West Coast History

History of the West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

 Maori had travelled the length of the wild West Coast since the late 15th century in search of pounamu greenstone to trade for essential goods elsewhere and had a number of permanent and semi-permanent settlements at strategic locations along the Coast where sufficient food could be sourced to sustain human life. In 1846, Thomas Brunner set out to explore the West Coast led by Maori guide and remarkable bushman Kehu. The expedition would last two years and along the way he would encounter incredible hardship, battle inclement weather, flood, dense forest, sandflies and near starvation. It was through the benevolence of Maori at numerous pa settlements along the coast, who provided him with food from their gardens and from the land, river and sea, that he managed to survive what is considered to be the greatest feat of exploration in New Zealand by a European.

On his return to pakeha civilisation in Nelson, he proclaimed, “There is nothing on the West Coast worth incurring the expense of exploring.” A proclamation that rivalled the statement by Charles Duell of the U.S. Patent Office on 1899 when he stated, “Everything that can be invented--has already been invented.”
Because, just over a decade later, gold was discovered on the Coast and the lure of the precious metal provided a financial incentive for fortune hunters from the world over to flock to the West Coast in the mid 1860s.

The arrival of prospectors, merchants, bar girls and other profiteers rapidly populated the coast and substantial cities popped up virtually overnight. The population on the West Coast rapidly swelled from a few hundred settlers to tens of thousands as diggers flocked to the coast from the goldfields of Australia and California. About a quarter of the miners came from Ireland, but German, Swiss, Italian, French, American, Australian, English, Scottish, Welsh, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian and
Scandinavian other nationalities all joined in the race for riches.

The promise of wealth attracts all sorts of people and the West Coast gold rush was no exception.
Merchants, bankers, gold traders, publicans, prostitutes, entertainers and rogues flocked to the Coast to grab a share of the riches reportedly on offer. There is a certain element of luck in gold prospecting and not all the diggers made their fortune, in fact it is often said that the providers of water made much more money that the miners themselves. The water was used to power hydraulic sluice guns that sprayed water onto a hillside to wash the “paydirt” into riffled sluice boxes in which the much heavier gold could be separated from the stones, mud and other material. The water was supplied from higher in the mountains and delivered to the miners via an elaborate series of wooden races, the remnants of which can be seen in many places on the West Coast
including Reefton, Charleston and Ross.

Publicans also did rather well from the gold rush as digging is thirsty work and the miners were enthusiastic consumers of alcoholic beverages, which were equally as eagerly supplied by the proprietors of the many pubs and shebeens that were appeared to service the miners and slake their thirst. With drinking comes dancing and the hotels employed “dancing girls” to encourage the miners to drink up and dance into the night. One of the most famous dancing girls was “Fenian Jenny,” who was well known among the miners for her emerald green petticoat and her ability to waltz with a glass of water balancing on her head.

The provision of water, booze, social contact and businesses providing other essential services such as equipment suppliers, hairdressers, bankers, boot-makers, butchers, bakers etc earned in a steady income and
were often far more prosperous than the miners.

Historical records show that in 1867, 586,485 litres of alcoholic spirits were imported to the West Coast goldfields, which was approximately 20 litres for every man, woman and child on the Coast at the time!

The cultural and ethnic diversity brought about by the gold rush of the 1860s is reflected in the place names, architectural styles,
food, religions and styles seen on the West Coast today. The gold rush established the West Coast, in today’s money, the total amount of gold extracted from the West Coast would exceed $US6 billion. That wealth created the roads, bridges, rail systems, lodgings, restaurants, pubs and other infrastructure that makes the experience of travelling along the West Coast
a far more pleasant and rewarding than the geographical, culinary and climatic challenges that confronted
explorer Thomas Brunner and other West Coast pioneers

Visit any of the many historic cemeteries along the West Coast and the hardships that confronted the pioneers are clearly evident on the headstones. “Died by drowning” there were no bridges and river crossings were extremely dangerous, “Died in childbirth” reflecting the absence of medical services and many also succumbed to the influenza epidemic that swept the country in 1918.
“Died in a house fire,” indicates the inadequacy of fire services and the predominately wooden dwellings, and many men and boys died in mining accidents, the largest single disaster being the explosion at Brunner Mine near Greymouth in 1896 in which 65 men and boys were killed. The Brunner Mine Disaster is the most tragic mining accident in New Zealand history. 

Gravestone memories of people passed present a palpable snapshot of history and with some imagination and pondering,
a mental image of life in the days of yore can be conjured up.

Compiled and written by Paul Murray


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