The Brunner Industrial Site is one of New Zealand's pre-eminent industrial heritage sites and the most important of the country's historic coal mining complexes. It contains the remains of what was once New Zealand's largest coal mine and it was also the site of New Zealand's greatest mining tragedy. Brunner is situated on the north bank of the Grey River on the West Coast, thirteen kilometres from the river's mouth. It contains the remnants of structures associated with either the extraction of coal or the associated brickmaking and coke industries. These include the remains of coke ovens, (both tunnel-vaulted and beehive), mine shafts, ventilation shafts, brickmaking kilns and foundations for various boilers, engines, pumps and compressors.
Thomas Brunner (1821?-1874) was the first Pakeha to observe coal in the Grey Gorge during his 1846-1848 exploration of the West Coast. In 1862 Claude Ollivier, visiting the West Coast from Christchurch, noted that local Poutini Ngai Tahu were working the coal and delivering it to the mouth of the Grey River. The first Pakeha mining of the Brunner coalfield began in 1864 when Mathew Batty opened a mine on behalf of the Nelson Provincial Government, who were interested in exploiting coal resources within their province to supply the growing domestic and industrial demand. Batty and his company were forced out of Brunner in 1866 and the mine was taken over by the Nelson Coalmining Company. The Nelson Coalmining Company struggled to meet the agreed output commitments and the lease was cancelled in May of 1868. However, the company did establish the first coke ovens on the Brunner site. These twin tunnel-vaulted ovens still stand today.
Following the cancellation of the lease the mine was taken back by the Nelson Provincial Government and operated by them until 1874. In that year the mine was taken over and run by a group of Melbourne investors for five months, and then bought by Martin Kennedy (1839/1840?-1916), a local merchant who used the profits he had made from trading to firstly establish a gas company and then to invest in gold and coal mining. Kennedy became the sole proprietor of the Brunner mine in 1880. In 1888 he merged his interests at Brunner with the Westport Coal Company to form the Grey Valley Coal Company, of which he became the managing director.
It was during Kennedy's tenure that the Brunner mine expanded the most, particularly during the 1880s. This expansion was due to a number of factors including the construction of the Greymouth-Brunner railway and the Brunner suspension bridge in 1876 which meant coal no longer had to be barged downriver. Improvements to the Grey Harbour between 1883 and 1888 also helped, as larger ships, built specially for the West Coast coal trade, could enter the harbour. By the 1880s the Brunner mine was producing more coal than any other New Zealand mine, and at its peak employed more than 300 men and boys. In 1885, for example, 104,001 tonnes of coal, 21 percent of New Zealand's total coal production, came from Brunner.
Such an expansion in production meant that more facilities were needed on the site, and consequently the township at Brunner, established in 1864, was replaced by the expanded mine, coke and brickmaking facilities. (The production of coke and bricks, by-products of the mining process, also became an important part of the production from Brunner). With the expansion of the mining plant, the miners and their families moved to the neighbouring settlements of Taylorville, Tyneside, Wallsend and, later, Dobson.
The worst mining disaster in New Zealand's history occurred at Brunner on 26 March, 1896. In an explosion of gas and coal dust 65 men and boys died, and the impact on the miners' families lasted for generations. Many of the victims were buried in a mass grave at Stillwater and it was estimated around 6,000 people attended the funeral. An enquiry was held into the disaster and the explosion was initially blamed on an unknown miner. However, civil action taken by some of the bereaved families against the company was successful, at least in terms of the court's decision to award compensation. A memorial to the disaster, erected for the centennial commemoration in 1996, is located on the Brunner Industrial Site.
After the 1896 explosion the mining community felt Brunner declined, although in fact production peaked in 1901, and it was another five years after that before the main mine closed. The output from neighbouring mines was still handled by the Brunner complex until the 1930s, but by '1907 the Grey River Argus lamented, "Brunner has a glorious future behind and beneath it. No week passes without removals and no one ever comes. The Brunner of today is a place of gloom and dread, of nasty roofs and unkept streets of disheartened men and decaying streets" '. [Richardson, 1995: 99] Various small-scale operations extracted coal from Brunner throughout the 1920s and 1930s and the last coal was taken from the Brunner site in 1942. After mining finally ceased, the site and structures gradually became covered with scrub.
In the 1970s the New Zealand Historic Places Trust/Pouhere Taonga began to take an interest in the Brunner site. The coke ovens were first classified as historic in 1977, and the Trust became involved in clearing the site and protecting the remnants from weather and vandalism. During the 1980s two archaeological excavations took place at Brunner under the aegis of the Trust. This involvement of the Trust represents one of the earliest efforts in New Zealand to conserve and interpret an industrial site and is an important part of both Brunner's history, and the history of heritage conservation as a whole.
