Monday, 5 October 2015

'Simply to Thy cross I cling'. Fred Whyte and John 'Jack' O'Malley. Waihi, 1910.

Miners on the morning shift at Waihi mine descending the shaft in a cage.

It was a rushing noise in the No 4 shaft of the Waihi mine which caught the attention of a miner named Manuel.  On that Thursday in March 1910 he was working on  a winch in the chamber  while above him, on some staging over No 9 level, were mates  John 'Jack' O'Malley, 39,  and Frederick Whyte, 40.

They were fixing gear in the shaft in connection with the haulage of sections of the electric pumping plant. They had completed lining the shaft and had a barrier secured several feet above the back of the chamber on which to attach the large tackle block to be used for hauling up the pipes. One of the two men came down for the block.  He then climbed back up up the ladderway with the block which weighed about 40lbs.  It was then Manuel heard the whooshing sound and the forms of his mates horrifically flashed past the chamber to the bottom of the shaft 170 feet below.

The alarm was immediately given and when rescuers reached the bottom of the shaft the lifeless body of Jack O'Malley was discovered.   Fred Whyte was found unconscious and considerably knocked about.  Medical assistance was promptly called in and Fred was taken to Waihi hospital.  Jack was single, and, as far as was known, had no relations in the district.  Fred had a wife and two children residing in the east end of Waihi.  He died between 5 and 6 that night without gaining consciousness.

It was surmised that the men lost their footing in the shaft while attaching the tackle block to the bearer across the shaft.  Probably one man lost his balance and in falling, knocked his mate off the ladder.

Work was suspended for the men employed underground by the Waihi Company  and it was  doubtful whether it would be resumed before the following Monday.  The accident was regarded as the worst since the Parry and Cornthwaite fatality* occurred in the No 5 shaft some five years previously.

The union had passed a resolution that "as a mark of respect to their deceased comrades, all men in a mine where a fatality takes place shall immediately knock off work and not resume until after the funeral."  This resolution was endorsed at a well attended meeting in Waihi following Fred and Jack's death's by a large majority of those present.  The officials of the union stated that the custom was observed in  certain mining centres  in the Dominion and Australian states.

It was eventually decided that work was not to be resumed in the Waihi mine until Sunday night, as the victims were to be buried on Saturday.   Management closed the Waihi batteries for a shift to enable the battery workers to join with the underground men in attending the funeral.  Waihi mine workers together with many others from the mines in the Upper Thames districts were in the long, somber procession.  It was thought to be the largest ever seen in Waihi taking  fully 15 minutes with  those on foot walking three or four abreast.  The vehicles numbered between 40 and 50, and many followers were on horseback.    As the cortege moved off the 'Dead March' was played by the Waihi Federal and Salvation Army Bands.  At the gravesides the last rites were performed by the Very Rev Father Brodie (parish priest) and the Rev Buckland (vicar of St John's Anglican church).

When the inquest opened a broken plank, 9in wide and 1 1/2 inch thick, formed an exhibit.  The jury had been taken to inspect the scene of the fatality.

No evidence was forthcoming as to the actual cause of the accident, but witnesses generally described Jack and Fred as capable, careful and experienced shaft workers.  They agreed that the plank shown was not sufficiently strong to be used as a staging on which men could work with reasonable safety when carrying out repairs in a shaft.  The fact that there was a knot in the plank rendered its use still more dangerous, but nothing was proved to show that it had even been used - it's production in Court having been due to  its discovery in the well hole of the shaft.

 The Government Mining Inspector, Mr W Paul, gave his opinion that the men would not use such a piece of timber as part of a staging.  It was their duty when working in the shaft to protect themselves against accident by using and putting into position suitable timber, and ample material of the required class was available at the level over which the men were working. To prevent danger he considered they should have erected a staging below the bearers they were putting into position, and also to have covered the No 9 shaft.

J Gilmour, the mine manager, stated that Fred and Jack had been chosen for the work because they were regarded as competent and  knowledgeable shaft workers.  They had been supplied with all the materials requisite to guard against accident.  The timber used for staging consisted of planks 9in wide and 3in thick.  The plank produced in court was a 9in by 1& a half inch kauri plank  used as a lining board.  Some three or four days before the accident Mr Gilmour had instructed the mine to make proper provision for their safety, and use the right timbers for this purpose.

In summing up, the Coroner drew the attention of the jury to the provisions of the Mining Act calling upon workers to make suitable arrangements for their own safety when working under conditions similar to those under which the deceased had been working.

After a short retirement, the jury brought in a verdict of accidental death, and stated that there was nothing to show what caused the deceased to fall down the shaft, and that no blame was attachable to anyone.  A rider was added recommending that men working in shafts should be compelled to erect adequate and cleated stage boards underneath them.

Too late of course for Fred and Jack in that single moment of lost balance.

The headstone of Fred Whyte "who was killed with his mate in the Waihi mine . . ."
"Nothing in my hand I bring
Simply to Thy cross I cling"
(From the hymn 'Rock of Ages.')

NZ Herald 22 March, 1910

Looking from Martha Hill to the Waihi Gold Mine.

*Melbourne Parry and William Cornthwaite  were in an eerily similar accident in Waihi mine's No 5 shaft in 1903   when  Melbourne fell off a ladder knocking William off as well.  They fell 80 feet.  Reverend Oliphant, speaking at the funerals, despaired at the spate of recent mining accidents and the slowness of mining companies to  adopt basic  safety measures.   ('The toll of human blood' from the book 'Dead Cert' available now from author)

(Source: Papers Past, Heritage Images Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19001214-4-2 & 35-R1469, Whyte grave image- M Hawkes)

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2015

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