During World War One the main source of fuel for ships of all types was coal and there was a need to ensure a regular supply of coal for the ships of the fleet, in all corners of the globe. The mines of Westport produced some of the best coal for maritime use which was in demand by the Admiralty and also the Commonwealth Naval Board for the Royal Australian Navy. So much coal was exported for naval usage that there was a severe shortage of coal for domestic use in New Zealand during the years 1917-19.
One of the more important considerations for the Admiralty when war broke out in 1914 was to ensure a regular supply of coal for the ships of the fleet, in all corners of the globe. This not only included having sufficient supplies but also being able to give it to ships which were at sea. The large expanses of the Pacific made this ocean difficult to supply.
The Admiralty had been particularly concerned for many years about the quality of coal used in its boilers. Coal from some places, such as Australia, reduced speed, produced more smoke and an inordinate amount of residue, besides causing structural damage to the boilers. An example of the relative value of coals was provided by a trial in HMAS Australia before the war. To keep the propellers turning at 186 revolutions per minute required 16 tons of New South Wales coal, 12½ tons of New Zealand coal, or 10 tons of Welsh coal. Not all New Zealand coal was actually suitable for naval use and coal for Admiralty use came from only two mines, Denniston and Granity, both near Westport.
To keep the propellers turning at 186 revolutions per minute required 16 tons of New South Wales coal, 12½ tons of New Zealand coal, or 10 tons of Welsh coal.
By 1913 the importance of coal from Westport was recognised by the stationing of an officer there, assisted by a Leading Seaman, two Stokers and two Able Seamen, whose sole task was the inspection of the coal shipments as they went into the colliers. This team was posted away in 1915.
The Admiralty also chartered ships of the Union Steam Ship Company, a New Zealand concern, for use as colliers. This followed pre-war practice, where for example Katoa was hired to coal HMS New Zealand in Melbourne in 1913. These met, in addition to the needs of the ships of the New Zealand Division, those of ships of the China Squadron and the Japanese Navy operating in the area.
The quantities of Westport coal during the war required by the Admiralty and the Royal Australian Navy, created problems with the supply of coal for domestic use within New Zealand. To meet the domestic demand it was necessary to import coal, mainly from Australia. Over 500,000 tons was imported in 1914, but mainly through lack of shipping, imports for the next three years, steadily decreased to just over 250,000 tons in 1918.
By mid-1916 the Admiralty requirements from New Zealand were approximately 7,000 tons per month. Additionally the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board obtained supplies for ships operating off Australia. As the war progressed, the Westport Coal Company experienced serious problems in production, resulting from miners enlisting in the Army; some 250 men from a work force of 1,100 had volunteered for service, by early 1916. This resulted in a decrease in the monthly output from about 53,000 tons in January 1915 to around 36,000 tons in early 1916 and at this juncture the Admiralty asked whether reliance could still be placed upon anticipated production from Westport; if not, what would be available and whether steps were being taken to prevent further depletion of the workforce. The Government responded that under the Military Service Act, it was not possible to grant exemption from enlistment by occupational class, however employers of men in important industries could apply for exemptions, which would not be refused.
Despite these assurances, the output of the mines continued to diminish, primarily as a result of insufficient labour. The Westport Coal Company was also concerned that continuing to supply coal to the Admiralty was having the effect of diminishing the Company’s ability to supply other customers, who were turning to its competitors and might permanently be lost. The Senior Naval Officer sympathetic and was able to temporarily discontinue shipments of Westport coal until early 1917. This went some way towards alleviating the situation for the company but there was still an acute shortage of coal for domestic use. In January 1917 the Government asked to use four Admiralty colliers inbound to New Zealand, to be used for one or more trips to Newcastle to import coal, which was urgently needed to supply troop transports and the shipment of primary products to Britain.
New Zealand certainly “did its bit” for the naval war effort in the supply of coal for the ships
Less than two weeks later the Senior Naval Officer advised the Governor that there were indications that the Germans intended to establish submarine bases in the vicinity of the Dutch East Indies and that there were reports of an enemy raider operating off Chile. Should these prove to be accurate there would be a need for Westport coal, in adequate quantities, to be available for Royal Navy ships. While the immediate situation did not warrant resumption of the export of coal for the Admiralty, this would be reviewed in early 1917.
Noting the domestic situation, the Senior Naval Officer continued to reduce the quantities ordered for the Admiralty. Still some 34,200 tons were shipped for naval use during 1917, down from the 58,141 tons shipped in 1916. Serious difficulties continued to be experienced in meeting the domestic demand, with the shortage of shipping constraining the importation of coal. To add to the difficulties of both the Government and the Navy, the miners went on strike for three weeks in April 1917.
In January 1918 the Imperial Government was asked to bring pressure to bear, to arrange for a few cargoes of coal to be brought from Newcastle, New South Wales. This request elicited the unexpected response that the difficulties of New Zealand meeting internal requirements was known and that the Admiralty had not shipped coal from Westport for many months. One can understand the somewhat mystified reaction to this statement, given the export figures already quoted and the fact that up to mid-February, 2,486 tons of coal had been shipped during the current year and a further 3,336 tons had also been requisitioned. Additionally, these quantities were for Admiralty use only and do not include the requirements of the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board.
To overcome the supply difficulties the coal industry became strictly regulated, with the output of every mine being directed to specific areas and uses. While unpopular these measures, combined with additional imports enabled the domestic requirements to be met in 1918 and 1919. New Zealand certainly “did its bit” for the naval war effort in the supply of coal for the ships, but could have done more if measures had been implemented to enable the production from Westport to be maintained at pre-war levels and adequate imports for domestic use been arranged.