Coal is one of the major extractive industries of the West Coast and the Brunner Industrial Site can be seen as the pre-eminent coalmining heritage site. It was, during the nineteenth century, the largest producer of coal in New Zealand, and remained an important industrial site well into the twentieth century, producing coke and bricks as well as coal. The physical remains of this industrial site are significant reminders of the variety of industries that once took place at Brunner. In particular the remnants of the beehive coke ovens are of international significance, as few examples of them remain anywhere in the world. There is still potential for Brunner to reveal more of the nineteenth and twentieth history of coal mining as the site has not been fully excavated. The Brunner mine explosion of 1896 remains the single biggest mining disaster in New Zealand history, and the Brunner site therefore has significant commemorative value, both for the local community and the nation. It is also a major landmark along the Grey River.
The Brunner coal seam was discovered by Thomas Brunner in 1848. Commercial mining of the seam was established sixteen years later by Matthew Batty and in 1866 the lease of the mine was granted to the Nelson Coalmining Company. Two years later this lease was cancelled, however, and the mine was subsequently worked by the Nelson Provincial Government until 1874 when the lease was granted to Martin Kennedy, a Greymouth merchant, who was the managing director of the Brunner Coalmining Company.
Under Kennedy's direction the mine greatly increased its production, necessitating the construction of a railway line from Brunnerton to Greymouth to transport the coal to the port in 1876 and encouraging the establishment of large-scale brick and coke making plants in the early 1880s. By 1885 Brunner had become New Zealand's largest mine, employing more than two hundred men and producing over twenty per cent of the country's total output of coal per annum. Coal, coke and brick production at Brunner reached a peak in the 1890s after the mine had been taken over by the Grey Valley Coal Company in 1888, and by 1891 the borough of Brunnerton, which included the satellite towns of Wallsend, Dobson and Taylorville, was the largest coal mining community in New Zealand. Brick products and coke were sold to a wide market, including the metal smelting industries of Australia and New Caledonia.
In 1895 the Greymouth to Point Elizabeth Railway & Coal Company took over the lease of the mine and in the following year New Zealand's worst mining disaster occurred when an explosion on March 26 killed all sixty-five men who were working in the mine that day. Ten years later the Brunner Mine was finally closed, having become a state mine in 1902, but the opening of the St Kilda mine on the same lease allowed the brickworks and coke ovens to maintain production. Following a period in which small mines were operated in the old workings, the last coal was taken from the Brunner lease in 1942. More recently the New Zealand Historic Places Trust has worked to stabilise and protect the structures still extant at the mine site and it is now open to the public.
The major development of the Brunner mine occurred during the 1870s and 1880s, when the mine was leased by the Brunner Coalmining Company (1874-88) and the Grey Valley Coal Company (1888-95). The employees of these companies were responsible for the construction of the brickworks, beehive coke ovens, and mine plant foundations which are still extant at the site, although individuals cannot be credited with the design of specific structures.
The former mine is located on the north bank of the Grey River, thirteen kilometres from the river mouth. A number of industrial ruins and structures are located at the site, and collectively they comprise the Brunner industrial site. These were associated either with:
(a) the extraction of coal; or
(b) the associated brick and coke industries.
The site is linked to the Tyneside site across the Grey River, physically by Brunner suspension bridge, and visually by the bridge and the Tyneside chimney. Neither these features nor the Tyneside site are dealt with in this report.
(a) Structures associated with Coal Mining
The mining structures are located on the higher river terrace. The main entrance to the principal mine at Brunner now lies buried under the Taylorville-Stillwater road and is not visible.
(i) The Air Return and Fan Housing
The air return adit is open to the surface. A brick lined, arched tunnel about 3 metres high, it is driven underneath the road at a slight downward angle. At about 20 metres it has been blocked off and against this stopping water accumulates, preventing further or closer inspection. At the entrance of the tunnel are the two side walls of the fan housing building. These fragments of the former building are of brick and about 4 metres high. They have been braced by major timbers because of their obvious instability. The building housed a Schiele fan installed in the early 1880s.
(ii) Other Structures
On the terrace in front of the fan housing are the substantial brick or concrete bases for the machinery which powered the mine, including the boilers and engines, water pumps, winding gear and compressors. Alongside the road to the bridge is the substantial brick base for the coal screens and bins.
(b) Structures associated with Ancillary Industries
The largest and most prominent of the original structures on the site are related to the coke and brick making industries, which were carried on in conjunction with the production of coal.
