Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 15, June 1971
By Joe Killey
NOTE: In 1892 the Waihi Gold Mining Company realised the possibilities of the cyanide process which had been pioneered at Karangahake. The adoption of this process was one of the crucial factors in the history of Waihi as it remedied the fact that only a small percentage of bullion had been extracted by the old battery process. By 1897 it was found that the crushing plant of 69 [90, at the Waihi Mill – E] heads of stamps in use since 1894 was insufficient and as a result the Company decided to erect the Victoria Battery at Waikino, to supplement its other plants.
The principal reason for choosing Waikino as the site was the availability of relatively cheap water power. To the south of Waihi a dam was built in the Ohinemuri River, part of the water being diverted into a race which ran to Waikino with a considerable fall in height for the water turbines (360 h.p.) connected directly with the stamps. At first there were only 100 but these were doubled and by 1903 the Victoria Battery was the largest in New Zealand. A private railway line was erected for the transport of quartz to the plant and the partially processed product back to Waihi to be refined. This quartz train, known as "The Rake" was a noted feature of the district for many yeas.
Up to 1909 the story of the "Martha Company" [Waihi Gold Mining Company – E] was a tale of successful enterprise. Soon afterwards it evinced a state of uncertainty which continued for nearly 40 years during which plant deteriorated because overseas Shareholders were unwilling to risk further development, thus cramping local initiative and management. Ed.)
January 1931 - Anniversary Day. I stepped off the bus from Auckland and took a look at Waikino. Half a dozen shops a tiny post office and a pub comprised the business section of the town. I was not impressed. I picked up my bag and set off for the Battery which was located a few hundred yards further down the road. Over a wooden bridge across the Ohinemuri River - on the north side was a clear stream fringed with willows, and on the south a turgid muddy creek befouled by the tailings which ran out from a tail race. Continuing to the main administrative building to report my arrival on transfer from the Auckland office of the Waihi Gold Mining Company, I met a cold reception from the superintendent who expressed his disapproval of the move.
Then a search for lodgings which I eventually found in Waihi four miles away in a tiny room where a pink candle provided the only illumination. A sleepless night fighting a losing battle with the insect life which scented new blood, and up early to breakfast. And it was there I met an entertaining character by the name of Mick Crosby. His comments regarding the piece of steak set before him for his breakfast, and the doubts which he expressed to our landlady concerning its origin, brightened my day.
I reported back to the Battery office and met a number of men with whom I was to be associated for many years.
The Victoria Battery at Waikino in those days was crushing and treating an average of 800 tons of ore per day, brought down by the Company's locomotives from the mine at Waihi. About 200 men were employed, and most of the plant was operated on a 24 hour non-stop basis. The plant and equipment were primitive in many respects, yet a surprisingly high percentage recovery of values was obtained. The cyanide process had long since changed the pattern of ore treatment in the goldfields, and the Company was paying handsome dividends - mostly to England where the greater part of the capital was raised.
When I left the Company's Auckland office in 1931 the management forecast a remaining life for the mine of no more than five years. In the event, it lived for over 20 years, but this uncertain future was reflected in the poor condition of the buildings and plant and staff houses. Rusty roofs and faded paint or no paint at all were the rule rather than the exception. I found it difficult to reconcile the prosperity of the Company with the primitive working conditions and the sub-standard housing which the Company provided for its staff. Many of these men were highly qualified in their trade or profession, but in those days any job was a job and gold mining was one of the few industries which were not adversely affected by the world-wide depression.
I found the settlement of Waikino to be a closely-knit community of a few hundred people. I soon found private board and before long was accepted by them and took part in the various social and sporting activities. In most respects the town was self-contained, the local stores providing most of the day-to-day requirements, and the community hall was the centre for the many social events, lodge meetings, movies and parties. They were a fine people and I still count many of them among my closest friends.
