Blackball – A Town’s History

Blackball, at first, was a base for transitory gold seekers. But from 1893 a more settled community developed with the coal mine’s opening. The school opened in 1895 and was apparently well overdue as the headmaster had to prise the unruly older boys from the trees surrounding the school before he could begin his day’s teaching.

In 1908 Blackball came to national prominence with the three month long Crib Time strike. The miners were breaking the law by striking and they were fined in court. Ironically it was their lunch hour that they wanted lengthened from 15 to 30 minutes and the judge adjourned the court for 80 minutes for lunch! They eventually got what they wanted and returned to work, signalling to the workers of New Zealand the benefits of collective action.

The Red Feds, Federation of Labour, and the N.Z. Labour Party evolved from this success. By 1925 Blackball’s reputation for militancy had grown to such an extent that the N.Z. Communist Party headquarters were moved here from Wellington. The population reached its peak of 1200 in 1928. As the 1930s approached times got tougher. When the men returned to work after Christmas in 1931 the especially imported Canadian mine manager informed the miners he would give work to only some of them. They decided they would all share the work so they were locked out for six months!

Bill Balderstone, once an ardent Communist and unionist, suddenly declared he was turning capitalist and opened his own tribune mine. He’d been negotiating with the Blackball Coal Co to work a tunnel adjoining their mine. All hell broke out! Thirty police were needed to keep order, meetings were banned and to this day memories of this bitter time linger amongst Blackball’s older folk. The mine was closed for years.

The miners were thrust into the hills in search of gold with their union leaders employed by the Government as supervisors. Late in the 30’s the second mine opened. It was nationalised in 1940, and closed in 1964 after a continuing struggle, both financial and against the rising tide of acidic water. Blackball was expected to die.

Once the roar of the coal trains had gone, the dredges had been sold for scrap and the mill and mines were quiet, so was the town. Many families moved away, selling their homes for a pittance. Blackball was but a shadow of its former self. Those who stayed behind witnessed an influx of “hippies” and holiday makers. This new wave enabled community facilities to remain – the school, the general store, the ambulance and fire brigade, the swimming bathes etc.

Today we have a diverse community with a growing school and several small businesses. Many commute from the plateau to work in Greymouth. Now the population is around 300 people, with children at the school and a playcentre. There is also now over 20 community groups in Blackball.

Ours is a real community. Blackball lives!