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Ngā Tohuwhenua Mai Te Rangi: A New Zealand Archeology in Aerial Photographs

15 — Coalmining, Sealing and Whaling, and Minor Industries

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Coalmining, Sealing and Whaling, and Minor Industries

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The last part of this book turns from a regional review of mainly Māori archaeological sites to European industrial archaeological sites in a few selected areas of the North and South Islands. Particularly close selection of sites, many of which are spectacular in aerial view, has been necessary. This chapter concentrates on commodities, such as coal or whale oil, while the subsequent chapters deal with early farming and gold. In the exporting field, kauri gum, whaling and even sealing have been as important as gold in the folk history of New Zealand, and brief mention is made of the sites of those industries. Of these industries, whaling was by far the most important as an early influence in settlement and relations between Māori and European. The last of the minor industries that lends itself to depiction in aerial photography is the mining of copper.


Coal was essential to a wide range of secondary industrial processing and domestic usage in the New Zealand domestic and export economy. The earliest coalmining was small in scale. Easily accessible surface deposits in places such as the Whanganui Inlet in Northwest Nelson were worked by hand, and the product taken out by scow to the major cities. Scows in ballast were taken into the harbour on high tide and anchored on tidal flats near the coal source. The ballast was thrown out, the coal loaded over the flats at low tide, and the scow would depart on the next tide. Ballast heaps on the mud flats can still be seen but do not show clearly on the available vertical aerial photographs.

In other areas, such as Brunner on the Grey River, the coal deposits were large and the earliest works were soon destroyed by larger-scale mine development and other works integrated with the coalmining. At Brunner, the works incorporated brick-making and coke production. Later nineteenth-century developments were substantial and dominate the landscape record. 1 Open-cast mining was rare, most mines being underground. Where the coal seams lay close to the surface, the galleries into which the coal seam was worked may have collapsed. The pock-marks of such collapsed areas can still be seen on aerial photographs at Hikurangi, north of Whangarei, or on the Denniston Plateau, north of Greymouth, illustrated here.

Railways or aerial cables with suspended buckets to remove the bulk commodity were common and had considerable landscape impact. Denniston is notable for its 'self-acting incline'—a rail system designed for country too steep for conventional traction engines. The coal was transported down the incline by gravity while the empty coal wagons were pulled back up the incline by a system of cables running through brake drums. The incline had a grade of 15° (one in four). The system at Denniston operated from 1880, while the earliest mining on the plateau had commenced in the 1860s. 2 The field is no longer worked.

Sealing and whaling

Sealing and whaling were among the most important early European industrial activities. From the 1790s, sealers were put ashore at a number of locations, particularly the sub-Antarctic islands and the south-west of the South Island, in the prime breeding and feeding grounds of the seals. Shore-based killing was the only effective method, and the sealers were left to fend for page break
Opposite. The Denniston coalfield, town and incline in 1959

Opposite. The Denniston coalfield, town and incline in 1959

The coalfield is here marked by the lighter-coloured, deforested country. Coal was taken out by surface tramways around the eastern side of the field, across the central gully and into the town and processing plant via the 'rope road' (trams were driven by a cable between the rails). Tramways were the easiest form of transport in such rough country. The coal was then transferred to and taken down the self-acting incline to the road and rail points further west along the valley. The forested ridge to the north was the route of the early Koranui incline which shows faintly through the scrub. The large slip at the head of the central gully is about 1 km long.

Above. The slip at the head of the Waimangaroa River. At bottom centre running up to the right is the line of the tramway taking coal to the head of the incline which is out of view at bottom right. The view is to the east.

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Denniston township and the head of the incline

Denniston township and the head of the incline

The incline runs from the centre of photograph down to the right. At the head of the incline are the industrial buildings and bins of the transfer station and offices. On the far right, just to the right of the town centre, are the miners' hall, hotel and church (the last with tall gothic windows). In the far distance by the strip of light-coloured road by the gully are the bathhouse and power generation plant. Thirteen million tons of coal were taken through this town over its 100-year existence. The photograph was taken in 1947.

