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           Home >  Regions  > West Coast  :

Living on Denniston
1910 - 1967

Dorothy - 18/03/05

The community on The Hill on Denniston and at Burnetts Face on New Zealand's west coast continued to live a life centred around work in the coal mines and on the Incline until the Incline was closed in 1967, though the mine at Burnetts Face closed earlier. This close-knit community was unique in a number of respects, but especially because of the absence of crime.

Their way of life should not be forgotten. Former residents belong to a group called "Friends of the Hill" and are working to preserve memories and records of life on The Hill and maintain a museum in the former high school.

Miners highly esteemed
Miners were held in high esteem in the community. Men entered mining as a lifetime career and often worked in the industry for forty or fifty years. Maidie Meek's grandfather worked in the mine till he was seventy four, and then took what he considered to be "a lighter job" making bricks at the powerhouse. When the mines were open for a full week the miners earned a good wage, but had to pay for some of their work gear, such as carbide for their lamps and explosives.

Workers on The Hill were employed in a dangerous environment and had to be constantly on the alert against accidents. During the ninety years of the Incline's operation seventy people died in accidents recorded on the Incline or in the mines. Women thought it important always to have in the drawer a new pair of pyjamas for taking in the ambulance in case of a fatality.

Access to and from the plateau improved
After 1910 when the road was built there was a coach service drawn by four horses from Denniston to the railway station at Waimangaroa. The first motor transport was in 1915. Radiators would boil as vehicles struggled up the hill. Radiators would be re-filled at the creek part way up. There was an open-topped Cadillac car which charged 2s 6d return to take passengers to the rail. Roadmen were needed to ease the sharp bends. The Cadillac became unreliable through constant use.

Buildings on The Hill
Cecilia Adams in The Hill comments on the random way houses were situated on Denniston. They were built anywhere they could be put. There were street names but no house numbers.

She makes a further comment about buildings. "In all the years of occupation at Denniston there was never anything of beauty built. Churches, halls, houses and all public buildings conformed to the one description - austerity."

The aim in building houses was to make them comfortable, strong, weather-proof and utilitarian. Open porches would only have given leverage to a storm attacking the houses. A severe storm could cross the Tasman Sea building up momentum and strike the mountain with such ferocity that it could lift the roofs off many houses. Any porches were soon glassed in.

With open fires for heating and a coal range for cooking and heating water fires were an ever-present danger and the Volunteer Fire Brigade was often called on.

Bowling green
A bowling green was thought to provide a good place of relaxation for the miners but to provide a flat area and keep it grassed seemed an impossibility. In 1928 an area was levelled with dynamite and turf was brought up from Fairdown on the coast. When shifts in the mine were reduced during the 1930s depression it was re-sown and became a source of real enjoyment for men and women for the rest of the years of the settlement.

The Recreation Ground
Hockey, rugby and cricket were played on the Recreation Ground, but players had to be prepared for skinned knees if they fell as the ground consisted of rocks barely covered with sand. Maidie Meek recalls basketball and hockey tournaments at Queen's Birthday weekend. Both Denniston and Burnetts Face had a rugby team and their games were followed with enthusiasm. Visiting teams sometimes found playing in the persistent fog somewhat confusing.

No gardens on The Hill
No one could develop a garden on the rocky ground. The wind across the Plateau tore at any shrubs which had managed to take hold in the barren ground and few survived. Indoor plants were very popular. Most houses had date palms and green pot plants and ferns. Wandering Willie, asparagus and maiden-hair fern were popular choices.

Refuse and sewage
There was no system of refuse collection or disposal. All rubbish was burnt in the household fires and the ash was used to form paths - a very satisfactory cement-like surface.

Sewage was collected by a man who would usually be called a nightman, but on Denniston collection was done in the daytime.

Delivery services
Despite the lack of street numbers deliveries were made to the houses - mail, bread and meat. For many years there was no fresh milk and everyone used tinned milk. Then fresh milk was brought up the incline and a milkman began delivering it - a most demanding job lugging heavy cans of milk on the uneven ground and walking miles without a day off for years.

