Wednesday, 17 June 2015

The hills and gullies of this goldfield.

Mary Gordon, Thomas Gordon, John McLeod, 1869
Catherine Riley and James Riley, 1871

                             Thames hillsides scoured by mining excavations and winter rains.                                                             Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-RIC138'

 Victoria Battery, Moanataiari Creek, Thames.
Sir George Grey Special Collections 4-8718

The steady soaking rain which set in on the night of June 19, 1869 battered the small cottage of a miner named Gordon  which was situated in a rather exposed position on the Golden Terrace mining claim, on the ridge of Canadian Gully, Moanataiari, Thames. It was occupied by Gordon, his wife Mary, their child Thomas, and a mate of his, John McLeod.

As a fearful storm raged the creeks swelled to an unprecedented degree and the tide rose to a great height.  The cottage was immediately under the hill within about a hundred yards of the Victoria Battery, near the intersection of the roads, leading from the Junction Hotel.  

About 12.20am Gordon, who had been lying anxiously awake in the dark cottage, heard some noise above the heavy rain,  pulled on  some clothes and headed outside to investigate.  By the intermittent moonlight he was horrified to see that the mass of ground above the cottage was beginning to give way.  Gordon rushed to the door to wake those inside but was too late - he was met by the whole back portion of the building, crushed in by the weight of sliding earth and part of a toppled kauri tree. Panic stricken Gordon, seeing the destruction with which his wife, child  and friend were overwhelmed, rushed for assistance  to the houses nearby.   A number of men in a few minutes were at work.

"The names of the parties has not yet been communicated", reported the NZ Herald correspondent during the wait for news.  He was further stymied by the twin screw steamer John Penn only waiting quarter of an hour at Grahamstown wharf  to take his report to Auckland.     The steamship Lalla Rookh was expected at an early hour that afternoon, when, in all probability further particulars of the melancholy catastrophe would be received.  And they were - once the bodies were recovered  it was evident that death must have been instantaneous  and caused by suffocation. The features in all three had not undergone the slightest alteration, their expressions being quite calm, as if they had not even been awakened by the noise.  Mary was injured but the child was untouched except for a  piece of wallpaper on his face. as if it had fluttered from the wall at the time of the tragedy.  John McLeod, however, had sustained severe injuries from the fall of the tree, although in all probability he never felt it.

Information was sent to the police at Grahamstown,  and Constable McWilliams and two of the men under his charge, together with Dr Lewis, at once proceeded to the spot. It was found that nothing could be done to restore life.  The bodies were taken to the house of a relative which was close by, and afterwards were  removed to the Junction Hotel for an inquest.

"One of the most disastrous accidents . . . since the opening of the goldfield . . . occurred at a time when, unfortunately, very little assistance could be procured, although in this instance the most effectual and speedy aid would not have saved life,"  observed a newspaper correspondent.

A great many people visited the scene of the accident the next day, many of the opinion that if any ordinary amount of caution had been used the accident might have been escaped.   The site on which the cottage was situated though was evidently  as secure as a great many others which whole families occupied  on the ranges.  The slip appeared to have been caused by a crack created by the dry weather, which the rainwater worked into, carrying off the bedrock, and taking with  it the roots of a heavy kauri tree.

Another extensive slip took place in the Waiotahi Creek about the same hour that night. Several hundred tons of earth were dislodged, almost burying the machine house known as Break o ' Day, the property of Messrs Johnson and Du Moulin.

An inquest on Mary, Thomas and John was held at the Junction Hotel, Grahamstown, and the bodies then taken up to Auckland by the tss John Penn for interment.   It is not known what happened to  the miner Gordon, sole survivor of that terrifying night.


Looking towards the hills up Waiotahi Creek, Thames.  Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 35-R143

Two years later, again in the branch of the  gully of the Moanataiari Valley known as the Canadian, rain lashed the  weatherboard cottage of a miner named Riley, his wife Catherine and their three children, aged 15 months, four and six years.

The cottage had been built on a cleared space of the Midnight Gold Mining company's claim, at the foot of the blind gulch. A few feet from the front door of the house the ground fell nearly perpendicular into Canadian Gully.  Immediately under the fall was an old shaft some 20 feet deep that was full of water.

Riley worked a mining contract in the Moanataiari Company's mine and at midnight on April 5, 1871,  he came off shift and headed home through the storm to bed.  At 4am he was woken by a rumbling noise at the back of the house and heard the roof crack.    With danger from a landslip never far from his mind, he bolted out of bed, lit a candle and told Catherine to take their youngest child, James, and run up the hill at the side of the house.  Riley caught up the other two children, one under each arm, while Catherine snatched up the youngest and  rushed to the door of the house but she was too late.
An avalanche of earth, timber and tree stumps struck the house and swept it away.  When Riley recovered consciousness he found himself half buried in earth and his house broken to matchwood in Canadian Gully creek, which flooded by the rain, was a roaring torrent.