(i) The rectangular coke ovens
The oldest extant structures at the mine are two rectangular coke ovens which were built by the Nelson Coalmining Company in 1867. Standing near the original mine entrance at the river's edge, these ovens are barrel vaulted with concrete slab roofs resting upon stone insulation walls. They are lined with bricks imported from Melbourne but were repaired with Brunner bricks in the early 1870s. The facing of the structure is of local ganister rock. The ovens are situated on the lower terrace on the river bank immediately downstream from the bridge. The river worn rock surface immediately in front of the site shows the holes cut into the rock, and some of the iron fastenings, which were part of the original moorings for river barges, and footings for the coal bins and loading chutes.
(ii) Beehive coke ovens
The largest and most prominent structure on the main terrace of the Brunner site is the ovens built between 1875 and 1890 to use the slack coal from the coal screening plant for the production of coke.
Now protected from the weather by a pitched roof shelter built by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, the ovens are in varying states of decay, ranging from largely complete to almost destroyed. The first six beehive ovens were built in 1875, with a further six erected in the early 1880s and a second row of twelve built back-to-back with the first row between 1889 and 1890. Beside the ovens are the bases of three by-product ovens built in 1890 for the collection and utilisation of the volatile by-products of the coke burning process. These ovens were demolished soon after construction. From the 1930s to the 1970s the disused coke ovens were also gradually dismantled by local residents salvaging and reusing the bricks from which they were built.
The ovens are circular in plan and beehive-shaped in cross-section. The bases consisted of horizontal flat flags of fire brick enclosed in a ring of shaped edging blocks which formed the footing for the double skin arch of bricks which formed the walls and dome of the ovens. The arching was achieved by using bricks manufactured on the site, which were tapered on all sides so that as the oven was built the layers reduced in circumference as they curved over into the arched roof. The individual bricks gradually rotated, layer by layer, so that the narrow end of each remained oriented to the centre of the oven space, so maintaining the overall thickness of the wall. The bricks are placed unmortared.
The space between the brick skins was void. The space between the adjacent ovens was first covered with a layer of unfired clay against the exterior of the brick arch, and then filled with a mixed rubble of bricks, stone and clay. The structure was finally surfaced by rectangular pavers of fired brick.
The ovens have circular charging holes at their tops, and each has a flue vent for the discharge of combustion gases. These vents of the earlier ovens discharge separately but later ovens exhaust into a common flue. Above the more intact part of the bank of ovens are the remains of the brick bases which carried the tramway for the charging of the ovens with coal slack.
The whole of the structure was originally enclosed in a wall about three metres high of local ganister rock, the rectangular blocks being roughly smoothed. The wall has a course of overhanging capping stones. The door of each oven has an arched frame of large fired bricks. Several of them retain the iron hooks from which the metal doors which controlled the supply of air to the ovens were suspended.
This coke oven complex was excavated during archaeological investigations in the early 1980s. The bases and floors of the less complete ovens have since been filled over with sand to protect them from visitor damage. The whole structure has been roofed over in corrugated galvanised iron to protect it from the weather, the sides being left open.
(iii) The brickworks
The other major works at the Brunner Mine were the brickworks which produced a wide range of products using the fireclay found with the coal seams. Situated between the mine entrance and the coke ovens, the brickworks were erected in the early 1880s, although bricks had been manufactured on the site since c.1870. The remains of four horizontal draft kilns, a brick drying shed, bagging shed, grinding and pug mills and an engine house are still visible, although they are much less complete than the ruins of the adjacent coke ovens. This area was also investigated archaeologically in the early 1980s, but much of the less robust brickwork, particularly the hypocaust heating system of the drying sheds have been backfilled to protect them from the weather.
Since its abandonment as an active industrial site, first in c.1910 and finally in the 1940s, the Brunner industrial site has degenerated into an industrial ruin. Only the coke ovens remain as anything more than brick or concrete bases of the former buildings.
Since the Historic Places Trust became involved in the late 1970s, the site has been cleared of vegetation, and some of the structures freed from general debris. The twin coke ovens have been stabilised and some stonework rebuilt, and a concrete roof put in place. The beehive coke ovens and the brick manufactory have been investigated archaeologically, and a protective cover erected over the ovens. A stone faced platform has been built in front of the twin ovens. Some stabilisation and repointing of brickwork has been done.
The beehive coke ovens.
