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Adventurer’s heart of gold

Oct 13, 2023

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Born in Alloa, Scotland in 1844, Thomson died in Dunedin in 1933. In between he travelled. He met Te Whiti o Rongomai at Parihaka and got shipwrecked on Macquarie Island.

Then he wrote a book. Voyages and Wanderings in Far-Off Seas and Lands, first published in 1912. The Scotsman said of it, "To this book must be given a high place among the literature of travel and adventure ... it shows truth can be more interesting than fiction".

Now, his great-great-great niece, Rosy Fenwicke, has republished a second edition. His first adventure took him to the Central Otago gold fields where he and his brother mined for gold...

It was shortly after the first gold discoveries that I landed. Gabriel Read had arrived in Dunedin with a large quantity of gold, and the Gabriel's Gully goldfield named after him as the discoverer, was the scene of the greatest excitement and bustle. Hartley and Ryley then arrived with pack horses, laden with sacks, made chiefly of moleskin trousers, containing eighty-seven pounds weight of gold, having discovered the Dunstan and Molineux [sic] river district.

The whole community caught the gold fever; ordinary occupations were abandoned, and everyone that could be spared, men, boys, and some women also, started for the goldfields. In those days there were no roads to speak of, and only a few tracks, as much of the country was unexplored; few horses were available, so that most folk had to travel on foot, carrying their own tents, blankets, tools and provisions, forty to sixty pounds weight being reckoned an ordinary swag.

On landing I expected to find myself the junior partner of a fairly prosperous business, but riches had taken wing, and all that was left of the business was invested in the goldfields and in mining property. And so it happened that ere long I found myself amongst the "rushers", tramping, but without a swag and in company with my brother Andrew. He had come out two years previously for the second time. We had youth, health, strength, and stout hearts, and determined to retrieve our losses. So we trudged manfully through mud and creeks, in all kinds of weather, doing occasionally, over thirty miles a day.

We held shares in the Weatherstone water race. The company had built a reservoir, pretty much annexing all water rights of the districts, for there were practically no mining laws in those days. We dug a ditch or race along the hillsides for some miles, which carried the water to the heights of the goldfield. The water was gladly purchased by the miners, for water is an essential to them in their work. The company, while charging for the water, reserved to themselves the option of putting one of their shareholders, who were all working miners, into each of the eight best claims on the field, these receiving each a man's share of the gold at the wash-up.

This proved to be a good venture, financially and was the means of a fresh start. The claim allotted to me was held by a party of Manxmen, runaway sailors, strong, hearty, jovial fellows, rejoicing in being their own masters and in having "struck it rich!"

Jim Addy, a Blue Nose from New Brunswick, was also of the party. Jim took a kindly interest in me. I was a "tenderfoot" or "new chum", only seventeen years old. He initiated me in the art of cooking chops, baking damper, sluicing, cradling, panning off, etc. Jim was rough and careless in outward appearance but he had a heart of gold. He had followed the diggings in various parts of the world and had some strange experiences. His soft slouch hat had been pierced by a pick in the hands of a murderous mate, when working underground. It was given out to be an accident with no worse result than a split head but Addy always believed his mate intended to kill him, and rob him of his share of the gold.

Alas! He had a tragic end after all, when working on the wild Kawara [sic] River, the principal branch of the Molyneux. A heavy flood, caused by the bursting away of a hillside, which had slipped into the river and dammed back an enormous accumulation of water, came down in the night time, carrying disaster and death to the miners camped on its banks. Addy, his mate Gascoigne, their tent and twelve pounds weight of gold, which was buried in the floor were swept away. Addy was drowned but Gascoigne managed to reach the shore a long distance down, barely alive.

My claim was a surface one, and I found the work for the first week or so very hard, but later got quite accustomed to it. The richest ground was close to the reef, in old water-worn channels. Such a lead or gutter crossed our claim, in which we would often see the gold sparkling, and from which we could occasionally wash a quarter of an ounce in one tin dish. This gutter was finally run out on the surface, so that in pulling up the grass tussocks, we found the gold sparkling and adhering to the roots.

