James McIlraith was the half brother of Jane Deans.
He came to New Zealand with two of his brothers, Hugh and George from Scotland, to help Jane after the death of her husband (John Deans I) in 1854.
He went on to manage Homebush even after his nephew John Deans II came of age and became owner. He never married.
In 1870, James McIlraith was in the company of Julius van Haast when he discovered coal seams in Surveyor’s Gully which at that time was a part of Homebush. Julius, who was doing a geological survey was honoured two years later with the first coal sample removed from the mine (a one tonne block) and it was gifted to the Canterbury Museum, for which Julius founded.
Homebush Mine ran into problems right from the start. In the 1870’s, Isaac Shealth owned the land around the new discovery which caused a problem for the Deans. His land blocked access to the only way for the coal to get to transportation – taking it to Christchurch. Shealth demanded two shillings and a sixpence per tonne that crossed his land. James McIlraith wouldn’t have it!
A plan was made to dig a tunnel around Shealth’s land, right through the hill. Surveyed by William Bray; miners Thomas Brown and Henry Williams dug from each end, eventually meeting in the middle. News reached Riccarton that the tunnel was complete on the 6th August 1874 – the day of John Deans II coming of age party. That day, John inherited Riccarton and Homebush which now came with its own coal mine! Surveyors Gully soon became known as Glentunnel because of the tunnel in the Glen.
Work at Homebush Mine was taken very slowly at first. There were constant problems with neighbouring landowners and the need for the railway to come out to Malvern was a full-time battle that was eventually won.
On the 1st December 1874, the Rolleston to Sheffield (it was called Malvern at the time) line opened and then on the 3rd November 1875, the Darfield to Whitecliffs also opened.
200 tonnes of coal were being removed each month and the mine had a staff of 28 men and boys. The mine was managed by James McIlraith until 1895 – the same year he retired from managing Homebush altogether. John Campbell took over from James and then Thomas Brown took over from John Campbell.
There were only two accidents during the years: a deaf boy was killed when he was run over by a coal car and a miner called John Penman was killed from a coal fall in 1919. During World War I, the mine closed and in 1938, the mine closed permanently.
He died in 1903 on his own farm which he called Auchenflower (Rakaia) after his father’s farm back in Scotland. McIlraith Street in Darfield is named in his memory.
He was buried in Addington Cemetery in a family plot.
*image of James McIlraith courtesy of http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz *
*photo of Grave and McIlraith Street taken by Annette Bulovic*