Coke ovens: Coke was, and still is, an important fuel in the manufacturing of iron. It is made by heating coal in a controlled atmosphere. This reduction process produces a fuel which is from 86 to 93 percent pure carbon and therefore produces an intense heat when burnt. Twin barrel-vaulted coke ovens were constructed at Brunner in 1867-1868, when the Nelson Coal Mining Company were running the mine. These operated until 1878 when they were superseded by the beehive coke ovens. The twin ovens were then used to store explosives. Under Kennedy's management a series of 25 beehive coke ovens was built between 1875 and 1890. By the end of 1875 the first six beehive ovens had been built. Six more were built between 1883 and 1884, and another 13 between 1889-1890.
The increase in coke production was stimulated by the contemporary demand from the Australia smelting industry. Coke continued to be made on the Brunner site after the Brunner mine closed, using coal slack from neighbouring mines. The last known production of coke at this site took place in 1936, after which some of the ovens were demolished and the bricks sold. The beehive ovens are now protected by a roof shelter built in two parts by the NZHPT during the 1980s.
Brickworks: The first firebricks to be made at Brunner were fired in 1872. They were made from clay found under the coal seam and were found to be superior to those imported from Australia. Fireclay is a term used to describe clay commonly found under coal seams, which only fuses at an extremely high temperature. Because of this property bricks and other objects made from fireclay are extremely useful in the construction of structures such as kilns and chimneys. The discovery of a face of fireclay in late 1874 led to Kennedy investing in an improved brickmaking plant. By 1875 'all descriptions of fire clay products' were being made and sold from Brunner, and the beehive coke ovens (above) were built from Brunner firebricks. In 1883-1884 the brickworks were rebuilt and included grinding and pug mills, a large drying shed, a bagging shed, an engine house and four kilns, the foundations of which still survive. The remains of the brick drying shed were excavated in 1981, and then covered in loose fill to protect the floor and underfloor heating system. The Brunner firebricks became a famous product in their own right and the manufacture of them continued until 1923.
Other structures on the site are the air return adit (a bricklined arched tunnel); the remains of the fan housing building (which once housed a Schiele fan); brick and concrete bases for the boilers, engines, water pumps, winding gear and compressors which once serviced the mine; the former base for the coal screens and bins; the foundations of a briquetting plant, which was probably never completed. Also visible in the rock below the barrel-vaulted coke ovens are holes cut into the rock and some of the original iron fastenings, which were part of the original moorings for the river barges and footings for the coal bins and loading chutes.
Mining plant constructed by Mathew Batty and company
Twin coke ovens built near original entrance to mine
1875 - 1876
First six beehive coke ovens built from Brunner firebricks
Brunner suspension bridge built. Greymouth-Brunner railway completed
1876 - 1878
New bins, railway sidings, shoots and screens constructed
Tramway viaduct built to coke ovens
1883 - 1885
Six more beehive coke ovens built. New fireclay plant built
1889 - 1890
Final thirteen beehive coke ovens
1981 - 1986
Shelter constructed over remains of beehive coke ovens. Eastern end built 1981; western 1986
Brunner bricks, local ganister stone, and concrete. The earliest coke ovens (1867) are partially built of bricks imported from Melbourne.
23rd May 2002
Report Written By
Chris Cochran, Coke Ovens Brunner Mine Site, West Coast: Repair Specification, February 2000
Cyclopedia of New Zealand, 1906
Cyclopedia Company, Industrial, descriptive, historical, biographical facts, figures, illustrations, Wellington, N.Z, 1897-1908, Vol. 5, Nelson, Marlborough, Westland, 1906
Department of Conservation
Department of Conservation
Research file, Hokitika
1 April 1986
Michael Kelly, 'Brunner Mine Industrial Area Concept Plan, Department of Conservation, June 2000
New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT)
New Zealand Historic Places Trust
'Research and Presentation on the Brunner Mine Site', New Zealand's Industrial Past, Papers presented at a seminar on Industrial Archaeology in New Zealand, Christchurch, 29-30 March 1983; Wellington, 1984; pp.36-38
Len Richardson, Coal, Class and Community: The United Mineworkers of New Zealand, 1880-1960, Auckland, 1995
Historic Places in New Zealand
Historic Places in New Zealand
No. 16, March 1987, pp13-14
Barbara Fill, ' 'Black Death' at Brunner', Historic Places, 16, March 1987, pp.13-14; No. 8, March 1985, p3
No. 9, June 1985, p9
West Coast Historical Museum
West Coast Historical Museum
Frances Porter (ed), Historic Buildings of Dunedin, South Island, Methuen, Auckland, 1983.
Les Wright, Brunner Coke Ovens: Conservation Plan, prepared for Department of Conservation, West Coast Conservancy, 2000
This historic place was registered under the Historic Places Act 1980. This report includes the text from the original Building Classification Committee report considered by the NZHPT Board at the time of registration.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.