Waihi Arts Centre & Museum

In 1933, twelve Waihi Miners narrowly escaped death when the cage they were being lowered in broke away and feel several hundred feet towards the bottom of the mine shaft.

Photo: Part of the Museum display, showing a much smaller mine cage than that involved in the accident. On the right is a model of a poppet head. This structure held the winding gear used to raise and lower the cages.

THE WAIHI TELEGRAPH, Thursday 27 July 1933

Mine Accident - Cage Crashes Down No. 2 Shaft


Wednesday 26th July 1933 shortly after 4 o’clock Twelve men who were being lowered down No. 2 shaft at the Waihi mine shortly after 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon had a remarkable escape from death when the cage in which they were descending broke away and hurtled several hundreds of feet down the shaft until it came to rest just above No.13 level, about 1450 feet below the surface. Had the cage gone unchecked to the bottom of the shaft the impact would have been terrific and not an occupant would have survived. All twelve were injured, but none was critically hurt.

The Injured Men

The names of the men and the nature of the injuries are:-

The two last mentioned men did not require hospital treatment.

It was stated late last evening that, whilst none of the cases were regarded as critical, those most seriously injured were, Taylor, Gordon and Butler. Mr H. Mills who was in charge of winding operations at the time of the accident, was admitted to the hospital suffering severely from shock. In addition to those injured in the falling cage, Mr. E. Shergold, who was ascending in the cage in the adjoining compartment of the shaft, received leg injuries.

Anxious Crown Gathers

News that there had been a serious accident at the mine spread and it was first thought that several fatalities had taken place and it was not long before hundreds of anxious people gathered round the top of the shaft to await the bringing up of the injured. Weeping women and girls, fearing the worst, were among the number, and it was not until 6 o’clock that they received the unofficial but reassuring news that there had been no fatalities. A few minutes later the first of the men Mr John Arnold, was brought to the surface. He was able to step out of the cage unassisted, and as he did so he was greeted by relieved cheers, and the crowd felt easier when he gave out the information that none of his fellow workers had suffered any grave injury. Others followed at intervals, the last man being brought up shortly before 8 o’clock.

Despite the assurance of Mr Arnold, the tension was not definitely relieved, however, until a message was received from the rescue party, headed by the mine manager Mr J.L. Gilmour, and the assistant mine manager Mr W. Morrison. Which had made its way through from No. 4 shaft, about 500 feet from where the cage crashed in No.2. It was then found that the cage had come to stop between Nos. 12 and 13 levels, about 300 feet from the bottom workings. The cage was suspended about thirty feet above No. 13, and the members of the party had to make their way up the ladders, lift the hood of the cage, pass the men out through the side into a bosuns chair, and lower them down to No. 13, where Drs L. R. (Rex.) Hetherington and E. H. Bridgeman, with stretcher bearers, were waiting to attend to the injured.

Blood Smeared Victims

After being tended by the doctors, who were given every assistance by the members of the St. John Ambulance Brigade, the victims of the accident had to be carried out on stretchers via No, 6 shaft. To No. 4 a journey of approximately a quarter of a mile. When they arrived at the brace (top of the shaft) eager crowds sought their names and the nature of their injuries; and although some of the rescued appeared to be in sorry plight, with their blood-smeared limbs and faces, all seemed to recognise and greet their friends. Some despite their injuries, were even facetious, and one young man, being carried pick-a-back to the dosing shed, waved to the crowd as he puffed at his cigarette. Another, one of the worst hurt, on reaching the dressing shed, called for a drink. He was handed a glass of water, but asked with a wry face, ‘Haven’t you got anything stronger mate ? It won’t help much.’ This remark was typical of the spirit in which the men accepted their misadventure. Asked what his feelings were as the cage was falling, one man said; ‘We had no time to think. She went with a bang, and all I know is that I felt lucky to be alive when she pulled up. I think my mates felt the same.’ Workers at levels between that at which the cage broke loose and that at which it came to rest state that they heard a terrific roar, and that candles in the levels were extinguished by the draught created.

