North of Greymouth on the west coast of the South Island is the small mining town, Runanga. (Coasters born and bred there might pronounce it something like Rin-ANG-er). The name means, in Maori, “a place to meet” or “an extended family meeting”. These phrases are well-suited to a town that is a microcosm, a unique blend of characteristics that have come to represent the people and the environment of the wider West Coast.
Ponga trees, granite mountains, misty mornings, wild westerly surf, weta and pukeko are all part of the landscape. Rich seams of coal. Catholicism. Stoicism. Rugby League. Leftist politics. Hard work, kind hearts and no nonsense. And rain. You will find all these in abundance in Runanga, even though it no longer pulses with as much energy as in its boom mining days. Incidentally, where pronunciation is concerned, if you were from “Rinanger”, a ponga would be a bungy and a weta (a large grasshopper-like insect) would be a taipo . . . because here everything is a little different and nobody tells a Coaster how to speak.
Runanga was a railway junction. It sits cheek by jowl with the settlement of Dunollie; another little sister town, Rapahoe, is just a few kilometres further north. Runanga was where the steep Rewanui branch met the Rapahoe line - until its closure in 1985. The railway was all about coal, and that's what people were here for, and still are. Open cast and underground mines were once all around the district, and the big government mine remains open. Some of the smaller mines were co-operatives, the land given as part recompense to returned soldiers following World War Two. Others were pioneering efforts on leasehold land.
Interestingly, all three towns were planned settlements, a rare thing in a district founded mainly in canvas shelters and shanties. The government had wanted a piece of the active coal mining scene, and started planning state mines in the 1890s. In 1904, the Point Elizabeth mine opened at the back of Dunollie, and the township was kickstarted to house the workers and their families. At first producing 250 tonnes a day, Point Elizabeth mine had scaled up by 1908 to 1208 tonnes daily, mainly from a seam named 'The Exhibition' which could be seen in the hills behind the Seven Mile Creek. Though the Point Elizabeth mine only lasted until 1928, the local economy was held stable by other mines, like the James Mine at Rapahoe, run by State Coal between 1922 and 1943.
The Government's Strongman mine at the Nine Mile was the workplace for 240 men until a fireball took 19 lives in 1967. It reopened as Strongman 2 and kept going until 2015 when operations ceased and the property was sold to private enterprise. There are memorials at the Nine Mile and in Greymouth. The fledgling West Coast mining industry attracted the attention of a young Englishman, then working in Australia, who was destined to become one of New Zealand's most colourful political leaders, Richard John Seddon. Arriving in 1866, he engaged variously in mining for gold, owning general stores and a butchery, becoming a publican and, as he established himself, developing an interest in local politics, eventually becoming the first Mayor of Kumara, a new settlement to the south of Greymouth.
Seddon had become well known on the Coast by acting as an advocate on behalf of miners in the goldfields warden's court and this work no doubt helped him get elected a Member of Parliament, representing the Kumara constituency, and, ultimately, to becoming Premier of New Zealand. Seddon's chief link with Runanga arose from his friendship with another resident of the new Kumara settlement, Frank James Wylde. Wylde later moved his second generation settler family from Kumara to Runanga, where he worked as a mines clerk. The pair stayed friends, despite possible differences, as Seddon pursued his political ambitions.
Seddon opened the first public school in the town in 1906. The Wylde family came to be the provider of passenger transport on the West Coast. Their business, Wyldes Coachlines, then Motors, survived until 2007. Roy Wylde was mayor of Runanga for a long period before changes saw the old boroughs absorbed into a larger Greymouth. Famous Runanga identities include a fair smattering politicians, starting with the MP, Moses Ayrton. Thanks to the mines and the associated poor pay and conditions, New Zealand's first wave of unionism took root here, so when the first Labour Government came into power in 1935, Runanga was a disproportionately represented, with no fewer than three cabinet ministers having links to the town and the Miners' Union. James O'Brien, long time Westland MP, who was appointed Minister of Transport and Marine, had lived in Runanga for a decade prior to his political career. The better known Bob Semple, Minister of Works in the first Labour Government, had served as President of the Runanga Miners' Union, as had Paddy Webb, who was Labour's first Minister of Mines.