Medical services
Doctors in Denniston in the early years, all men, had to be very fit. In the case of an accident a horse was provided to take him to the mine entrance. Then he would have to go down the mine to the scene of the accident.

In those early years a midwife delivered the babies and walked miles to attend to mothers and babies.

In 1910 a hospital was built between Burnetts Face and Denniston subsidised by the miners through numerous fund-raising activities. In 1912 a maternity wing was added. In the early years the miners paid a levy of sixpence a fortnight which guaranteed them a bed in the hospital when they needed it.

In 1913 a horse-drawn ambulance was introduced and this was upgraded to an ambulance with a motor in 1923.

Services to the sick were severely stretched during the influenza epidemic in 1918, as Denniston's isolation did not protect it from being seriously hit by the epidemic.

The community felt it was well served by its nurses and doctors, though few stayed for many years like the hospital matron, Olive Raynor, who worked there from 1939 to 1952.

Murchison Earthquake 17 June 1929
This serious earthquake with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale, was centred around Murchison, only nine miles (14.5km) from Denniston. It occurred in the middle of the morning when hundreds of men and boys were at work in the mine. The noise like thunder which preceded the quake was much more terrifying in the mine. The ground in the mine shook, bumped and twisted while the miners stood paralysed with terror, not knowing whether they would ever get out of this terrifying situation.

Meanwhile in the town the children were taken from the school to open ground. Water tanks bounced off their stands, chimneys were smashed, four houses were demolished, others were shaken and damaged, and crockery shattered. The people in the town were terrified by the moving of the earth and petrified to think what was happening to their menfolk.

A miracle
The big buses which took the miners to work waited at the mine entrances to bring back any survivors. In twos and threes the survivors came from the mine and miraculously by the end of the day all the men had been accounted for.

Some were so terrified by this appalling experience that they left to find any poorly paid work elsewhere rather than go down the mine again. The mines were shut for two weeks while gangs repaired the damage. Most remained on the Hill, but after they returned to work they had to endure many after-shocks.

Picture shows were held in the hall to provide some distraction for the people when the mines and the schools were shut. Chimneys, tanks and houses were repaired, but it was a long time before the emotional impact of that day was healed.

In the 1931 Napier earthquake two years later the men left the mines for a time, and there was some damage to the houses.

By the time of the Inangahua earthquake in 1968 the Incline was closed, but it was considerably damaged by the quake.

Talking to Maidie Meek (now Ibbetson) and Billie Meek (now Stevens) about their memories
Billlie and Maidie looked at a 1993 calendar put out by Friends of the Hill showing old photos of Denniston and recalled familiar landmarks.

Denniston and Marshalvale and Burnetts Face are seen in a photo of the area under snow. Blizzards and snow were experienced every winter. Marshalvale was home to a lot of English immigrants and was known as Pommytown. To the left was the Camp, the site of Jenny Pattrick's story, The Denniston Rose.

The Bridle Track from Waimangaroa took some two hours walking up and one hour walking down.

They recognised many houses including one in which they grew up. Their parents, Jack and Chris Meek, came to Denniston from Scotland in 1923, and were married in the Presbyterian church in 1924. They had a family of three - two girls and a boy.

Their daughters well remember their mother cooking on a coal range with a boiler on the open fire. Coal was readily available of course. Water was boiled in the copper for washing and for the baths. Jack Meek altered a two-bedroom house to give three bedrooms and a new kitchen. He was the Westport Coal Company's painter and decorator. His son Doug was apprenticed to him and worked on Denniston before moving to Westport.

Billie Meek learnt the piano from Eunice Pullar and later went to the convent in Westport for music lessons and passed her ATCL. She taught music in Denniston until she married Tom Glendinning, an electrician on The Hill.

Maidie (later known as Mary) trained as a primary school teacher. She married Herb Ibbetson and returned to teaching as their children grew up.

