Updated: May 23, 2020
Who found gold on the Tableland, and in the Baton Valley? And who were these deluded diggers?
The mad rush for gold began in California during 1849, followed by similar developments in Canada, South Africa and Australia. In 1855, the first viable gold discoveries in Aotearoa were made up the Aorere Valley in Golden Bay. While George Lightband was allegedly awarded the £500 bonus for finding a payable goldfield, other diggers such as Rev. William Hough and John Park Salisbury missed out on the money, though their claims also proved profitable.
However, the Salisbury brothers had also discovered gold and coal up the Baton River, which they had named after a runaway sailor named Batteyn Norton. By 1857 the Baton valley rang to the sound of miners’ picks. By 1859 the transient population had swelled to 100, and diggers were harassing his sheep up the Baton Valley, so Salisbury sold the land.
When Thomas Salisbury laid claim to his discovery of gold on the Tableland, he was hoping to get the £500 bonus. It seems that wherever these lanky Lancashire lads found gold, other men followed hard on their heels. By 1865 there were about 30 hopeful diggers living on the Tableland. This new goldfield was parceled into a mosaic of disjointed claims. The main diggings were centered around Cundy Creek, a sunken gully of mossy forest clinging to the northern slopes of Balloon Hill. Further down the mountain near the junction of Cundy and Balloon Creeks is Golden Gully which proved to be the most lucrative location. (Photo: horseshoe hanging up at Balloon Hut.)
To shod the horses, a blacksmith lived under an overhanging rock on the western edge of the bush above Cundy Creek. A large, raised fireplace made of stones took centre stage. A variety of tools can still be seen today, scattered about, including a bucket, camp oven, and a mattock head. (See above).
Names of the early prospectors included George Cundy, Thomas Marshall Lowe, Dick Ross, Harry Robins and Robert Hawke (nicknamed Bob The Digger and remembered at Hawke Crag in the Buller Gorge). These high-altitude gold miners were amateurs, scratching like ragged chooks for minute grains.
Tragedy struck in the early snows of 1870 when Herbert Grooby walked off the Tableland into thin air. A 19-year-old Frenchman was lucky, when in 1887, a large rock fell onto his thigh, smashing the bone. Seventeen men carried the poor chap for twelve gruelling hours, by candlelight, along the track, reaching the Heaths’ home at 4am. One of the stretcher-carriers was Edward Mytton, who sometimes carried supplies in to the diggings. The Heath brothers were also packmen.
On the Tableland today, there is little sign of the desperate struggle to discover gold. Only the lonely grave of Edwin Moore survives in an obscure clearing above Cundy's Creek. A white wooden cross marks the burial site. In 1892 the ex-mariner died from a heart attack, aged 49 years old. The attending doctor was recorded as either Surgeon Dunn or Doctor Deck. Coroner Richmond Hursthouse travelled with Constable Thomas Boyes to perform an inquest and post-mortem on Moore’s body. Later on, a bullock was found dead in Moore’s whare. It must have got stuck while trying to reach the thatched roof, getting his horns tangled in the rafters. Many decades later, Forest Service ranger Denis Brereton made it his duty to erect a memorial cross at the location (see below).
Further west, Bill and Sydney Hodges built a water race on the tussock slopes below Mt Peel, hoping to provide enough water to wash gold. Today, the Hodge brothers’ parallel races are vaguely visible from near Balloon Hut, faint slashes in the tawny hillside on the southern side of Peel Ridge.
Billy Lyons was the most famous of all the Tableland miners, lasting from as early as 1887 until the turn of the century. The location of his shingle-roofed, draughty, four-bunker was possibly near the summit of Balloon Hill, where there is evidence of a hut site and ﬁreplace.The mad old hatter spent many years carving out a water race, which is likely to be the one nearby the present Balloon Hut.
Billy's number one enemy was George Richards, the 'bad man of the Tableland society,' (see above). In 1898 Nelson teacher F.G. Gibbs photographed the huge man outside his rough-hewn whare near Richard's Cave (see photo below). Today, the tailings are still visible there. Richards allegedly bullied other gold miners, sometimes with physical violence. For example, the Colonist reported in 1904, that Richards punched Jim Heath in the face, loosening his teeth. Heath took the miner to court in Motueka where the bully was fined for his misbehaviour.
Incredibly, the desire to extract minerals from these mountains lingered into the Twentieth Century. In 1909 a license was granted to the Karamea & Tableland Mining Company. Ambitiously, the company aimed to pump water from Lake Peel down to the old Tableland workings. A bush carpenter named Shires erected a small hut on Balloon Hill, using pitsawn silver beech. It was to stand here for sixty years, until someone scrawled on the walls ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.’
While the company installed some fluming, no actual mining was done, and nothing became of their enterprise. The most likely reason was that the company’s founders, Herbert and Sidney Kirkcaldie, were too busy taking over their dad’s department store in Wellington.
Then in 1912, at least seven syndicates applied for access, including Henry Chaffey and Mr. Hodder. But only an engineer named Robert Clouston did any serious mining, driving a mine shaft 126m into the face of Gordons Pyramid, and building a tramline to carry out the rocks. This ambitious man also made a graded path from the Flora Track, up to the bush-line where his workers were housed in a log cabin, (pictured below). Ultimately, Clouston was not successful in his venture, but he later became the first ranger in Kahurangi, responsible to protect the flora and fauna on Gouland Downs. (Incidentally, he lived in my gt-grandfather's house at Armchair Farm near Bainham.)
Worker Jack Chapman outside Cloustons Mine. Note the snow!
Read more in Ray's 70,000-word book titled Tableland - the history behind Mount Arthur. The coffee-table-style book is to be published by Potton & Burton in October 2020. Feel free to leave feedback or comment below!