Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 1, June 1964
"LUCK AT LAST", WHANGAMATA
By the late Mr. Ben Gwilliam
Having heard that the Luck at Last Mine was just starting and wanted men, my mate, Ted Taylor, and I decided to go over from Waihi to Whangamata in 1897.
We hired two horses from Dan Campbell’s stables and made the trip. We were told that if we intended to stay, all we need do was tie the bridle to the stirrup and let the horses go. They would find their way home.
Our greatest trouble was to find the way there. There was only a track through the scrub and it went all ways, until we got to Whiritoa. From there to Sainsbury’s Hotel was good going through peach trees and maize crops planted by the Maoris.
We stayed at Sainsbury’s Hotel that night and made for the Luck at Last next morning which was eight miles back in the hills. They were just starting to open No. 1 level. We built ourselves a whare of Pungas and settled in. We were each put in charge of a shift with mates who had never been underground before but it was good going, the reef being of sugary nature and inclined to run, therefore had to be timbered all the way. This meant a lot of props and caps, and after driving about 100 ft. we were going faster than they could supply props and slabs, Mr. McLiver asked me would I mind going into the bush and cutting props for a while. This suited me fine and my mate was Dave Troughton who at present lives at Puru on the Thames Coast. We were both young and strong and we needed to be because, we had to carry them out on our shoulders, each prop 8 or 9 feet long and 9 inches through and green timbers, one man one prop. The bush was quite close, about 50 yards away, but rough walking. However we soon had a good stack at the mouth of the level and several in the bush ready to be carried out.
I was given another mate, Jack Mathieson and put on shifts again underground. We were in then about 300 ft. We had been off shift about 12 hours and not due to go on for another 4 hours when Mr. McLiver came in and woke us up and asked us to go on shift. We could see there was something wrong and asked what was the matter. Not in the best of language he said they had let the roof fall in and wanted us to pick it up.
Well what a mess, the quartz was like sugar and you could still hear it after falling, I asked the Boss to ask the timber man to cut a false set and let us have it as soon as possible. We had a hard job to get the set in, and the top slabs were well down with the weight of the quartz on them. They should have had wedges at the back to keep them looking up especially in ground like that.
After a lot of trucking and long shifts we passed the bad break but it took us a week before we got into good country again.
My next job was to open up No.2 Level. After driving 100 ft. on the reef with 3 shifts an accident happened. A slab of rock came off a greasy head and old Mr. Terrill got his leg broken.
Twelve of us carried him over the hills on a stretcher made of 2 sacks with long poles passed long ways through the corners, cutting our way with slash hooks to make a track from the Luck at Last to Puriri. We left at 5 o’clock in the morning and arrived at 10 o’clock at night. They told us we would be there at about 12 o’clock midday no need to take food. We could if it had been straight going but the track was only about one foot wide and we could not carry a stretcher along it without making it wide enough for four men and the stretcher. Mr. Terrill’s weight was about 17 stone.
We arrived at the Puriri Hotel very hungry to find no food in the house. It was the 17th of March and of course Race Day at Paeroa, therefore the racegoers from Thames and returning from Paeroa had eaten everything in the shape of food. We found a Baker’s shop and obtained some bread and cheese and with a glass or two of beer made a meal. I shall never forget that trip, being one of the strongest we had all the uphill carrying. I know I finished with the skin off my shoulders and blistered hands. We had to pass through the Tairua river 3 times and think they called it No. 4 branch. We did not bother to take off our boots, socks and trousers but walked straight through so we were wet and cold as well as tired and hungry. I always point the place where we came out to my family when we pass Omahu.
Well, let us get back to work, my next mate was Paddy Casey who had never been underground before in his life but had been a Butcher in Onehunga. I had to sink a winze from the surface to No. 1 Level.
We drove a small level in about 20 fit. To where the Winze had to start, I cut out the Chamber about 8 ft. square. This was about 4 ft. higher than the level so that we would not have to lift our bucket to tip into the truck.
We had got down about 20 ft. when Paddy forgetting to put the break on the windlass dropped the bucket on my head the rim hitting me above the forehead, which just about knocked me out, cutting me badly. I remember sitting in the corner rubbing my head with my cap which I always wore made of white calico and it was saturated with blood. Paddy coming down the timber, "be jabbers have I killed ye!" "No Paddy, but from now on you will take your half of the shift down below and give me a chance to get it back on you."
The work in the Mine was getting well ahead now and preparing to get ready for the Battery. There were about 4 miles of benching off and three tunnels to be driven for the Water Race and my old mate Ted Taylor was put in charge and told to pick his own men, I myself was among the number. After working on the benching I was put in charge of the tunnels and drove the three. During this time I was taken off to go with Mr. McLaren, Engineer for Thames County to take the Levels of the road from the Luck to Whangamata Port. After the first day Mr. McLaren told me to carry on. It was too rough for an old man like him so he just followed quietly behind me. He was a fine old gentleman and taught me a lot in those few days. When we had finished he wanted my mate and I to go to the Thames and study under his son who was Director of the Thames School of Mines. However we decided we would stay at the Luck but he sent me a book on Mining which I still have and value very much.
