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More Denniston memories

Dorothy's interview with Colin McMaho - 04/06/2010

Walking in our neighbourhood can produce interesting results, and a recent contact revealed that one neighbour, Colin McMahon, had grown up on Denniston. I told him that I had researched the history of Denniston and written three articles for NZine on the subject of that interesting engineering marvel, the Incline, and the unique settlements on the Rochford plateau.

Colin's recollections, of course, had much in common with what Maidie and Billie Meek remembered.

All three remembered a crime-free community, friendly people, happy school days, plenty of entertainment, fun and friendships -- altogether a picture of a great place to grow up. The fog, the rain and the cold winds were no deterrent to happiness.

Colin lived on Denniston until he was drafted to do compulsory training at Burnham Camp. He shared with me his memories of those eighteen years.

Colin's memories

"I was born on 16 August 1934, at a time when Denniston was still a flourishing township, although numbers began to drop gradually soon after.

"We lived in a two bedroom Coal Company house with a long sunroom. Unlike state houses it was built entirely of corrugated iron walls and roof. Living there was very comfortable and I remember big fires in the lounge and dining room certainly no shortage of coal. It was dropped at the gate, two ton at a time.

"In my time there were three schools, the Denniston School down near the bottom of the settlement, the new Denniston School higher up near the Powerhouse, and the school at Burnetts Face. The senior children living near us in Marshalvale all went to the school at Burnetts Face, so it was easier for my mother to let me walk the two or three miles to school with them. Because of the number of immigrants Marshalvale was nicknamed Pommytown.

"The classes at the school were small with two or three standards in one room. Teachers I remember were Miss Birchfield and Brian Watson. One headmaster was Bill Hampton, and another was Charlie Harper who was later headmaster at Hillmorten School in Christchurch.

"Like most New Zealanders of my generation I have clear memories of being given milk and apples in season at school.

"There were a number of shops on Denniston and it was possible to get most things, but there would not be the choice which city children have today. If there were rugby boots in your size that is what you had no selection. There was a local bakery which supplied the whole town and a butchery. On the edge of the town there was an abattoir. My after-school job was packing potatoes in the local grocer's shop until travelling to Westport to school put an end to that. The pay was ten shillings a fortnight.

Sewage disposal
"Of course on such rocky ground there was no sewerage system. The "night cart" functioned in the daytime and each outside toilet had a door in its back from which the full can could be taken out and the new can put in. The contents were taken to a location below the township to a place called "The Camp" where there were large concrete bins in which the solids and fluids were separated. The fluids flowed down towards the Waimangaroa River. The area where the fluids flowed down was a great place for birds, especially fantails.

The rope road
"The rope road came out of the hills in Burnetts Face and went through the town. The length of rope road from the mine entrance was 7 km with two huge winches plus one at the bins proper. The bins were the empty-out point where coal was emptied into the Q wagons to journey down the Incline and on to Westport to the wharves.

"There were two sets of rails going through Burnetts Face and on one set of rails the empty boxes were going back into the mine and on the other set the full ones were going down to Denniston. That was dangerous, but we did not have to cross it. We played on it, of course, riding on the boxes. When you grow up in that environment there is no fear about it.

"The boy who lived next to us crawled across the road when he was a baby and on to the rope way and the box cut off his leg. He was Billy Baird, a very well-known sportsman in the Buller District. Losing his leg at an early age he made up for it in other ways. He played cricket in the wicket keeper position, was a soccer goal keeper and was a top tennis player.

Sports facilities
"The football ground was bulldozed out of the rock. When the football season started Charlie Martin, the carrier, went down to the beach and got a truck load of sand to sprinkle over the rocks. When visiting teams got out of the tour buses, I remember them looking in awe at the ground and saying. 'My God, are we going to play on that?'

"They had a concrete cricket pitch and to play cricket they put a mat down with another sprinkling of sand.

'We had a bowling club, a rugby club, a soccer club, a cricket club, a hockey club and a tennis club with three courts.

"We had our own swimming baths. Most people preferred to swim in the powerhouse dam where the water was warm. It was important to keep clear of the suction pipe and I remember some serious accidents happening to those who got too close.

My parents
"My father married a local Denniston girl, Esther Richards. He became the colliery engineer who was in charge of all the engineering for the whole area. He worked long hours, sometimes working all night. In the closing years of the Depression men valued their jobs regardless of where or when they had to work. My mother's father, Wattie Richards, was in charge of the power station making electricity for Denniston and the Buller district using coal fired steam turbines.

World War 2
"As the miners were not called up for military service during World War 2 because theirs was an essential industry, life changed very little for people on Denniston except that our food was rationed. I remember playing in local games to celebrate VE and VJ Days.

Secondary school
"My father wanted to get me into trades and to learn technical drawing and other skills associated with trades, so after a few weeks at Denniston High School I transferred to Westport Technical College where I could take those subjects.

"To get there each day I caught the bus at a quarter past seven in the morning, and came back by bus at a quarter past six in the evening a long day! I did homework after school while I waited for the Denniston bus.

Involvement in sport
"I did not tell my father, who was not a sportsman, but the real reason I was happy to go to school in Westport was to play in the 1st XV rugby team. Most of the games were in Westport at the weekend. The 1st XV played in open competition organised by the Buller Rugby Union as well as inter-school matches.

