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A Romance of Lake Wakatipu

Chapter III

page 11

Chapter III.

Goldfields Community—Law and Justice on the Goldfields—The Mining Agent—Duncan Campbell.

In a new goldfields community much that is anomalous, not to say grotesque, must of necessity exist. The eternal fitness of things, in administrations of domestic economy, cannot very well be attended to. The various walks and duties of life require to be provided for; and to keep pace with the urgencies of the case such materials as may be at hand must be taken advantage of.

From small and imperfect beginnings, however, great results have been achieved. Slab walls with canvas coverings were the nuclei of some of the finest hotels which now do service to the travelling public.

Other branches of pursuit in these new-born communities started under even less promising auspices. These, after passing through the canvas stage of their existence, were housed under scantling35, and have now passed on to the stone and mortar era, their surroundings being of an architectural design that would do no discredit to an empire city.

Offices in these days were filled up equally off-hand. It was pre-eminently a day and generation when men turned their hands to anything and everything, and not unfrequently the turnout was ludicrous enough.

The conduct and administration of law and justice was most promiscuous. Plentiful as the crop of barristers now is in New Zealand, at the time of which we write they were but a scarce commodity. The few there were found ample employment in the larger towns, and no one put in an appearance on the goldfields unless specially retained.

page 12

In the absence of the legally-qualified article a non-qualified crop of the fraternity sprang up, who, to evade legal consequences, dubbed themselves mining agents.36 They did not, however, confine themselves to mining matters, but, as opportunity offered, dabbled in other business—the framing of transfers, conveyances, agreements, &c., becoming part and parcel37 of their pursuit.

Although not openly countenanced, the authorities found it convenient to wink at their proceedings, on the plea that the exigencies of the goldfields demanded such indulgence.

These mining agents, as they called themselves, were a miscellaneous assortment. Some of them had smatterings of law, acquired probably as attorney's clerks, or in some other way hanging on to the skirts of the profession. Others, however, had higher legal qualifications, being perhaps discarded barristers—men hunted out of the ranks of the profession by the Law Societies, or, it might be, men who sought a quiet retreat from the vigilance of the police.

Some of them did lucrative business, and, being acknowledged the jawing-power38 of the community, took rank as leading citizens, eventually finding their way into the councils of the people, the colonial Legislature included. The majority, however, lived a hand-to-mouth existence — hunted around bar-parlours, and entered freely into all the debaucheries of a digging life.

It was to one of this fraternity Bill Fox alluded when he spoke of Daddy Campbell.

Duncan Campbell had been a regular practitioner in his day in one of the midland counties of Scotland. Some trust funds left in his custody had, as Duncan himself put it, been placed in a bad investment. What the nature of the investment was Duncan never particularised. Suffice it to say the funds disappeared, and Duncan, finding it advisable to follow suit, disappeared likewise. Turning up in Otago he applied to be admitted to practice before the New Zealand bar. The Law Society, however, getting wind of the "bad investment," opposed the application, and succeeded in keeping Duncan minus the wig and gown.

The Arrow turning up trumps39, Duncan turned up on the Arrow, and pitched his camp on a vacant piece of ground mid-page 13way between the Courthouse and the Arrow Arms Hotel. The wisdom of that selection soon became apparent. His ability to grapple with the weighty matters of the law could not be doubted. His strength lay in the agility with which he quoted precedents, and, there being no law library in the place, it was the artful, insinuating way in which he put these precedents which constituted their main strength.

Addressing the Bench, he would say, "I have not the book of reference at hand, but your Worship no doubt remembers that the Lord High Commissioner, sitting in the Court of Common Pleas, ruled the point on all fours with the case for my client." Prefaced by such a flattering appeal to the legal acumen of a goldfields Warden40, and there being no means of gainsaying the dictum41, what could possibly remain but to give judgment as sought.

In that way Duncan Campbell, like many men of higher status, built for himself a reputation on precedents, the correct application of which no one had an opportunity of ascertaining.

On the other hand, Duncan showed himself equally at home at the bar of the Arrow Arms. True to what are reputed to be the national instincts of the Scot, he could drink whiskey ad libitum, and, being, withal, of a genial sort, he was readily voted the prince of good-fellows.

A word more about Duncan Campbell and his idiosyncrasy. Having pitched his camp, he took the earliest opportunity of making known his calling. This he did by means of a zinc plate, with the following superscription:—

Mr. Duncan Campbell,

late Solicitor And Notary

Under The Great Seal Of Scotland.

In its design the zinc plate was a perfect model of duplicity. Unless closely scrutinised, it read, "Mr. Duncan Campbell, Solicitor and Notary." On the other hand, all scruples on the part of the Law Society to Mr. Campbell's assumption of these prerogatives were silenced by closer inspection disclosing the infinitesimal "late" on the second line, and "under the Great Seal of Scotland" on the fourth. The whole thing was a clever device, so artfully contrived that, while in popular estimation page 14Mr. Campbell enjoyed the reputation of a practising solicitor and notary public, the Law Society from whose ranks he had been excluded, feeling helpless to counteract the fraud, could only do the next best—grin and bear it.

Having now got as much of Mr. Duncan Campbell, late Solicitor and Notary Public under the Great Seal, &c., in his social and professional capacity as will suit the purpose, we will proceed to a further development of the plot with which his name has become associated.

35 Thin timber beams.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

36 Surveyors of mining grounds.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

37 The integral element of something.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

38 The extent of one’s ability to speak.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

39 To move towards success.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

40 The individual who makes the final decision on all disputes and decisions of a particular goldfield.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]

41 Denying a formal, authoritative proclamation.

[Note added by Danny Bultitude as annotator]