In 1864, a lone white man, accompanied by five Nelson Maori and armed only with a revolver, stepped from a creaky wooden whaleboat onto the bank of the Waiwhakauaeranga Stream to confront around 100 armed and hostile Ngati Maru warriors.
James Mackay, a 33-year-old government agent, had come to the Coromandel, under instruction from Governor George Grey, to quell the covert assistance Ngati Maru had been giving the Waikato tribes, then at war with Grey’s imperial forces. Striding up to the crowd of fighting men, who were bathed in sweat and bravado following a defiant haka, he proceeded to demand they surrender all their guns and desist from helping the Waikato Maori. Otherwise, he proclaimed, they would face the loss of their lands, which the government would duly confiscate.
After listening to Mackay’s oratory, delivered in fluent Maori, a number of the more peaceable among the contingent began surrendering their weapons. Just when everything appeared to be going to order, one chief rose up and protested. Furiously, he questioned the intruder’s telling them what to do. Rousing the others, he ordered they “take up their guns and shoot this proud pakeha and his Maori friends!” His life hanging by a whisker, Mackay immediately drew his pistol, ordering his companions to load the boat with the captured muskets. Roaring at the assembly of warriors now intent on taking his life, Mackay thundered, “You can shoot me, but what good will that do? The Government will come and take a terrible utu. You will lose all your lands and you will be like the Waikatos—stripped of everything.” Climbing aboard the whaleboat he added, “This is my last word. Give over helping the Waikatos—and retain possession of your lands!”
Arriving back in Auckland, his mission deemed a success, Mackay was given the new appointment of civil commissioner for the Hauraki district. He was soon making frequent return trips to the area, his earlier experiences on the South Island’s Collingwood goldfield proving invaluable.
It was on the Collingwood field that he had first turned his hand to mining. Then, due in large part to his linguistic knowledge and understanding of Maori customs, he had been offered the job of assistant native secretary, settling disputes between Pakeha miners and Maori. Shortly after, he had been promoted to the position of goldfield warden, the first such appointment to be made in the new colony.
On his travels around Hauraki, Mackay learned from local Maori of the existence of gold in the hills along the southern reaches of the mangrove-fringed Firth of Thames. He stored this information away, biding his time until circumstances were more propitious, for the land wars were still raging and many Maori in the district were opposed to opening up their rohe, or tribal territory, to white settlers.
As the fighting ended, the British forces withdrew from the colony, leaving in their wake a growing debt from the war. In 1865, Auckland lost its hold on the seat of government, along with the helpful coffers that went with the privilege, and by 1866 was in dire economic straits. Property was practically valueless, businesses were constantly going into liquidation, and crime and poverty were on the increase. According to Mackay himself, “numbers of labouring men were starving for want of employment”.
There could be no better moment for Mackay to announce his plans to open a goldfield in the Auckland province, a prospect that would surely revive its stagnating fortunes. But convincing the Hauraki Maori to lease their lands for mining, in particular the staunchly opposed Maori Land League Party, would test his wily negotiating skills to the full.
Mackay’s one advantage was the support of Hanauru Taipari, the son of Ngati Maru’s paramount chief, Te Hotereni “Willoughby Shortland” Taipari, who allowed his land to be prospected while watchful Maori kept vigil. A sample of gold was uncovered in Karaka Creek and promptly delivered to Mackay, who showed it to the deputy provincial superintendent, Dr Daniel Pollen.
Mackay was immediately instructed to make for the discovery site. On arrival he convened a meeting with Ngati Maru, at which he sought to make arrangements for the Crown to lease tribal land. After much persuasion he reached agreement with Te Hotereni Taipari, Raika Whakarongatai and Rapana Maunganoa to allow mining along the foreshore south of Kuranui Creek. The remaining chiefs, however, resisted his offer of £1 a year from every miner granted access to land under their authority.
Dr Pollen then issued a proclamation, dated July 30, 1867, declaring the Thames goldfield open, with Mackay its warden. It was later found he had no legal power to do this, and a special act of Parliament was passed in 1869 to put things right. But legal or not, the rush for Thames was now on.
