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Glen Afton Mine Disaster 1939

Privacy Level: Public (Green)
Date: 24 Sep 1939 [unknown]
Location: Glen Afton, Waikato, North Island, New Zealandmap
Surnames/tags: Mining_Disasters New Zealand Disasters
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Disasters | Mining Disasters | New Zealand Mining Disasters |Glen Afton Mining Disaster


History and Circumstances

Glen Afton

Glen Afton is a village in the Waikato District in the northern part of the Waikato Region of the North Island of New Zealand. Formerly an important coal-mining centre, it consists today of little more than a few houses with very limited services and amenities, although one large and one small open-cast coal mine still operate in the area. The nearest town is Huntly, some 14 km away.

The Glen Afton community boasted a series of facilities which were financed through county council and ratepayers association projects. These facilities included: shops, bowling greens, rugby league grounds, railway station, Post Office, community hall [for dances, meetings and Sunday movies], hotel and well-known pottery.[1]

Glen Afton Mine

The Glen Afton mine opened with great excitement of the residents on 25 July 1923 with 2,000 attending opening ceremonies. The coal from this mine powered the area dairy industry, and at the time of the collieriers operation, the mines were a place of community.

Opening of Glen Afton Mine 25 Jul 1923

Glen Afton quickly became a model township, based around the mine. Everything had to be designed and built from scratch. Not only did the miners depend on each other with their lives inside the mines for safety, they also spent a large part of their time outside the mines together.

Glen Afton Mine Disaster

On the 24 September 1939 an underground fire broke out in the mine with the loss of eleven lives caused by an accumulation of carbon monoxide gas from a small fire caused by a short circuit. The fire was thought to have been extinguished. It was located at a fault between two sections of a coal seam and ignited sometime on the Saturday morning prior to the weekend shutdown. Miners placed mud between the seams in an attempt to extinguish the fire. Unknown to them, the fire continued to smolder, causing the release of carbon monoxide gas.

Extraction fans had been turned off for the weekend and this led to a buildup of carbon monoxide in the mine. Later a fault was noted at the Huntly Power Station and traced to the line supplying electrical current to the Glen Afton Collieries. Management at Glen Afton were advised of this. Men searched for the source of the problem on Saturday afternoon and when they were unable to locate it decided to return the following morning.

On Sunday Christopher Blackburn, mine manager, and a group including engineers, electricians and mine deputies returned to the mine. When Blackburn discovered that the two deputies and two electricians were trapped in the mine, he sent an urgent message for the extractor fans to be started. He then led a party of four other men into the mine, followed by two others who were sent to a different part of the mine. [2]

Following this, four other men had entered the mine. Subsequently, several others ventured in, until those on the surface realized something was wrong. While some of the men were lucky and managed to get out, eleven men died. The fire had rekindled and a rescue party, who were miners off-duty or working outside the mine, was assembled to go below ground. Everyone inside of or who went in the mine on that day died.

Royal Commission of Inquiry
The Royal Commission of Inquiry opened on 27 November 1939 and concluded a number of failings and recommendations to be implemented in the mining industry nationwide, to prevent this sort of disaster happening again. The inquiry found that the fire was caused by a short circuit. It was found that the management of the mine was substandard and that the deputy‟s recording of potential hazards and abnormal circumstances was lax. These shortfalls were minor issues in themselves, however, when combined with other lapses and errors, led to disproportionately tragic consequences. [Edwards]
The inquiry reported on the cause of the underground fire:
There was an earlier fire at about 10 o'clock in the morning on Saturday, 23rd September, 1939. Two witnesses stated that at the time of this fire WILCOX, the underviewer, said, " This looks like a short," indicating his opinion that the origin of the fire had been an electrical short circuit.
The report was of the opinion, however, that there was no justification for that assumption and reached the conclusion that the fire on Saturday morning was caused by a dropped cigarette or a naked light coming into contact with inflammable material.
Subsequent examinations of the mine by several persons proved that the site of the fire on Sunday morning was the same as that of the fire on Saturday. In the reports opinion the only safe conclusion is that the Saturday morning fire was not properly extinguished, but revived and burned vigorously after work ceased in the mine for the day.[3]

This disaster resulted in the establishment of a Mines Rescue Unit for the Waikato mining region

Miner Victims

11 Lives Lost at Glen Afton Mine
Miner Age Approx DOB Position Profile Created Profile Manager
BELL, William Rae 31 1908 Electrician
BLACKBURN, Christopher 42 1897 Mine Manager
BROWN, William 46 1893 Miner
CLARK, James 51 1888 Miner
COLE, Walter George 46 1893 Deputy
HUNTER, George Wallace Gillathy 39 1900 Miner
IRELAND, Richard 64 1875 Miner
MARSHALL, John Sinett 33 1906 Miner
PEDEN, William 43 1896 Miner
TURLEY, Raymond Vivian 34 1905 Electrician
WILCOX, William 57 1882 Deputy
9 of the 11 Miners Killed
Note: If you'd like individual's photos of any of the above men, please contact the Profile Manager of this page to upload.

