Hauraki–Coromandel is a region of photogenic coastline, relics of gold mining, rich plains and rugged hill country – some still forested, much not – around an hour’s drive from Auckland, Hamilton or Tauranga.
It has two distinct zones: the mountainous, volcanic Coromandel Peninsula and the flat and fertile Hauraki Plains. The region’s ecology and landscape underwent major change in the early years of European settlement as a result of gold mining, logging, kauri-gum digging and drainage schemes. The first three transformed the peninsula, while drainage of wetlands opened the way to farming on the plains. In the later 20th and early 21st centuries, holidaymakers, tourists and migrants from urban life further transformed the peninsula.
The territory of the medieval Chola dynasty in south-eastern India was Cholamandalam, which meant the realm of the Cholas in the Tamil language. In the 1500s Portuguese traders turned that into Coromandel, and the usage was adopted by others.
To local Māori the entire region is called Hauraki, encompassing the waters and lands from Mahurangi on the coast north of Auckland to the northern entrance to Tauranga Harbour in the south-east – ‘Mai i Mahurangi ki Ngā Kurī-a-Whārei’ (‘from Mahurangi to Ngā Kurī-a-Whārei’, a prominence just north of the harbour entrance).
The name Coromandel stems from a British ship which collected kauri spars (masts and booms) in 1821. Lieutenant James Cook named the Firth of Thames and called the Waihou River ‘the river Thames’. The region surrounding the river was often called Thames valley until recently, and ‘Thames Valley’ is still used in the name of the local rugby football union and some other district organisations. Hauraki–Coromandel refers to the combined areas of the Thames–Coromandel and Hauraki district councils. Both districts lie within the area covered by the Waikato regional council.
The Coromandel Peninsula dominates the region. To local tribes the peninsula is a great waka (canoe), its stern at Moehau, near the tip of the peninsula, and its bow at Te Aroha. It divides the waters of the Hauraki Gulf and Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa – the Pacific Ocean.
The Hauraki Plains, a drained swamp, are part of the largest single area of flat land in the North Island – the 1,600 sq km Hauraki depression or basin.
The region has an indented coastline, many islands and swampy lowlands. Water was useful for transport and provided sustenance. Māori navigated coastal waters and exploited the resources they found there. The swamps were valued for eels, waterfowl and materials for building, especially raupō and flax.
Sailing ships and boats gave Europeans ready access to the coasts and inland rivers. James Cook, who travelled up the Waihou River in a longboat in 1769, was the first European to venture inland. The choice of Auckland as New Zealand’s capital in 1840 brought colonising pressures close to Hauraki. Pākehā settlers’ hunger for kauri timber and gold brought them closer still. Hauraki Māori frequently became indebted, with land loss often the result. Most land had passed into settler hands by 1880.
From 1860 to 1920 timber, gold and kauri gum were exploited to exhaustion, with little consideration for the natural environment. More far-sighted settlers were concerned at the wastage of valuable resources.
Since 1900 dairy farming has been the region’s principal industry. Unlike the economic activities it supplanted, it was sustainable, although continuing intensification of production on the Hauraki Plains has raised concerns about fertiliser and stock effluent runoff into the Firth of Thames.
Holidaymakers and tourists have contributed to the economy since the 1940s. In the 1970s Coromandel became known for its alternative values, communal lifestyles and environmental politics. It is no coincidence that the Values Party, and its successor the Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand, developed electoral bases in the region. Coromandel resident Jeanette Fitzsimons, co-leader of the Green Party from 1995 to 2009, was a member of Parliament from 1996 to 2010 and represented the Coromandel electorate from 1999 to 2002.
Against this backdrop gold mining resumed at Waihī in 1987, but under strict environmental regulation. However, rehabilitation of worked-out land remained a challenge. In 2010 the government unsuccessfully canvassed opening some high-value conservation land to gold prospecting.
The Hauraki Fault, which runs down the west side of the Coromandel Peninsula, is the axis of the Hauraki–Coromandel region. Movement on the fault line created both the mountains to its east and the basin to its west.
The base rock of the Coromandel Peninsula is greywacke, a sedimentary rock deposited on the sea floor about 150 million years ago. Its later uplift and folding formed the Coromandel Range and the peninsula’s general shape. Greywacke is exposed only in parts between Tapu and Cape Colville; it is overlain elsewhere by more recent volcanic rocks.
Between 20 and 10 million years ago a string of large andesitic volcanoes dominated the peninsula. They erupted intermittently, spewing lava and scattering ash and debris. All that remains of them are the ‘plugs’ or molten magma at their centres, the surrounding rock having long eroded away. Castle Rock (Motutere), south of Coromandel town, and Camel’s Back (Maumaupaki), inland from Tapu, are well-known examples.
A later volcanic period beginning about nine million years ago produced rhyolites in place of the older andesites. Instead of forming volcanic cones, rhyolites exploded from calderas – large, deep craters – and formed sheets of ignimbrite in places. Remnant spines and domes of calderas are found south of Whitianga, at Kapowai west of Tairua, and close to Waihī.
The gradient of the Hauraki Plains is slight, rising only about 3 metres over the 25 kilometres from the Firth of Thames to Paeroa. Flood protection of the surrounding countryside is a huge, ongoing task.
The sea (the Firth of Thames) covered the northern part of the depression on the western side of the peninsula, while the Waikato River flowed through the southern part (the Hauraki Plains) to the Firth of Thames. Vast quantities of river-transported muds, sands and gravels were deposited on the Hauraki Plains. About 20,000 years ago debris from a volcanic eruption at Rotorua blocked the Waikato River and redirected it to its present course through Hamilton to the Tasman Sea. The Waihou and Piako rivers are responsible for the recent alluvial deposits on the Hauraki Plains.
