Monday, 6 October 2014

Mantraps. John Fitzgerald, 1906

Coromandel town in 1904 - memories of mines and men.

At 77 John Fitzgerald was still spry enough to gather his firewood from around the Coromandel hills.  By May 1906 the old prospector had lived in the area, where he and his brother Michael were well known for their glory days on the goldfields, for over 30 years. 

But Michael had died two months previously at the age of 83.   He had not enjoyed good health and had been a patient at the hospital for some months. 

John lived by himself and his neighbour, William Anderson, kept an eye on the bereaved man.  On Monday 7 May William was becoming anxious - he had not seen John since Friday.   He headed into the hills where he knew John was in the habit of collecting firewood and soon came across a bundle of wood beside an old mine shaft overgrown with scrub. On looking down the shaft William made out the motionless figure of a man.  He went for help.

 Charles Norman volunteered to be lowered down the shaft and a 60ft rope was obtained.  This proved too short and he had to be hauled to the surface again.
When a longer rope was found, Charles descended the shaft where he found John Fitzgerald in a huddled up position, quite dead.  The body was pulled to the surface and carried to the Golconda Hotel where an inquest was held.   Dr Smith found the neck and spine were broken as well as a large number of ribs and the right leg.  He concluded death must have been instantaneous.

The inquest found John Fitzgerald came to his death by falling down a mine shaft. The jury added a rider that the conduct of Charles Norman in descending the shaft twice on a rope was worthy of commendation. During the inquest a good deal of discussion had taken place as to the action of mine companies in leaving old shafts unprotected.  The Coroner emphasised that the mining law provided for old shafts being either filled in, covered or fenced.

It was an ironic end for the old prospector who fell down an 80 ft dry air shaft on the Hauraki No 2 Gold mining Company's property.

Twenty five years earlier, in 1881, John Fitzgerald had been noted as one of the lucky prospectors of Blackmore's claim, leaving for Auckland to arrange matters in connection with the formation of a company. Gold was showing more freely in Blackmore's reef the more it was worked on.  A very rich leader ran down the centre of the reef which was about 6" wide.  "Every stone taken from it is richer than anything yet got out of the claim," marvelled the Thames Advertiser, "and where left in the floor of the workings the gold is stronger than ever, giving every promise . . . "

The claim, discovered by Harry Blackmore, was known as the Tiki and such was its promise that the Auckland Star wordily reported "most of our old miners who essayed to try their luck at Te Aroha have returned, and so convinced are they of the auriferous character of the newly-discovered Tiki gold-field, that they have gone thither and pegged out claims adjoining the prospectors."   There was a considerable area of ground lying between Blackmore and Fitzgerald's claims.  Good results from the field were expected and "prospects are such that a considerable increase of population may be expected before long."

The Tiki Battery was opened in September 1881 to great fanfare. Several hundred people, including "a fair sprinkling of ladies",   came in spite of the bad roads and other difficulties.  A few minutes before 12, the machinery having been set in motion, the customary bottle of champagne was broken over the flywheel by Miss Blackmore who named it 'The Tiki.'
After viewing the machinery in action, the public dispersed over the mines, lubricated by an abundance of refreshments.   "There was not the slightest hitch.   Everything worked as smoothly as though it had been in operation for years," noted the NZ Herald approvingly.   

That night a grand dinner was held at the Star and Garter Hotel to commemorate the opening of the Tiki battery.  The evening echoed with toasts, speeches and musical honours.   One speaker said when he first came to Coromandel 13 years previously it was a very dull place indeed, but he thought there was a bright future before it now.  Another added he was perfectly astonished at what he saw at the Tiki, and was sure when he got back to Auckland and told people what he saw in the mines and in the district, they would be sure to want to come and see for themselves.  Another said "he was very sorry that so few of the Auckland shareholders had come down . . .  if they had - they would have felt well repaid."  Toasts were drunk to engineering feats carried out in weather so bad the roads were near impassable.   "When the Tiki broke out, although there was no money, they managed to get a road made, and a good many roads had been made since."   Finally the tables were cleared away and celebratory dancing was kept up for some hours. 