Two days later, on August 1, Mackay left Auckland with a party of 60 aboard the steamer Enterprise, headed for the spot where, three years earlier, he’d confiscated Ngati Maru’s weapons. At the southern end of a flat piece of land that was given the name Shortland, Mackay began issuing miners’ rights.
By noon, it looked as if the rush might be over before it had even begun, as miners returned empty-handed, some demanding their money back. However, the stones they brought with them were tested and found to contain gold, and the miners returned to their claims more optimistically.
The mistake they had made was to look for alluvial gold, as commonly found with pan and shovel in the river-and creek-beds of the South Island goldfields, rather than for the auriferous underground reefs that made up the Thames field. It soon became clear Thames wasn’t going to be a “poor man’s field”; nor was it going to give up its fortune, hard-packed into flinty quartz, that easily.
The first strike of consequence occurred on August 10, when George Clarkson, J.E. White, W. Cobley and William Hunt—the last-named the only experienced miner in the party—followed the Kuranui upstream to a small waterfall. There, beneath moss-covered boulders, they uncovered a seam of gold. This sensational discovery would become the legendary Shotover claim.
The strike at the Shotover was the signal for the rush to begin in earnest. Within weeks a stream of miners arrived on the Thames field, setting up a makeshift town of bell tents and raupo whare. Mackay was kept busy issuing miners’ rights, getting streets surveyed around Shortland so as to lay out a township, and keeping general law and order.
Before long a timber mill was in operation, and the calico, or canvas, town made way for more substantial wooden buildings, which mushroomed in Shortland’s southern precinct. Records show that in the 10 weeks ending June 30, 1868, less than a year after Pollen’s proclamation, 473 vessels landed more than 8000 passengers at the Shortland wharf. Included in the cargo inventory over the same period were 43 horses, 15 tonnes of sugar, 325 tonnes of coal, 473 tonnes of potatoes and 24,800 cigars. With ant-like energy, the prospectors now picked their way over every inch of available terrain, and were increasingly found trespassing on unleased tribal land. Unhappy Maori escorted them off. In time, it became apparent that the richest seams were to be found on the hillsides around the Waiotahi block, to which access was steadfastly denied.
The stalemate ended when a quarrel broke out between a miner and the two sons of Aperahama Te Reiroa, one of the chiefs with authority over the block. Mackay, with a police accompaniment, arrested the trio, fining the miner £3 for assault and the two sons £5 each for attempting to drown him. Failure to pay would result in imprisonment in Auckland.
Mackay knew Te Reiroa couldn’t pay his sons’ fines, so when the old man called on him asking for a loan to do so, Mackay agreed, with the proviso that the loan be an advance on miners’ rights to the Waiotahi block. Once opened, the block did indeed prove to hold some of the richest reefs on the Thames field.
By now, most of the substantial claims were at the northern end of the field, which was gradually taking shape as an industrial and business district by the time Robert Graham, who had served as Auckland’s provincial superintendent several years earlier, arrived in 1868. Graham shrewdly calculated that a large flat area, used by Maori for cultivation, would make suitable land for another township. He first leased, and subsequently bought, the block he would later call Grahamstown.
Graham had already developed a fistful of properties, including a 202 ha farm south of Auckland he had named Ellerslie. For a time he owned Motutapu Island, where he farmed pedigree cattle and sheep.
His penchant for the curative powers of hot springs saw him also develop tourist hotels, first on land he owned at Waiwera, north of Auckland, then at Lake House, Ohinemutu, beside Lake Rotorua. Later, he was gifted land at Wairakei thermal springs by Poi-hipi, a Taupo chief, which he developed into a 1700 ha estate beside Huka Falls.
With a boom now in full swing, Graham’s new township soon overshadowed neighbouring Shortland. The two settlements were connected by Pollen Street, a rough unsurfaced thoroughfare 2 km long.
Records show that by August 1868 the population on the Thames field had reached 18,000, surpassing that of Auckland, which was thought might remain an insignificant fishing village. The building frenzy on the Thames continued unabated. Demand was so high for dwellings that a number of buildings in Auckland were uprooted and barged across the Hauraki Gulf.