Coromandel’s coastal features were sculpted by changes in sea level over the last 70,000 years. When ice sheets expanded the sea fell, and when they contracted the sea rose. During ice ages streams cut deeply into the rocks to form steep-sided valleys. The rise in sea level since the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago, drowned many river systems, especially along the east coast at Whangamatā, Tairua and Whitianga. It also converted many coastal high-points into inshore islands, a particular scenic feature of the peninsula.
Because of its combination of mountains and lowlands, Hauraki–Coromandel has a wide range of local climates and native vegetation types for a coastal region in the upper North Island. At higher altitudes annual rainfall can be twice the volume and mean temperatures 7°C lower than on the plains. Subalpine plants occupy the summit of Moehau and regenerating conifer–broadleaf forests cover the lower slopes of the Coromandel Range, but little of the original kahikatea forest, flax and raupō survive on the Hauraki Plains.
Summer temperatures are warm and winter frosts are light and infrequent in the lowlands. In the Waihou valley temperatures range from a daily average of 10°C in the winter to 19°C in the summer. In the mountains temperature falls rapidly with elevation. Te Aroha mountain has a yearly average of 8°C, compared with 14–15°C on the Hauraki Plains. The exposure of mountainsides to chilling winds further lowers temperatures.
Hauraki–Coromandel has a moist to wet climate resulting from elevation and exposure to rain-bearing winds. Annual rainfall varies from 1,150 mm in low-lying areas to 2,500 mm at higher altitudes.
Summer droughts result when anticyclones become stationary for extended periods. Sustained heavy rainfall occurs at higher altitudes as a result of intense cyclones. If soils are already saturated, runoff from the Coromandel and Kaimai ranges causes flooding on the plains.
Despite 70 years of land drainage and river control, the Hauraki Plains was struck by one of the greatest floods in its 20th-century history in 1981. Thames was cut off by floodwaters for several days.
The Coromandel Range supported conifer–broadleaf forests, including stands of kauri, before the widespread logging and burning brought by European settlement. In recent times forest protection has reversed some of this destruction.
The canopy trees include rimu and rātā, with some miro, tōtara, kahikatea and mataī. Some large kauri have survived in steep, remote areas that loggers were unable to work, for example, at Manaia and Waiomu.
Regenerated native forest consists of rewarewa, kāmahi, kānuka and mānuka, with some pockets of small kauri.
Great kahikatea forests occupied the higher ground of the swamps of the Hauraki Plains before the arrival of Europeans. Flax, raupō, sedges and mosses occupied areas where water was permanent rather than seasonal. The Kōpūatai Peat Dome, west and south-west of Paeroa, is the only lowland ecosystem in New Zealand that remains substantially intact.
The Coromandel Peninsula is home to some distinctive fauna. Archey’s frog, one of four native New Zealand frogs, is only found in the Coromandel and a part of the King Country. The Moehau stag beetle is found only in the northern part of the Coromandel Peninsula, in secluded, moist environments.
A number of the offshore islands are sanctuaries for birds. Whanganui Island in Coromandel Harbour is the site of a breeding programme for the endangered North Island weka. Along with Northland and the Marlborough Sounds, Coromandel is one of the New Zealand homes of the reef heron, a bird found throughout the western Pacific.
Possums, pigs and goats are the most common feral animals, the latter in sufficient numbers for hunting in some of the larger blocks of the Coromandel Forest Park.
Rich in the resources needed to sustain human life and located alongside much-used waterways, Hauraki had a turbulent Māori history of migration, warfare and intense competition over natural resources.
In 1964 a fish lure made from the shell of a pearl oyster was found during an archaeological dig at Tairua. Given the absence of pearl oysters in New Zealand waters, it must have belonged to a migrant from East Polynesia.
The islands of the Hauraki Gulf and the Coromandel Peninsula were likely places of first landfall for Polynesian migrants around 1250–1300 CE.
Archaeological investigation of middens (ancient refuse heaps) on east coast beaches of the peninsula in the 1960s revealed evidence of moa hunting and raids on seal rookeries.
The Māori names of Hauraki places tell the story of discovery and settlement, beginning with the exploits of the mythical Māui.
Hauraki itself means the north-west wind, which brought many raiding parties to the region.
Coromandel excavations have contributed much to the development of archaeological ideas in New Zealand. In the 1930s curio-hunters found numerous highly developed artefacts at Ōruarangi, a swamp pā close to the mouth of the Waihou River. Archaeologist Jack Golson observed that these belonged to a much more advanced material culture than that of the first settlers. He proposed two phases in Māori culture: archaic, 1250–1500, and classic, 1500–1769. Present-day archaeologists are inclined to shorten the archaic phase by about 100 years, suggesting a faster rate of adaptation.
Ngāti Hako are the oldest surviving tribe of Hauraki. Their origins are unclear, but they are said to descend from the voyager Toi.
Both Te Arawa and Tainui canoes arrived in Hauraki from East Polynesia, having first made landfall at Whangaparāoa at the far eastern end of Te Moana-nui-a-Toi (the Bay of Plenty). Tainui continued to Kāwhia on the west coast, whilst Te Arawa made a final landfall at Maketū in the Bay of Plenty, but some crew members remained in Hauraki. Ngāti Hei, the descendants of Hei, the brother of Te Arawa chief Tamatekapua, and Ngāti Huarere, the descendants of his grandson Huarere, dominated Hauraki for 300 years. In the 2000s Ngāti Hei retain their Te Arawa identity and affiliation.
