Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 42, September 1998
By Fred Carbutt
I did not have permanent employment at the Martha Mine, Waihi, but during the years 1933-34 I did a few shifts underground. At that stage Fred Robertson was living with me at home in Kenny Street and he had a permanent job underground as a timberman. It was through him that I came by those few shifts. It was called "scouting", looking for casual shifts when some permanent worker was away.
When we were underground in the mines and driving (tunnelling) we used air powered drills, starting with drills that were about eight inches long and finishing with one that was six feet long. The drive face was solid stone and nine holes were drilled, three rows of three. The fuses that were put in the detonators, (like fire crackers) burnt at so many feet per second and it was very important that the centre fuses were cut the shortest, those next, a bit longer, and those at the top, a bit longer again. Some were the lifters and some the centre hole. If they were all cut the same length, the stone would only crack tightly and it could not be got out, so it had to all be done by timing. The timing was by the length of fuse.
Before the fuses were lit, boards (called "solars") measuring nine by two were put down on the floor, near the face, because you never shovelled off what we called the "prickle" or the rocky bottom. Shovelling off this would wreck your wrists. The truck was brought up close to the boards, so it took most of the brunt of the blast. The fuse was lit with our candle or our carbide light and it would spit away and we would get out of it and walk along the drive into what we called "Crib Cuddies", which were places cut out of the rock. It was very important to sit there and count the number of shots. If only eight went off, we didn't return to the face.
Firstly we had to give it so much time for the air to blow that black smoke away. This was because you could get a real whiff of jelly smoke and your head would soon be going like a drum and you would get a terrible headache, you have no idea. You didn't hurry back. We might have a cup of tea or a sandwich or something while waiting. We always counted the holes. Each shot was quite a separate explosion; it had to be, and as I said, the timing was done by the length of fuse.
The different lengths of fuse meant that when the first one went, it blasted a hole out of the centre, then the rest had somewhere to break into. The next would come into the centre and then the lifters would come on up, and we would finish up with broken stone of all sizes up against the truck. This was picked up and the loaded truck was taken to the shaft.
Underground, the railway lines were two feet apart and at the end of the lines, where you wanted to change direction, the end of the line went onto a big flat sheet. It was always a bit drippy and a bit wet. We pushed our truck onto the sheet and there would be lines going off in different directions. The mine trucks have handles and we were young and fit and could swivel them on this wet steel sheet, which would be eight or nine feet square. You just swivelled your truck on this flat sheet and then went off down the other drive. After loading the truck, you put a washer on it. Everyone had big iron washers with numbers on. Yours might be twenty-one. That was the number of your job, so the tally clerk up above would know where that stone came from. Your job would be credited with so many trucks per day.
There were 112 miles of tunnels under there, divided into eighteen levels. On all those levels there were tunnels going off here and there. In different parts of the mine, like Number Five Shaft, you could take your billy-can and drink the water. It was beautiful water, but Number Two Shaft, if you drank there, it was bad, as I found out once. I went down for an afternoon shift. My cobber down there was Arthur, who was in the Fire Brigade, and that's how I got down there with him. This job we were in was hot and you would perspire, even doing nothing. We loaded up this truck and Arthur noticed I was drinking my tea before crib time, eight o'clock. He said, "Carb, don't you touch that water in the hose". Now he hadn't been gone very long with his truck, about quarter of an hour I suppose, and I thought what the hell does he know, so I put the hose in my mouth. Now a lot of the water down the mine was full of alum and no sooner had I got it down than my head went boom! boom! You have no idea. I brought up that water, the tea I had already had and if it hadn't been for my bootlaces I would have brought the boots up too. By God I was crook. I learnt that one the hard way.