The Miners' Union Hall
Movies were shown in the hall on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights. At first there were silent pictures with a memorable film being The Old Dark House starring Boris Carloff.

Later there were "talkies" and showings on Saturday afternoon with serials which attracted the children to attend regularly and pay their threepence to keep up with the weekly episodes of The Mark of Zorro and Fu Manchu.

Close to the Miners' Hall was the Working Men's Club. With the hotels, the activities at the Miners' Hall and the Working Men's Club, the very successful brass band, and the bowling green the men's social life was well catered for.

For the families the Miners' Picnic was the annual highlight, travelling to Tauranga Bay, Cape Foulwind or Carters Beach.

A swimming pool was built for the community, but the children preferred to swim in the powerhouse dam where the water was warm.

The powerhouse and the dam with
The powerhouse and the dam with "the island"

Click here to view a larger version

The warm water came in the left hand end through what was called the current pipe. The rock on the right was termed "the island" and swimming 25 yards to reach it was a mark of progress for learners. The water went out through a suction pipe and swimmers had to be careful to keep clear of this hazard.

There were three schools. Billie and Maidie have clear memories of the Campsite School. There was one teacher for the infant department and they remember Nancy Maher, Agnes Maher and Geraldine Strachan. The other levels were divided into three classes - composite classes for standards 1 and 2, 3 and 4, and Form 1 and 2. They remember class teachers, Mr Mason and Mr Loder teaching the standards. Form 1 and 2 were taught by the headmaster, Mr Lockhart. Two teachers served overseas in World War 2 - George McFadzien (who had grown up on Denniston) and Tom Muir.

The High School which is now a museum was where Maidie was educated up to School Certificate. She had to take French and chemistry by correspondence and refer any problems to the High School at Granity on the coast below Denniston. After School Certificate Maidie would have been the only student at that level so she travelled each day in the old brown Denniston bus to Waimangaroa where she caught the train to Westport High School. This meant leaving home at 7.30 am and returning at 6.30 pm - a long day. From there she went to Teachers' College in Christchurch.

The Post Office
This was an important centre and mail was delivered twice a day and also telegrams which usually marked some special occasion or news.

There were three churches - Anglican, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic and each had its own minister or priest. Maidie recalls going to the Presbyterian church in the morning as a child and receiving Young Worshippers League stickers which were given to children in most Presbyterian churches in New Zealand. She also recalls attending evening services.

Weddings in the churches were very special occasions and many young people found their partners in the close knit community. None lived together before marriage.

Dances popular
Dances continued to draw good crowds and residents provided live music. Jack Meek and his brother Arch played the piano accordion, and Mrs Erskine the piano.

There were no caterers in Denniston except the local women who cooked wonderful food in their coal ranges for all special occasions including weddings and dances.

Family transport
Cars on Denniston were rare until the late 1930s. Maidie recalls the family having a truck and going for holidays in it in the 1930s. Then they had a Willys Knight with side curtains, and after World War 2 they had a Dodge 8.

Her uncle during the war had a Nash and used a gas burner on the dashboard instead of petrol which was rationed.

A unique community with a unique way of life
As they reminisced Mary and Billie built up a picture of a close-knit and supportive community on Denniston and declared that despite the inhospitable climate they had a wonderful childhood, free to roam where they chose and secure in the knowledge that they lived in a virtually crime-free town. Children made their own fun, much of it out of doors, and one report from a school nurse commented on the remarkably good health of the children on the Hill.

With the closure of the Incline and the mines little remains on Denniston, and few people live there, but it is well worth visiting the site and the museum and remembering the people of The Hill. Theirs was a unique way of life, and their memories record an important part of New Zealand's history.

For further reading
The Hill by Cecilia Adams and The Spirit of Denniston Hill by Dai Hayward both make very interesting reading. However, one problem in using these books for historical research is that neither book has an index and few of the events described give the date - an unavoidable problem when much of the source material is people's memories.


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