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Giving a glimpse of the past

Giving a glimpse of the past
Early 1930s, Joseph Divis (right) and companion overlooking the Blackwater poppet head and surrounding mine buildings.

From the comfort of my warm office, it is hard enough to imagine what it must be like to work as a miner today, much less what life would have been like for men working underground a century ago.

Author Simon Nathan’s well-researched book Through the Eyes of a Miner, which presents compelling black and white images by little known photographer Joseph Divis, brings that lost world into sharp focus.

This revised and expanded second edition was published in 2016 by Friends of Waiuta with distribution by Potton & Burton.

“Photographers of that time were not usually taking photos of mining communities,” Simon observes.

“Most that do exist were taken by photographers who came in for a day, whereas Joseph Divis lived there with mining people and he also had the skills to take photographs down in the mines.”

Czech-born Divis, who had worked as a miner in lower Silesia (now part of Poland), travelled to New Zealand in his early 20s to take up work at the Blackball coal mine and almost immediately started taking photos in the area.

Many were turned into postcards and Divis also sold his photos to the Auckland Weekly News.

By October 1912, Divis had started work at the Blackwater mine, where a gold-bearing quartz reef had been discovered less than a decade earlier.

No-one else was taking photos quite like Divis back then, showing miners working underground in soft hats, holding candles for light.

Others capture ‘the raw, new town’ of Waiuta that had sprung up around the mine.

From formal portraits to group shots, Divis also vividly brings to life the people of this hardworking community going about their daily chores, getting married, building homes.

Giving a glimpse of the past

Blackwater, 1912-13. Miners waiting to go underground. Joseph Divis is on the left, marked with a cross.

 

Simon was introduced to Divis’ work by a colleague, the late Les Wright, who was passionate about preserving Waiuta’s history.

“I was writing an article for Te Ara – the Encyclopaedia of New Zealand and had asked Les about artists living on the West Coast and he told me about this long-overlooked photographer.

“He showed me some of Joseph Divis’ photos and I was hooked. It was a wonderful story that I thought would make a great book, particularly since there was access to the original plates.”

These plates had been kept by local man Brendon Wilshire, who had looked after the collection for 30 years, before it was transferred into the care of the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2009.

For the book, Simon pieced together details about Divis’ life through archival material, including naturalisation records.

He also found a file dating back to when Divis was interned at Somes Island in the Second World War.

Sadly, this internment came not long after Divis was being badly injured by falling rock in a mining accident.

Giving a glimpse of the past

He never worked in the mines again after that and also stopped taking photos, but after the war returned to Waiuta as the town’s telephonist. The town was already in decline through the 1940s.

By 1951 it was a ghost town. The Blackwater mine had closed after a collapse in the main ventilation shaft and with no work to sustain it, the town emptied out.

One of Divis’ photos from 1931 shows a crowd gathered outside Waiuta’s hotel for the town’s 25th Jubilee.

You can’t help but wonder what happened to all the families there that day who would no doubt have thought their prosperous town had a bright future.

“One of the things I learned from doing this book is that these people were reasonably well off. Everyone living at Waiuta had a job. They were not at the bottom of the heap. They just wanted to do the best they could for themselves and their children. This was a real living community.”

As well as locating records relating to Divis’ work for the Post & Telegraph Department, Simon was able to track down one of the photographer’s relations in the Czech Republic.

It enabled him to identify people photographed by Divis during his time spent back in Europe in the late 1920s.

Before the war, Divis had also worked at Waihi’s Martha mine and had travelled to Europe, but he returned to Waiuta and took several hundred photographs of the mining town in its heyday from 1931-35.

It is an incredible record, documenting amongst other things, the Snowy River battery where quartz ore was processed to recover the gold.

(The roasting process in particular left a toxic legacy of environmental arsenic that poisoned vegetation around the plant).

Through the Eyes of a Miner is a truly unique glimpse into mining life and mining practices in days gone by and pays special tribute to the people of Waiuta.

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