Waihi Borough Council Diamond Jubilee Booklet 1902-1962


Early Waihi was dominated by the hill and spirit of Martha. The low knob overlooking the town was named after a relative of an early prospector and how fittingly! The men who toiled on the workings under and about the hill were sons of Martha in the tradition of Kipling; not for them were the bonanzas of Eldorado, the thrill of spending chance-got gold. The natural agencies responsible for the low grade of Waihi gold deposits, deeply influenced the lives and characters of those who gathered round the hill and wrested a meagre livelihood from its tightly held wealth.

The young township was denied or spared the dubious pleasures usually associated with rich finds of gold, the excesses of high life and hard liquor that characterised other goldfields, where fortunes were uncovered with a blow of a pick and squandered overnight. It was soon realised that Waihi was not a poor man's field, the yield from the ore by the primitive treatment of the day, making the going hard even for large companies. The reward was poor for those actually engaged in the work, which was devoid of the romance and glamour supposed to be associated with gaining the precious metal.

Mining was dirty, dangerous and unhealthy work, the risk of death or mutilation by underground accident being overshadowed by comparison with the prospect of extended misery and shortened life caused by miners' phthisis, the dread disease due to inhalation of the dust raised by underground drilling and blasting. There was no cure or palliative, the only relief being death. Long efforts on behalf of the sufferers and their dependent families, resulted in the Mines Department administering a pension scheme financed in part by a levy on mining. The payments were not subject to a stringent means test and the less seriously affected were able to supplement the pension by light casual work.

The shift system had a heavy influence on social life in Waihi. Weekly or monthly functions could not [be] regularly attended by most of the mine and battery workers as a three-shift roster was needed to maintain the production and ensure continuous processing. To get off shift it was necessary to work a "double" of sixteen hours and induce a co-operative mate to do the same to restore the rhythm, a manoeuvre which was reserved for very special occasions. The large number of able bodied men apparently loafing about the town interested a relieving police sergeant to the point of threatening them with prosecution for vagrancy if they did not get jobs. A different batch of off-shift men next week almost left him speechless till he was enlightened by an amused observer.

The shift workers need for sleep in off duty hours demanded spells of day time quiet in the house, babies were hushed, older children were sent out and household tasks deferred. Temporarily banished, the youngsters found interest in the many and various adult activities about them and organised their own amusements, the primitive conditions offering them immense scope. Though neglected by today's standard, the boys and girls of pioneer Waihi got into very little trouble, refuting the arguments of those who claim that the senseless vandalism and gang violence of today's youth are due to lack of supervision and parent participation in activities. The kids of yesterday were not plaster saints, they "converted" the odd horse, but they did not push it over a cliff, they lit up the odd patch of scrub but did not bum down the school for "kicks."

While the community was nothing if not free and easy there was a strong undercurrent of religion and all orthodox and most unorthodox faiths were well catered for, the annual Sunday School picnics being major social events and there were many conversions of hardened juvenile sinners on the eve of these treats. So much for godliness. Personal hygiene was a major worry under primitive conditions. The miners were comparatively lucky, showering daily as they came off shift, their clean though collarless appearance contrasting keenly with that of other manual workers at the end of the day. The housewife had a different story to tell. I doubt if a quarter of the houses boasted bath rooms and day to day ablutions were conducted over a tin dish in bird bath fashion, major cleanups awaiting the boiling of the washing copper. A large galvanised wash tub was pressed into service and a general bath parade was conducted.

Quite a few houses on the outskirts used well and spring water while those connected to town supply frequently had only a stand pipe near the back door, drainage usually being most primitive. In spite of these handicaps the large broods of early Waihi generally looked well scrubbed and well fed, though their everyday clothes were strictly utilitarian and their diet somewhat spartan by the standards of today's youngsters.

As they grew, however, the youth of the town found avenues of employment to be very restricted, even few dead-end jobs being available. There was little work offering on the few neighbouring farms and small scope with the local tradespeople. Since the general standard of intelligence among mining people is above average, brains rivalled gold as an outstanding export of Waihi and our bright boys and girls found distinction in many fields.


It is pertinent to digress for a while and comment on Waihi's early industries and to say that there was nothing not dependent on mining for a market. Large numbers of men not on the payrolls of any mining company produced materials used almost entirely in and about the mines.

Timber was needed in large quantities and bush workers stripped the bush clad slopes hugging the north of the town, baring the terrain for some two miles to the east and west to provide fuel and structural timber.

