Portrait of a miner


The discovery of an overgrown headstone in a cemetery near Manchester, England, two years ago eventually led to a new musical endeavour for one Christchurch musician.

“My in-laws found it. The words on the headstone were ‘William Burton, died in New Zealand, September 12, 1914, aged 27 years’,” David Thorpe said.

Thorpe explained that “a couple of Manchester expatriates”, who moved to Christchurch just over a decade ago, had no idea that a great-great-uncle had travelled to New Zealand 90 years before them.

“In 2012, we accidentally discovered during a genealogy search that a family member on my wife’s side, William Burton, had, like us, left the northwest of England and moved to New Zealand about 90 years prior to our arrival.

“No living relatives knew of this.”

William Burton and his young family moved to Huntly in the winter of 1914.

At 7.20am on September 12, 1914, there was a massive explosion at The Ralph Mine in Huntly, Waikato, and 43 miners, including Burton, died.

“Within 12 weeks of arriving in New Zealand, and on his wife’s 21st birthday, he was one of the 43 miners who died when the mine exploded.”

September 12 marks the centenary of this tragic event and Thorpe has released a musical tribute, Coalface – the Ralph Mine Disaster, in honour of the occasion.

“I have a family history steeped in and around mining. The story of William Burton struck a chord on every level and I was compelled to put pen to paper and get into the studio,” Thorpe said.

Thorpe has performed in Christchurch group The Black Velvet Band for 12 years, tutors harmonica and also performs solo as Davey Backyard or as a one-man band under the name Lil’ Chuck Skiffle.

Having worked on the music “on and off” for two years, Thorpe’s EP, Coalface, is dedicated to his wife’s ancestor, the Ralph Mine disaster and to “mining communities all over the world”.

“The portrait of a miner [used for the EP] was taken by my father, a retired photojournalist. Unfortunately I do not know the miner’s identity.

“The picture has been in my life since the 1980s. It inspired a lyric in one of my songs.”

The Huntly Lions Club is commemorating the disaster and is also searching for living relatives to be part of the memorial event.

Thorpe and his family will travel to Huntly for the memorial and services in September where he will perform songs from Coalface live.

For the first time he and his family will meet a new, previously unknown, branch of their New Zealand relatives.

The EP is available as a digital download from dgmitchellthorpe.bandcamp.com.

“It’s a free download and people can pay what they like,” Thorpe said.

“Profits from the audio downloads will be donated to the Huntly Lions Club who have compassionately erected a grave marker for William’s New Zealand grave site in addition to other memorials dedicated to the miners and the disaster.”

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– The Press

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