Runanga Miners Hall, is the physical monument to the union and political movements which had their beginnings here, standing proud but in increasingly dilapidated state in the middle of town. Runanga might at first seem an unlikely home for a branch of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes but the organisation's motto, No Man Is At All Times Wise, and focus on philanthrophy were a natural fit for the mining town, an odd but altruistic alternative to the Masonic Lodges which sprang up in several parts of New Zealand, including a strong Lodge in Greymouth. The 'Buffs' started up in 1939 and petered out as the population dwindled. The Buffs order remains strong where it began, in the United Kingdom in 1822.
The sort of folk you might find in Runanga now are the likes of retired policeman Albie Rose, a career officer in the New Zealand Police, who was the third family member with that name, following his father and grandfather. The first Mr Rose had served in World War II, came home decorated and spent many hard years down the mines. His son, the second Albie, was also a miner. Another well known local identity was Chalky Duggan, who lived for a century and was nicknamed after a local featherweight boxer. He died in 1922.
But sport was never limited to boxing here. Rugby and Rugby League have both had a strong hold in this part of the Coast. League has long been the chosen code of the miner and the workingman and linked with unionism, here and in other league strongholds like Newcastle, New South Wales, and Yorkshire and Lancashire in the UK. Notwithstanding Rugby League's focus on equality, the code proudly celebrates its best and in 2008 George Menzies was named the best five-eighth in New Zealand history. He was from Runanga Rugby League Club. The tiny town seems to have no limit to the number of strong and limber young sportspeople it churns out, and those sportspeople see no boundaries. Runanga has produced New Zealand representatives in tennis, bowls, rugby, basketball and athletics.
And yet, with the solid heritage, it's sobering to note that Runanga is not “on the up” right now, although the population hasn't dropped below 1000, as it has in other West Coast towns. Dunollie survives too (and the beef stew at the hotel is popular), though Rapahoe is suffering from some serious coastal erosion. There are 100 students at Runanga School. Runanga has a fire station, Plunket Rooms, playground, regenerating bush around it and a general store, all functioning peacefully in the modest place that will always be the heart of New Zealand's union movement and Labour Party heritage.
For the visitor, on the road in to Runanga (northbound) you will see the monument to the 1917 Payroll Robbery Murder, a grizzly crime which led to the deaths of three men, two who died from revolver wounds right there on the roadside, when they were robbed of miners' pay, and the offender, who was caught, tried and later hanged in Christchurch.
There are two stunning short walks in the area, one being Coal Creek Falls, which heads directly into bush behind the town, off Ballance Street (named for the Liberal Prime Minister John Ballance). The track is an old mining road and fairly well graded. There are a few interesting relics along the path, the falls are worth seeing and, in the right weather, the swimming hole is a delight, but the track has plenty of charm regardless. It takes an hour or so.
The second walkway is the Point Elizabeth Track, which follows the coastline from Cobden, around the Twelve Apostles Range to Rapahoe, Runanga's beachside neighbour. This also takes an hour or a bit more and its clifftop Tasman views are unsurpassed. An unforgettable way to experience the natural elements of the West Coast, and even better if you have a ride waiting at the other end.
Image Credits: Sir George Grey Heritage Collections, Auckland Libraries.
Auckland Weekly News 03 June 1909 A GROWING COAL-MINING CENTRE: RUNANGA TOWNSHIP, NEAR POINT ELIZABETH, WEST COAST, SOUTH ISLAND, N.Z. Auckland Weekly News 09 December 1909, STRIKE OF TATE COALMINERS IN NEW ZEALAND: A GENERAL VIEW OF RUNANGA TOWNSHIP, TOWNSHIP, THE SCENE OF THE PRESENT DISTURBANCE, WEST COAST, SOUTH ISLAND Auckland Weekly News 29 September 1910, COAL MINING IN NEW ZEALAND: A VIEW OF THE COLLIERIES AT RUNANGA, NEAR GREYMOUTH, WEST COAST, SOUTH ISLAND. 17 October 1912 THE EXTENSION OF THE STATE COLLIERIES ON THE SOUTH ISLAND WIST COAST: A TUNNEL ON THE NEW LINE AT RUNANGA