Navvies excavated hills and filled gullies to form a bed for the tramlines which conveyed the timber to the mines and the hills are still girded by the water-races which bled every hillside stream to provide more water for the thirsty treatment plants and the tanks of boilers powering the machines. A brick kiln at the end of Kenny Street flourished for many years but the completion of the brickwork round the plant of the mines and batteries left the works without a market, and the prevalence of tin chimneys did not help.

Early electoral rolls show a diversity of occupations but most of these were associated with mining. Amalgamators and assayers, boiler makers and battery hands, crushermen and contractors joined their efforts with those of truckers, toolsharpeners and timbermen, stokers, shiftbosses and stamper men to turn the wheels of one big industry and almost without exception were the women's occupations listed as domestic duties. A few, mostly single girls, were listed as drapers, dressmakers, milliners, teachers, nurses and music teachers, while one parvenu wife of a mine official classified herself as "Lady."

All the miners and almost every worker about the mines and round the town belonged to one union, the Waihi Trade's Union of Workers, which had been a branch of the Thames Miners' Union, losing all its assets when seceding. The pendulum swings and today a move is afoot to get a single Union to cover all workers in one industry once more. This single union presented a united front to the mine owners and was making its presence felt in an attempt to secure better working conditions in the mines. It had succeeded in establishing the "All on the job" system to succeed the "sweating" which had suited the companies' aim of increased production. Wages were not high enough to encourage miners to work really hard without expensive supervision and contracts were given to small groups of contractors who in turn employed enough men on wages to man the jobs. The contractors became harder taskmasters than the mine owners themselves and did very well at the expense of their mates, one of the party usually leading each shift to keep the wages-men's noses to the grindstone. This system saved the companies money and its discontinuance made them aware of the growing labour movement.

The engineers employed at the mines were inclined to desert the local union and form a branch of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. As this organisation was considered to be large a friendly society and not a fighting union, an opinion borne out by the low wages paid to its members and the absence of margins for skill, this move was supported by the mine owners, probably on the principle of "divide and rule." The majority of the miners resented this defection of the engineers and by what has been claimed to be an unrepresentative ballot a strike was called.

Since this was an isolated strike at a time when organised labour was beginning to find its feet, the strikers gained world-wide support and the strike pay, while meagre, was sufficient to keep the workers from being starved back to their jobs. The Mining Companies found they had a tiger by the tail and resorted to desperate means to end the strike. Strike breakers were brought in to augment the section of the strikers who were induced to go back to work and the town was garrisoned by sixty police, some of them raw recruits, to keep law and order. It was generally conceded that to secure the end of the strike there was a complete suspension of the rights of the individual.

Strikers were jailed on flimsy pretexts, hounded out of town by armed mobs, while the forces of law and order were masterfully inactive. The exodus robbed the town of most of its skilled miners and production lagged badly, many houses were left unoccupied as their absentee owners would have died rather than sell them to their successors and parts of the town were deserted. The worst feature of it was that the population was now divided vertically as well as laterally. Formerly there had been an upper social strata, largely mine officials, professional folk and prosperous business men who had at times associated with the hoi polloi. Now the workers were divided in their views and these warring factions spragged the wheels of progress for many years. As a result of the strike, lifelong friends parted, fathers and sons were estranged forever, businessmen were boycotted and those considered prominent in the conduct of the strike were denied the right to work in the district for years. Small wonder that after the dispute Waihi languished in the doldrums.

Mining was not the only industry hit by the strike. During the boom years before 1912, the provisions of better dwellings for the more prosperous residents and the erection and extension of public buildings and schools brought much work to the building trade. This activity ceased almost overnight and a new bungalow built for a returned soldier of the 1914-18 war was almost the only new house erected in the town for 20 years. Worse still, rents offered were so small and tenants so scarce, that many of the better houses were sold for removal, often to be erected as farm dwellings in the Waikato and since only substantial houses were shifted the proportion of poorer ones left increased.

Though it has often been said "that anything can happen in Waihi," a rather surprising development changed the character of the town during 1908. A number of members of the drinking fraternity, probably suffering from alcoholic remorse, supported the Blue Ribbon Army and voted the town dry at the licensing polls. Liquor could not legally be bought in the town till restoration in 1925 and this probably prevented the disorder of 1912 from becoming a more serious blot on history.