The gold-mining and gold-saving appliances were crude and wasteful as compared with those of modern times. The Tuapeka goldfields were mostly surrounded by hills, Gabriel's Gully being a long, deep valley of several miles in length. Tents were perched in every possible situation. Scattered over were small, roughly made wooden windlasses. Round the mouths of shafts were great heaps of blue and yellow soil like huge molehills. Cradles, sluice boxes, tubs, puddling machines, and streams of muddy water completed the landscape.

The place has now been altered beyond recognition. Huge chasms have been dug, right down to the reef, to the roots of the mountains, and the mountains themselves literally removed, having been sluiced down the valley, by means of enormous hydraulic operations.

necessaries could be purchased, or exchanged for gold dust. Streams of new chums kept pouring down the hill-track. They had to stand the chaffing and running-fire of the diggers, and cries such as, "Jo, Jo, Jo," "Who's your hatter?" "What price gaiters?" "What price quill driving?" "Lime-juicer," etc., according to "the cut of the jib," or other new-chummish peculiarity that might be noticeable, and always accompanied with boisterous good humour. My first attempt at cooking a plum-pudding was rather startling. After boiling the conglomeration in a galvanised bucket, and pouring off the hot water, what was my surprise to find quite a quantity of gold in the bottom of the bucket! What the connection was between the gold and plum-pudding passed my comprehension. My mates, on noticing my surprise, laughed heartily, and insisted that if the pudding was rightly made that was what always happened in gold country. The explanation was that the bucket has been used for carrying rich wash-stuff on the claim to the panning-off tub, the heavy gold had worked into the folded seams of the bucket and the boiling water had simply boiled it out.

"Rushes," or general stampedes, were breaking out in various directions: the "Blue Mountain Rush" was memorable as being a "rank duffer". A miner arrived at the township with a quantity of gold and reported that he had "struck a patch". Hundreds of miners accompanied him away over the trackless mountains, but either he could not find the locality or he had lied. The angry miners purposed to lynch him on the spot, and he narrowly escaped, partly through my brother's influence, from having his ears cut off.

The diggers generally were a lawless set, but dispensed amongst themselves a rough justice which was a terror to evil-doers.

Some were Californian diggers with memories of the Vigilance Committee, old lags, convicts, and Chinamen. Many trades and professions were represented, and there were gentlemen's sons and an occasional titled party, who by stress of circumstances was obliged though not ashamed to handle the pick and shovel. Some convict bush-rangers from Australia were amongst them. They stuck up the Mangatuie [sic] Road one day and every passer-by was taken away into the bush, tied up and robbed. We had dispatched a trusty messenger with sufficient money to buy a pair of horses. He was the only man to escape that day, having looked in at the bushrangers’ tent, and rested a while at their fire while they were engaged in tying up others less fortunate in the bush.

One of these bushrangers, Garret, an old Australian convict, I saw repeatedly afterwards. Another famous bushranger was "Captain Moonlight", the most remarkable criminal of that time who was executed in Sydney. He was originally the Rev Andrew George Scott, the Church of England clergyman on the Egerton goldfield.

One of the principal gold "rushes" was the Dunstan Rush, on the Molyneux river; the whole mining community with very few exceptions, were infected by the fever, and started for the El Dorado, abandoning claims, shanties, mining machinery, even articles of clothing, all except the absolute necessaries. Except swagging, packing on horseback was the only means of conveyance, and freight was carried at two shillings a pound by the fortunate few who possessed horses. We had room to spare on our horse, and were paid five pounds for carrying a fifty pound sack of flour for a distance of forty miles. As the men got fatigued by the length of the journey and their heavy swags they often threw away all but the absolutely indispensable.

The journey lay over trackless hills, in parts destitute of firewood, which we had sometimes to carry in addition for several miles in order to "boil the billy", but the native tussocky grass was often used instead.

The Molineux [sic] is a wild, rapid river, flowing for the most part in a deep narrow channel, which it has worn for itself in the course of the ages. It drains a large watershed, and the cold lakes and is subject to heavy floods. Its waters are singularly cold, having come from the snow and glaciers of the high mountains. The number of fatal accidents that have occurred on this most dangerous river is almost incredible.

