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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 2, 2010

A Tablelands Myth?

page 6
The miner Richards and his dog.

The miner Richards and his dog.

The Nelson Provincial Museum, F.G. Gibbs Collection, 1/2 147.

page 7

A Tablelands

“Richards is remembered as the ‘bad man of the Tableland’.” Browsing through some Nelson Historical Society publications, I came across an article written by Denis Brereton, in the October 1974 Journal, outlining the history of the Mt Arthur Tablelands since European settlement. Much of the fascination of this interesting area concerns the traces and relics left by the gold miners who, from time to time, visited and lived on the Tablelands, trying their luck. The article identifies and describes some of them.

Two in particular were Billy Lyons and a man now known only as Richards. Lyons had a whare on Balloon Hill, possibly on the summit of the hill where a hut site and fireplace are still in evidence. He is described as the ‘grand old man of Balloon’.

Richards lived about 3km to the southeast of this. His little hut was on the bush edge and close to two spectacular caves on the edge of the Tablelands, above the Leslie Valley. Richards is remembered as the ‘bad man of the Tableland’.

I wonder whether those descriptions are quite accurate?

Denis Brereton is a descendant of pioneers in the Motueka Valley. No doubt C.B. Brereton, whose valuable first hand account of the Tablelands and its inhabitants is included in his book No Roll of Drums, page 8
Balloon hill environs

Balloon hill environs


Map courtesy Tasman District Council.

page 9 was one of those pioneers. It is from that book that our knowledge of Lyons and Richards has come.

Relating what he was told by Lyons, Brereton has concluded that Richards was an assailant and a bully. According to Lyons he had “at intervals the habit of making complete rounds of visits to all the diggers, giving each of them a beating up that left them half dead”. Brereton appears to have accepted this unlikely story without question, as he does other more specific incidents, including one in which Lyons himself triumphed over Richards.

Thoughts of fighting seem to have been a preoccupation for Lyons. Brereton describes at some length how interested he was in the fighting ability of people whose names were mentioned during conversation. Lyons showed Brereton a pistol he owned, saying “This is for Richards if he comes again”. Surprisingly, Brereton later comments that Lyons was not a man to boast of his deeds.

The story of Lyons’ fight with Richards was also told by Jim Heath. Heath ran a pack horse service for the miners and other visitors and later had an accommodation house in the Graham Valley. There is no indication of how he came to learn of the fight and, by Lyons’ account to Brereton, there were no witnesses. Surely we can assume that Lyons himself was the source.

Lyons was, Brereton writes, and it would seem accurately, ‘a man who made many friends’ and describes him as ‘a courteous and kindly host’.

Nelson identity, F.G. Gibbs, visited the Tablelands on many occasions to explore and botanise. He has recorded a number of meetings with Lyons, occasionally spelling the name as Lines. Of a trip in January 1895 he wrote: “At Balloon hill came to miners’ hut. Were very hospitably entertained by Lyons & Knowles”, in April 1899: “Went to Lines’s whare & had a yarn”, and in May 1900: “Called on Mr C. Lewis& Lines at Balloon Hill & saw some fine specimens of gold they had got. Lewis has taken up all Balloon Hill & is going to use L Peel next year”.

Lyons had left the Tablelands by Easter 1902 as, when Gibbs went to visit him on his way through, he found Lewis was still occupying the whare.

My grandfather, Fred Kidson, tramped with Gibbs on many occasions and also met Richards. An entry in his diary for April 10, 1898, concerning a trip to the Table- lands they did together, somewhat cryptically notes: “also came across a digger named Ritchards (sic)”.

page 10
Lake Peel above Deep Creek. Photo A.B.J. Jonas.

Lake Peel above Deep Creek. Photo A.B.J. Jonas.

Gibbs is more expansive in his diary, writing: “On way home went over both caves and had a yarn with a miner named Richards who was very communicative and put us on to track”. Of a trip at Easter a year later Gibbs wrote: “Went down to cave near Richards’ (whare) and spent some hours in photographing by magnesium light... Met Richards outside, photoed him and dog”.

That photo survives (see page 6). It is of a strongly built, fine featured, handsome man with his little dog balanced on his hand. His face seems unmarked, not that of a pugilist. His hand even appears rather delicate which is surprising for a miner.

Lyons told Brereton that he planned to bring water from Lake Peel to his claim near the foot of the ridge leading to Mt Peel. Brereton described it as a colossal job for one man in that country of rock and stone. He writes: ‘His water race wandered from the lake along the mountain side looping round spurs into gullies with a very slight fall; indeed town people often declare it ran up hill. This water project was never completed in Billy’s time or afterwards but he worked happily and hopefully at it, philosopher enough to know that work brings happiness that attainment does not always produce’.

page 11

J.N.W. Newport in Footprints Too has written that Lyons spent years attempting to dig a ditch from Lake Peel and states: “This can still be seen from the ridge on the north side of the deep dividing ravine (Deep Creek)”.

Gibbs was told of a plan to ‘use Lake Peel’ when visiting Lewis and Lyons (Lines) in1899, although he attributes it, and the possession of the claim, to Lewis.

I have visited the area hoping to see traces of the work but there is no sign of it. Nothing can be seen from the ridge Newport describes, and I doubt that there was ever anything to see. The terrain from Lake Peel, above Deep Creek, to where the ridge would have to be crossed is so steep and rocky that such a project would not have been possible. There are visible water races from easily dammed creeks between the ridge beyond Deep Creek and above the gold fields, some of them still carrying water. I am sure the tradition that any canny prospector had of never letting others know just what he was up to was alive and well with Billy Lyons.

The photograph opposite shows Lake Peel and the ridge on the north side of Deep Creek. A powerful pump and a pipeline would be needed to take water to the goldfields.

Denis Brereton also refers to the attempt to bring water from Lake Peel and has produced a map showing the route of ‘Lyons unfinished water race, but in reality no such race exists.

Another Billy Lyons yarn is recorded in an unpublished manuscript by the daughter of Louis Everett, which is held at the Nelson Provincial Museum. Everett was delivering census papers on the Tablelands when he visited Lyons. He stayed over- night with him, and Lyons revealed that his greatest ordeal had been when he was told he had unknowingly teamed up with a murderer.

This man’s modus operandi was to work with another until both had enough gold to return with it to civilization, supposedly to collect more supplies and return to the diggings: ‘However the murderer would make the victim-to-be walk in front, perform his gory deed and throw the body in the dense bush where it might never be found. He would then proceed to cash in and seek his next victim. Mr Lyons said that he gave no indication that he was aware of what was planned for him but the night before leaving, he stayed awake all night and next morning refused to leave camp unless the fellow went in front all the way, which he did, and Mr Lyons lived to tell the tale’.

page 12

This story is clearly just a fanciful tale. While we can only speculate, it does seem that Lyons was an entertainer. He and Richards may well have had a dispute, and perhaps even fought, but there does seem to be evidence to doubt that Lyons was always truthful, and Richards may not have been the bad character we have been led to believe.


Brereton, C.B. (1947). No roll of drums. Wellington: Reed.

Brereton, D. (1974). Tablelands days. Nelson Historical Society Journal, Vol.3, No.1,5-11.

Campbell, E.A. (1986). Unpublished manuscript. Nelson Provincial Museum. Gibbs, F.G. Diaries. Unpublished manuscript. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Newport, J.N.W. (1978). Footprints too: Furthur glimpses into the history of Nelson province. Nelson, N.Z.” J. Newport.