The processes of crushing and treatment of the Waihi ore were complex, and as was said earlier, a surprisingly high recovery was obtained in view of the primitive nature of the plant. A brief summary may be of interest:
On arrival from Waihi the ore was tipped into four gyratory crushers and broken into small pieces which were carried on a 24" conveyor belt into hoppers. From the hoppers it was fed into stamper boxes where it was further crushed to pass through a 10 mesh screen. Five stampers were used in each box, and a total of up to 200 stampers were in operation. Each stamper weighed over 1,000 lbs and was lifted and dropped about 8" by means of a cam shaft on to a steel die, crushing the ore at each impact and forcing it through the wire screen where it was carried away by water for further grinding. The terrible roar of these stampers dropping onto steel dies is beyond description. The whole building and the area surrounding it shuddered to the numbing shattering impact. Yet men worked for years in this department, sometimes up to twelve hours a day, without any apparent ill-effects.
The crushed ore was carried to elevator wheels where it was lifted and fed to pebble mills [aka tube mills – E]. These were steel cylinders about 18 feet long by 5 ft. diameter. They were partly filled with flint pebbles imported from Europe, the ore was fed in and the mills rotated at 25 revolutions per minute. The pebbles falling about in the mill ground the ore to a very fine consistency.
From this point the powdered ore was carried away in water to be classified into its three components - concentrates, sands and slimes. Each component required a different treatment and was led away to its separate department. It would not be possible to describe in this short article the processes involved in the various treatments, but each component received an application of cyanide which dissolved all the minerals in the pulp. The clean clear solutions of the minerals, including the gold and silver, came together when they were passed through boxes containing zinc shavings. Here an electro-chemical action precipitated the minerals out of the solution on to the zinc. This was the final stage of the treatment at Waikino. The product from the precipitation boxes which was a mixture of the minerals in the ore and the zinc which had broken down in the process, and looked like thermal mud, was sent back to Waihi where it was refined and smelted into ingots.
The results obtained spoke much for the efficiency of the technical supervision. Every aspect of the plant operations was carefully controlled. A detailed costing system operated in respect of each department and monthly statements were compiled to show the cost of each department per ton of ore treated and the value of the gold and silver recovered. Regular samples were taken throughout the day from the various treatment points and the samples were assayed in the Battery assay office. Any variations from the norm in assay results were investigated and the treatment rectified. The assaying was of a very high standard and I was interested to read in (Journal 14), a detailed description of this process contributed by Mr. Les Morgan. Mr. George Chappell of Waihi was the Company's bullion assayer at the Waihi refinery, and in his day was regarded as one of the country's most competent men in this profession. The balances used could weigh to one 30,000th part of a grain (7,000 grains to 1 lb.) and the operation demanded a keen eye and steady hand. Mr. Chappell still lives in Waihi, a well-respected member of the old mining fraternity, and I recall that George Metcalf, Dick Wynn and David Haszard were also assayers.
The Victoria Battery is no more. A few old timbers, concrete vats, and what was once the office block are all that remain of this unique, self-contained community of 200 men. A few of the old hands still live in the township; it still boasts a tavern, a store and a post office, a community hall and a school. But the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, blacksmiths, the fitters, the technical men and the shift hands have moved on. To any who read this I extend greetings and would be pleased to hear from you at 35 Macky Street, Waihi. How about another Waikino reunion?
There is a revival of interest in minerals throughout N.Z. at the present time. The discovery of payable deposits could give a boost to the national economy - Australia has benefited enormously from the exploitation of her mineral resources. But I would not be entirely happy to see mining development in the Waihi area. Since the mine closed Waihi has prospered. The uncertainties of the past are gone and now prosperity is based on secondary industries and the surrounding farming. Mining is the exploiting of a wasting asset. It may bring a temporary prosperity to the area of waste land. The Ohinemuri River is no longer a sludge channel and tailings must be disposed of elsewhere. The new Mining Act provides some safeguards in this respect but we must ensure that our countryside is not despoiled and that we are not left with ugly ruins and land unfit for development.
In searching for some material for this article I find that I still have my notes taken during studies at the Waihi School of Mines. They are concerned with the course for Battery Superintendent's certificate and the associated course in gold and silver assaying. Any reader interested may inspect on request.
The last Superintendent when the Company ceased operations, 1952, was Mr. James Noble. There was much clearing up to be done, and Mr. Milligan from Auckland Office, came dawn to assist, but I happened to be the last man on the payroll. I have deposited with the Waihi Museum an old Book which records the names of Employees who, over a period of many years, "signed on" for work at the Victoria Battery at Waikino.