24 children were left fatherless on that day.

One of those 24 children and others attended a memorial for the disaster 70 years later, in 2009, and many eyewitness statements are given in this news report: THE DAY GLEN AFTON MINE TOOK ELEVEN LIVES

William Bell


George Hunter

[5]George Hunter was a shiftman at the Glen Afton Collieries. He was killed in the disaster and was survived by his wife, Margaret, and their two young children, Helen and George junior.

A letter from Margaret to George‟s family, written nearly a month after the disaster, provides a poignant insight to the situation in which the family found themselves. Margaret was clearly upset when writing, “I have to try and hide my sorrow. Every time she [Helen] sees me crying, she nearly goes into hysterics. We've had an awful job with Georgie, I've had to leave him with neighbours once or twice, he doesn't like me out of his sight. We go to bed at seven each night I can’t sit up.”

Margaret continued: "the fans [at Glen Afton Collieries] are suppose [sic] to work 2hrs before any man goes in the mine and they weren’t on, so there will be some trouble about it. [This] tragedy will go down in history.”

At 10:15 am on the Sunday, Mr Thomas, an underviewer from the mine had requested George Hunter’s assistance. Prior to leaving for work, George could see smoke coming from the mine and he said, “Don’t worry it will be another fire. I get double pay for today’s work and I will see you later.”

This was the last time Margaret Hunter, Helen and wee Georgie saw George alive, after having earlier shared breakfast in bed together. When Margaret delivered George’s food at 3:30 pm she saw ambulances and cars at the entrance to the mine and, in her letter, describes a feeling of unease she later interpreted as a premonition of the disaster.

Margaret waited with members of the families of the other missing miners until 8 o‟clock that night. Eleven bodies were removed from the mine, one of whom was George Hunter.

George's death in the disaster also brought financial and emotional difficulties for Margaret, and their children. Their circumstances were further complicated because George had not made a will. This meant the affairs of his estate were handled by the Public Trust. There was a compensatory company grant of £1,000 following the disaster. With a paltry pension of £1/15/0 Margaret and the children found it difficult to survive.

With the help of financial assistance from her in-laws, Margaret returned to Scotland with the children. Some nine months later Margaret was forced to return to Auckland as the monies held in trust for the children were administered in New Zealand. Margaret eventually remarried.

For many years, George and Margaret's extended families lost touch with each other. Recently later generations of these families got in touch once more and all family members are now living the the United Kingdom.

Rescue Effort & Rescuers

Those in the first rescue party knew they were unlikely to return and died trying to save their fellow miners. Afterwards, everyone knew there would be no survivors, and it became a recovery operation. [6]

SCENES FOLLOWING THE TRAGEDY. On left, is a general view at the Glen Afton mine, taken on 26 Sep 1939 as the last three bodies were being brought to the entrance. The other picture shows rescue party members entering the MacDonald mine, which connects with the Glen Afton workings.

As mentioned, if anything positive can come from a disaster, a Mining Rescue Unit was established as a result of the findings of the Glen Afton mine disaster for all mining operations in the Waikato region.

Others Involved/Supporters and the Aftermath

Many were involved after the disaster: family, investigations, miners not involved. The sources and resources listed may uncover others who may be honored and remembered.

TRIBUTES IN FLOWERS. Beautiful wreaths piled in the Ngaruawahia Cemetery after the funerals on September 26.

Project & Memorial Stickers

New Zealand Project Sticker

This sticker categorizes the many involved in this disaster to the village of Glen Afton. Copy & Paste this into the biography section of the profile:

{{New Zealand Sticker |region=Waikato |place= Glen Afton }}

So this image appears like this:

New Zealand
... ... ... lived in Glen Afton, Waikato, New Zealand.

This also categorizes the profiles to Glen Afton, Waikato.

Since this is the definitive project for New Zealand, it is important to connect with others in the same area at the same time to truly create the one family tree. Be sure to check out the New Zealand project for other ideas.

Please see: New Zealand Project

Genealogy Resources

Museums & Memorials

Want to Know More?

Great Facebook page full of photos, stories, memorials maintained by the Waikato Coalfields Museum on Mining in the Waikato region


  1. Glen Afton
  2. (accessed 05 Oct 2017)'Huntly Disasters', from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, originally published in 1966
  3. Glen Afton Collieries Royal Commission of Inquiry Report 1940. There is a link on the site to download the full text pdf of the report.
  4. William Bell’s Obitary
  5. Waikato Coalfield Museum Project


Comments: 2

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An inspirational example.

Thanks for creating this page.


posted on Glen Afton Mine Disaster-1 (merged) by [Living Old]
What an excellent page, Sheryl and a wonderful tribute to those lost in this unfortunate disaster.
posted on Glen Afton Mine Disaster-1 (merged) by Paula J