Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 10, October 1968


John McCombie, the only son of Alexander McCombie who had come to New Zealand from Scotland, was born in Auckland in 1850. Seventeen years later, in July 1867 he joined the rush to the newly opened Thames Goldfield where he was soon engaged in prospecting. Thence he went to the West Coast alluvial diggings and for some time travelled to and fro between the different mining centres in the South Island and Australia during which time he became a foundation member of the Australian Institute of Mining Engineers and also a member of the N.Z.I.M.E.

In 1875 he returned to Auckland and shortly after, took part in the celebrated "rush" to Karangahake on the day of the opening of the Ohinemuri Field. His lively account of this event is recorded in his diary and was published by various Newspapers. (Throughout his career Mr. McCombie was a constant contributor to the press under the pen-name "Aboriginal". His articles were devoted chiefly to mining subjects though he also wrote short stories and sketches of life on the goldfields.)

Diggings of the Seventies (as recorded by John McCombie).

After a weary wait extending over six years it was announced through medium of the Government Gazette, that the Ohinemuri lands would be thrown open for goldmining purposes on March 3rd 1875, when negotiations for the purchase of the property from the Maoris had been completed by Mr. James Mackay. Karangahake was then the centre of attraction because it was generally considered to be a perfect "Eldorado" of mineral wealth, and the undermentioned men claimed to be the original prospectors: Messrs J. Smyth, J. Corbett, M. Colman, F. Arnold, A. Mackay, J.W. Thorp, and J. Verrall.

At an early hour on the day of the opening there was great excitement at Mackaytown (previously known as Kahakaha) which sprang up mushroom-like in a few hours. It was a veritable canvastown with a population of hundreds, and the main street was fringed with about 20 stores, where grog and groceries were obtainable at famine prices.

The headquarters of the warden's department was a large tent, and applications for miners' rights were received by an army of clerks who worked under the supervision of Mr. A.J. Allom throughout the whole of the. previous day. Warden Fraser mounted an improvised platform at 9.55 a.m. on 3-3-75, and after a brief address declared the field open.

The struggle to obtain "rights" followed by the helter-skelter down the hill, across the Ohinemuri River, and up the opposite bank, can more easily be imagined than described. Picture 600 excited men starting out together from one place, at a given signal, the goal being the "Prospectors Claim" at Karangahake. The distance between the two points is about 1½ miles, and in a few minutes the rough track was literally lined with a struggling mass of horsemen and footmen.

Soon after the breathless diggers reached the ground, a forest of pegs reared their heads around the prospectors' claim which had already been surveyed and boundaries defined. Promiscuous pegging led to sharp disputes which could have culminated in a free fight but for the presence of a strong force of the armed Constabulary.

The whole of the claims marked off on that particular day were located along the foothills on the north-western slope of the Karangahake main gorge, and here developments soon proved that the country rock was disturbed to such a serious extent as to make mining both difficult and hazardous. The reefs occurred in isolated lenses and were neither defined nor continuous. Nevertheless, several full fledged goldmining companies were formed, a battery consisting of 16 head of stampers erected, and permanent work entered upon with great spirit. This involved an expenditure of many thousand of pounds without any results worth mentioning while things generally went from bad to worse.

During the latter part of the seventies John McCombie was one of a small group of prospectors subsidised by the Government to explore the potential of the Ohinemuri district in the hope that more payable ore night be discovered. He spent some time in Waitekauri where mining was in progress and in 1878 he and his partner Robert Lee made their way to the vicinity of Waihi where he discovered a reef, opened it up and took out 2 tons of ore for a crushing at the Owharoa Battery. We have his own account of this venture.

Gold Discovery at Waihi

"About the month of February l878 we decided on going eastward of the known belt of gold-bearing country then being worked in the Waitekauri district. This took us in the direction of Waihi where the landscape was wide-spread, comprising thickly wooded hills and open plain, the latter being covered with a stunted growth of fern and manuka. At the time there were no Europeans in the locality, but a few natives belonging to the Ngatikoe tribe lived on the banks of the Ohinemuri River.

Long before arriving we could sec an outcrop of quartz glistening beneath the rays of the morning sun, and when we came to the Mangatoetoe Stream the first dish of rubble panned gave a good prospect of free gold. We soon covered the intervening space and had our picks at work breaking out ore from the rugged walls of the Pukewa Spur. Having secured a dozen samples from as many different places along the line of the outcrop we went back to the creek where we commenced reducing and testing. This was done by crushing the ore on a flat stone with our hammer-headed prospecting picks, and in every instance we obtained fair dish prospects. On further examination we noted that the lode appeared to be about 20 feet in thickness and had a general north-and-south course, with an easterly underlie. The enclosing country rock consisted chiefly of decomposed tufa ["rock of rough or cellular texture of volcanic or other origin" Concise Oxford Dic 1951 – E] which invariably accompanies gold and silver bearing lodes on the Hauraki gold-fields. The ore-body was laminated, streaked with sulphides of iron and silver, and sprinkled with oxide of manganese.

