Dictionary of New Zealand Bography logo

Story: Goodwin, Bridget

Page 1: Biography

Goodwin, Bridget


Goldminer, character

This biography, written by Katherine W. Orr, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Bridget Goodwin, also known as 'Little Biddy', 'Biddy of the Buller', and 'Biddy the Fossicker', was a goldminer, who worked mainly in the Buller Gorge area of the West Coast, New Zealand. Female goldminers were an unusual phenomenon in nineteenth century New Zealand, and Bridget Goodwin was something of a legendary figure even in her own day. Consequently, it is not easy to distinguish fact from fiction in the tales told about her. Most versions of her life derive from some reminiscences attributed to her, which were recorded by W. H. S. Hindmarsh. Hindmarsh seems to have lived in Reefton when she was resident there.

Bridget Goodwin was born in Ireland, possibly in Dublin, some time between 1802 and 1827. Her parents' names are unknown. She had little or no education; according to the reminiscences, she was unable to read or write. She mined first at Bendigo and Ballarat in Australia and then sailed for New Zealand, arriving at Nelson in the mid 1860s. She mined in the Collingwood area and then, after a long overland trek to the West Coast, in the vicinity of the Buller River.

According to Hindmarsh, Bridget Goodwin lived and worked with two male goldminers. The threesome came from Australia to New Zealand together. Hindmarsh clearly suspected that she was married to neither man. But it is quite possible that she was married at some stage, and that her birth name was Dunbar. No record of any children has been discovered.

Bridget Goodwin was a small woman, about four feet in height and of slight build. Nevertheless she was capable of hard physical work. Gold prospecting involved scooping up, cradling and panning sands from river and stream beds. Often it was necessary to work standing in the water for hours on end. She coped with this, and also directed the work of the two men, who appear to have accepted her leadership. The three of them did not apparently make much money from gold prospecting. Whatever was left after the necessities had been bought was spent on drinking sprees.

There is some evidence that Bridget Goodwin and her companions settled in a hut not far from the Lyell township and mined close to Lyell in the 1880s and early 1890s. During this period the two men died. The man who survived longer is said to have been called 'Old Bill'. On the other hand, a poem entitled 'Biddy of the Buller', by the popular West Coast poet Hugh Smith, who moved from Ahaura to Reefton the year before Bridget Goodwin died, gives the name of her male companion as 'Jack'.

After the death of her second companion, in Reefton hospital, Bridget Goodwin settled in Reefton, where she spent the remainder of her life. At this stage she became known as 'Old Biddy' or 'Old Biddy of the Buller'. She was admitted to Reefton hospital at least twice during the late 1890s. During her Reefton residence, Bridget Goodwin was an Anglican and received regular visits from fellow parishioners, whom she entertained with stories of her early life.

Bridget Goodwin seems to have been an enthusiastic pipe-smoker, and had a well-developed taste for alcohol. By Victorian standards, her morals were somewhat questionable. Yet her reputation for hard work under conditions of enormous hardship, for hospitality, for loyalty to her companions, and, strangely enough, for cleanliness, seems to have won her the affection and respect of contemporaries. She died at Reefton on 19 October 1899. Her age at death was variously given as 72, 86 and 96 years.

How to cite this page:

Katherine W. Orr. 'Goodwin, Bridget', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1g14/goodwin-bridget (accessed 25 June 2024)