Inspection of Gear

The Waihi Telegraph August 6 1933

During Wednesday and Thursday further official investigations were made into the circumstances relating to the accident to the cage by Messrs J. F. Downey, District Mining Inspector, G. Duggan, Chief Inspecting Engineer of Mines Department, E. McLean, Government Inspector of Machinery, W. Bice , Workmans Inspector for the Waihi Miners Union, and H. M. Warner, Consulting Engineer of Auckland and representing the New Zealand Insurance

Company. Later it was reported to the press that exhaustive tests had been made of the brakes and clutch gear of the winding engine and statements from eye witnesses of events immediately prior to and at the time of the accident, including a history of events from the time the relieving winding engineer (Mr. H. Mills) took charge at 3.30 p.m. With the plant under steam a series of tests had been made with the cage running up and down the shaft, after which the shaft was covered over and a series of tests made with the clutch gear. The statement concluded with the intimation that naturally nothing further could be known as to the result of the investigations until Mr. Downey had made his official report to the Under-secretary for Mines, Mr. A. H. Kimble. Pending the release of the mining inspector’s report the cause of the accident, if ascertained by the investigations referred to, will remain unknown, but it has been unofficially stated that the tests conducted failed to disclose any defects in the winding gear in use at the time of the mishap.

Wonderful Escape

The Waihi Telegraph Tuesday 1 August 1933

The Mayor, Mr. W. M. Wallnutt, first read the message of sympathy and hope for a speedy recovery that had been received from His Excellency the Governor General, Lord Bledisloe, on behalf of the Lady Bledisloe and himself. To this said Mr. Wallnutt, a reply thanking His Excellency and Her Excellency for their usual thoughtfulness and consideration in matters affecting the welfare of their people had been sent. ‘We are assembled here this afternoon at the request of the management of the Waihi Company with a view to making a public expression of thanks giving for the escape from death of our twelve fellow citizens who went down the cage on Wednesday afternoon last,’ continued His Worship.

It was not an ordinary escape from death in the ordinary way, or under ordinary conditions, but it was an escape from death under tragic and awful circumstances. When the cage broke away in the higher levels of the mine nothing but certain and inevitable death at the end of that terrible fall to the bottom of the shaft appeared to be the lot of these unfortunate men. In the history of gold mining probably nothing has ever happened to equal what would appear to be a miraculous escape from certain death. Here is a cage with twelve men, weighing, in all about four and a half tons, falling at terrific speed for something over 1000 feet, and released from the action of all human control. Was there one chance in a million of anything checking that downward rush to death.

Expected Certain Death


All the men in the cage when it broke away at about No. 5 level realised their plight immediately said one of the party on Sunday There was no panic, and they waited as the levels flashed by and brought them nearer to what seemed certain death. Theirs was an experience of not many seconds, yet they lived and suffered a lifetime; and the first concern when the cage came to a stop just above No.13 level was for each man to do what best he could to lighten the lot of his fellows. The men said they could not speak too highly of the work of the work of the rescuers, including their brother workers, medical men and the Members of the Waihi Branch of the Waihi

Ambulance Brigade. They also spoke of the wonderful work of the matron, sisters, and nursing staff of the Waihi Hospital. Nothing, they said, had been too much trouble for them; they had done splendidly all within their power to make easier their plight.

Mine Managers Statement


An account of the accident was given by the Mine Manager Mr. J. l. Gilmour, who was within a few yards of No. 2 shaft when it occurred. Mr. Gilmour stated that a loud noise drew his attention to the fact that something was amiss, and he looked up and saw two pieces of timber flying above the shaft. On his way to the shaft he met Mr. Morrison, the shift boss in charge and was told that the cage, with its human freight, had broken away. Mr. Morrison stated that engine driver, Mr. H. Mills had applied the brakes but the cage had fallen at a terrific speed; the wire rope had wound itself off the drum and had fallen down the shaft, probably coiling on top of the cage. Fearing the worst regarding the safety of the men, said the Mine Manager, he dispatched two men down another shaft. The engine driver had told him that the cage had fallen to No. 15 level, at the bottom, but after inquiries had made as to what had happened to the western cage in the shaft, and when its position had been ascertained, Mr. Morrison and he went down No. 4 shaft, several hundreds of feet away to No. 14 level. There they met the shift bosses who had climbed up the ladders in No. 2 shaft. It was then found that the eastern cage, with the 12 men, had not gone down to No.15 level, and that the western cage was 30 feet below No. 14 level. In this cage was Mr. Shergold, who was spoken to by the shift boss and who had said that his knee had been hurt, Shergold was taken out within a quarter of an hour, and was found not have been seriously hurt. Plates which had been dislodged by the other cage had fallen through the hood and had hit Shergold on the knee and ankle.