After 1550 several waves of Tainui peoples entered Hauraki from the west and south-west. Hotunui arrived first, then his son Marutūahu, and a little later his other sons. Pāoa, from another Tainui line, arrived last. The Tainui migrants fought and conquered Ngāti Huarere. They formed the Marutūahu confederation of tribes: Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Rongoū, Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Whanaunga and Ngāti Pāoa.
Competition for resources among the Marutūahu peoples was intense. The aim was to gain access to a variety of resources – such as eel weirs, inshore fisheries, kauri groves – rather than to consolidate large territories. The result was a patchwork of customary rights, all needing to be defended against the claims of others.
The Thames foreshore was one of the richest flatfish grounds in the country. The two kilometres from Tararū hill to the mouth of the Kauaeranga River was divided into 45 separate tribal or hapū interests, each demarcated by inshore stakes.
The Waihou River was a ready-made highway and the vast swamp around it was a rich source of food. Despite the discomfort of living surrounded by water, the remains of many settlements are found along the river. Māori used sand and shells to raise settlements above high-water mark. The ‘swamp pā’ of Ōruarangi and Pāterangi at Kōpū, and Kākaramea at Hikutaiā, were then the largest pā.
In 1983 earth-moving work in the river uncovered large middens at a bend in the Ōhinemuri River near Paeroa. Archaeological investigation showed this to be the site of Te Raupa pā, which missionary Samuel Marsden visited in 1820. It was then the largest swamp pā on the Waihou River.
In November 1769, Lieutenant James Cook spent three weeks in the region. He observed the transit of Mercury at Whitianga, sailed around the Coromandel Peninsula into the Firth of Thames, and spent two days on the Waihou River. Botanist Joseph Banks declared the Hauraki Plains to be ‘the properest place we have yet seen for establishing a colony’.1 The immense trees, good anchorages and fertile soils greatly impressed the visitors, whose glowing reports brought Hauraki to the attention of Europe.
A kahikatea in the vicinity of present-day Hikutaiā had a circumference of 6 metres and a height of 27.2 metres to the first branch. When it was felled in about 1900, its trunk proved to be hollow.
Britain’s shipbuilding industry faced serious shortages of masts and spars in the late 18th century. The reports of Cook and Banks encouraged timber vessels to look to New Zealand. Among the six timber ships known to have visited the Waihou River at this time were the Fancy in 1794, the Hunter in 1798 and the Royal Admiral in 1801.
These vessels took spars of kahikatea, a soft timber which was in fact unsuitable for naval purposes. It was only around 1820 that a vessel – HMS Coromandel – visited Hauraki for the more suitable kauri spars. It was followed by HMS Buffalo in 1833 and 1837. Sydney companies entered the Hauraki timber trade in the mid-1830s.
Hauraki Māori welcomed early European contact because of the goods it brought – in particular, iron tools and new crops, which they could obtain in exchange for food and labour.
Marutūahu expansion to Tāmaki and Mahurangi, on the far side of the Hauraki Gulf, had led to conflict with Ngāti Whātua and Ngāpuhi in the late 1700s. Meanwhile, internal jealousies and tensions continued.
Shortly before 1820 a dispute between Ngāti Pāoa and Ngāti Maru led each to seek external allies. Ngāpuhi to the north remained eager to settle old scores with Marutūahu and were acquiring muskets through trade with Europeans. The stage was set for warfare on a new scale.
Ngāpuhi defeated Ngāti Pāoa at Mokoia-Mauinaina (Panmure) and Ngāti Maru at Te Tōtara (Thames) in 1821. The Marutūahu tribes fled inland to refuges in Waikato (around present-day Cambridge), leaving Hauraki virtually depopulated.
By 1830 Marutūahu had outstayed their welcome in Waikato; after the battle of Taumatawīwī, between Marutūahu and the local Ngāti Hāua people, they returned to Thames, prompted also by the arrival of European traders there.
In the early 1830s, the first resident European traders arrived in the Firth of Thames: flax traders at the mouths of the Piako and Waihou rivers. Soon after, Gordon Browne established a timber-trading station at Whitianga and William Webster established another at Coromandel Harbour. Places of European economic activity became magnets for the Māori population.
The Anglican Church Missionary Society established a mission station at Pūriri, on the lower Waihou, in 1833. The ‘Waharoa war’ in 1836 amongst inland and Bay of Plenty tribes greatly set back its work, although Hauraki kept out of the fighting. In 1837 the Pūriri station, surrounded by swamp, was abandoned for healthier locations at Parawai (Thames) and Maraetai.
The Māori population of Hauraki was probably about 6,000 in 1800, 5,000 in 1820, 1,000 through the rest of the 1820s – the years of the exodus – and 4,000 in the 1830s.
The toll taken by European diseases on Māori probably increased after 1840 because of the greater settler presence. An 1858 census by Francis Fenton put the population at 2,000.
Chiefs of Ngāti Pāoa signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Waitematā in 1840, but most other Hauraki chiefs chose not to, fearing a loss of independence. Tāraia of Ngāti Tamaterā led a war party to Tauranga in 1842, in open defiance of British authority. Until the 1860s Hauraki Māori generally managed their own affairs and often used muru (traditional plunder) against offending settlers.
Hauraki Māori were well placed to supply Auckland’s settlers with food. Their canoes carried fish, vegetables and fruit from the Firth of Thames and the Waihou River. In the 1840s and 1850s they purchased schooners and cutters for trade, greater ease of travel, and mana.
In his journal G. S. Cooper, New Zealand’s first treasurer and collector of customs, wrote of travelling from Tararū to Kaweranga (Parawai) mission station: ‘Our walk was about three miles in length, nearly the whole of it over a beautifully cultivated flat, inhabited by a great number of natives.’1
Yet Hauraki was a region of mountains and extensive wetlands, with only small river flats except at the mouth of the Waihou River. Scope for large-scale agriculture was limited.