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A seal colony on Taumaka Island, one of the Open Bay islands off the Haast River, West Coast

A seal colony on Taumaka Island, one of the Open Bay islands off the Haast River, West Coast

The high seal numbers and the ease with which they could be chased and killed are evident in this recent photograph of a sealing ground much frequented in the early nineteenth century. In 1989 zoologists by chance discovered the stone walls/foundations of a sealers' hut in the darker coloured shrubs at top centre. It may date from as early as the 1790s.

page 234 themselves for up to a year or more until the parent ship returned, if at all. This activity reduced the number and geographical range of seals, which had fallen to numbers too low to be worth culling by the late 1820s. 3

There is some evidence from archaeology of sealers living in caves, especially around Chalky Inlet, southern Fiordland. In 1989 a sealers' hut was found on the Open Bay Islands near Haast. The walls were massive, only 60 to 100 cm high but 74 cm thick, enclosing a tiny space some 120 cm across and 270 cm long. 4 The aerial photograph used here shows the difficulty of the seaward approaches over a rock platform and also the density of the modern population of seals, which is probably similar to that prevailing on this spot before sealing began 180 years ago.

Shore whaling stations were late in establishment (not until the 1830s) and much of the whaling industry throughout the whole period was conducted from the boats themselves. Shore whaling is much more significant in the archaeological record, but it is not always amenable to aerial photography. It was also an important early social contact between European and Māori cultures. Marriage, trade, the extension of protection (from Māori to whaler) and the opportunity for Māori to travel widely were all important. Māori worked as part of the general whaling crews and the earliest whaling stations were the main centres of contact between Māori and European. Māori for their part respected the whalers' way of life. By the 1840s Edward Jerningham Wakefield thought that without the advent of British law, Māori and whalers would have bred 'a powerful nation of buccaneers'. 5

The location of the stations was dictated by the migratory patterns of two most important species, right and humpback whales. In winter these whales feed in the Antarctic Ocean and then migrate north in spring or early summer to breed in the tropical oceans, particularly in the region north and east of the Kermadec Islands. The reverse pattern applies in the autumn. The migrating streams split at either end of New Zealand and also cross frequently through Cook Strait. These whales, then, were essentially coastal dwelling or migrating species, hence their close passage by New Zealand. The right whales also floated when dead and were able to be towed the sometimes long distances to shore stations. Generally established in less rough waters with sheltered landing areas (on the east rather than the west coasts), important stations were at Great Barrier, the eastern Bay of Plenty, the East Coast, Māhia Peninsula, the Hawke Bay and Wairarapa coasts, Cook Strait (Mana and Kapiti Islands, Tory Channel and Cloudy Bay), and the Kai Kōura, Banks and Otago Peninsulas. 6 The peninsulas and Cook Strait itself had the effect of concentrating the path of the whales. The most productive places early in the industry, they were also the last places to support a commercially successful industry as whales became few in number. 7

Te Awaiti, in a sheltered position 3 km inside the Tory Channel entrance, Marlborough Sounds, was the earliest shore whaling station in New Zealand, established in 1827 by John Guard. However, his operation was not very successful and was not fully established until 1831. Competition for whales here was intense and, due to the volume taken, the population of right whales decreased dramatically in the 1840s. 8 In 1839 Te Awaiti was visited by the Wesleyan missionary, John Hobbs, who recorded 15 boats working from the bay. Hobbs' description of the daily duties of the whaler is plain enough: 'They go up on the hills at the heads and look out for the spouting of the whales, and when they see where they are they pull out after them.' Speaking of living conditions on Kapiti Island to the north, he noted of whalers: 'They will dwell almost in the clefts of rocks to get oil.' 9 Te Awaiti by contrast had the aspect of a spacious and well-settled village in 1843 when it was sketched by J.W. Barnicoat, with some 10 houses or other large structures at the water's edge, and other houses and fenced yards inland on the flat.

For this book, I took a flight to Tory Channel, an offshoot of southern Cook Strait, to the Perano whaling station and Te Awaiti. The latter is an open bay; on the page 235
Te Awaiti, in Tory Channel, site of the first shore whaling station of 1827

Te Awaiti, in Tory Channel, site of the first shore whaling station of 1827

On the far ridge are the pits of a pre-European Maori settlement, possibly occupied also in the whaling era. At the foot of the ridge slope just in from the beach are the depressions of former hut sites, probably part of the whaling station. On the eroding beach front at the far end are the graves of the Toms family (marked by a distinct rectangular patch of light-coloured concrete) and the try-pots. The whole of the flat was settled in the mid-nineteenth century but obvious surface evidence does not show. The view is to the south-west.

