Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 19, June 1975
By The Late E.D. HAVILL (Bill)
It was "depression" time but we were young and determined to make our own way rather than join the ranks of the "unemployed". Moreover, being full of optimism and the spirit of adventure we made secret preparations and decided to disappear quietly -- destination unknown! So at the end of a typically beautiful March day, shortly after the Napier Earthquake, my mate and I left Matatoki after working on Mr Peter Clarke's farm. The evening had darkened but was fine and cool when we headed south carrying all our worldly possessions including: one 12lb sack of flour, 1lb Dripping, Baking Powder, Half Axe, frying pan, Tobacco, Matches, Tea, Sugar and a good billy and blanket each. After an hour we came to Puriri and soon decided to leave the rough metal of the main road, so turned left, unaware that we were taking the trail over the Range, via Neavesville, Puketui, and the old Golden Hills and Broken Hills mines, thence to Hikuai and Tairua.
Our first night was spent on the side of the road after making a hurried camp and boiling the billy. In the morning we breakfasted on flapjacks washed down with plenty of sweet black tea. Once again we set off slowly climbing higher into the hills. We passed a pair of peaks known as The Pinnacles, but sometimes referred to as "Little London". They rose very sharply from a large basin, and it seemed to be miles around the Pinnacles until we passed beyond them, leaving them below us. The road kept rising, and we felt that we were going around in circles. We passed a couple of farms on the left, then came out on a portion of country almost devoid of growth, with a sheer drop of hundreds of feet into the bush below. This revealed a breath taking view of the Thames Valley - Hauraki Plains area. At this stage we were some two thousand feet above sea level. Taking our fill of the glorious view we made our way slowly further along the track. This section was blasted out of the sheer solid rock. At last we found another likely camp spot with handy water and firewood. After another meal of tea and flapjacks, (something which I was later to become expert at making) we relaxed round the campfire, each with full stomach and a good cigarette. We considered ourselves masters of our own destiny.
We were up and on the move early, after our usual breakfast. It was now downgrade, and this heartened us considerably. Then came a mile section of old corduroy track, probably well trodden by bullock teams in the past. Next we found an old kauri driving dam just past the spot where the KiriKiri track branched off. We learned later that this area was known as Measletown, but could never fathom how that name came about. Descending more steeply now, we rounded bend after bend, and overlooked more open country with glimpses of distant Tairua and Hikuai. A few more bends, and there below us lay Neavesville in a glorious panorama of bush, bounded by Tairua with Mayor Island beyond.
We noted several bush shanties made of kauri palings grouped around the hotel, the huts having the big wide chimneys of corrugated iron typical of most bush shanties. Walking down the last ridge we approached the hotel through a wide gate across the road. It had a squarish ground floor, walls partly covered in corrugated iron, uncovered verandah, and none of it painted. There was also a smaller shed which on closer inspection proved to be a Post Office. After making inquiries at the hotel we were told that there was an empty hut a little past, and to the rear of the hotel. We sallied forth and were soon installed there. We had thoroughly enjoyed every minute of our time out in the bush over the past couple of days, but the thought of having a roof over our heads was rather attractive. The beds were only sacks nailed over pieces of four by two, but much softer than the bare ground. We found that our new home had a gauze covered safe in which to keep our food, (the other huts also had this small luxury) and somehow it gave us a sense of security, the feeling of having a home to ourselves.
After a while we went to the hotel to meet some of the community, which amounted to about a dozen people. The hotel proprietor was Jim Steele; his wife was a sturdy motherly type with a trace of dark blood. We learned that the packhorses went down to Puriri once a week, and brought back two five gallon kegs of beer, meat and whatever provisions were needed, as well as mail.
In 1925 there had been a huge fire, which left the ground fairly well cleared with patches of good grass scattered amongst the burnt stumps. Most of the inhabitants eked out an existence by digging gum principally on a large burnt out area, part of it swampy, known as Mullocky Flat. A good spade such as a No. 1 Skelton was recommended for digging, with the addition of a gum spear for the more experienced hands. The latter was a long thin rod, sharpened on the end, with a ferrule a little up from the tip. The spears could be anything from three feet long, up to six feet long for deep gum. The delicate sense of touch and the dexterity of some of the old hands was an everlasting wonder to us novices. The usual method of digging gum was known as paddocking, which was done by holding the spade in front, blade facing you, then digging with a chopping motion, and dragging the dirt toward your feet. Where ever we went there were signs of gum digging by this method. We made a start at digging for ourselves, and though our first efforts were not very productive, we soon learned to look for more likely spots, but my mate soon tired of the rough life, having previously been a ship's steward. The call of the sea was too great, and after about two weeks he went back down the track to civilisation.