Early Hauraki successes in the colonial economy were reversed by the crash in Australian food markets in 1856, increasing soil infertility and mounting debts.
Fears of European domination led to widespread support for the Kīngitanga (the Māori King movement) in Hauraki, in defence of land and independence, rather than in defiance of the Crown. The subsequent invasion of Waikato by Crown forces brought them close to Hauraki Māori land on the west side of Tīkapa Moana (the Firth of Thames). A minority of Hauraki fought Crown troops on the Great South Road and in the Hūnua Ranges until December 1863. The Crown built a line of redoubts (forts) between Pūkorokoro (Miranda) on the Firth of Thames and Pōkeno on the Waikato River, and enforced a naval blockade of the Firth of Thames.
In January 1865 the Crown confiscated the 20,000-hectare East Wairoa block, which lay in the Hūnua Ranges, alleging Hauraki involvement in the war. In Treaty of Waitangi claims hearings in the early 2000s, the Crown accepted that this action was unjust.
Auckland businesses were eager to profit from Hauraki timber. Hauraki Māori sold cutting rights to individual trees in the 1850s and to entire forests between 1860 and 1875.
Europeans were drawn to Hauraki before 1840 by its timber and water access. They acquired land at Coromandel Harbour, Tairua, Whangapoua, Whitianga, Hikutaiā and Paeroa.
Crown land purchasing was slow in Hauraki after 1840 and stopped altogether in the late 1850s because of Māori opposition. After 1865 the Native Land Court introduced a new land tenure system based on the ownership and sale of individual interests, which undermined tribal management and ownership of land. The Māori population in the region dropped to about 1,500 in the 1880s.
The Crown proclaimed exclusive right of purchase over large areas of Hauraki from 1872 to 1897. Sometimes divisive and questionable methods were used, such as giving credit to individuals which was secured by land owned collectively, and then taking the land if they were unable to pay. On the open market Māori land might have fetched higher prices.
The proportion of Māori land in Hauraki fell from 80–90% in 1865 to 15–20% in 1899. The Crown purchased most remaining Māori interests in the Hauraki Plains in the 1910s.
In the early 2000s about 2% of Hauraki remained under Māori ownership, mainly at Kennedy Bay, Mataora and Manaia.
Hori Watene of Ngāti Tamaterā testified to the MacCormick Commission in 1935: ‘Where the carcass lie, the ravens will fly … That ugly carcass – gold, lay right in our midst … Why what a curse.’2
At Coromandel, the site of the first gold discoveries in 1852, the Crown and Māori negotiated a gold agreement by which Māori landowners would receive payments based on the number of miners on the field.
The two parties reached similar gold agreements at Coromandel in 1862 and at Thames in 1867. Again, the cession of mining rights entailed Māori consultation and consent. This principle changed in 1868 when, at Thames, the Crown converted miners’ rights into mining leases without Māori consent. James Mackay, as Crown official and as a private land agent, played a leading role in gold negotiations from 1867 to 1875.
Ngāti Tamaterā of Ōhinemuri, under their chief Te Hira Te Tuiri, resisted gold mining in their district, but in 1875 were forced to yield because their land had been used as security on credit.
After 1870 the Crown sought to buy the freehold of gold-bearing land, to achieve better control of goldfields. Māori found themselves pressured into selling land, rather than leasing it for gold-mining, and lost the gold revenues.
The costs for Māori of gold extraction in Hauraki were considerable. They included a massive influx of Europeans, disruption to communities and accelerated loss of land.
Kauri grew throughout the extensive forests of the peninsula before the arrival of Europeans. It is the second-largest and second-longest-living tree in the world. Botanist Thomas Kirk wrote in awe of ‘one of the grandest sights in the vegetable world. Magnificent columns, from 50ft to 60ft [15 m to 18 m] to the first branch, and from 4ft to 8ft [1.2 m to 2.4 m] in diameter, rise in rank after rank’.1
The largest kauri tree ever recorded, at Mercury Bay, had a circumference of 23.77 metres and a height of 24.3 metres to the first branch – twice the bulk of Tāne Mahuta in the Waipoua Forest. Another tree, with a diameter of 7.3 metres, was thought to be 4,000 years old.
The region’s kauri were first exploited for spars for sailing ships. Around 1820 HMS Coromandel loaded spars at the harbour that now carries its name. Ships visited to obtain spars until the late 1850s.
The elasticity of kauri timber and the length of the tree’s trunk made it well suited for ship hulls. Numerous schooners and cutters were built in small shipbuilding yards in the Hauraki Gulf and on the Coromandel Peninsula before larger yards in Auckland and at Mahurangi took over in the 1870s. Kauri was also used for building houses and in mines.
Getting logs to the coast was a challenge. Water, released from behind dams, was used to drive logs down to tramways or rivermouths.
The steep catchments, fast-flowing rivers and V-shaped valleys of the Coromandel lent themselves to the use of such dams. More than 200 dams were built in the Whangapoua, Tairua and Kauaeranga river catchments.
After six months’ hard work in the bush, many bushmen hit town for a spree: a short spell of binge drinking, gambling and visits to prostitutes, until the money ran out. Others spent their money more carefully, saving for land and a house. Bushmen on the steamer from Thames to Auckland cut dashing figures in newly purchased suits and trilby hats.
Saw pits operated by two men with a cross-cut saw gave way to water-driven mills in the 1840s, and to steam-driven mills in the 1860s.
In 1888 the Kauri Timber Company, a Melbourne enterprise, bought up virtually all cutting rights to standing kauri on the peninsula. Its production peaked in 1901–2.