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Perano's whaling station, Tory Channel

Perano's whaling station, Tory Channel

Whales were winched up the ramp on the right with the winch gear uphill by the steps at rear of the building. The flensing floor is to the right of the ramp, elevated above the freezers; the whale carcasses reached the floor by hydraulic lift from the slipway. The cylindrical shape of the digester (pressure cooker) is against the wall by the ramp. At left on the slab of concrete are the circular footings of the whale-oil

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Dune lakes and Croatian gum-digging trenches, Onepu Block, south of Parengarenga Harbour

Dune lakes and Croatian gum-digging trenches, Onepu Block, south of Parengarenga Harbour

The parallel lines at bottom are face-dug trenches each about 50-150 m long and 4 m wide. They were probably dug by Croatians in the 1930s. Taumatawhana is one of the two pre-European pā on the small hills north of the lakelets. Both pā have distinctive twin rectangular platforms, with outer perimeters of ditch and bank or scarp.

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Gum-digging trenches on the Ahipara gumfields

Gum-digging trenches on the Ahipara gumfields

These fields were active in the 1930s. The peat with gum fragments was dug out by hand and placed in rows and then washed by machine. Wider views show the extensive system of races and water storage dams that were part of these fields.

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Late nineteenth-century photograph of gum-diggers, probably Croatians, working in the 'advance-face' fashion which produced the regular pattern of straight lines seen in the aerial photographs.

headland forming the south side is the clearly defined terracing and storage pits of a Māori settlement, possibly earlier than the whaling, but it may just be that of the Māori hapū who associated themselves with the whaling. At the foot of this ridge near a set of try-pots are the terraces of European huts and the graves of the Toms family, including George Toms, one of the earlier European shorewhalers.

In this century several generations of the Perano family whaled from Whekenui Bay near Te Awaiti. Beginning in 1911, they ceased operations in 1964, 10 the last practitioners of an industry of paramount importance in the early European settlement of New Zealand. On the Perano base, structures still stand in outstanding condition although their continued maintenance proved to be costly and conservative measures have been taken to strip the site of material that cannot be readily maintained. 11 It is now an industrial site rather than an industrial building, interesting in that its internal functions are exposed clearly to the aerial photograph view. The concre'e wharf and steel framework of the factory of the Perano's station still stand; the roof is off the buildings and their interiors have only the solid built-in items remaining: the slipway, winching site, flensing floor, digester (a large cylindrical pressure cooker in effect) and the circular foundations of the whale-oil storage tanks. 12

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Kauri gum

The gum-digging industry flourished in the years 1875-1925, 13 particularly late in the nineteenth century in a period of economic recession. It also appears to have been important in the 1930s depression. Gumlands had little other economic value at the time when gum-digging thrived because the soils are relatively infertile. It was an important activity throughout the greater extent of the Aupouri and Karikari Peninsulas and in the coastal dunelands as far south as the Kaipara. 14 The gum is found in sand country and in swamps, where it may occur in usable quantities up to a depth of many metres. Gum-digging was confined to regions where kauri flourished in the past, principally the area north of the Auckland Isthmus. The setting for this activity in the northern dunelands has been described in chapter 7.

The gum is the resin from the kauri tree, and enters the soil either by dropping off a living tree or when the tree falls naturally. It is relatively resistant to physical decay so it will accumulate in the soil over a long period of time and remain there even when the forest cover has gone. The gum-digging process was labour-intensive, especially once the easily accessible surface deposits had been taken. Long steel rods, 'spears', were used to probe into the soft deposits at some depth. If gum was detected, it had to be dug out by hand. The gum, after being extracted, was washed and put into sacks and sent to export or processing plants.

Gum-digging by individuals has left little pattern that can be seen readily in aerial photographs. The result in the landscape was very large areas of swamp and dune land with a great range of ill-shaped holes throughout and spoil heaps. Flying over the southern Karikari Peninsula, I noted that the ground surface and very shallow lake beds were pock-marked over extensive areas. Individual features are small and the pattern even in the aerial view is confusing and lacking in visual interest. In the far north the swamps or peatlands used were occasionally in the same areas as important landscape features such as pā. One such area is the Onepu Block 2 km north-west of Ngataki, where the pā complex, Tau-matawhana, lies on dunes above swamplands. Both pre-European garden trenches of the type discussed in chapters 4 and 7 15 and trenches of the 1930s gum-digging era can be seen in early aerial photographs.