The Thames goldfield was steadily becoming a company-style operation. The holders of smaller claims, unable to finance the costly business of underground quartz–mining, amalgamated with others, solicited working capital by selling shares, or, at worst, abandoned their claims altogether. The larger concerns then developed sophisticated operations employing experienced quartz-miners from as far afield as Cornwall, in the southwest of England.
In the following months, shops, hotels, restaurants, a theatre and even a music academy sprang up in Grahamstown amid the industrialised labyrinth of poppet heads, stamper batteries, tramlines carting ore, tailings pits and the stables, foundries, smithies and all manner of other workshops that serviced the mines.
With few comparable strikes occurring elsewhere in the world during the same period—the Californian strikes of 1849 were now a distant memory, and the rushes to Ballarat were also fading fast—the Thames bonanza strikes of 1869–71 startled the world. Gold was coming out of the ground by the tonne.
In Grahamstown, now the commercial heart of the Thames, each new find was announced on Scrip Corner, at the intersection of Brown and Albert Streets, opposite Curtis’s Wharf and the Pacific Hotel. Here, gold fever was converted into equity in the form of shares, or “scrip”, and crowds of speculators congregated on the wooden boardwalk outside the Brown Street Stock Exchange to hear of the latest run. Pre-arranged signals from deep within the mines a broken pick-handle placed surreptitiously on a truckload of ore, for instance—would signal to those in the know that “there’s money in”.
Fortunes were made and lost, often on little more than a rumour, at the bustling Scrip Corner. One who quickly realised there was more to be made as a broker than a speculator was “Jimmy” Baggott, an uneducated coal-lumper on Burke Street Wharf. Baggott astutely reasoned that the broker had the best side of the deal, and, quitting his job tallying coal, bought a ready reckoner, ink and pen, and set himself up as a sharebroker. He died worth £20,000, leaving no will.
For the miners toiling deep in the earth below Grahamstown, daily life was less romantic. In the early days on the Thames, all the work was done using hand tools. It wasn’t until the 1880s that the larger company mines employed compressed air to power their drills. By candlelight the miners chiselled away with pick and shovel, hand-drilling holes for blasting, initially with gunpowder, then dynamite, which emitted poisonous fumes, and eventually gelignite.
In the poorly ventilated shafts, the mixture of naturally occurring mine gas and abrasive quartz dust that hung stiflingly in the air made a lethal combination. “Miner’s complaint”—silicosis—was a widespread affliction, a rasping cough and shortness of breath being its telltale signs. Middle-aged men with respiratory ailments gasping and wheezing their way up the hillsides around Thames were a common sight.
As if the relentless, punishing work in the atrocious conditions below ground weren’t bad enough, the “wages miner” earned little more than £2 per six-day week. It’s hardly surprising that stealing on the field was rife. Measures taken by the companies to prevent theft were simple. At the start and end of each 10-hour shift, every miner was forced to strip naked and cross a passageway separating their regular street clothes from those they wore in the mine.
Not until the 1880s was the Thames Miners Union formed, in response to an incident at the Cambria Mine, where the management tried to deduct sixpence from the men’s wages to cover liabilities for mining accidents—which the miner’s naturally resisted. Conditions for the men were slow to improve, and a miner’s pension of £1 a week was only introduced in 1915. Small comfort to those who lived long enough to retire.
Above ground, a brief recession in the later part of 1869 whittled the field’s population to 15,000. Its cause was a combination of rampant speculation, delays in granting leases and neglect of actual mining, all of which contributed to a decline in the amount of gold recovered. But the years that followed more than made up for this as the big company mines hit peak production.
Bearing sentimental names such as Queen of Beauty, Lucky Hit, Bright Smile, All Nations and Multum in Pravo, Much in Little, they began heaving out ore at a phenomenal rate.
Some 27 m below sea level, in the Caledonian Mine’s No. 1 reef, three shots in 1871 dislodged two tonnes of particularly rich ore which yielded 709 kg of bullion. A boulder, about the size of a man’s head, taken from the Moanataiari reef was sent to London for exhibition, where it eventually yielded over 21 kg of gold. One Christmas Eve in the 1870s, a party of four miners shot down 17 hundredweight of stone (864 kg), yielding a “Christmas Box” of 85 kg of gold for the Alburnia Mine’s shareholders.
