Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 7, May 1967


Thames was proclaimed a goldfield in August 1867 and has been my home for the past 98 years, I must therefore be pardoned if I attempt at my age to record the conditions under which the majority of Thames people lived nearly 100 years ago.

My parents came from Gloucestershire not far from Bristol and in November l862 left England in the ship "Gertrude" arriving in Auckland in February 1863. My father a builder, made a home which he called "Kingswood Cottage" to remind him of his old English home. When the Waikato war ended, Auckland suffered from a great depression and my father made his way to Greymouth, mother remaining in Auckland with her brother, Mr George Sheppard.

Soon after the opening of the Thames Goldfield, my parents left Auckland and made their home at Thames which was then divided into two parts - Shortland and Grahamstown, the Karaka Creek being the boundary between them. A memory of these times still remains in the Junction Hotel, so named because of its situation at the junction of Shortland and Grahamstown.

An old Maori chief, Hanauru Taipari, who had been very helpful to James Mackay in having Thames opened for mining, called himself "Hoterene" or Shortland, after Willoughby Shortland, acting Governor of New Zealand. He was a well-known figure atThames until the time of his death in l880. His son was Wirope Hoterene Taipari (Willoughby Shortland Taipari) who also gave James Mackay great assistance. Willoughby Street was named after him. The greater part of Shortland was under Maori ownership and leased to the Europeans. The large area of land from the Karaka Creek to the Tararu Creek was leased from the Maoris by Robert Graham, who bestowed many of the names to streets of this district hence "Bella" St. and "Amy" St. after his two daughters.

Grahamstown was the scene of most of the mining, business, and foundries (the largest in N.Z.). Shortland had its lumber mills, ship building yards and fishery. Steamers plied daily between Thames and Auckland and other vessels made daily use of the wharves on the sea shore. There was Graham's Wharf at Tararu, a powder Magazine Wharf near Kuranui Bay, Goods Wharf from Burke St., Holdship Wharf near Cochrane St., Curtis Wharf from Allen St. and Shortland Wharf at the mouth of the Kauaeranga Stream.

The discovery of gold at the Shotover mine brought a rapid influx of population to Thames and in the first few years there was an estimated population of l8 thousand. When my father arrived he built a small cottage on the beach Road, then known as Eyre St. This was the fourth section North of where Richmond St. came down to the sea shore. There was the residence of McDonald the Solicitor. The house still standing in 1967 is now the Ladies Club Room. Immediately North of this was the residence of Mr Heron, a well-known Contractor and our home came next, and still stands but altered, and it was here that I was born in April 1869. There were not many houses between ours and the Karaka Creek. The land seaward of our house, about 50 or 60 yards to where the present railway line runs was a Maori Reserve, (a space between Richmond and Mary Sts.).

Maoris used to come every year in January and February. Along the sea front they anchored their canoes, pitched their tents and made this their home for the 2 months. They brought with them boat loads of peaches from the Thames River and from the Miranda Coast. The women made many flax kits, which were filled with peaches and hawked around the town by Maori men clad in shirt and waist cloth. Meals were cooked in front of the tents, and my people had to step from our front gate about 12 feet to where the Maoris camped. As a small toddler just able to walk, I had made my way to a Maori tent. When mother missed me, she found me seated on the lap of a Maori dame. She was eating fish and from time to time putting into my mouth some chewed fish I was like a young sparrow being fed. This was my first introduction to Maori life.

At that time there was no domestic water supply at Thames. Many of the homes had tanks, some beer barrels, to catch the rain water from the house roof. If a well were dug for water it soon filled with brackish water seepage from the sea. On washing day it was a common sight to see women with buckets finding their way to the Karaka Creek for a supply. Colonial ovens and camp ovens were used in the preparation of meats. At night all depended for lights on Kerosene lamps or sperm and tallow candles. It was not until about l874 that the Thames Gas Company established its works at the corner of Mary and Queen Streets and then only a limited portion of Thames benefited. When making journeys by night a lantern was carried, often home made, the bottom being knocked out of a bottle, a candle dropped down into the neck and the whole encased in a wire frame.

Many of the houses were of two rooms with a lean-to at the back. As time went on two more rooms were added to the front plus a verandah. The houses were built of kauri or kahikatea timber with roof of kauri shingles or later corrugated iron. Ican remember only two buildings having slate roofs, the Bank of New Zealand and the residence of the Gas Works Manager, a house that was still standing last year, 1966.

In the early morning we were often awakened by the cry of the Fish-hawker as he called out "Fish ho! Fish ho! All alive ho! Caught in deep water on line".

They carried on one shoulder a long pole from the ends of which hung snapper, flounder, gurnard, mullet, John dory, and other fish. Many were strange characters, some tradesmen who had lost their employment through indulgence in beer. There was German Charley, Red Charleys, Stuttering Billy, Steve Parley, Pompadour and others. Then again we would hear the cry of Milk ho! and come to our door jug in hand as the milk vendor with his pint measure dipped our supply from his gallon can. Some came with yoke on shoulders from which hung two 4 gallon milk cans.

The butcher boy came to the house of each customer - on horse back to take orders and a little later in the day would return to deliver the meat. The Baker's cart was also in evidence and the housewife would go out and select what she required. Adding colour to the scene was the Chinaman, with his cart load of vegetables. He would fill two huge cane baskets with vegetables, sling them on a pole - and with this load on his shoulder would jog trot from house to house. If you were a good customer, he generally presented you at Christmas time with a pot of preserved ginger. There were numerous other street hawkers. I remember William Deed, known as Cabbage Billy, who travelled from door to door with a wheel barrow full of vegetables, and Billy Winchcomber who used a spring cart. We had our street crier, Gerrish, who with hand bell paraded Pollen St, ringing the bell to attract attention before announcing the coming of Auctions, Concerts, etc. When not bell ringing he conducted an oyster saloon.

