Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 40, September 1996
By Jack Moore
My great-uncle, William Sharman Crawford Nicholl, was known as "Billy". His pioneering prospecting and development led to the formal establishment of the Martha gold and silver mine in Waihi. This contributed so much, not only to Waihi but also the whole of New Zealand in its early colonial days making Waihi an international byword in mining investment and shares.
While he was not the first to explore the Martha hill, it was the foresight and professional mining experience which he applied with dogged determination to the prospect that finally led to its recognition and commercial realisation, to become one of the most famous and long lived gold mines in the world.
He was the ultimate example in our concept of the truly oldtime prospector, the miner-forty-niner in a slightly later era who was driven by the will-o'-the wisp lure of gold. During his long lifetime he made and lost small fortunes in mining ventures, often leaving a stable developing prospect to pursue fresh fields and pastures new where the magic word of gold was being whispered. He did not end his days a wealthy man in terms of worldly possessions, but he did become a legend in his time, with many friends who benefited from generous and often unrepaid assistance he gave them in difficult times. Such was his nature.
His first experience with mining was as a youth in the very early days in Thames from where he went to Coromandel, to Te Aroha, to Waihi and the Martha in the late 1870s, to Waitekauri, to Fiji in 1887 looking for gold for the colony and back to Waihi 2 years later. In the late 1890s he was torn between a stable job in Waihi and the lure of gold in the Klondike in Alaska. In the true prospector tradition, the Klondike won and he set off for Alaska. He later returned to the Ohinemuri district where he spent most of the remaining years of his very long life, still in the unrewarding pursuit of gold.
He stayed with my family in Putaruru on a number of occasions from 1928 during which time he prospected for gold on the beaches of the Waikato River and later the Arapuni Lake. This, when he was nearly 80 and I was barely 7 years old. I can recall him as a grand old gentleman who reminded me of Santa Claus, not only because of his snow white beard and benevolent smile, but also because of his generous nature.
I can remember his buying my young sister a teddy bear, all of two feet tall, for her birthday. However my mother's sensible advice prevailed and my sister was presented instead with a smaller version which she still has and treasures to this day. Samples of gold in small glass tubes with rubber stoppers were given to the children by Uncle Bill and were wonderful presents.
Perhaps unwittingly he created a controversy which has remained alive to this day and which will probably never be put to rest. This relates to the true identity of the lady, Martha, after whom the great reef system and subsequent mine was originally named by Billy Nicholl. I am merely presenting some facts as I know them and logical observations I have been able to make on the subject. The controversy will continue, as many family members have their own views and they are, in all fairness, entitled to them.
One body of opinion insists the mine was named after his wife, who he first met just before he commenced exploratory work on the reef and just prior to his registering it in Thames as the Martha. He subsequently married her on 7th January 1884. However the name that appears on her marriage certificate is Mary Jane Nicholl, nee Compston.
A further suggestion is that the name was that of his half sister of whom he was very fond. Her name was Martha McQuoid and his last address prior to his death in 1937 was care of her. She was indeed a Martha and could have been a candidate for the honour.
The third aspirant and perhaps the one with the widest support is Martha Dulcibel Brodie nee Nicks, who was the daughter of Billy Nicholl's sister. The only flaw in this conclusion is that during her life she was always known to the family as Dulcie or Aunty Dulcie in my case. At a later date, her father, Billy Nicholl's brother-in-law and the owner of an adjoining claim at Waihi, named it the Dulcibel. His name was John Nicks and he also played an important part in the early development of the Waihi goldfield prior to his death in the early 1880s. Coincidentally Dulcie's mother later married J H Moore who was to become my grandfather and he was for some time Manager of the Martha mine. Later he was chairman of the Ohinemuri County.
The final candidate and one with a very strong case for the honour was the original Martha in the family, Martha Jane Nicholl who was Billy's mother and my great grandmother. She arrived in New Zealand in 1861 with her husband and family and settled near Whangarei. Tragically her husband was drowned six months later and she was left to bring up the family, a daunting task in those days. It could well be that her son had thoughts of his mother as he registered his claim with the name of Martha. Without a doubt it was a popular name in the family.
Personally I am not too concerned as to who it was named after, it was obviously someone in the family. However I was concerned that no permanent recognition is retained in Waihi of the life and work of one of its most famous pioneers. This comment applied in particular to the Waihi Museum where only a brief mention was made of Billy Nicholl. While I appreciate he did not stand alone in this era of Waihi pioneers such as McCombie, Lee and Tom Russell to name but a few, I thought more could be done to record Billy's special contribution for posterity.
Accordingly I approached the Museum Committee and they set up a special task force to remedy the situation. As a result, in November 1995, a memorial honouring William Crawford Nicholl and his partner Robert Majurey, was unveiled at the Waihi Arts Centre and Museum.