Many ethnic minorities, including Māori, were involved with gum-digging. Most prominent in New Zealand gumfield history were 'Dalmatians', people from a coastal district of Croatia. They followed a kin-based work structure and were prepared to work poorer fields, specialising in what archaeologists term 'advance-face' excavations. A number of workers would dig in line at a face, as opposed to the digging of isolated holes, 16 stacking the peat and gum in long rows up to 2 m high. It was then washed, usually in winter when the water supply was assured, separating the peat from the gum. In the 1920s and 1930s, they used a mobile machine not unlike a large washtub. 17 The peat floated to the top of the rotating drum while gum was taken from a trapdoor at the side. This technique leaves a pattern of the spoil-heaps that can be detected in aerial photographs because of their regularity and great extent. The washing required an extensive system of water supply races and storage ponds. On the plateau above Ahipara, west of Kaitaia, the remains are not unlike the alluvial goldfields of Central Otago.


Copper was one of the important early ventures in the Nelson mineral belt. Other important copper sources were in Central Otago and Westland. 18 In the north, another important source was Kawau Island. This was the site in 1844 of the first significant mining venture in New Zealand. The mining was initially for manganese, but it was soon found that the associated copper was of more value. Although the source was rich in concentrated copper, there were two major limitations: it was predominantly below sea-level and had to be worked using de-watering technologies developed for working Cornish tin mines, and the copper was bonded with sulphur in a way that required extensive roasting to enable the copper ore to be transported and further refined. The mined ore itself was unsafe to transport any distance because it was subject to spontaneous combustion. 19 Both these technological difficulties required plant which has left striking archaeological evidence: the pumphouse chimney at Miners Point and the smelterhouse in Bon Accord Harbour. The chimney was for the furnace which created steam for the mine's pump, driven by a Cornish beam engine. The chimney survives today more or less intact with part of the wall of the pumping machine building still attached. The pump serviced shafts that went down approximately 60 m below sea level and horizontal workings extending over 200 m. 20

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Early copper mining on Kawau Island, dating from 1844

Early copper mining on Kawau Island, dating from 1844

The smelting house lies behind a fence because of its unstable walls. At the rear of the fence are the excavation squares in which roasting furnace foundations were found under a layer of demolition rubble. The smelting house itself is about 12 by 35 m in plan.

The smelting house, with its walls propped, is currently in unstable and potentially dangerous condition. At its rear towards the foot of the hill, recent archaeological investigations by Rod Clough have shown something of the original roasting furnaces of 1849 which were decommissioned because they performed unsatisfactorily. In the smelter house itself further roasting (to drive off the sulphur) was undertaken and the ore was refined to regulus or matte (impure forms of metallic copper). The Kawau venture was abandoned by 1855, although there were attempts at further mining at the turn of the century. 21

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The Miners Bay pumphouse remains and chimney. The chimney is stabilised by the stone walls of the pumphouse; its upper courses are brick. The pumphouse de-watered shafts extend up to 60 m below sea level. The solid cylindrical object immediately to the left of the wall is probably the sealed head of Whitaker's shaft, the deepest of the shafts. The chimney is about 13 m tall.

1 G.J. Williams (1974).

2 Thornton (1982: 100-101); for interpretation of specific features at Denniston, I am indebted to Ray Hooker (1992, pers. comm.). Earlier editions of topographical maps also name many of the features and townships near Denniston.

3 McDonald (1982: 23).

4 St. Clair and St. Clair (1989).

5 Cited in Morton (1982: 242).

6 Morton (1982: 230-236).

7 Cawthorn (1992, pers. comm.).

8 Morton (1982: 232); McDonald (1982: 71); Gibb and Flux (1973: 338-339).

9 Cited in Williment (1985: 136-138).

10 McDonald (1982: 71-74).

11 The land on which the station was built is foreshore reserve managed by the Department of Conservation.

12 Bagley (1992, pers. comm.).

13 Reed (1972: 54).

14 Reed (1972: 3-39); McConnell (1980).

15 Coster (1984).

16 See Reed (1972: 72-81; unnumbered plates).

17 Hayward (1989).

18 G.J. Williams (1974: 175-176).

19 G.J. Williams (1974: 175-176); Clough (1990: 171-177; 1992).

20 G.J. Williams (1974: 175).

21 Clough (1990: 171-177; 1992).