The great shopping areas were along Pollen St. in Shortland and Brown St. in Grahamstown. Pollen St. ran from Shortland Wharf to the foot of the Waiotahi, about one mile. It was a metalled road along which on the western side could often be seen large heaps of blue metal (andesite) boulders, from the creek beds. Stone breakers were at work all day on these heaps with their hammers breaking the rock into 2½ inch fragments for maintenance of the roads. They were paid about 3/- per cubic yard and it was a good man who could break 3 yards in a day's work. This broken metal was placed on the road and gradually ground up by the heavy traffic of heavy drays and spring carts. In time the road was well covered with a fine greyish-white dust and when a Northerly gale set in clouds of this proved a great nuisance to the shop-keepers, especially those who displayed uncovered foodstuffs. Below the footpath and the cart road was the open water table into which ran drainage the smell at times being unpleasant. Stables were common all along Pollen St. At the back of each was a manure heap - often a poultry run and even a pig sty, the pigs being fed from meat offal. One can imagine the nuisance caused by these piggeries, fowl houses and stables!

The township was always in danger of a disastrous fire. All of the houses were of inflammable wood with Kauri shingle roofs as a rule. There was no water supply - but pits had been dug at the intersection of main streets. These were about 14ft square and 7 or 8 feet deep, and kept filled with seepage. Over each pit was a wooden decking, with fire plug in centre. At time of fire a hydrant was fixed, and a large manual engine was employed to draw water from the pit to the leather-copper riveted hose. In 1872 a fire occurred in Shortland and in a couple of hours had destroyed 17 shops, hotels and dwelling houses and only a shift of the wind prevented a great spread Northward. However engineers were at work planning a water supply for Thames, and it was decided to construct a water race from the head waters of the Kauaeranga stream to Thames, a distance of about 12 miles and about the year 1873 this work was commenced.

Many men were at this time employed as bushmen cutting the Kauri in the Kauaeranga Valley. Accidents were frequent there, as they also were in the Thames Mines and in the foundries, but there was no hospital where the injured could receive attention. Certainly there were quite a number of doctors but they had to work under great difficulties. Serious cases requiring hospital treatment were sent to Auckland. This meant waiting for the tide, then a 5 hour journey by steamer.

In local cases a doctor might be called at midnight to render first aid. He wouldreach the patient by horse or by buggy but sometimes on foot. The only light by which he could examine the patient was from a dull Kerosene lamp, sometimes only a sperm or tallow candle. Infant mortality was great; cases of typhoid fever, tetanus, diphtheria, etc. often proved fatal. It was decided to have a hospital. A section in Mary St. was given and on this was erected a small wooden building that would accommodate about 12 patients. Several male nurses or wardsmen were employed to look after the sufferers and a woman to cook for all, local doctors coming from time to time to visit the patients. Mr Aitken was appointed dispenser. I remember the death of one old street hawker. He had been a well-known sea captain, but drink had got him down. He received a pauper's funeral and in the local paper next day appeared a letter of protest ending with the following :-

"Rattle his bones over the stones

He's only a pauper whom nobody owns".

There were many bright spots to compensate for the dark ones. Every year a great Sunday Festival took place when hundreds of children and teachers marched in procession from their Sunday Schools with banners waving and flags flying, to the Parawai Gardens and hundreds more to the Tararu Gardens. Nearly two thousand marched in procession - to spend a very happy day. The Academy of Music provided a wide variety of cultural entertainment and occasionally a circus visited the Town whileatnight there were Magic Lantern Shows. Sport was a great feature of the Goldfield. There was but small playing space for school children - yet all had their simple games for which there was a regular season.

Sailing vessels of all kinds were daily coming into the Thames Harbour, The KILLARNEY LOCH KEN and other large vessels came from Newcastle, Australia, laden with coal for the Gas Works, the Big Pump and the Foundries. Small cutters brought in 10 or 15 tons of tea-tree firewood from Tapu. Many boats came from Tamaki with cattle for the abattoir. The cutter would anchor off Mary St., and at low tide would lower the cattle overboard onto the hard sand. Men from the slaughter house with their Smithfield collies would muster the bullocks, drive them up Mary St. into Pollen St. and on out to the Parawai abbatoir. Imagine driving 50 or 100 Bullocks along Pollen Street to-day! In those days the fore shore from Shortland Wharf to the Karaka Creek was mostly of a sandy nature, and could be ridden over, where to-day it is sodeep with mud and mangrove lined - (ready for reclamation!)

"The Thames", as it was called, has indeed changed during the century, though I have said nothing of the fluctuating fortunes of the famous mines, and little of the equally fluctuating population. I have in one of my old scrap books a view of the once thriving gold-mining centre as it was (about 1869), an extraordinary conglomeration of mine installations and town buildings at Grahamstown, as seen from the flank of Kuranui Hill. But I must leave the reader to appreciate the background of the present picturesque town which has epitomised the hope, despair and ultimate flowering of a young country - young so far as the Pakeha is concerned, but steeped in much more than one century of history for the Maori people, here represented by the noble Ngati Maru and its sub tribes.