Kauri gum had a number of uses, including making varnish. The first gum diggers in Hauraki were Māori displaced by the wars of the 1860s, who worked swamps and river flats before moving on to forests. Local Māori landowners also participated. Europeans joined them later in the century. These hardy workers used fire to clear the land of vegetation and, until the practice was banned, ‘bled’ trees – making cuts in the trunk to gain the gum within, rather than retrieving it from swamps or the base of trees.
The kauri-timber industry used trees wastefully and with little heed to forest regeneration:
The Murray men, workers in the Kauaeranga valley, were colossal for the era: George was 2.03 metres tall and weighed 127 kilograms. His sons, Jack and Ivan, were not much smaller.
Bush work called for men of physical strength – ‘hulking great fellows’ and ‘strapping great men’, by one account – but also coordination and endurance.2 Swinging an axe, heaving a pit saw and carrying a timber jack (around 38 kilograms) all day were the bushman’s lot – 58 hours a week, with only Sunday off.
Bush camps varied in size from a nīkau hut shared by several men to a cluster of timber shanties occupied by 20 or 30 men. It was a male world of austere living conditions, no indulgences except food, and strict rules – such as a prohibition on alcohol and gambling for money – to help keep the peace. Meat and potatoes were staples for evening meals, cooked slowly in the camp oven while the men were at work.
From 1902 the trees ran out and loggers resorted to reworking areas. By the 1920s the hills were ‘cut-over’, scarred and visually devastated. The last major logging operations and dam drives on the peninsula were in the Kauaeranga valley in the early 1920s.
About 400 hectares of mature kauri trees survive in the 2000s, located in areas too difficult to log during the timber boom. The main stands are in the Moehau ecological area, the Manaia Forest Sanctuary and the upper reaches of the Tairua River. Individual giants can be seen elsewhere, closer to the road.
In 1972 some of the largest kauri trees at Manaia were marked for felling under the New Zealand Forest Service’s ‘sustainable yield policy’. Protest by local conservationists helped save the trees and create the Manaia sanctuary.
The Coromandel Forest Park (73,000 hectares) was created in 1971 to promote public recreation and conserve surviving native forest. It is divided into a number of blocks: Moehau, Waikawau, Kauaeranga, Hikuai and Maratoto, with smaller areas at Kennedy Bay, Ōtama and Whenuakite.
Most Coromandel gold was locked up in quartz reefs, unlike in the South Island where a lot of gold was alluvial – found in rivers and easily recoverable by small groups of miners. Extraction of quartz gold required machinery and capital available only to gold-mining companies.
The hard quartz had to be pounded into a powder by stamper batteries consisting of rows of iron hammers or stamps. Then water was added to the powder to create a slurry, followed by mercury to catch the gold. This method worked well with high-grade quartz, but not where the gold was fine or mixed with sulphides.
The cyanide process, introduced in the 1890s, largely solved the problems of the mercury process, enabling the recovery of high levels of gold and silver from all grades of ore.
The discovery of gold at Coromandel Harbour in 1852 triggered a rush from Auckland, but diggers found little alluvial gold and the rush quickly petered out. The goldfield had little success until the arrival of well-financed companies with quartz-crushing equipment in the late 1860s. New gold discoveries in the wider area sustained the industry until the end of the century.
The greatest strike of all was the Caledonian mine. On one occasion blasting brought down two tons of ore which yielded 25,000 ounces (709 kilograms) of bullion. However, generally great toil brought little return.
The Thames goldfield made a slow start in 1867, as once again only quartz gold was found. Then the discovery of several gold-rich reefs created a town overnight – and New Zealand’s first stock-market boom. Output steadily declined from 1871. About 75% of the bullion (gold and silver) came from ‘strikes’ – gold-rich pockets in quartz reefs, which were found in an area of less than 80 hectares.
Thames’s population was 15,000 in 1868, 8,000 in 1874, 6,000 in 1881, 4,500 in 1896, and 3,750 in 1906.
In its heyday Thames was a place of noise, smoke and mud. Day and night the ground trembled from the shock of stamps, waterwheels creaked, and chimneys belched smoke. Poorly drained roads became seas of mud. All the trees close to the town were felled for houses or mine props. The scarred landscape pierced by countless tunnels resembled an immense rabbit warren.
Around 80% of the bullion extracted from the Coromandel between 1860 and 1950 was silver – which sold at an average of two shillings an ounce, compared with 80 shillings an ounce for gold.
The Ōhinemuri goldfield was opened in 1875, but took off only in the 1890s when a new cyanide process made the working of low-grade ores profitable. The Crown mine operated until 1928 and the Talisman mine until 1939.
Gold was discovered at Martha hill, Waihī, in 1878, but ore grades were low. The cyanide process, which made mining profitable, turned Waihī into one of the great gold-mining districts of the world by 1900. Waihī was a bustling town of 5,600 residents in 1906, larger than Thames and overshadowing Hamilton’s 2,000. After the exhaustion of near-surface reserves, deep shafts were sunk down to 570 metres.
Ore production peaked in 1909 at 400,000 tons, and it stayed around 200,000 tons per year in the 1920s and 1930s. Low ore grades, labour shortages and a low international gold price forced closure of the Martha mine in 1952. It had produced more than twice the gold and silver of all the other New Zealand goldfields put together, and accounted for around 60% of all the gold produced in the Coromandel.
Miners’ work was hard and risky, and usually had low returns. They pursued gold-bearing reefs with picks, chisels, rock drills and explosives. They drove adits (horizontal tunnels), sank shafts (vertical holes) and excavated areas of gold-bearing quartz. Then they wheelbarrowed, railed or hoisted the quartz and waste rock to the surface – danger always close at hand.
