Page 1: Biography
Gold prospector and miner, mine manager
This biography, written by Shirley Maddock, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
John McCombie was born in Onehunga, Auckland, New Zealand, on 15 June 1849. His father, Alexander McCombie of Aberdeen, was a regular soldier who married an Irishwoman, Ellen Schoolan, while on service in New Zealand. In 1867 John began his working life as a prospector and miner on the newly opened quartz goldfields at Thames, then moved to alluvial goldfields in the South Island and later, to mining settlements in Victoria and New South Wales, Australia.
In 1875 he returned to the North Island of New Zealand where, after protracted negotiations with the Maori owners, a goldfield was to be opened near Paeroa, on lands adjacent to the Ohinemuri River. The opening day was vividly described by McCombie in an article written for a newspaper: 'In a few minutes the track was lined with a struggling mass of horsemen and footmen…a forest of pegs reared their heads around the prospectors' claim.' Most claims proved barren and soon the disgruntled majority departed.
McCombie and his American partner, Robert Lee, were among the handful who stayed. Encouraged by a small government subsidy, they moved a few miles further east to Waitekauri, where they worked with moderate success. In about February 1878, looking out towards a hill called Pukewha near the future town site of Waihi, McCombie and Lee spied 'quartz comprising the outcrop of the now famous lode glistening beneath the rays of the morning sun'. This discovery of the site of what was later to be developed as the Martha mine, one of the world's richest goldmines, did not bring wealth to the partners. They laboured for four months; although sample stone was favourably assayed by the Bank of New Zealand at Thames, sufficient development capital was not forthcoming and they were obliged to relinquish their claim.
McCombie's lively account of their undertaking, philosophical at the loss of a fortune, was written over 20 years later. It deals as lightly with minor hazards, such as trundling a wheelbarrow over nine miles of rough country, as it does with real danger, for instance when a group of Ngati Kohe men and women, angry at the disturbance of what they regarded as tapu land, nearly succeeded in burying the prospectors alive in their recently dug 60-foot-deep tunnel.
McCombie continued his prospecting and mining activities in the Ohinemuri area, with cattle-trading and hotel-keeping as occasional sidelines. During the early 1880s he made further discoveries, notably the Woodstock and Silverton lodes in the Karangahake Gorge. He also became involved in local politics and was elected in 1884 as the representative for Ohinemuri riding on the Thames County Council. On 2 February 1887 at Ponsonby, Auckland, John McCombie married Theresa Jane Smith.
Lack of capital and the technical difficulties of quartz mining impeded progress on the Ohinemuri field until the early 1890s, when the cyanide method of extracting gold from ore had been successfully implemented. During the crucial experimental period McCombie's skills and experience were in demand, and from 1888 until 1916 he held managerial positions in several important goldmining companies in the Ohinemuri area: the Woodstock United Gold- and Silver-mining Company, the Maratoto Gold-mining Company, Talisman Consolidated and the New Zealand Crown Mines Company. A commodious dwelling, which he called Talisman House, was built near the start of the Karangahake Gorge, and John McCombie and his wife lived there with their three sons and three daughters.
In 1916 John McCombie moved to Auckland where his professional experience and knowledge kept him steadily engaged as a mining consultant. He was a member of Australian and New Zealand institutes of mining engineers, and throughout his career wrote prolifically for New Zealand newspapers, usually under one or another of his two pseudonyms, 'Aboriginal' and 'Native'. His articles were either technical or, more commonly, cheerful sketches of goldfields life.
After many years as a mining man, his zest for his calling remained undiminished. 'The free life and self-dependence', he wrote, 'together with the fact that one never knew today what to-morrow would bring forth, had an attraction of its own that can only be understood by those who have had similar experiences.' He died on 3 September 1926 at Remuera, Auckland, survived by his wife and children. At the time of his death, gold production was in decline, but, as one of his many obituaries remarks, McCombie was buoyant as ever concerning future prospects. 'His optimism with respect to the possibilities of mining was unbounded, and his one wish was to see a revival of the old days which, from his intimate knowledge of the field, he felt sure must come.'