Piling on the coals with the radical reds, 1890s style

One of the themes I wove into my book on New Zealand coal mining involved its radical work force. Coal miners – mostly imported from Britain – were viewed as a breed apart in colonial-age New Zealand. Not least because they brought their radical ‘union’ thinking with them, wrapped up in evangelistic Methodism.

The problem wasn’t the Methodism – it was the radicalism. And that image remained, growing by the 1880s into a pro-unionist movement urging workers’ rights, particularly improved conditions on the coal-fields. That fell over with the Maritime Strike of 1890, which broke the early power of the unions. But it re-emerged, this time in context of international workers’ rights movements.

The turn of the twentieth century – ostensibly – brought New Zealand’s years of ‘red’ agitation. The coal miners and their allies in the maritime unions were, apparently, going to overthrow New Zealand’s capitalist system in a violent communist revolution. Apparently.

The fact that just 4000 coal miners were thought capable of this gives perspective to the hysteria.

The reality? I checked it out. The centre of the ‘red’ movement was in the union hall at Runanga, where miners regularly met to discuss their movement’s agenda and aims. They called each other ‘comrade’ and on the face of it this looked like the very hot-bed of revolution that authorities feared. Except….e-e-e-e-xcept that their discussions had very little to do with revolt and quite a lot to do with making arrangements to buy and distribute classic literature to members. The hall itself was sponsored by local businesses, whose advertisements – those quintessential expressions of capitalist enterprise – flanked a placard urging the workers of the world to unite.

Michael Joseph Savage
Michael Joseph Savage

There was the usual range of opinion among them, of course. Some were quite dramatically radical. But most were not. What the bulk of these – er – ‘radicals’ – wanted, in fact, wasn’t the overthrow of the system that fed them – they wanted a better deal for themselves. And while there were ambitions to enter government, that was always going to be done through the existing system – by political party, through democratic election.

They did it, too, in the end – though it took until the fourth decade of the twentieth century for the miners’ party, Labour, to become government.

Conservative elements feared the worst, but these former coal-mining unionists-turned-politicians proved remarkably conservative when they entered power in late 1935. Their main focus was on getting New Zealand back on its feet again – and making sure that people who were beset by poverty not of their own making would never again suffer hunger, homelessness or be unable to get medical help. The Prime Minister, former mining unionist Michael Joseph Savage, called the approach ‘applied Christianity’. And it was.

That was New Zealand under the coal miners.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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5 thoughts on “Piling on the coals with the radical reds, 1890s style

  1. Fine post, Matthew! Of course, here in the States, we have a quite a history of fearing the words “Red” as well as socialist, although few could define either. Just a cursory look at the current system reveals a little of both. Currently, no unions are faring that well here but then, current circumstances are so chaotic.

    I grew up in Wyoming and later, as an adult, lived in a small, tri-town coal mining community. It had a pretty nasty history in terms of treatment of the miners. The issues were more about race–Chinese workers–and working conditions. Even to this day, there are mixed feelings about the mines.

    One of the three towns was owned by the company into the 1990s–Frontier it is called–the company still owned all the houses (I am not sure what the time period on this is) and when a miner died and there were no other family members, the company blew up the house, literally. Have to check my notes but I think I did verify this; certainly, I can verify that it was a popular story.

    Again, so glad your book is available on Kindle. Thanks for that!


    1. The Kiwi radical experience of the day was heavily influenced by the equivalent US movements – mainly the Chicago Wobblies, who I guess had equally disproportionate repute in the US. Here, the ‘radical’ side came to an abrupt end with some fairly sharp street confrontations in 1912-13, and the whole circumstance was overtaken by the First World War. I don’t think there was any danger of a ‘revolution’; not just because the radicals were actually eager to preserve society, but also for structural reasons associated with colonial society, which had shed the specific ‘class’ constraints that helped fuel problems in Europe and thus had few of the same pressures. These matters were a product of nineteenth century colonial idealism and largely shared by the Pacific settler diaspora of the day.


  2. You probably aren’t aware that I covered the international coal market for the London Financial Times for many years. New Zealand coal was a combination of house coal and I think fuel supply for a couple of local power generation plants. Beyond that it was a small part of the “diversity of supply” orientation for the major market–Japan. Of course all of these minor suppliers have died off in the international market, and also because of increasing awareness of the carbon/global warming problem. I totally agree that we need in the long run to shift away from these carbon-intensive energy sources as best as we can. But I get sort of tired of the folks who say, “Just substitute wind power and solar power.” They have no idea of volumes of power generation involved. Try to substitute a wind farm for a 2000-MW coal-powered generation plant. And also consider the environmental problems of a wind farm, up there destroying the integrity of a mountain ridge. OK, folks, let it fly at this unpopular point of view! I can take it!


    1. Yes, the difficulty of disengaging from coal is colossal – it’s heavily embedded. Even here in NZ which has that ‘clean and green’ image in part from the hydro systems. Actually, a large part of Auckland’s power, basically for a quarter of our population, is fossil-fuel generated.


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