 He extricated himself with difficulty, and after searching for a few moments, found the two elder children in the last stages of suffocation, under the bed and a quantity of timber. Pulling them to safety, he turned to look for his wife and other child, but they were nowhere to be seen.  Riley was severely hurt about the back and chest and half demented by the suddenness of the catastrophe, but was able to get to the nearest house to raise the alarm.   Several of the Moanataiari Company's workmen were first at the scene of the disaster.  A strenuous search was started for Catherine and James, who at first were thought to be lying under the mass of earth that had been deposited at the bottom of the steep fall.  By this time over 100 men had arrived and they at once set to work to dig away the mass of earth that covered the site of the house.  They worked in sideways but made slow headway owing to the immense quantity (between two and three hundred tons) of earth that had fallen.

 Dr Trousseau arrived and examined the wounded Riley, ordering his removal to the hospital, but he refused to go.   He was, at the firm direction of the doctor, then removed to the Junction Hotel while the searchers continued their efforts to recover his missing family.

 By 7pm unflagging work for the recovery of the bodies had continued until darkness set in but without success.  Not a trace of them could be found. The shaft at the foot of the gulch was mostly emptied but they were not in it, and it was thought the poor creature and her child must have been overwhelmed by the main body of the landslip and were underneath that.  The search was to resume the following morning.

"The sad event," reported the Thames correspondent of the Southern Cross newspaper,  "has created the most painful excitement here."   Catherine Riley was 30 years old; both she and her husband were held in high estimation by a circle of numerous  friends.  Newspaper headlines horrifically declared "Mother and child buried alive."

The next morning the search for Mrs Riley and her infant in the old shaft at the foot of the gulch continued.   It had  been emptied to a depth of about 18 feet and it was said by those who knew  the ground that it was only three feet deeper than that and therefore the bodies could scarcely be in it without some sign of them being visible.  The searchers however decided to clean out the shaft thoroughly and the work proceeded.   Some three or four feet of sand and broken timber were taken out and then a portion of some textile fabric came into sight - it was part of Catherine's dress.   The earth was soon removed and there lay the body resting on its right side, with the arms poignantly folded in the position of clasping a child to the breast.  About a foot or so deeper the body of the child was discovered, just below the spot where his mother's head had rested. They were removed to the Junction  Hotel.  Scores of people visited the scene of the accident  and a very widespread commiseration was felt for the bereaved husband and father, who so narrowly escaped the fate that met his wife and child.

The shocked Southern Cross correspondent wrote " The heavy rain and gale of Tuesday night in some sort prepared the mind of the public for the receipt of news of accidents in the hills and gullies of this goldfield, but that a house containing a whole family of people should have been swept away by a landslip was a contingency scarcely anticipated.  And yet such a calamity really took place . . ."

A subscription list for financial aid was opened by the miners on Riley's behalf and rapidly filled up, having been "heartily responded to."

The slip had started about one hundred yards away from the back of the house and had  been carried down with such tremendous force it had stripped away  the surface of the ground for the whole distance.    At the inquest a verdict of accidental death was given.  The jury added a rider to the effect that the government ought to see that houses were built in safe places and that old shafts were filled in.  Catherine Riley is buried at Shortland cemetery, Thames.  There is no record for James, but perhaps he was laid to rest in the fold of his mother's arms, echoing her final act.

A Pollen Street, Thames, house badly damaged by a landslip in 1907.
Sir George Grey Special Collections AWNS-19070124-12-4

Landslips at Thames were frequent and exacerbated by mining activity, extensive removal of trees and vegetation and heavy rain.   They ranged from rock falls to huge slides of soil, rock and debris.

The tss (twin screw steamer) John Penn was built in 1867 at Blackwall, London by the  Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company.  It was ordered by the  President of the Bank of New Zealand to serve the country's coastal trade.   Arriving in 1869, the steamer carried passengers, cattle, horses and agricultural produce. It was constructed with a shallow draft and a sliding keel  which enabled it to navigate dangerous harbour entrances.   The vessel was purchased by a company in Sydney, arriving there in 1871.   The steamer was wrecked on rocks at the foot of Burrewarra Head in 1879.

The Lalla Rookh was a paddle steamer built in 1868 at Mechanics Bay, Auckland,  and possibly  named after the heroine of an Oriental romance by Thomas Moore.  In 1887 the steamer sprang a leak during a storm, was run ashore at Great Barrier Island and broke up almost immediately. 

Sources:  Papers Past, Heritage Images,  John Penn Info sheet -


Jon said...

What tragedies occurred during those early years of gold mining. Hard to believe when you look up to the bush clad hills behind Thames now. Thanks Meghan.

Meghan Hawkes said...

Yes, it must have been an incredibly hard life in very trying conditions and having to live where and how you could.

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