"My main interests at the weekends were rugby on Saturday and soccer on Sundays. My mother had been a gun hockey player and I played hockey for a time, not seriously but more for social reasons, as the girls in the hockey team were good fun to be with. I played some cricket for the local team called Hone Heke, but did not take it seriously until I moved to Christchurch.

Dances and outings
"Dances were a popular form of entertainment. My mother, Esther Richards, studied music at the convent in Westport. During her early days, she was in high demand as a pianist and played in bands at functions and local dances.

"My Dad always had newish cars and was a great person to go travelling, but he was different from most people on Denniston who would usually spend their two weeks annual leave at home. My father and mother loved to go for a drive on Sunday afternoons, but they had trouble deciding whether to go north towards Karamea or south towards Westport.

Apprenticeship years
"After three years at school in Westport I began an apprenticeship on Denniston training to be an electrician. I began work when I was fifteen. Because electrical work was essential in the mine I was permitted to work in the mine at that age but other people were only allowed to start work in the mine when they were eighteen. There was a continuous need to check signalling systems and fans and that sort of thing.

"Having grown up where everyone was involved in the mines in one way or another I accepted working underground as a natural part of my work. I was amused by the nervous attitude of new electricians who had to come down the mine. As the full and empty trucks were passing us I would pick up a piece of coal and chuck it up to the roof. The resulting noise terrified the newcomers.

Horses in the mines
"During the early days of my entering the mines horses were used within the mine to haul coal from remote areas to main ropeways. Some horses stayed down in underground stables at night.

The bathhouse
"The bathhouse was the meeting point prior to going down to the mine and at the end of the day. There were lots of seats in rows to accommodate clothing - both dress and work. Each man had a seat with his boots, hat and lamp underneath. A hook on a pulley looked after the change of clothes, hung amongst hot steam pipes to enable drying. The showers looked after four or five at a time, and there were rows of them. No shyness -- you learnt that modesty just disappeared. If the temperature was not just right the union insisted on a walkout to come back another day.

"After work when the men had cleaned up they would head to the hotel. The men of Denniston were great drinkers and there were five hotels there at the town's peak.

"To travel to and from the mine you all travelled in "Bedfordfifties", so-called because they had fifty seats. There were no windows, just a rear door. On its home delivery you were required to jump out on the run.

The 1951 Watersiders Strike
"The 1951 Watersiders Strike was a big upheaval in our lives. The miners and union members were all called out on strike. Being an apprentice I was made to work alongside non-union officials on essential services.

The Navy took over running the Incline, with terrible results. The wagons were rammed into the winch house, and there were many disasters due to lack of experience.

During this time food was distributed in community dumps. Coal also was heaped in the same manner. With no wages, everything was put on credit at the stores. Beer continued to be consumed, but not paid for. Many got into financial strife.

"The electrical shop was close to the bins where the coal boxes came out of the mine and emptied their load. I would sometimes go down and join the bins boys. They had things called sprags which were big steel bars with a handle. As the boxes came down they needed to be slowed. To do this the sprags had to be thrown into the wheels between the spokes and the wagon would come to a screeching halt. If you were unlucky and hit the rim of the wheel the sprag would spring back and you would have to duck out of the way quickly. Removing the chain from the box was another job that required considerable skill and the job cost a number of workmen the end of a finger.

"Accident victims were taken to the Denniston Hospital where minor surgery could be done but serious cases were taken to Westport by ambulance. My father was a volunteer driver of the ambulance.

"The road up the hill from Waimangaroa to Denniston was dangerous. An accident on that road claimed the life of my grandfather, Wattie Richards, who was a passenger in a car which went over the edge of the road. I remember driving home from a dance in Waimangaroa in a borrowed truck and keeping the wheels in the ditch all the way up to ensure that I got to the top safely. Frequent requests to seal the road were refused for many years and it was finally sealed when numbers living on the hill were declining!

Goodbye to Denniston
"On moving to Christchurch I was fortunate to live and work in the small borough of Riccarton where most of the people at that time knew each other and were as friendly toward each other as the Denniston people had been. I quickly felt at home there, but have never forgotten those happy years on Denniston."

Video tape "On Denniston"

Video tape 'On Denniston'
Click here to view a larger version

Colin lent me a video tape entitled 'On Denniston' produced in 1993 in a series called Memory Line Series. The video begins with scenes of the ghost town on a day of rain and fog. The haunting music adds to the ghostly atmosphere of this deserted landscape. The dead of Denniston are not present on the site. The rocky plateau was so hard that digging a grave was quite impossible.

To heighten the contrast between the present day and the past on Denniston the historic views are in black and white while scenes which are filmed after the end of the Incline are in colour.

The video traces the history of the Incline which operated from 1879 to 1967. There are interviews with men who worked on it. It also shows the importance of steam trains and the port at Westport in the years when the Incline was functioning. Interviews with two women who lived in Denniston throw light on the happy but sometimes difficult life in the settlements on the Rochford Plateau above the Incline.

'Denniston's Incline: Coal from the Clouds'

'Denniston's Incline: Coal from the Clouds' 'Denniston's Incline: Coal from the Clouds'
Click on an image to view a larger version

This book published in 2008 is the result of detailed work by a team of dedicated researchers and was edited and designed by Bill Prebble. It gives detailed accounts of the engineering involved, the work force, and the transport by rail. The content is amply illustrated with interesting photographs and diagrams.
ISBN 978-0-908573-84-4
Publisher: New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society Incorporated
P O Box 5134

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