There were many waterways through the rock, some were only small and some as big as creeks, and wherever they were, there would be quartz crystals, some as big as my fingers. Some explosions which broke open waterways exposed colourful crystals that looked like a garden. You would wonder at the scheme of things with all the beautiful colours. We would break them off and put them in tins and so forth, but within twenty-four hours up at the surface, in daylight, they would go ice white. If you ever see coloured crystals, they are done artificially. They seem to get the minerals out of the water so they are all lengths. Some big crystals were indescribably beautiful. It was the only thing down there that was really worth looking at.
The mine, and also the town, was full of characters. In those days the town had five or six bootmakers because they had to repair the miner's boots which were all hobnailed. The minerals in different parts of the mine would eat away the hobnails and the stitching of the boots. Almost all the boot repairers were men who had been injured at the mine. (In those days there was no such thing as Social Welfare benefits.) They were characters though. An old chap, Jimmy Kennedy, would fill his mouth right up one side with brass nails and speak with his mouth full of nails. He only had one leg and yet he could swim the length of the baths under water. There was old Dick Tommy and I remembered him for years. When he rolled a cigarette (most of the miners rolled their own), he would always stick two papers together. The thing would be as thick as my finger and that would do him until lunchtime. He would do the same after lunch and that would do him until he came back to the surface.
When we had the shop, the miners mostly used plug tobacco and it was in little sticks. Different parts of the mine were very drippy all the time and when those chaps worked there it was no good trying to smoke a pipe as the drips went into the bowl. Some even tried smoking the pipe upside down. A lot of the old miners wore old waistcoats and kept the plug tobacco in their pockets. They would chew it and their tongue and teeth would be black with the juice. How they didn't die of stomach cancer, I don't know. It was very strong.
Everyone had their nickname. It was never Fred or Charlie, but always a nickname. For toilets under-ground, there was a can service. They had a joker down there, a little short Pommy joker, and he was called "Pardon Me Robertson". He was a Councillor here for a while. His job in the mine was carrying the night cart cans on his special belt. As he passed everybody he would say "Excuse me" or "pardon me" and that was how he got the nickname.
Everyone in the mine had a bootlace with a numbered disc on it. When you came up, the first thing you did when you got out of the cage, was to go straight to the board with all the nails and all the numbers on. You would put your numbered disc on the appropriate nail on the board. After several cages had come up the Shift Boss might notice some numbers missing. He would then go down in the cage because occasionally there would be some joker hurt and his cobber might have stayed to look after him. He may have sprained his ankle or something like that. This is how they checked for you, by the missing number on the board. If you took your number into the change house, you got told off in no uncertain terms. You weren't supposed to do that.
I had a close call one day down the mine on Number 7 Level. I was working on my own in a short drive, filling a truck with waste stone. It was a very wet place and due to the wet conditions the two boards, holding the stone back, suddenly lifted out. With the rush of the stone, my candle light was blown out, so here was I with no light and the wet stone kept coming through until it was shoulder high and I was held firmly. Fortunately for me, Bert Payne was passing and called out, as he knew I was working there on my own. He answered my reply call and he got his mates to come and they combined to get me out. This was in July 1933.
Underground there were big black rats. They were as big as rabbits and would be looking at you when you were sitting in the Crib Cuddy. When we went down the mine, our lunch always had to be in a tin and we never tied it up with string but always put it on a wire hook. The rats got cunning and if we used string they would eat it, and when the tin fell down it would open. While we sat there, we would see their little black beady eyes looking round the corner. If we threw down a crust wrapped in newspaper, they would eat paper and all. There was no trouble about leftover food down there. These big jet black rats were there and we would hear them squealing and fighting, even over a bit of newspaper. They got really savage. If they were really starving, they would get into the night soil cans. What happened to them when the mine flooded I wouldn't know. I have never heard of them being up in the daylight.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mr Carbutt's recollections were recorded in 1995 by Mr Ken Clover, of Ngatea, and he has since transcribed them into booklet form. In preparing this article full use was made of Mr Clover's notes, and we thank him for making them available. An article regarding Mr Carbutt appeared in last years Journal. [see Journal 41: Fred Carbutt - E]