Remembering Waihi on November 12, 1912
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Posted November 12, 2021
History / Arts / Culture
109 years ago today the Waihi Miner’s Strike escalated into violence that ended with the death of mine worker Fred Evans.
Each year a commemorative service is held at his grave in Auckland’s Waikaraka Cemetery.
By 1908 Waihi was the fastest growing town in ‘Auckland Province’ and had a population three times larger than Hamilton after gold was discovered on Pukewa, Waihi in 1878 by prospectors John McCombie and Robert Lee.
McCombie and Lee left the area after samples they sent to be assayed came back with poor results. William Nicholl took over their claim in 1879 and named it Martha.
Australian born Fred Evans was lured by the gold and came to New Zealand in 1909, working his way into a job as a stationary-engine driver at a Waihi goldmine. He became a member of the Waihi Trade Union of Workers, a militant socialist union opposed to the Waihi Gold Mining Company’s methods of operation.
Miners in those days would be incredibly envious of the conditions enjoyed by modern day miners. They had many grievances regarding the conditions they worked with and often downed tools and walked off site, particularly after accidents.
Broken limbs, falls, being crushed and badly bruised were some of the perils of the job and fatalities occurred from time to time as well.
One of the worst work hazards for miners was dust on the lungs. It was known as ‘miner’s complaint’ and it was said anyone starting work in the mines at 16 would be lucky to see their 40th birthday.
Back then there was no such thing as work safe practices or compensation and tensions bubbled under the surface with miners and their families becoming bitter about accidents and deaths.
Workers felt the money miners earned for their work was barely enough to feed and clothe their families, while the Waihi Gold Mining Company was seen to be reaping huge profits.
In April 1912 a number of stationary engine drivers who rejected the Federation of Labour’s views formed their own breakaway union, which was registered in June. Fred Evans refused to join the breakaway engine drivers, preferring to side with the miners, who demanded the drivers be dismissed.
The Waihi Gold Mining Company refused, and the miners downed tools. The striking workers believed the mining company was attempting to split the union and went on strike on 13 May.
Local Police took a wait and see approach to the strike but Police Commissioner John Cullen reacted swiftly and sent additional Police to Waihi.
When William Massey, leader of the conservative Reform Party came to power two months later he declared the striking workers to be “enemies of order” and vowed to instigate a strong response.
The police build-up in Waihi continued with men, horses, batons and firearms sent to Waihi until an estimated ten percent of New Zealand’s police force was stationed in the area.
Anger amongst the striking workers grew when almost 70 of the leading strikers were arrested, including Evans; who was found guilty then discharged.
The mining company was prepared to sit out the strike, generally supported by the business community, which stopped credit to strikers’ families fueling even more anger.
The striking workers’ position and disposition was worsened by the threat of operating the mine with ‘scab’ labour. In October, the Waihi Gold Mining Company re-opened the mine with non-union workers and the union workers and their families reacted angrily. The new workers were pelted with stones and verbally abused as they were transported to the mines.
Tensions between the union and non-union workers kept growing. The striking miners felt the newcomers were taking their livelihoods and were traitors to the working class. The non-union workers needed work to feed their families too and resented the attacks and condemnation.
Violence gradually escalated, with union workers on one side and non-union workers and police on the other.
The hostility culminated on November 12, remembered now as ‘Black Tuesday’ when a group of armed non-union workers and police attacked the union hall in Seddon Street, which was defended by a small group of union workers (also armed), including Fred Evans who had gone to the hall to stand guard.
During a struggle at the door, strike-breaker Thomas Johnston, who had come to Waihi from Auckland after his market garden failed, was shot in the knee, possibly by Evans.
As the unionists fled out the back of the hall, Police Constable Gerald Wade received a gunshot to the stomach, but managed to strike Evans down with his baton. Evans collapsed and was set upon with boots and blows before being taken to police cells where he was left for an hour and a half before being hospitalised. Fred Evans never regained consciousness and died the following day, November 13.
The Federation of Labour organised a huge political funeral in Auckland, where thousands of mourners lined the streets paying tribute to Evans as a martyr to their cause. Unionists later raised £1100 to assist May Evans and her children.
Fred Evans who had been born on 11 February 1881 in the Australian mining town of Ballarat, Victoria, was buried at Waikaraka cemetery on 17 November.
Soon afterwards, the strikers broke ranks, with many fleeing Waihi altogether. They boarded trains bound for Auckland in fear of their lives.
At the inquiry into Evans’ death, Constable Wade was found to have been ‘fully justified in striking the deceased down’. Seriously injured by the bullet that struck him in the stomach, he didn’t leave the hospital until the 17th December. He returned to work in April 1913. The bullet remained lodged next to his spine for the rest of his life.
The strike is said to have contributed to unity in the New Zealand labour movement — the Socialist Party, which had backed the strike, moved towards merger with the more moderate United Labour Party, which had not. The resultant Social Democratic Party later formed the basis of the modern Labour Party.
The Waihi Arts Centre & Museum has a wealth of material about the 1912 Waihi Miners Strike.
A plaque in memory of Fred Evans can be seen outside the Waihi Memorial Hall.