At Waihī six miners died in the pit in 1910. Miners grew increasingly unhappy with the arbitration system as a means of improving terms and conditions of employment. In 1912 they went on strike, angered by the mining company’s recognition of a separate union for engine drivers. For six months Waihī was locked in an industrial conflict that divided the nation. A miner, Fred Evans, was beaten to death before order and normality were restored.
In the 2000s the Coromandel Peninsula was once more a gold-mining region. The Martha mine reopened in 1987, the Favona mine in Waihī opened in 2006 and the Golden Cross mine operated from 1991 to 1998. In 2010 the government unsuccessfully advocated opening Crown lands on the peninsula to mineral prospecting – including small areas with high conservation value.
Extensive mountains, forest cover and lowland wetlands made Hauraki generally unsuitable for farming in its natural state. The draining of the Hauraki Plains after 1908 enabled great expansion in dairying.
Kahikatea stood supreme in the vast wetland covering the Hauraki Plains. Though unsuitable for construction, it was ideal for making butter boxes.
In 1869 the Hauraki Sawmilling Company established a mill at Tūrua on the Waihou River. It was at the forest’s edge and had a deep anchorage for ocean-going ships. Bagnall Bros bought the mill in 1877 and developed it into one of the largest in the country’s history.
Tramlines radiated from Tūrua and logs were floated down the Waihou River to the mill.
In 1913 Bagnalls began winding down their operation, the kahikatea of the plains now all but exhausted like the kauri of the peninsula.
In the early 20th century the Crown took over many local drainage schemes because of the vast sums of money needed. A government officer envisaged ‘that vast plain covered with smiling homesteads instead of being inhabited by wild duck and such game’.1
The Crown’s Hauraki Plains drainage scheme had two dimensions: flood control of the Waihou River and draining of the swamps of the Hauraki Plains.
The Hauraki Plains Act 1908 and the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers Improvement Act 1910 provided the necessary legal machinery.
The scheme was colossal in both scale and scope. Work included the building of:
Strong hard-working men were needed for this work: Dalmatians drawn from the gum-digging fields, Australians based in camps at Tūrua and Ngātea, and local Māori who excelled at river clearance. There was much back-breaking manual work, often conducted under wet conditions, despite the extensive use of heavy machinery such as dredges.
As land was reclaimed, it was made available to settlers through ballot. In one of the largest and most successful land development schemes in the country, more than 15,000 hectares was distributed to 270 settlers between 1910 and 1914.
Improved transport and land consolidation saw farmers change from beef cattle to dairying. Each dairying district acquired its own small dairy factory. Dairying on the plains came in the nick of time to offset the downturn in the gold industry at Thames.
Historian A. M. Isdale wrote of Thames: ‘It lay sleeping, awaiting the magic kiss of a golden prince. It awoke to the warm breath of a cow licking its face.’2
Little did the farmers taking up 50-acre (20-hectare) blocks on the plains realise the struggles that lay ahead – fescue infestation of pasture and resulting stock losses, land turned rock-hard by summer drought and waterlogged by winter rains, endless demands on limited capital.
In 2007 there were 180,000 dairy cows in Hauraki–Coromandel – about 20% of them on the peninsula and 80% on the plains. All other types of farming trailed far behind.
Although dairying has brought wealth to the region, cow effluent and fertiliser runoff pose threats to water quality if not carefully managed.
Gold has been a major force in the government and politics of Hauraki–Coromandel. In the historical mining era, several levels of settler government contested the control of gold revenues. Māori had little political influence after 1870, as local members of Parliament voiced miners’ concerns.
Localism has been another influence: localities chose to break away from parent counties, to concentrate resources and expertise on their particular needs. Local government amalgamations in 1975 and 1989 reversed this process.
In a poll in 1908 Ōhinemuri voted to go dry – to prohibit the sale of liquor within the district, a ban which lasted until 1926. Miners from Waihī would catch the train to the Pioneer hotel at Hikutaiā, just beyond the county boundary, and return, drunk and disorderly, hours later.
In 1975 Thames-Coromandel district council replaced Thames and Coromandel counties and Thames borough.
In 1989 Hauraki district council replaced Hauraki Plains and most of Ōhinemuri counties and Paeroa and Waihī boroughs.
Thames and Coromandel achieved early prominence in national politics because of strong local representation and the importance of gold mining to the national economy. George Grey, formerly the governor, won the Thames seat in 1876 and served as premier from 1877 to 1879.
Alfred Cadman, a sawmiller and former member for Coromandel, was elected to the Thames seat in 1890. He held important portfolios in the Liberal governments of the 1890s. Liberal domination of the Thames electorate was based on miners’ support.
At the 1935 general election the Ōhinemuri electorate (incorporating Ōhinemuri , Thames and Coromandel) joined the landslide to the Labour Party. By the 1940s, however, the region also included a substantial small-town and farming vote. The National Party won the Thames electorate in 1946. The Social Credit party polled well among disgruntled small farmers in the 1970s, but National’s hold was never seriously threatened.
In the 1999 general election Jeanette Fitzsimons won the Coromandel seat for the Green Party, ending a 53-year-long National electoral hold on it. In 2002 Sandra Goudie won back Coromandel for National. She was succeeded by Scott Simpson in 2011.
Until 2022 Hauraki–Coromandel was served by Waikato district health board and, before that, Waikato hospital board. Thames hospital serves the region, and has a dedicated birthing unit.
Thames High School, established in 1880, is one of the oldest secondary schools in the upper North Island. In 2010 other secondary schools included Paeroa College, Hauraki Plains College (formerly Ngatea District High School) and Waihi College. There are area schools (combined primary and secondary) on the peninsula at Coromandel, Whitianga (Mercury Bay) and Whangamatā.
