Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011

(By Anne Stewart Ball, Whiritoa)

Evidently 2011 is the International Year of Chemistry and on February 9, 2011, an official New Zealand launch of this year-long celebration was held in Wellington.

It is a good time to reflect on some innovative discoveries of the past which made difference in how things were done on the Coromandel. Three of these that spring to mind were in gold refining, the fertiliser and cement industries. The chemists who were involved in these discoveries were people who had links with the Coromandel Peninsula via occupation and family. They are discoveries that have been an integral part of our history.

The late 1800s saw a new method of refining gold, which increased the percentage of gold from the ore, successfully used at the Crown Mine at Karangahake. The chemist who discovered this process was also on the directorship as technical manager of the New Zealand Crown Gold Mining Company Limited formed to develop the process with the Cassel Gold Extraction Company.

This chemist gained little material recognition for his discovery due to the series of events which followed. However, he did gain the recognition of his profession in that he was first recipient of the gold medal of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy.

The early 1900s saw the development of farming on the Coromandel. Land newly bought in from scrub, bush and swamp needed fertiliser, including phosphate. This new method of utilising the land of the Coromandel required it for growing pastures and crops for productive farming. The hunt was on then for more deposits of phosphates to meet the growing demand.

Quite by accident a rock was discovered propping open a door of an office in Sydney. The chemist who discovered this unusual door stopper knew it was no ordinary rock but phosphate. So started the regular supply of rock phosphate used to make super phosphate. Incidentally this chemist married the daughter of another of those people involved with kauri gum and timber from the Coromandel.

The late 1800s and early 1900s also saw the increasing usage of Portland cement instead of wood to build processing plants in the mining industry and dairying industry on the Hauraki Plains and the Coromandel Peninsula. Use of it was made even in the "new fangled cowsheds" appearing. Also during these years wood was being superseded by Portland cement in the construction of bridges and harbour works.

Yes, Portland cement had been around the world for some time but its manufacture and use in New Zealand really came to the fore in the late 1800s when the mining industry was moving to wet processing plants and dairy factories appearing on the Coromandel landscape. Use was also enhanced by the development of two Portland cement plants—that of J. W. Wilson Limited (the Star brand) and the New Zealand Portland Cement Company Limited (the Crown brand).

One of the Peninsula's early metallurgists in the gold mining industry at Thames also was involved in the development of a plant for the application of some of the latest scientific ideas. This metallurgist was to go on with the New Zealand Mining Trust to Australia and become involved in the design and setting up of a Portland cement works at Portland, New South Wales.

Of interest is that the newly developed Thames School of Mines, in 1890, awarded the Dr Scheidel's medal for first in practical chemistry to one of its students.

Now who were these pioneer chemists of these pioneer discoveries? They were:

John Stewart MacArthur who with Robert Wardrop Forrest and William Forrest, developed the cyanide process—known today was the MacArthur Forrest process—for the commercial extraction of gold from its ore.

Albert Ellis Fuller, the discoverer of the phosphate rock door stopper and its analysis to confirm that it was phosphate. Ellis, from 1920 until his death in 1951, was New Zealand's Commissioner on the British Phosphate Commission.

Dr August Wilhelm Karl Scheidel, innovator and developer of the plant at Thames. In modern day times he has been attributed with being the father of the modern cement industry in Australia.

"Now what", you may ask, "has chemistry and these discoveries of over 100 years ago got to with history and historical sites of the Hauraki and Coromandel today?"

The New Zealand Crown Mining Company

The New Zealand Crown Mining Company was among the first to make extensive use of cement when building its processing battery at Karangahake. Seen here are the remains of the battery.

Chemistry and History Meet on the Coromandel
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 55, September 2011
The New Zealand Crown Mining Company

'Tis a lot for sure. Today we have concrete reminders of these in the cement structures throughout the area. Some of them have New Zealand Historic Places Trust registration and some not—the Crown Mine relics, the brick and concrete foundations of the Victoria battery, the iconic Waihi pumphouse, mining relics at Broken Hills and "Luck at Last", old dairy factories of the area—some still in use for other activities.

The discoveries are still in use today and often overlooked for their use is taken for granted as part of the norm. The early pioneers of these discoveries held in family memories today in a time when chemistry and history meet on the Coromandel.

Public reference sources:

1. Te Aroha News, February 2, 1889, page 2; also online Paperspast.nz.

2. Balliol College Archives and Manuscripts Paper of John Stewart MacArthur 1856-1920.

3. Biography of Albert Ellis Fuller online, in DBNZ.

4. Thames Star, December 16, 1890, p 2, also online paperspast.nz

5. Portland Cement Works site, NSW.