(There follows an account of returning to Waitekauri in rain and encountering flooded streams the next morning when they again made the journey with a pack horse and supplies.)

"The following day we commenced cutting trenches across the lode at stated intervals. As the ore appeared to be richest at the northern end we resolved to test there at a depth of 60 feet beneath the surface. To accomplish this it was necessary to drive a crosscut from the western side of the spur, a distance of over 200 feet, but first we wanted a wheelbarrow and the nearest place to get one was Waitekauri, nine miles away. Before covering the first four miles I had exhausted all known methods of barrow trundling, and ended by slinging it on my back - (for many long hours.)

The first ten days of our sojourn in Waihi were occupied in building a whare, erecting a smithy, and burning some charcoal for tool-pointing purposes. Then our work progressed at the rate of five feet per day - the country penetrated being very favourable for driving. -(During this operation some difficulty was encountered with Maoris and it was necessary for a while to work at nights.)

Within four months of starting we had driven the crosscut up to and through the foot-wall branch of the lode which proved to be 17 feet in thickness. We took out a trial lot of two tons upon which the Thames County Council paid the cost of transit by bullock haulage, to Owharoa, where it was treated in the Smile of Fortune Battery for a return of 1 oz 3 dwt [pennyweight – E] of bullion value £2-17-6 per oz. This (about £1-11-0 per ton) did not represent more than 30 per cent of the intrinsic value of the ore. Previous to treatment we had taken average samples for assay purposes and these were assayed by Mr. T. Heron who was then at the B.N.Z., Thames with the following results: Bullion 4 ozs. 6 dwt containing gold 1 oz 2 dwt. silver 3 oz. 4 dwt. value £4-14-0 per ton.

Armed with the bank results, Lee and I did not anticipate much difficulty in obtaining capital to exploit the mine. But unfortunately the whole concern was reported upon unfavourably by the "experts" who paid the place a visit, one authority scoffing at the idea of ascertaining the value of ore by assay".

The Partners then visited Te Aroha where another "find" had been reported.

During the year of their absence other prospectors visited the field and finally in 1881 it was proved beyond all doubt that the hill was gold bearing and claims were pegged. An action was taken in the Warden's Court at Thames on 11-8-1981 by Mr. Adam Porter on behalf of Mr. Wm. Nicholl's party whose titles were in question on account of Mr. McCombie's prior rights to the ground for prospecting purposes. This involved a plaint against Mr. McCombie for forfeiture of his claim on account of non-working. Rather than oppose this suit he surrendered the ground.

Subsequently Mr. McCombie located the Silverton mine in Waihi and then went prospecting again at Karangahake, his partner this tine being Daldy McWilliams who lived at Mackaytown. In 1882 they unearthed the lodes which became the Woodstock mine, and when a Company was floated Mr. McCombie was appointed Managing Director and later General Manager, a position which he held for 10 years till May 1898. He took a prominent part in the affairs of the district , and it was during this period that he supervised the building of the big Mackaytown kauri house, so near the site of the Opening of the Ohinemuri Goldfield in 1875. It remains in good sound order to-day, and was first occupied by Mr. and Mrs. McCombie and family. They were: Olive (Mrs Wilson), Charles, Gladys, Bel (Mrs. Whitney), Roy and Jack, all now resident in Auckland.

Meanwhile other fields had come into prominence and in 1898 Mr. McCombie was appointed Managing Director of the Maratoto Gold Mining Coy's. property upon which a mill comprising 15 head of stamps was erected. During this time his family remained in their Auckland home as Mr. Rich, the new Manager of the Woodstock occupied the Mackaytown house. However they were destined to return for when the Woodstock was taken over by the Talisman, Mr. McCombie was again appointed Manager until 1909, when he became Superintendent of the Crown. He later moved to that company's house on Crown Hill, when the former General Manager, Mr. F. Dawe went to England. The Crown Company ceased operations in 1916 and the McCombie family moved permanently to Auckland. In his later life Mr. McCombie did much reporting on mines and his scrapbooks to-day make very interesting reading. He was regarded as an authority on mining and contributed many articles and stories to current Journals. He died in 1926 and is survived by his six children.

Editor's Note: The various mines mentioned in this Article will be dealt with in later numbers of our Journals.