But all that glittered was not gold - in February 1884 brother Michael Fitzgerald was in the district court taking action against the Blackmore Gold Mining Company for 37 weeks and three days wages at two pounds eight shillings per week for work and labour done at the defendant's mine at Coromandel, between 21 June 1882 and 25 April 1883.

Michael Fitzgerald said he was working with John Fitzgerald and others in the mine.  John was one of the largest shareholders in the mine and said he could not pay his calls. 
The company was also in debt at the time.  John Fitzgerald undertook to work the mine with the help of other men, including Michael, for three months or until the company's liabilities were paid off; or until the company should pay Fitzgerald or Blackmore.  After a complicated hearing the district judge ruled that in his opinion the company was not liable for wages for the plaintiffs.   Further action against the company by John Fitzgerald was withdrawn.

A year later the brothers established a new Fitzgerald Claim about 3 miles out of Coromandel in the direction of the Tiki.  It lay on one of the spurs from the Tokatea main range; the spur lying between two gullies.  Here the Fitzgerald brothers took up three claims consisting of about 80 acres in all.  They had prospected this ground some years before and got gold on leaders running off the main reef that ran through the ground.  The ground was then floated, but financial difficulties of the Auckland shareholders prevented the supply of the capital necessary to develop the property. The ground was known to be gold bearing and they were encouraged to now thoroughly prospect it. 

Three years later, in 1898, when the brothers were aged 70 and 75, they made headlines again.   The men, now identities on the Coromandel goldfields, had made a new discovery at Tiki.  After diligent and patient labour they discovered a reef hinting at more than average promise.   "These indefatigable brothers, although well advanced in life, have persevered in a manner deserving every success, the difficulties encountered by them being of no mean order," praised the NZ Herald. It reminded readers that some years before "when mining was at a low ebb, they, in conjunction with the late Mr Harry Blackmore, made an important and valuable discovery -  the claim being known as Blackmore and Fitzgerald's - and caused a revival  in our midst."  The brothers were now working at following the lode down and were hopeful that within a week or two they 
would be able to prove it was of sufficient value to stimulate prospecting. 

But by March 1902 the brothers who worked so doggedly had finally laid down their picks. The Council were asked to take steps to get numerous claims now protected and not being worked forfeited and thrown open to bona-fide miners. It was resolved that the circumstances of the Fitzgerald brothers and the forfeiture of their claim be laid before the Minister for Mines when he visited the district. 

Two months after John Fitzgerald's fatal fall the Coromandel News commented many such 'mantraps' were about the Coromandel goldfields and it was a wonder such accidents did not happen more frequently.  It was high time that legislation was enacted making it compulsory for claim owners to make safe every property held under licence by them.  
The Thames Star called the disused shafts "a perpetual danger on mining fields."

In July 1906 a case was brought before the Warden's Court at Coromandel - the outcome of John Fitzgerald's death.   Information was laid by the Mining Inspector against the Hauraki No 2 Gold mining Company.  But the company had gone into liquidation prior to the information being laid and it was doubtful who was liable under the Act.  The inspector withdrew the information after bringing before the public and owners of mines their liability to heavy penalties for allowing disused shafts to remain unfenced or uncovered.  The inspector stressed  the determination of the Mines Department to see that the Act was strictly complied with.  Too late for John Fitzgerald, tireless prospector. 


The surface works of the old Hauraki Gold mining Company in 1904.

The Fitzgerald brothers are buried at Buffalo Cemetery, Coromandel.  They left a sister in Australia and a nephew, Mr Oliver Mason, of Limestone Island, Whangarei. 

Phillip Henry Blackmore, known as Harry, was also a most assiduous prospector who discovered the celebrated claim at Tiki which bore his name, besides many other important finds.  He took a very active interest in public affairs and was a member of the County Council.    Despite his industry and the discovery of the Tiki, he did not profit much by it. He was remembered as a thoroughly upright and straightforward man.   He died in December 1892.

Sources: Papers Past, Te Ara, Heritage Images 19041020-16-4 & 19040915-3-1

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2014

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