I then joined forces with another solitary digger, who introduced me to the "Nut Bag", which was a sugar bag strung around the waist on a short piece of rope. The nut bag was for putting the pieces of gum in as they were won from the soil. My new mate, Bert Smith, had a much better camp, with the inside of the hut lined with tenting, making a very snug and warm home. He also had different sized camp ovens, used for making bread, cooking appetizing stews, roasts, and even making pastry. By now I had become quite used to the higher altitude with its lighter atmosphere and colder nights. Three more travellers arrived to swell our numbers, Mr Harry Morgan, who was an old ex-miner from Waitekauri, his son Steve, and nephew Harry Briffiths [possibly Griffiths – E] from Turua. Harry remained a close friend until his death in 1952.
The Puriri Hotel was managed by Mr Martin Grace, one of several brothers from Waitekauri. The owner, Mrs Pearson, and her son Norman being in England for a period of about eighteen months visiting relatives. After a month or two when the Steeles left Neavesville, Mr and Mrs Joe Sokilich came to take over the hotel on behalf of Martin Grace. Joe had with him a button accordian [accordion – E] and was a versatile performer, while Harry Morgan and I could knock out a good few tunes, so we had some rollicking sing songs up in the old pub during the evenings. The hotel had a large kitchen equipped with a Dutch oven, a bathroom, eight single rooms, a very large dining room, and a small commercial room which had an American style stove in it, with the chimney going right up through the ceiling. This was very good for heating the room. The public bar had a large slab of kauri as the counter, being about two feet wide, and twelve feet long. The custom was not enough to keep the public bar open, and most of the drink was served through a small slide panel opening into the passage that ran the length of the hotel, and was just across from the commercial room. During the Winter months we used to come here to get warmth from the stove.
Two families of Maori gum climbers (Barlow and Dick) joined us for awhile. They made their living by cutting the bark of the kauri trees and taking the gum that oozed out of the cuts. They had specially reinforced boots with spikes on the toes, also a pair of climbing hooks which were about ten inches long, and having a three inch spike bent at right angles from the end which was driven into the tree as they climbed. They worked their way up the trees by alternately kicking the toe spike into the bark, then taking their weight on the climbing hook. They gave us a demonstration of climbing on a big hollow kauri. Bushmen would fell only the very best of trees and many an old one enjoyed an extension of its life through being hollow.
The climber would carry a rope wound around his waist, and a short handled tomahawk. After reaching the head of the tree he would take a couple of wraps of the rope around a stout limb, and lower himself back down the side of the tree, sitting in a sort of loop seat already made in the end of the rope. He would chop small scarfs in the bark on the way down, and as far around the tree as he was able to reach using the climbing hooks and toe spikes to work his way around the side of the tree. They usually had to climb up the tree again to do the second side. This was a six monthly job, as it took that long for the "green gum" which flowed so profusely from the cuts to harden enough for it to be chipped off and gathered up into sacks. At this time rescraped gum of good quality could fetch up to 2/- per pound, ordinary scraped gum up to 1/6d per pound, nuts (which were about an inch in diameter) sold for 1/- per pound, and last of all the dust which was the scrapings off the other grades mixed in with a bit of stray dirt was worth 2d a pound. Most of the gum was sold at Hikuai to T. Morrisson who was a store keeper and gum buyer. He would bring horses packed with supplies to sell or exchange for gum. A 56 lb bag of flour was about 12/6d, and we would soon cut out the value of the gum on flour, tinned milk, bully beef, & butter.
Following a spell of gum digging I shifted camp to go along with Jack Collins splitting Kauri fencing posts down by the Third Branch of the Tairua River. We were paid £4 per hundred for the posts by the Hikuai farmers. Then I became associated with Jack Collins Snr., who was trying to promote a mining venture. There were six members, each with a £50 holding, and the aim was to open up the old Golden Hills mine which was in the lower reaches of the Third Branch. With the aid of a surveyor brought down from Auckland the old mine pegs were located with the sightings being done from the Neavesville trig. I was then installed as caretaker and cook, with the promise of some shares in the undertaking, but alas, like many other mining ventures of that period funds ran out after a certain amount of preliminary work had been done. Most of the Syndicate members left, walking out to the nearest transport. The exception was Sydney Bridge, who stayed and settled on a farm down toward Hikuai, and is still there with his family.