Until restoration, thirsty souls had to travel either to Hikutaia (22 dry miles) or to Katikati over 18 miles of poor roads for the convivial glass and week-end trains to the former place were well patronised. More immediate needs were catered for by "droppers" at enhanced prices but the expense forced many to supply their own needs by a brew of their own. "Home brew" enjoyed great popularity and finally became commercialised, sub rosa, on a fairly large scale, but for many years the operators enjoyed an immunity from prosecution not enjoyed by whisky droppers. A major clean up just prior to the 1925 election gave the "industry" adverse publicity and after restoration home brewing once more became a hobby.


When Waihi became a Borough in 1902 the general appearance of the place was terrible. A barren, treeless landscape, dotted by straggling houses, and dominated by mine poppet heads and mullock tips gave little encouragement to the early planners. Settlement sprawled as most holders of miners' rights had taken their full acre and gullies, swamps and creeks made access difficult. The square mile or so of mining property round which the settlement was fringed, accentuated the sprawl and made even more difficult the problems of servicing the new borough.

The bare soil broke up into a fine powder which provided a sea of mud in the wet winters and made travel difficult. In summer it was another sorry story. The westerlies roared into town carrying clouds of dust from Broadway, as Seddon Avenue was then known, and everything and everybody was coated with grit. Trees planted in the avenue abated this nuisance greatly. The low value of the flimsy buildings, coupled with the entire absence of services prevented the new local body from levying worthwhile rates. Fortunately receipts from Gold Duty and Goldfields Revenue provided a buoyant income, though it has been said with authority that in some respects it was poor compensation for the way in which mining properties scattered the residential areas. In fact, it was impossible to get a residence site within one and a half miles of the Post Office as early as 1900.

The problems of early roading were greatly eased by the presence of mullock tips, great ridges of country rock, excavated during the sinking of shafts and the development of underground workings, which extended from most of the pit heads. Largely because the space they occupied was needed, these tips were made available and formed stable foundations for most of the new roads which began to grace the town. Some of this rock was broken very large and had to be smashed on the job by hand. Occasionally one was buried and these goolies are a bugbear today when roads are reconstructed. Much of the stone was reduced to size by old pensioners who were a familiar sight at the roadside "making big ones into little ones" with knapping hammers. To secure supplies of better road metal a bluestone quarry was opened at the head of Walmsley's Creek and a branch was built on to the Mining Companies timber tram to bring the output to bins in Barry Road.

Rhyolite quarrying was also undertaken in Roberts Street, the stone being lifted for crushing to a plant facing Silverton Road by an hydraulic hoist, which was a source of admiration and wonder to all the small fry.

Bridging the streams seemed to be a favourite hobby of early planners, the Mangatoetoe Creek being crossed by ten traffic bridges and four footbridges, while an extensive system of wooden culverts hid the smaller water courses from sight. These culverts have fallen into decay and often a subsidence in a most unexpected place entails expensive excavation and replacement with concrete pipes.

In the borough's heyday, outside staff numbered up to 60 men, "mechanisation" taking the form of teams hauling ploughs, scoops and graders.

A well equipped swimming pool built at the recreation ground was most popular but periodic summer shortages of water frequently prevented its use when most in demand. Though an attempt was made in the thirties to increase its usefulness by filling with tepid mineral water pumped from the mines, many people objected to bathing in "filthy mine water," even though analyses showed it to be free from contamination and rich in the mineral salts which have made many overseas spas world famous. Improved access to the seaside lessened the need for the swimming pool.

Though the provision of civic amenities and other public works entailed heavy expenditure, the meagre £75,000 collected in rates during the first forty years of the borough's existence was greatly eclipsed by the half million or so provided by gold duty and folk often ask where all the money went. Large quantities of it literally went down the river. Local stream rose often in spate and Paeroa and its surroundings were frequently under water. The river was becoming silted up and an extensive programme of dredging and stop-banking was necessary to minimise flood damage. A silting commission was set up to investigate the position and found that erosion, due to the indiscriminate cutting of bush for mining timber and the tailings discharged from mines at Waihi, Waitekauri and Karangahake had been largely responsible for the silt blocking the river channel. Since there was not much chance of collecting for the works by rating, the Government of the day decided that a charge on mining would be a convenient way of recovering the large sums spent on river improvement.


About 1920 a scheme was set afoot to take over property at Waihi Beach to provide sites for seaside cottages where worn out miners could end their days in peaceful surroundings. Though the scheme met with considerable opposition, the property was finally taken under the Public Works Act by the Waihi Borough Council and became part of the borough, the road being the connecting link. Since the road was impassable in wet weather there was no great rush for sections but as the road improved the beach gained in popularity and became the watering place of the Waikato.

