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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

The West Coast coal trade

The West Coast coal trade

The ideal source for a study of the coastal trade would be a list of sailings from each port with a breakdown of cargoes by tonnage for each port of destination. Our newspapers do provide full lists of sailings from all recognised ports, but breakdowns of cargo dispatched were published only for a few lesser ports, and for one main port, Lyttelton. Unfortunately these cargoes are listed mainly as a heterogeneous mix of kegs, casks, sacks, bags, gunnies, bales, boxes, crates, packages, etc., etc. With a detailed knowledge of contemporary packaging customs one might make some progress in turning some of this into tonnages. It will be noted that we have repeatedly made use of another possible approach—the use of the railway tonnages delivered to a port. However not all cargo reached the wharves by rail. Also a very wide range of goods was covered by the railway classification ‘merchandise’. Whatever approach one takes there is a further difficulty in moving on to work out ton-mileages. There is no indication in any of the sources of the destination of much of this cargo.

Fortunately there is a considerable lessening of all these difficulties for the coal port of Greymouth. Coal, returned as ‘minerals’, made up practically all of Greymouth's railway ‘goods inward’. And this coal made up the great bulk of all cargo leaving the port. Each Monday of 1885 the Grey River Argus reported the total tonnage of coal shipped in the previous week. While there is no full listing of cargoes, as there is for Lyttelton, there are quite frequent comments giving the cargoes or carrying capacity of particular ships. Many of the sailings were direct for particular named ports. By collating all available information it should be possible to work out quite a firm ton-mileage figure for Greymouth's coastal coal shipments of 1885. We will tackle the more manageable task of working through the sailings of the week 22–28 March 1885, as set out in Table 14.7, to provide an overview of the trade and to show how a fair estimate of its ton-mileage could be made.

We know from the Argus weekly report that 3,717 tons of coal were shipped out in this week. In matching what we know of the carrying capacity of these ships to the week's cargoes, our problem this particular week is to keep them down, so as not to overshoot the Argus figure. Greymouth coal cargoes varied for various reasons. The state of the bar at the harbour entrance often limited the larger ships. Sometimes ships were ‘rationed’ because they were page 209
Table 14.7. Greymouth coal shipments, week 22–28 March 1885
DateShip, type & tonnageReported coal cargoSuggested tonnageWhere To
22Omapere ss 352560Lyttelton direct
23Napier ss 6715Hokitika
24Kennedy ss 13640Nelson
Timaru ss 263130Bluff
25Maori ss 126Full cargo of coal96Wellington
Wallabi ss 101Its usual quantity90Wanganui
Waipara ss 70Its usual quantity15Hokitika
Mawhera ss 340A cargo of coal520Nelson, Wgtn & Pt Chalmers
26Herald ss 530A cargo of coal620Auckland direct
Mary WadleyLoad of nuts forNapier
3 masted schoonerNapier gasworks200*
27Mahinapua ss 205Coal laden210Wellington
Orawhaiti ss 283Coal laden450Lyttelton direct
28Maori ss 126Coal laden96Wellington
St Kilda ss 175Coal laden180Wellington
Eliza Firth 1433 brigantines, taking201**Dunedin
Circe 145about 500 tons150Bluff
Anthons 133coal between them144Timaru
arriving faster than could be filled by the flow of coal from the mines. Sometimes they had considerable other cargo either from earlier ports of call or from Greymouth. We have information from other dates in 1885 on coal cargoes taken out by several of these ships. The Herald took 650 tons (15 June) and 654 tons (25 September). The Omapere took 593 tons (3 March) and 565 tons plus other cargo (19 September). The Mawhera took 500 tons (20 May) and 600 tons (13 June). The Mawhera was built in 1883 for W.R. Williams specially for the West Coast coal trade and the Union S.S. Co's Omapere, built in 1882, would have been designed with the coal trade in mind. From these and other examples it would seem that the larger modern page 210 steamers sailing regularly on the West Coast coal run usually took out a cargo of around 1.6 times their registered tonnage.

Calculating ton-mileages is a simple matter for vessels sailing direct to a single named port (i.e. all but the Mawhera). Thus for the Mary Wadley sailing the 538 miles to Napier it works out at 107,600. The Mawhera arrived at Nelson at 3.45 p.m. on 26 March and ‘sailed shortly afterwards’ for Wellington, so she had no time to unload coal at Nelson. She spent 27 March at Wellington, sailing on 28 March for Port Chalmers. Her cargo has been divided evenly between Wellington and Port Chalmers. The small steamers sailing between Greymouth and Hokitika took a varied mix of cargo mainly transshipped from larger vessels, but apparently topped up with coal as required by the Hokitika market, so they have been allotted 15 tons each. With these arrangements the week's coal shipments from Greymouth account for 1,926,395 ton-miles. Total coal exports from Greymouth for 1885 were 135,565 tons. If their distribution was similar to the 22–28 March week, they accounted for over 70,000,000 ton-miles; somewhat more than all the goods traffic of the whole railway system in 1885. Yet Greymouth's 1885 sailings account for less than 3 per cent of the colony's total for the year.

* NapierDaily Telegraph 31/3/1885 reports this figure.

** Otago Daily Times 1/4/1885 reports this figure.

Note: Not all destinations given by the Argus were correct. They have been checked and corrected from arrivals reported in Nelson, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin newspapers