Until the 1940s mountains, rocky coastlines on the peninsula and wetlands on the plains obstructed movement by land in Hauraki–Coromandel, while long coastlines, rivers and sea access to Auckland promoted movement by water. Gold mining was a great spur to the completion of the branch rail line from Morrinsville to Thames in 1898. An Auckland–Thames road link was only built in the 1930s.
In the absence of land access, settlements were isolated and dependent upon the occasional visits of coastal vessels for communication with the outside world. Ships were built on the peninsula for both Māori and settlers.
The kauri timber trade required sailing vessels to transport logs and sawn timber to Auckland and beyond: first schooners, and from the 1880s scows – shallow-draught vessels capable of carrying twice their tonnage in timber. In the kahikatea timber trade, square-rigged ships delivered cargoes from Tūrua to Sydney and Melbourne.
Northern Steamship Company vessels carried passengers between Auckland and the main settlements of the peninsula. Until the 1940s, and the advent of improved roads, boats were necessary to reduce the isolation of life on the peninsula.
For centuries Māori used the Waihou River to reach Ōhinemuri and Te Aroha. Europeans were quick to appreciate its importance as a route into the interior. Entrepreneur Josiah Clifton Firth cleared the river by 1880 to improve access to his Matamata estate, but eventually went bankrupt.
Work on clearing the river resumed with the opening of the Ōhinemuri goldfield in 1875. By the 1880s small paddle steamers were plying the river as far as Paeroa. Silting caused by mine tailings was a constant problem, but passenger traffic continued until the 1920s, and barge traffic until the mid-1950s.
On the Hauraki Plains only travel by water was possible until well into the 20th century. The drainage scheme included the building of many wharves. A passenger steamship service operated on the Piako River from 1910 to 1932, and a freight service until 1948.
The telegraph line between Auckland and Wellington, opened in 1872, went across hill country between Whangamatā and Hikutaiā because a line through the Ōhinemuri gorge was unacceptable to Ngāti Tamaterā and its chief Te Hira Te Tuiri. In 2010 Wires Road and the Old Wires Track at Maratoto, north-east of Paeroa, were reminders of its route.
Gold mining accelerated the making of a rail link. Transporting mining equipment, coal and building supplies from Paeroa to the gold workings by horse teams was expensive. Coal from Huntly was needed to run a ‘big pump’ for the mines at Thames. The rail line reached Paeroa in 1895, Thames in 1898 and Waihī in 1905.
The Paeroa–Te Aroha road was opened in 1881 and a daily Paeroa–Thames coach service began a year later. Communities on the peninsula had to wait until after 1945 for reliable connecting roads.
Gold mining, which the railway was introduced to serve, ended in the 1920s – except at Waihī. The rail service to Waihī continued until 1978, when the completion of the Kaimai tunnel opened a direct route between Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. The service to Paeroa and Thames continued until 1985.
The central 47.2 metres of the historic Kōpū bridge turned on a central pier, providing passage for medium-sized vessels. After remaining closed for some years, it was opened several times in 2002 for a tourist boat.
The Kōpū bridge across the Waihou River, which filled the final gap in the Auckland–Thames road in 1928, sealed the transition from river (and rail) to road transport in the region. It is the only surviving swing-span road bridge in the country, but in summer its single lane caused major traffic jams.
Work on a new 580-metre two-lane Kōpū bridge began in 2009. It was opened in December 2011, in time for holiday traffic. In 2018 the Kopu Bridge and Community Trust planned to restore the bridge for use by pedestrians and as a cycleway adjacent to the Hauraki Rail Trail.
Of the 18,500 Europeans living in the region in 1911 the vast majority were in the gold-mining towns of Waihī, Thames, Karangahake and Coromandel, with smaller numbers involved in logging and sawmilling around Whangapoua, Mercury Bay and Tairua.
The demise of large-scale mining and logging led to population decline on the peninsula and in Waihī in the 1910s and 1920s, followed by slow growth. In 1926 this part of the region had just over 15,000 non-Māori, and in 1961 just under 17,000.
The development of dairying led to a population increase on the plain, with the non-Māori population of Hauraki Plains county rising from around 3,600 in 1921 to 5,752 in 1956. The former mining towns benefited. The population of Thames rose in the 1910s, and again in the 1950s and 1960s; Paeroa’s population rose throughout the period and Waihī’s stabilised.
The Māori population of the region was 1,744 (8% of the regional total) in 1926 and 2,423 (8.9%) in 1961, of whom about two-thirds lived outside the three main towns of Thames, Paeroa and Waihī. In 2013 the Māori population was 18.4% of the total. It was still one-third rural, compared with 16% nationally.
Only 12 people lived on Coromandel islands in 2006: they were found on Whanganui, Great Mercury and Slipper islands.
The western coast from Thames to just north of Coromandel town was the part of the peninsula most accessible to Auckland and Hamilton, and after 1945 it was dotted with motor camps and baches (holiday houses). Holidaymakers also made their way over poor roads to Whitianga and the newly established town of Whangamatā on the east coast. The population fell again in the autumn.
More substantial developments took place from the mid-1960s, particularly on the eastern coast, which was easily reached from Auckland and Hamilton with the opening of the Kōpū–Hikuai highway across the peninsula in 1967, and had fewer mudflats than the western coast.
Urban-style subdivision of land took place at Whitianga, elsewhere on Mercury Bay and at Whangamatā. Better-off city dwellers, seeking more comfortable holiday housing and greater services, were the principal buyers. At Pāuanui the Hopper brothers developed an entirely new settlement.