Having left the Hungry Ranges, New-Chum Point, Manuherikia Junction, Mutton Township (the diggers are never at a loss for nomenclature), we arrived at the Gorge on the Molineux, now named Clyde. The scene presented was most lively. The town was mostly canvas, and was at first called Canvastown. Here and there was a general store or gold-buying agency, with dry stone walls, flags of different nationalities, numbers of pack horses and great crowds of diggers. Many came in to sell their gold and purchase stores and many to have a good (!) spree, and knock down their hard-earned money.

Grog shanties were in abundance and grog was cheaper than provisions. Flour was 2s. 6d. per pound, tea 6s. and everything else in proportion.

A teamster arrived with a load of flour, and insisted on 2s. 6d. a pound for all of it. He would not accept 2s., so the diggers just helped themselves and gave him nothing; his avarice exceeded his prudence and a fair profit.

Our party was one of the first to ascent the Kawara river, the principal branch of the Molineux, and we struck a fairly good claim. The method of working the beach claims then in vogue was by building dams as far out into the river as possible, baling out the water from the enclosed space by means of buckets, spear, or Californian pumps, and then putting the payable wash dirt through the cradle, or sluice-box.

The wash through the sluice-box sailing slow,

And the heaps of tailings high,

The gold shines in lucid lines

As the dirt goes drifting by,

Peeping from out the crevices small

Of the ripples with gorgeous glare,

Yellow and bright does it meet the sight,

Shining, rough and rare.

A cradle resembles a baby's cradle in shape and is rocked by hand in a somewhat similar fashion. The gold-bearing soil is shovelled on to the perforated hopped plate on top, on which water is continually poured. This has the effect, together with the rocking motion, of completely disintegrating the mass, the rough stones roll off the hopper plate, and the remainder falls through on to a series of sloping shelves beneath, provided with ripples or other

obstructions, which cause the heavy gold to become fixed in the crevices. The last shelf of all is covered with a piece of plush or woollen blanket, and sometimes a copper plate is used at the tail, covered with quicksilver. The quicksilver amalgamates the fine gold, and is afterwards evaporated by the application of heat to the amalgam, leaving behind the pure gold, worth about £4 per ounce.

Gold-mining has great attractions for sanguine people especially, and many men seem unable to resist the temptation to "rush". I remember one such, who had been on the principal goldfields of the world, lifting up his hands to heaven, and solemnly swearing that he would not go to another rush, not if it was only over the first range of hills, and though the gold was a foot thick; and I heard that shortly afterwards he was again infected by the gold microbe, and had started for the new field.

The swags to our back for the wild bush tracks,

Say "Come" and we now must go

To the endless trees and the free fresh breeze,

Where the pines and the nikans grow,

The pick, the shovel and the dish once more,

The camp and the manuka bed,

The tent and the fly, and the mopok's cry

At night in the trees o’erhead.

Gold-mining as a rule is not profitable; every ounce of gold is said to cost more than it sells for, and there are many more unlucky diggers than lucky ones. The follies and extravagance of some lucky one have occasionally been very extraordinary, as for instance,hiring a hotel or grog shanty for days together and supplying free drinks to all comers. One miner was known to put a bank-note between two slices of bread and butter and give the sandwich to his dog to eat. Horseshoes were made of solid gold and a horse was shod with them. This happened in Victoria on the occasion of an election. Only a few "strike it rich," as for instance the finders of the Bendigo nugget, "Welcome Stranger," weighing 190 pounds and worth about £9000, and the Wahi [sic] mine-owners who have taken out £9,000,000 sterling in gold altogether.



The adventures of John Sen Inches Thomson spanned the globe, including New Zealand. Born in Alloa, Scotland in 1844, Thomson died in Dunedin in 1933. In between he travelled. He met Te Whiti o Rongomai at Parihaka and got shipwrecked on Macquarie Island. Then he wrote a book. Voyages and Wanderings in Far-Off Seas and Lands, first published in 1912. The Scotsman said of it, "To this book must be given a high place among the literature of travel and adventure ... it shows truth can be more interesting than fiction". Now, his great-great-great niece, Rosy Fenwicke, has republished a second edition. His first adventure took him to the Central Otago gold fields where he and his brother mined for gold...