Reassuring News

The first intimation that those in the eastern cage had not all been killed was received when Mr. Morrison called out up the shaft and received the reply that all of the men were alive, but that most of them had broken limbs, said Mr. Gilmour. The cage, after having fallen about 1000 feet out of control, had stopped at a point 25 feet above No. 13 level. Rescue work was then undertaken and it proved to be a difficult job. Stage boards were obtained from No. 4 shaft and Drs E H Bridgeman L. R. Hetherington descended and waited for the injured men to be released, while a rigger, Mr. T. Hartwell, and some shaft repairers constructed tackle. The injured men were then lifted carefully through an aperture made in the cage and lowered in a Bosun’s chair to No.13 level, where the doctors applied splints and handed them over to the stretcher bearers to be taken to the surface. Great difficulty was experienced in freeing Mr. W. J. Taylor, who had both legs broken could not have been moved from the cage without suffering considerable pain.

Hospital charges to injured men -Hospital Board defers decision 5/- in the pound reduction

Colonel Jowsey expressed the opinion that it should be dealt with in open meeting and this view having being generally approved, the secretary read the letter, dated October 21st , and written following a conversation between Mr. O’Regan and Mr. J. D. Arnold, one of the injured men, on the preceding day, as follows, ‘This is to confirm our verbal intimation that we are acting for the thirteen men who were injured in the cage accident on July 26th and hope settle their claims with the company in due course. The hospital accounts have been forwarded to us, and we would be glad to know if your board would be prepared to allow a rebate of, say 5s in the £. You have our undertaking that in any case the accounts will be paid in due course, but our clients would appreciate a rebate, and we may add that the Wellington Hospital Board and, indeed, other hospital authorities from whom we have asked the concession have always allowed it. We would like to qualify the foregoing by stating that several of our clients in this instance are members of friendly societies and in respect of them we are asking for no concession.’

‘Who would benefit?’

Colonel Jowsey asked who would benefit if the board made any reduction in the account. The Chairman: ‘Probably the Waihi Company will benefit.’ Mr. Kemp replied that the company had already submitted a set sum as compensation and the injured men had tentatively agreed to the amount, with the understanding that they should pay their own hospital accounts. However, that agreement had subsequently been waived by the men. The chairman then put the motion to the meeting and it was carried unanimously.

Mine Accident Compensation Claims

Liability admitted

The Court’s Assessment

Nine men who were injured when a cage in which they were being lowered to work in the Waihi mine on July 26th broke away and fell 1000 feet claimed in special and general damages more than £4000. from the Waihi Gold Mining Company Limited., in the Waihi Warden’s Court yesterday. Each case was heard by Mr. F. W. Platts S.M., and five assessors Messers J. Berryman. J. McDermott. C. J. Cornes. E. Dye, Senr, and A. Prourle. Plaintiffs and the amount of their claims, the actual awards, and costs were:

John David Skerry Arnold £ 257.5s.9d £ 203.0s.0d £ 16.13s.0d
Frederick Edward Cornes £ 908.2s.3d £ 418.16s.0d £ 25.3s.6d
Harry Graham Cornes £ 570.10s.0d £ 383.8s.0d £ 29.9s.0d
Leonard James Coward £ 1165.5s.3d £ 452.1s.0d £ 26.15s.0d
John Thomas Follas £ 271.8s.3d £ 133.7s.0d £ 11.3s.0d
Roy William Johnson £ 261.2s.6d £ 205. 9s.6d £ 16.9s.0d
William Rowland Kemp £ 275.7s.6d £ 258.1s.0d £ 19.2s.0d
Edward Lampton Shergold £ 260.15s.0d £ 221.12s.0d £ 19.7s.6d
Cyril Frances Thornton £ 233.15s.0d £ 183.17s.0d £ 11.3s.6d

They were represented by Mr. P. J. O’Regan of Wellington and Mr. H. P. Richmond of Auckland.

Statement of Claim

In their statement of claim the men stated that they were being lowered in the cage in the usual manner of work; that in the process of lowering the cage got out of control and dropped about 1500 feet, in consequence of which they were injured and disabled from working; that as a result of the accident they had suffered severely, and still suffered, from shock, and were thereby disabled from earning wages; that the defendant company was liable to the plaintiffs in damages in respect of the accident, that the accident was presumed to have occurred because of the negligence on the part of the defendant company; and that the accident occurred because of the negligence on the part of the engine driver, Henry Mills, a fellow servant of the defendant in that he allowed the cage to start while the engine was de-clutched, whereof the accident occurred.