Newcomers to western coast settlements, particularly north of Coromandel town, were more likely to pursue alternative lifestyles on minimal incomes, housing themselves in modest, but often idiosyncratic, dwellings.
In the early 2000s the summer population on the peninsula increased to around 150,000, six times that through the rest of the year, which put great pressure on roads, water and waste services.
The peninsula also attracts many short-stay (on average four days) domestic and foreign visitors throughout the year: an estimated 2.4 million in 2006, of whom 85% were domestic. On census night in March 2013 the population of the peninsula was 29,394, compared with a usually resident population of just over 26,000.
In contrast to the peninsula resorts, the long-established towns – Thames, Paeroa and Waihī – saw little growth, partly on account of factory closures, whilst local rural populations were more stable.
The year-round labour force in the region worked mostly in industries such as fishing and construction. Service sector employment, other than that provided by schools and hospitals, was concentrated in the retail and hospitality sectors.
In 2013 Hauraki–Coromandel had a population profile which contrasted with that of the major cities but was characteristic of other parts of the upper North Island that were attractive to retired people and lacked a major urban centre. By comparison with New Zealand’s major cities:
Young, fit gold miners in Hauraki–Coromandel played rugby union from the 1880s. By the turn of the century the sport was organised in the Ōhinemuri district, with a ‘Goldfields’ rugby union established at Waihī in 1896 and a Paeroa union in 1902.
The Thames Valley Rugby Football Union was founded in 1921, with the unification of the Paeroa, Piako, Waihī and Hauraki Plains unions. Thames did not permanently join the Valley Union until 1951. The representative team, appropriately nicknamed the Swamp Foxes, won the third division title in the National Provincial Competition in 1988, 1990 and 1995. In 2018 Thames Valley won the Heartland Championship contested by minor unions.
The growing popularity with summer visitors of Coromandel’s east coast surf beaches has given rise to a sport and an invaluable community service. Whangamatā, Tairua, Pāuanui and Hot Water Beach have surf lifesaving clubs that patrol at holiday time.
Māori introduced horse racing to Thames in the 1850s. They helped establish the Thames Jockey Club in 1880 and participated in race meetings throughout Hauraki into the 20th century. The New Year meeting at Parawai Racecourse has long been a highlight of Thames’s sporting and social calendar.
The Ohinemuri Jockey Club was formed at Paeroa in 1876, the year after the goldfields opened. The coming of the railway 30 years later enabled thousands of punters from Auckland and Hamilton to attend fixtures at Paeroa.
Racing began at Waihī in 1894, in McRae’s paddock between Seddon Street and the railway station.
Bernard Freyberg was a champion swimmer as well as a distinguished soldier. In 1912, aged 22, he swam down the Waihou River from Te Aroha to near Paeroa in 10 hours, apparently emerging almost blue.
The Hauraki regiment was founded in 1898. Sergeant-Major George Bradford of the regiment was the first New Zealand soldier to die in an overseas war: in South Africa in 1899. The military career of Bernard Freyberg, future commander of the New Zealand forces in the Second World War, began in the Hauraki regiment.
Thames-born Keith Park, who served with the British Royal Air Force, played a leading role in the Battle of Britain. Since 1999 the Hauraki regiment has been the 6th Hauraki battalion group, a unit of the New Zealand Army Reserve (a territorial force), with its headquarters in Tauranga.
Peninsula towns such as Coromandel and Whitianga have long attracted writers, artists and craftspeople such as Eric Lee-Johnson, Rei Hamon, Michael Smither, potters Barry Brickell and Helen Mason, historian Michael King and many others.
Fay Weldon’s autobiographical memoir Auto da fay (2002) evokes the holiday-time Coromandel of the 1940s.
The books of Veronica Black, Catherine Delahunty, Ann Bale, John Grainger and E. H. Audley bring to life Coromandel’s past. Many, shocked by the toll of extractive industries all around them, became environmentalists.
Since the 1960s smaller, uneconomic blocks have attracted ventures in alternative living. In the 2010s Wilderland, Mahana, Karuna Falls and Havalona intentional communities continued to function. These communities have helped to reverse rural depopulation and to promote sustainable resource use.
Settler history is kept alive by historical societies at Thames, Paeroa, Whitianga, Waihī and Ngātea, and by heritage groups dedicated to projects such as the Goldfields Railway and Victoria Battery restoration.
The investigation and hearing of Hauraki claims before the Waitangi Tribunal did much to revitalise Māori communities in Hauraki in the 1990s and early 2000s. Hauraki Māori have marae at Harataunga, Manaia, Whitianga, Whangamatā, Mataora, Waihī, Paeroa, Kerepehi, Kōpū and Kaiaua.
The late Pakariki Harrison of Harataunga was a leading Māori carver of his generation.
(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1971–2000)
(Multiple responses allowed)
Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Tamaterā, Ngāti Whanaunga, Ngāti Pāoa, Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Hei, Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Pukenga.
(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)
Barber, Laurie. No easy riches: a history of Ohinemuri County, Paeroa and Waihi, 1885–1985. Paeroa: Ohinemuri County Council, 1985.
Monin, Paul. This is my place: Hauraki contested, 1769–1875. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 2001.
Moore, Phil, and Neville Ritchie. Coromandel gold: a guide to the historic goldfields of Coromandel Peninsula. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press, 1996.
Orwin, Joanna. Kauri: witness to a nation’s history. Auckland: New Holland, 2004.
Park, Geoff. Ngā uruora: the groves of life: ecology and history in a New Zealand landscape. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1995.
Phillips, Caroline. Waihou journeys: the archaeology of 400 years of Māori settlement. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2000.