These heady fortunes, and others that followed, were broadcast to investors around the globe, putting the Thames goldfield prominently on the world map. Grahamstown’s star continued to shine as the steamers plied backwards and forwards across the Firth of Thames, discharging passengers and produce at the wharves. The rhythmic din of the quartz-crushing stamper batteries reverberated through the streets, setting the daily tempo like some gigantic pulse, oscillating through the veins of the townsfolk. By 1871, some 45 coal-fired batteries, each with a head of around 25 stampers, were thunderously operating day and night.
New prosperity was displayed in abundance as the town’s elite disembarked from carriages outside Grahamstown’s fashionable Theatre Royal and Academy of Music, there to enjoy evenings of vaudeville, touring musicals and entertainment provided by internationally renowned performers. For a time in the 1870s, it must have seemed as if the golden days of the Thames would never end.
Yet as the 19th century drew towards a close, the reefs of gold were largely exhausted. By the turn of the century, the three star players of the 1870s—the Thames (later Manukau), Golden Crown and Caledonian Mines—had all but faded into obscurity.
Unexpectedly, in 1904, the Waiotahi, a steady producer since 1868 and often referred to on the field as the “old men’s refuge”, struck a bonanza reef, and over the next four years produced half a million pounds’ worth of gold. But that was the last of the spectacular finds.
By the time the Great War of 1914–18 rolled around, mining was coming to an end. Timber extraction, another staple activity that brought wealth to the district, continued for several more decades. Eventually, though, the pioneers stripped the hillsides of giant kauri, and logging, too, ceased.
Grahamstown, now part of the larger borough of Thames, had amalgamated with Shortland in 1873, unsuccessfully seeking autonomy from Auckland’s provincial government so it could run its own affairs. The decades that followed proved tumultuous ones for the borough’s administrators. Overspending on capital works in the early 1920s set the tone. Come the Great Depression, which began in 1929, Thames, unable to service its loans, became bankrupt. In 1931, a commissioner was again appointed to take control, initially for a three-year term but, in the end, until 1947.
The town’s changing fortunes, not helped by a series of disastrous floods, caused businesses and the major banks to abandon Grahamstown in favour of more central locations on Pollen Street, closer to Shortland. Dairy farms on the recently drained Hauraki Plains were becoming the backbone of the new economy, and a southern entrance to the town across the newly built Kopu Bridge channelled farmers to the stores at that end of town.
Today, what is left of Grahamstown’s 19th-century buildings—some of New Zealand’s earliest mining-town architecture—is a reminder of New Zealand’s pioneering past. Only a few relics now remain of the more than 100 hotels that sprouted during the heyday of the Thames goldfield. The wooden boardwalks have gone, as has Scrip Corner, the Pacific Hotel and the neighbouring Academy of Music.
The 1870s shop-front facades still project a frontier-town countenance. The Thames Saturday-morning market, held regularly at the Grahamstown end of Pollen Street, harks back nostalgically to the gold-rush era, and it is easy to conjure up images of illustrious pioneers strolling the streets.
It is said that William Hunt, of the Shotover claim, left for Auckland with £61,000. With part of this fortune he paid the best coach-builders to gild his own carriage. Fellow claimant W. Cobley left the Thames only to return, broke, and take a low-paying job as a blanket boy in the Halcyon Mine.
Robert Graham remained in his namesake town long enough to build a tramline north to Tararu, where he established a 40-room resort hotel with feature gardens. A few years later, however, the gardens were damaged in a storm. The hotel was lifted from its foundations and barged to Graham’s Waiwera property before Graham himself left the Thames.
James Mackay resigned as goldfields warden and resident magistrate in 1868. He continued in his position as native secretary, and, by sometimes devious means, opened up new goldfields in the Ohinemuri district, south of Paeroa. One of these, Mackaytown, was named after him. He died—paralysed, forgotten and alone—in 1912, at around the same time as the glitter and romance faded from the Thames.