Few of the miners for whom the scheme was intended took advantage of it and most of the leases passed at a considerable premium to "foreigners." The growing population at the beach became dissatisfied through lack of common interest with the rest of the borough and the Local Government Commission, investigating proposals to reduce the area of the borough, included the affairs of the Beach on its order of reference.

During the progress of the investigation a poll changed the basis of rating from annual to unimproved value. The Government valuations at the Beach were so high compared with those in Waihi that the folk of the Beach would have had to pay unduly high rates and this forced the Commission's hand. Waihi Beach and the outlying areas of the borough became part of the Ohinemuri County once more and with them went £12,000 as their share of the borough's assets.

Waihi Beach has little industry of its own and many of those working in Waihi live in the milder climate of the Beach, where the early flimsy shacks have given way to substantial and attractive homes.


Since mining had declined everywhere but in Waihi and many companies had gone out of existence, the only way to get a contribution out of mining was through gold duty, and what a bite was made in Waihi's income! This was during the ebb of mining and the fall in receipts was aggravated by these inroads. Eventually it was conceded that the funds were not to be raided below a set figure and when gold duty dropped below this, no further levies were made.

Our gasworks was far from a financial success. Permanently leaking mains bled away most of the gas produced and though a succession of managers started with high hopes of plugging the leak, the works lost money steadily. Eventually it was closed but not before delaying the supply of electricity to the town. No doubt warped by the ownership of the gasworks early councils resisted the inclusion of the borough in the Thames Valley Electric-Power Board's area and power came belatedly and expensively in 1927. For the next ten years power charges in Waihi were out of all reason but public outcry put Waihi in the board's area and power became much cheaper.

Since the borough's main source of revenue dried up when the mines stopped in 1912, most of the council's outside staff had to be discharged. After the strike too few men were employed to keep the town from becoming increasingly shabby. Tar sealing having been almost unknown when money was plentiful, the unprotected roads suffered greatly from the winter rains, the runoff from which eroded the edges of the roads and footpaths. Certainly a few miles of streets had concrete kerbs and channels, constructed in the palmy days to serve a. somewhat continental drainage system. Light household and commercial wastes were led through the kerbs into the gutters, which were flushed by a continuous flow of tepid underground water pumped from the mines. The system worked relatively well but when the pumping ceased, the channels were left dry and high! With the continued decline of mining, shrinking gold duty receipts and rising expenses, successive councils were forced to try to balance the budget by levying realistic rates. Long standing tenancies at low rentals of properties with small capital values made equitable valuations almost impossible and it became most evident that the five square miles of borough territory could not be serviced by the rates collected from the low assessments.

Post-war improvements to local business premises created an anomalous situation, causing dissatisfaction which led to a successful poll to convert the rating basis to that of unimproved value. Though Waihi had been too long settled to make the scheme a complete success, the years since the change have solved most of the problems, fresh government valuations ironing out most of the anomalies. Findings of the Local Government Commission reduced the area and set the stage for progress.

Plans were prepared in 1952 for improvement of much of the greatly reduced mileage of streets but the proposals were badly timed as the cessation of mining operations was causing doubt as to the future of the town. Worse still the poll was held at the same time as a referendum on a proposal to remove the Seddon Memorial from the main street. Originally a combined lamp standard and drinking fountain, the monument had lost both these functions as well as any eye appeal it may have had and some folk considered its sentimental value was outweighed by its danger to traffic. However, large numbers of voters did not share this opinion, defeating both proposals for good measure.

Despite the adverse decision, a later council removed the memorial, not without difficulty for, true to the traditions of King Dick, it was firmly attached to New Zealand soil. To placate those who opposed the scheme, accommodation erected for senior citizens is now known as the Seddon Memorial Flats. Some years ago it was decided that something just had to be done about the roads and approval for a loan was finally secured. The results can be seen and admired, as sealing is almost completed. Those attending the Diamond Jubilee of the borough will find that the decline has been arrested, the fine new homes and industrial buildings promising a bright future for what has long been condemned as a dying mining town.

There may be some criticism of the fact that no names have been used in this article and some of the statements made may be considered too sweeping. This, however, is Waihi as seen through the eyes of one man and his apologies are offered to any who may have been offended by either the subject matteror its treatment.