MOONLIGHT, George Fairweather
Explorer, prospector, and storekeeper.
A new biography of Moonlight, George Fairweather appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
George Fairweather Moonlight was born between 1829 and 1832 in Scotland, presumably in one of the small fishing villages near the English (North Sea) border, and was in all likelihood the son of a herring fisherman. His real name was probably Fairweather, “Moonlight” being a nickname given him by the Australian diggers because of his habit – acquired on the Californian goldfields – of travelling by night. By his own admission he received no schooling. He was left homeless at nine years of age and tramped from York to London where he shipped as a cabin boy to South Africa. From there he went to America where he spent several years as a sailor before the mast. In 1848 he followed the rush to the California goldfields. Later, with some friends he joined the Australian rushes to Ballarat and Bendigo, prospecting on the Bunyong (1854) and Fiery Creek (1855). After a further period at sea he was attracted to Gabriel's Gully, Tuapeka, Otago, and late in 1861 made a strike at Moonlight, nearby. It was not long before he was on the move again, for early in 1863 he was working a sluice claim at Collingwood, Nelson. Between May and September of that year he prospected the district of the Mangles, Matakitaki, Tutaki, and Maruia Rivers finding payable gold in several places. More important, however, he found a new route from Nelson to the Central Grey area. John Rochfort informed the Provincial Government that Moonlight's route was the best so far discovered.
On 28 February 1865 Moonlight married Elizabeth Gaukrodger and settled at Richmond, Nelson, where they kept the White Hart Hotel. Early in 1866 he returned to the West Coast and prospected the north side of the Grey River and was principally responsible for discovering Moonlight Gully, now Atarau. Shortly after this Moonlight opened a store in the Maruia Valley and, later, also at Glenhope and Hampden Village, now Murchison. Between 1866 and 1882 Moonlight carried on a brisk business as storekeeper and hotelier on the Murchison goldfields, and also transported bullion to the Nelson banks. At the same time he was the unofficial judge and law enforcement officer on the goldfields where his methods were very much those of an American sheriff of “the Wild West”. After his wife died (13 May 1882), Moonlight failed in business and in 1884 returned to prospecting. Early in July 1884 Moonlight and Jack Bailie set out to prospect the area between Station Creek and Glenhope. On 15 July Moonlight went missing and his body was not discovered until 26 September. He was buried in Nelson Cemetery where a monument, erected by public subscription, commemorates him.
According to contemporary accounts Moonlight stood about 6 ft tall and possessed a splendid physique. In appearance he was a typical Californian miner and always affected American accent and dress. For the latter he favoured “crimson shirt, knee-breeches, wellington boots and a maroon sash”. For all his flamboyance, Moonlight was a popular figure on the West Coast goldfields and enjoyed a reputation for having a keen eye for gold-bearing country. He has no claim to the title of “captain”.
by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- The Golden Bush, Sutherland, T. (1953)
- Murchison, Grigg, J. R. (1947)
- Nelson Evening Mail, 24 Sep 1884.