Prospector and miner.
A new biography of Read, Thomas Gabriel appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Gabriel Read was the son of Captain G. F. Read who, with his family, settled in Tasmania in 1816 after receiving a grant of land, some of which is still in the possession of the family. Gabriel was well educated, and when at a comparatively early age he began the globe-trotting that was to take him halfway round the world, he was already a man of property in his own right. At the age of 26 he sailed for the Californian goldfields in his own schooner. He made little money but learnt much about gold fossicking, and when he returned to Australia he became caught up in the Victorian gold rushes, mainly because Edward Hargreaves, who had made the first discoveries there, showed that the rocks and strata in the Victorian fold areas were much the same as those he had encountered in California. Read, however, did not stay long on the Victorian goldfields. The violence at the Eureka Stockade and the general atmosphere of licence and lawlessness which had discouraged him in America disgusted him in his own country. He went back to Tasmania, but he was not to remain on the sideline for long. News of gold strikes in Southland around Mataura trickled through to Hobart Town, and in the new year of 1861 he was off on his travels again.
Read arrived in Otago in January 1861 on the Don Pedro II, and found a very lukewarm attitude with respect to Mataura gold. But he set off southwards. First at Tokomairiro, and then at the Clutha Ferry, he was warned that he was on a wild goose chase, and before crossing the Clutha he decided to retrace his steps. On his return he paused at Tokomairiro and hired himself out to a squatter named Hardy, who was also a member of the Otago Provincial Council. Hardy believed strongly in the possibilities of the Tuapeka area as a gold-bearing locality and did his best to persuade Read to go there. His representations were backed up by the Superintendent of the Province, Major Richardson, who on behalf of the Council offered a reward for any discovery that might be made. Thus it was that Read turned his attention to Tuapeka, Waitahuna, and Wetherstones.
Having heard of a find by one, Black Peter, at a locality known as Woolshed Creek, Read set off for that area, and despite a good deal of good-natured derision from the local inhabitants, he disappeared into the hills and gullies, and on 23 May 1861 struck colour in a gully that has borne his name for a hundred years. The gold was easily accessible, not more than a few feet down beneath a soft overburden of slatey shale. Having satisfied himself that he had stumbled across a rich deposit, and that the gold could easily be worked, he gave a demonstration of that unselfishness and consideration which set him apart from the majority of those who benefited by his find. He had already written a letter to the Otago Witness declaring that the “Waitahuna and Tuapeka goldfields will before long astound the province”. He now went one better and announced his discovery, giving the location and prospects, holding back nothing.
“Although the being able to work secretly for a time would greatly benefit me,” he wrote in June in the Otago Witness, “I feel it my duty to impart these facts.” By this time, too, he had informed the Provincial Council of the prospective value of his discovery. The public reaction was immediate and frantic. While the Otago Witness deplored the manifestations of unbridled gold fever and uttered dire jeremiads on the probable outcome of such disruption of the life of the community, the wild rush was transforming the Otago hinterland. A new settlement sprang up pulsating with vigorous life, and as if by magic the solitudes of Tuapeka were shattered by an invading army of blue-shirted diggers armed with picks and shovels. In fact, by July there were 11,472 persons in the district, only 148 of them women, compared with a population of 5,850 in Dunedin itself. The results were all that Gabriel Read had anticipated and many fortunes were made, and lost. Read himself was content to work with his pick and shovel “in common with others”, and to rely on the promised reward of £500 from the Provincial Council.
With the field well established, and more miners clamouring for claims outside the limits of Gabriel's Gully, the Provincial Council persuaded Read to accept a paid position as a sort of official fossicker. Once more he set off on his own, ranging far and wide through the Waipahi, Pomahaka, Blue Mountain, and Waipori districts, and penetrating up to the headwaters of the Waitahuna and Tuapeka Rivers. He found some gold, but he was not happy in his task, and after a few months he wrote to the Superintendent of Otago declaring himself ill-qualified to prosecute his search any further, and asking to be relieved of his duties. He withdrew from the goldfields to Dunedin, where the Provincial Council made him a grant of £1,000 in appreciation of his efforts. Read wandered up and down the South Island for a time, made a wide tour of the North Island, and then returned to his native Tasmania. He came back to New Zealand for brief periods, but not in search of gold, and he died in Hobart in 1894 in his seventieth year.
Probably nothing in the pesonality and character of Gabriel Read became him more than his downright and almost overconscientious altruism. He was at his best in the company of those who shared with him a background of public interest. He had had experience of the violence of other gold-mining communities and had sampled the form of outlawry that seemed to be the accepted thing among the many desperate men he encountered. These conditions dismayed him, and he employed his strongest efforts to prevent them from developing in Tuapeka. By common consent he acted as an umpire in the innumerable disputes over claims which arose by reason of the fact that Gabriel's Gully was not a proclaimed goldfield, and he displayed the greatest concern for the moral and material welfare of the community generally. He encouraged the establishment of religious organisations, and in fact paid £50 out of his own pocket to facilitate the first divine services on the field. Everything the Otago Witness had feared as a consequence of his discovery he laboured incessantly to avoid, and he had the satisfaction of knowing that he was not entirely unsuccessful. He was a fossicker, a miner, and a wanderer, but he showed himself a gentleman as well, and most of those who knew him honoured him for it, even though many of them could not bring themselves to follow his example. When urging the Provincial Council to make the promised £500 into a gratuity double that sum, the Superintendent paid a warm tribute to his “noble and generous disinterestedness” and drew the attention of the community to “the immediate and unreserved communication of his discovery”.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- History of Otago, McLintock, A. H. (1949)
- Early Days in Central Otago, Gilkison, R. (1958)
- Tuapeka, the Land and its People, Mayhew, W. R. (1949).