The building of the Battery was started and as there were still men wanted there for a little excavation I took charge, I stayed at the Battery helping to erect Machinery, Stone breaker, Rotary roasting furnace, Krupp Mills, at that time quite a new idea in New Zealand. I was given a job in the Cyanide department so started my dry crushing days of long ago; from then on I stuck to Battery work.
As far as sport was concerned we had a good football and cricket team and played the local Maoris and the Wentworth Miners and had a very happy time.
I was at the Luck at Last from the beginning of the opening of the Mine until about 2 months before it closed, 1900. The Luck was an English Company and the Talisman at Karangahake was under the same management, Bewick Morring and Co., so it was easy for me to change. I went straight over to the Talisman and got the Contract for the excavation for the Talisman new battery site and when the battery was completed took charge of the Cyanide department and afterwards was shift Boss over the whole of the Battery and appointed assistant foreman. It was while I was there that I met Herbert Hoover, later to become President of U.S.A. He was an official of our Co., which was then the largest British Gold mining Co. in Australasia.
During the time that I was working on the water-race at Whangamata, I married the young lady with whom I had been keeping company since she was 16. She had come to work in my sister’s Store, Post Office and Dining Room so she knew the place well and had no complaints about backblocks. We returned home to Lower Hutt for the wedding which took place in St. James Church on 19th April, 1899, and in 1959 we celebrated our Diamond Jubilee.
After the wedding we went to Auckland and embarked on the Waitangi for Whangamata, where the ship nosed into a sandbank and a plank was put down for passengers to go ashore. A horse and dray was waiting and we made the journey to the Luck at Last Mine at Wharekawa, about 8 miles away.
The living conditions at the Luck at Last were not quite what they are to-day. We had no Electric Light, no trains or buses. It was walk or stay at home when wishing to visit our neighbours. We had no flash houses but we were a happy community and here let me given an idea of the home I took my wife to when we married in 1899.
The frame of the house, which was two rooms and wood shed was built of round poles sunk in the ground and the outside walls were covered with thick tarred felt. The roof was corrugated iron which we were lucky to have, the bedroom had a good wooden floor of pit sawn timber, the kitchen which was also our dining and sitting room was of well tamped clay and nice and level and always clean. We certainly had a nice double bed which we bought with the house which belonged to a friend of mine who was leaving to go farming. Our chairs were packing cases nicely covered with Cretonne and always kept clean and our table was also a packing case. The windows were of calico. We had a corrugated iron chimney with a Colonial Oven built in with stones and clay, a good Camp oven which always turned out a good dinner or cake and I can honestly say we were more happy and contented than a lot of people are to-day with modern houses and high class furniture; I forgot to mention we had half a dozen fowls which were a boon to us.
We got our stores from Auckland by boat. These were carted up from the port to the Battery flat. As we lived about one mile up the hill we had to carry them ourselves and it was fairly steep going.
Occasionally we would get a roast of beef if they were lucky enough to get a bullock to kill at the Hotel which was eight miles away. That happened very seldom, so it meant tinned meat, tinned milk, tinned jam and tinned everything else. In fact we wore out more tin openers than knives and forks. We dealt with one Grocer in Auckland, a Mr. Raew, Victoria Street, I wonder who remembers that store?
The nearest Doctor was Dr. Forbes of Waihi. We were very fortunate in that we had very little sickness in the Camp, an occasional cold but only one serious case, a young nephew of the Mine Manager got Pneumonia and passed away. My wife helped to nurse him all through his illness. He was carried to Thames and buried there.
We could always get men’s clothes from the Indian Hawkers who were very regular callers and brought their goods on packhorses.
The first Phonograph I ever heard was brought over by one of the Hawkers. His name was Harry Abdullah; I wonder who remembers him? It was one of the old fashioned cylinder ones. We thought it was wonderful and we had quite an enjoyable concert. I well remember one cylinder which had been recorded by an old Maori at Rotorua, it was all bad luck and the old chap was asking for charity. Listening in that night was an old Maori named Peter Paul. Peter with his mouth wide open listened and when it stopped pulled a Half Sovereign out of his pocket and told Harry – "You give to the poor old man in there". He would not take the money back but I know Harry gave him more than its value in clothes.
We were lucky in reference to bread. After we had been there some time an old chap named Paddy McGuire came from Auckland and started a small Bakehouse and we got fresh bread twice a week.
The only light we had was a kerosene table lamp and candles. In those days all the Miners worked underground by candlelight; we were allowed two candles each per shift. If very draughty we would get three. These candles were put in what was known as a spider. You could hang it or stick it in the wall on the timber. We were a happy hard working lot and when mining stopped were all capable of getting work. I think mining teachers a man to use his brains. He had to for his own safety.