I returned to Neavesville, somewhat disillusioned, and once more joined the small community. There was much evidence of the past mining activity at Neavesville, with the rusty stamp boxes and boilers lying near the burned out timbering of the battery in the middle of Mullocky Flat. The old Golden Belt seemed to have been a fairly big mine, with the cables of an aerial tramway lying on the hillsides leading down to the remains of a fairly large battery. This site is now right beside the Kopu Hikuai road. There was one battery standing complete in Neavesville, the story being that after being erected, the big suction gas engine which was to drive the battery would not operate at the high altitude (some 2,500 feet). There were ten head of stamps, hopper and jaw crusher, berdans, and Wilfrey [Wilfley – E] table, all set up, but had never crushed a single ton of rock. There was plenty of evidence that our predecessors had intended to work the battery, as they had cut and stacked many cords of mountain rata, a wood that had been in plentiful supply. A mixture of firewood, with a small amount of anthracite coal and coke was evidently the fuel necessary to run the plant.
Martin Grace, who was holding the mineral rights of the area, got together with his brother Perry, Harry Morgan, his son Len, and myself. We employed an out of work fellow who had spent a bit of time with engines, and after a lot of experimenting and hard work turning over the very large flywheel the engine gave a mighty kick and burst into life. Harry Morgan and I were immediately assigned to the job of getting ore. We knew where there was a fair amount broken out and paddocked, this being done before the mine was abandoned. However Perry Grace who was a great prospector and fossicker had meanwhile found a small ironstone leader that was carrying a few colours of gold. Harry and I followed it up the slope, across the tram-line, and into the high bank beside the tramline. We had already got a couple of tons of the paddocked stuff out to the hopper by means of the tramway conveniently left for us. By the third day we had managed to drive about five feet on the little leader. It was a coffee coloured strip about four inches across running down the face of the tunnel from the floor to the roof. The whole face was picking country, and we were able to break it down easily.
Our first day of crushing arrived, and the stamps were clanging away all morning. After lunch we tried a couple of handfuls of brown rubbly stuff in the dish, and were elated to find the bottom all covered in gold. We noticed that the stamps had stopped, so thinking that something might be wrong Harry and I made our way down to the battery. We found that they were having to lift the stamps every half hour to scrape the plates, and by the end of the afternoon the battery team had several balls of hard amalgum [amalgam – E]. Then came the processes of retorting the amalgum, and smelting the bullion. We had a small portable forge with the heat generated with a small hand turned blower. We took turns at operating this to get the temperature up enough for the smelting, having five minute spells, as the speed of turning had to be kept very high, and the heat did not help. We found it a good idea to have a tin shield to try to protect our hands.
Perry Grace was our Master of Ceremonies through the full day that it took to retort and smelt the bullion. After it had melted it was poured into moulds, making two beautiful 60 ounce bars. True, we were only paid £6 per ounce by the Bank because of the percentage of silver in the gold, but to our eyes in the middle of the Depression years this was a most heartening sight. We all had a wonderful sense of achievement, having participated in the project from start to finish, and for me personally there was great exhilaration because of the unexpected wealth gained from my one sixth share! We were to win more gold to the value of £2,000 until the mine was taken over by Jack McCoy of Auckland. Len and I stayed there, working on wages at £5 per week, along with several miners from the old Dubbo at Karangahake, who could also tell a tale of a brief period of mining at Neavesville.
The above article represents a wonderful achievement for it was written during the last weeks of Bill Havill's life. Born in Eng., one of a large musical family, Bill came alone to N.Z. when 15 to join his brother Barney (1 W.W.). With his uncle Ted Roberts he visited our area in 1925 and returned to it after "Neavesville" about 1938 when he worked at the "Dubbo". Enlisting for 2nd W.W. he was in camp in 1940 with other local men (Mick and Dan Fitzgerald, Alan Rackham, Peter Grant and Paul and Bob Young). After serving in Egypt and Greece he was wounded in Tunisia, invalided home 1943 and discharged 1944 with total disability pension. His mother had come to N.Z. prior to War and she and Bill lived in a cottage on Les Havill's farm at Turners Hill. Bill took up Floral Work and his Paeroa Shop was a rendezvous for many friends who also remember his Music. He lived for a time in Mackaytown and during his long illness spent some months with Barney & Grace Havill. His courage and unassuming manner continued to endear him to those who knew him. He died in Thames Hospital in July, 1974.