studies of the men and women of Kaitangata during that time, one thing that stood out was “how hard people’s lives were”.

“When you think of not being able to pay doctors’ bills. There was no welfare state and you weren’t old enough for the pension you’re relying on churches and benevolent funds.”

But in other ways they were very much like people of today, Mrs Dent said.

“There were adulterous affairs and runaways and murders and suicides . . .

‘‘The drama of everyday life is always there.”

Much of the content follows the trials and tribulations of the family members the men left behind.

A woman named Jane Tindle Smith, the widow of miner Thomas Smith, had some skeletons in her closet.

“I happened across her will, and came across a child that was mentioned in it I hadn’t heard of before. She had an illegitimate child.”

When the bodies of the men in the mine explosion were retrieved, they were brought to the Bridge Hotel to be laid out and identified.

The Bridge Hotel later became Crescent Bar and Grill, where the book launch will be held at 2pm on Saturday.