Story: Read, Thomas Gabriel

Page 1: Biography

Read, Thomas Gabriel

1824–1826?–1894

Gold prospector, farmer

This biography, written by T. J. Hearn, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Thomas Gabriel Read, known as Gabriel, was born probably in Tasmania, Australia, some time between 1824 and 1826, the eldest of 10 children of George Frederick Read, a merchant and banker, and his second wife, Margaret Terry, the daughter of a miller. Read was well educated, particularly in the Classics and English literature, and possessed sincere religious convictions. He also had a restless disposition. He sought his fortune, unsuccessfully, on the Californian goldfields, and then traded among the Pacific islands, where he was shipwrecked at Hawaii. He returned to goldmining, in Victoria, in the 1850s, again with only limited success. Dismayed at the actions of the squatters, at the lawlessness and violence on the goldfields, and at the clash between miners and police at Eureka in 1854, Read returned to Hobart, Tasmania, by 1860.

In September 1860 Read learned of the discovery of gold in the Mataura River, in Otago. In January 1861 he embarked for New Zealand, arriving at Port Chalmers on the Don Pedro II on 8 February. Discouraged by reports of the Mataura find, however, Read prematurely terminated his first prospecting expedition in Otago. On 11 March 1861 he left for Canterbury to visit the property of his cousin John Terry Murphy, at Cust. The Lindis discovery in April 1861 brought Read back to Otago. With the encouragement and assistance of J. L. C. Richardson, the speaker of the Otago Provincial Council, and of John Gillies and John Hardy, two farmers of Tokomairiro, he set out for the scene of Edward Peters's prospecting at Woolshed Creek (Glenore), in the Tuapeka district. On 23 May 1861, in the gully which still bears his name, Read discovered gold, 'shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night.' It was this discovery which revealed the potential of gold in Otago, and thereby initiated the series of discoveries and rushes which were to transform the economic, social and political life of the province.

Read informed Richardson, now the newly elected superintendent of the province, of his discovery, but the dramatic public response to the find followed Hardy's statement to the Otago Provincial Council on 28 June. However, Read remained at Gabriels Gully only until July. He then went on to discover the Waitahuna field, and prospected the Waipori, Pomahaka and Mataura districts, on behalf of the Otago Provincial Council. These ventures were unsuccessful. Discouraged, he withdrew his services to the government on 6 November 1861, the day after the Otago Provincial Council had agreed to award him the bonus of £500 that had been established in 1857. In announcing his resignation, Read stated that he did not feel himself to be 'sufficiently qualified to prosecute enquiries relative to new gold fields'.

Read remained in Otago for some three years, mining on the Dunstan and Wakatipu fields. He also prospected the rivers of Wairarapa, but success still eluded him. By 1864 he had returned to Tasmania, where he took up farming in 1865. On 2 January 1869, at O'Briens Bridge (Glenorchy), Hobart, he married his cousin, Amelia Mitchell, formerly Wilson, the widow of the Reverend James Mitchell of Hamilton, Tasmania. They were to have no children.

When young, Read had suffered serious injuries in a hunting fall, which appeared to have left him subject to fits of violence and eccentricity. He was admitted to the New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane on 20 April 1887, suffering from a manic-depressive disorder. He remained at the hospital until his death, of apoplexy, on 31 October 1894. Amelia Read, who had been left an estate valued at only £96, died at Bellerive in 1897.

Gabriel Read has been properly praised for his generosity, candour, altruism and sense of public duty, qualities which were displayed in his voluntary services on behalf of the Otago provincial government as prospector, arbitrator and adviser, and on behalf of his fellow miners as advocate, supporter and guide. He enjoyed the warm respect both of the miners and of Otago's political leaders. Yet Read did contemplate, at least momentarily, keeping his discoveries quiet. Always conscious of his role in the gold discoveries and in the transformation of the province, he sought payment of the £500 bonus offered by the provincial council. Although eventually awarded £1,000, Read was never fully satisfied, and continued to object to the larger sum paid to Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly for what Read considered their less meritorious discovery at the Clutha River in 1862. Read could justly claim that he 'unaided was the first to prove that we had goldfields which were capable of producing profitable results.'

How to cite this page:

T. J. Hearn. 'Read, Thomas Gabriel', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1r3/read-thomas-gabriel (accessed 18 November 2017)