The miners were a mixed bunch, but they were dominated by a few groups. Myth may attribute the origins of many of those who mined in New Zealand to the Californian forty-niners, so named because of the 1849 rush to the Californian goldfields. But in truth few had ever set foot in California. The influx was from the Victorian goldfields, which had attracted British miners in the 1850s. They brought Victorian names with them – in Central Otago there is a Bendigo ghost town and a Ballarat Creek. Scottish, Irish and English miners made up roughly equal proportions on the Otago goldfields.
Log and chain
On Otago’s Arrow diggings in the 1860s there was no jail, so prisoners were often chained. One wild, drunken Irishman awoke to find himself attached to a log:
‘When he recovered he was attacked by a violent thirst, and seeing that he could not release himself from the log he hoisted it to his shoulder and walked with it to the nearest pub where the police found him drinking heartily with the log still athwart his shoulder.’ 1
Many miners who had not struck it lucky in Australia paid their fare and sailed across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand’s West Coast. A third to one-half of West Coast miners were Irish. English miners made up a third and most came from counties with a mining history such as Cornwall. Scattered among the British and Irish were Germans, Scandinavians, French, Italians, Chinese and other nationalities.
A sample of 1,587 miners treated at West Coast hospitals in the 1860s and 1870s revealed that some 80% were from the British Isles, 11% from continental Europe, and most of the rest from Australia or North America.
Goldfields were populated mainly by young single men looking to make their fortune, but there were also married men who had left wives and children at home. It was only on lucrative goldfields and hard-rock mines, which lasted beyond a few years, that women and children were more commonly seen. Early in the Otago rushes barmaids did not last long before they were married off. Publicans struggled to retain staff – they even advertised for the ugliest barmaids they could find, but those too received marriage proposals. The lines of an 1860s New Zealand folk song, ‘Bright fine gold’, summed up the outlook of a digger’s wife:
A new home
In the 1930s, when poverty was widespread, unemployed men took to prospecting. Fred Miller fossicked near Roxburgh in the Clutha River gorge. He found an old miner’s cave and made it habitable. His wife Peg, living in Dunedin, joined him with their three-year-old son:
‘I was almost afraid to look at Peg’s face … I knew it took all her courage to smile as she entered her new home, and as she unpacked and prepared a place in one corner for the child I pretended I did not see the tear that splashed on to her hands’. 2
I'm weary of Otago
I'm weary of the snow
Let my man strike it rich
And then we'll go.
But most men earned only enough to live on, if they were lucky.
Gold mining was a major source of employment in early New Zealand. After mining, many moved into farming or other professions. Those who were struck by gold fever stayed, living out their lives in shacks until they were too old or infirm to work a shovel and gold pan. These old prospectors were known as hatters. Their passing marked the end of a pioneering era, when men could be footloose drifters who entrusted their fate to gold in the gravel.