Coal-mine stories dig out old memories

Tales of old coal mines underneath part of the Dunedin suburb of Fairfield have brought back memories of adventure and death inside the tunnels for one former resident.

Peter Macdougall, who now farms at Millers Flat, made contact yesterday after reading of the old coal mines in Saturday’s Otago Daily Times.

He moved to Fairfield with his mother as a 12-year-old boy and — together with a friend — soon found old coal mines in the area to explore.

"There was half a dozen we used to go to. The bloody things were full of spider webs and it was spooky. You looked up at the roof and you thought it could fall in at any time."

The mines were dark and dry, but he never ventured more than a few metres inside.

Regrettably, not everybody was as cautious.

He recalled another boy who also liked to explore the old mines, but who was prepared to go "quite a long way" inside.

"Then our parents came and ... said ‘please do not go down those mines again’. We said ‘why?’ They said this boy had been overtaken with the gas and passed out and died.

"It was a big impact on the Fairfield school at the time. That sort of stopped any kids from going down mines."

He could not recall the name of the boy who died, but said his mother "drifted away from Fairfield" after losing her son.

"He was our age. He was 11 or 12."

Mr Macdougall said he also still recalled the "sump holes" near Old Brighton Rd, formed from coal mines collapsing deeper underground.

The holes formed small lakes on the surface as they filled with water, and provided a useful place to deploy decoys when it came to duck-shooting season, he said.

"But it had a string on to the decoy because if you stepped out beyond the row of rushes around the edge you were swimming — there was no bottom."

Mr Macdougall moved away from the area later, but said he often thought about the houses in parts of Fairfield with mines still underneath them.

"Those houses ... it’s absolutely just a honeycomb of bloody mines down there, and they’ve built great big fancy houses on top of them."

Another family connection to disaster in the old coal mines was also detailed by Dunedin deputy mayor Christine Garey yesterday.

Cr Garey said her great-grandfather, David Gillies (59), had been killed in a mining accident in the area more than a century ago, but she had been unable to find other details — including even the date of the accident — until she read Saturday’s article.

The ODT article referred to the death of a miner inside the Walton Park coal mine in 1897, which, it turns out, was Cr Garey’s great-grandfather.

A media report published days after Mr Gillies’ death noted he had worked in the mine for about 22 years and was in "perfect health" when the accident occurred.

Cr Garey said his death had a "profound" effect on her grandfather — Mr Gillies’ son — as he grew up without a father.


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