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Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

Search for Oil

Search for Oil

Only Definite Flow at Waitangi in 1909

Traces of oil were discovered in 1866 at two points within a band running from Mahia to East Cape. A Forest Ranger named Oscar Beyer stumbled across seepages in the Waipaoa Valley whilst he was out with a party of scouts looking for stray Hauhaus, and James Peachey gathered a bottle of oil from seepages on Omaika No. 1 block (a few miles south of Te Araroa) and took it to Auckland. Since 1874 over 30 wells have been sunk, at an aggregate cost of some hundreds of thousands of pounds, within the oil-band, but without striking a profitable flow.

The first company to engage in boring was the Poverty Bay Petroleum and Kerosene Co. Ltd. With others, Robert Cooper (who was the chief promoter) had obtained a lease of Pakake-o-Whirikoka block (6,334 acres). The directors were: Captain Read, W. A. Graham, J. H. Stubbs, W. Steuart, A. McDonald, W. S. Greene and J. W. Johnson. The Maoris were much amused when they learned that it was planned to put down a bore. They claimed that the oil was only on the surface where a whale which Rongokako had picked up whilst stepping from Mahia to Tapuae had slipped out of his hands!

In 1874 a shaft, 8 feet by 4 feet, was sunk, under the supervision of Mr. Parsons (a borer from Pennsylvania) on Waitangi Hill and close boarded. From the bottom a bore was put down 110 feet when—vide a report by H. A. Gordon (a State inspector) to the Under-Secretary for Mines (20/1/1888)—“a heavy pressure of gas from the bottom of the hole sent up showers of mud and water to the surface whenever the rods were withdrawn for the purpose of cleaning out the hole with the sandpump, so that this bore had, ultimately, to be abandoned.” Another bore was put down close by, but, again, no casing was used, and it also caved in. The company, which had spent about £5,000, then went into liquidation.

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The South Pacific Petroleum Co. (N.L.), which was formed in Sydney by W. Fleming (a Canadian oil expert) and W. Clark (a Melbourne broker), and which had a nominal capital of £58,916, took over the former company's rights. Between 1881 and 1885 it put down eight bores, ranging in depth from 100 feet to 300 feet, close to Waitangi Hill. In each case failure was attributed to the difficult nature of the strata and to the mistake of starting with casing too small in diameter. Early in 1885 a contract was let to W. J. Weaver (an American borer) to put down a larger bore to 1,000 feet. In July it was reported in Sydney that the well was producing 50 barrels of oil a day and that it was intended to lay a pipeline from the well to Gisborne. Victorian investors were told that it was intended to refine the oil at Melbourne.

Alleged “Salting” Incident

When the eighteenth call was quickly followed by another in October, 1885, the Sydney shareholders were greatly perturbed. They complained bitterly that they were not being given due notice of the dates when forfeited shares were being auctioned in Gisborne. It had come to their knowledge that a Poverty Bay syndicate had obtained 27,000 shares at ¼d. apiece. As it was also rumoured that the bore had been “salted,” a Mr. Jopling was sent over to inspect it.

A story was then current in Gisborne that a vehicle, with a load of “gear” for the works had got stuck in a creek; that the carrier had had to obtain aid from nearby settlers; and that it was found necessary to remove the load. The “gear,” it was alleged, consisted of cases of kerosene! However, Mr. Jopling was satisfied that there were traces of oil in the material that was being brought up, and that nobody could have poured any oil from the adjacent seepages into the bore to deceive him.

When the bore reached a depth of 1,320 feet in December, 1887, the derrick caught fire and was destroyed. H. A. Gordon, who visited the well on behalf of the Government, was told “that oil had, for some time, flowed over the top of the pipe, but, when the flames were extinguished, it stood at about surface level.” The bore was sunk another 15 feet, and then abandoned as a “dry hole.” In a report (June, 1914) P. G. Morgan (Director of New Zealand Geological Surveys) describes the alleged blow-out of oil as well as gas as “doubtful.” The company, which had employed three Pennsylvanian borers, went into liquidation in 1889.

The Southern Cross Petroleum Company (nominal capital, £48,000) was formed by Robert Cooper, J. H. Stubbs and W. Clark (of Melbourne) in 1881 to bore at Rotokautuku (Waiapu district). Seven bores, ranging in depth from 150 feet to 1,820 feet, were put down. Early in 1883 the company became almost wholly a Christchurch concern. In each well a considerable amount of gas—sufficient in the case of the deepest to light up the works—was struck. Traces of oil and indications of paraffin butter were also found in the deepest well, which was drilled on a river flat, about 1¾ miles from the first site. In 1886 the cable broke and, as the rods could not be recovered, the company, which had expended £46,000, suspended operations.

Promoted by J. H. Stubbs and R. Cooper, the Minerva Petroleum Company had a nominal capital of £50,000. It secured boring rights over Mangataikapua block, about five miles north-west of Whatatutu. Operations were begun with a paid-up capital of only £500. A bore was drilled to 750 feet, and, as additional capital could not be obtained, the enterprise was abandoned in 1888.

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In 1902–3 Totangi became the scene of boring operations conducted by an English syndicate, in which R. Brett, of Auckland, was interested. The first bore, although started with a diameter of only 3 inches, reached a depth of 338 feet, and the second, which began as a 4-inch bore, was taken down to 505 feet. Gas was struck in both bores and traces of oil in the shallower bore.

Much excitement prevailed in Gisborne on 2 September, 1909, when the Gisborne Oil Co. Ltd. struck oil at a depth of 655 feet at Waitangi. Its directors were: D. J. Barry, F. Hall, J. Clark, G. Maclean, W. D. Lysnar, G. B. Oman and T. J. Adair. This was the first site in Poverty Bay at which a geological survey had preceded drilling. A Government report (1914) states: “A light flow of oil, equal to three barrels a day, was struck.” According to the company's minute book, however, the flow was experienced only on two days, and only five barrels of oil were obtained. Caving prevented a greater depth than 1,478 feet being reached. No oil was found in another bore, which was put down to 1,300 feet. It was then decided that a rotary plant was necessary, but, as the paid-up capital (£11,262) was almost exhausted, the company disposed of its options to John Clark and W. D. Lysnar, who, in turn, sold them to Gisborne (N.Z.) Oilfields Ltd.

N.Z. Oilfields Ltd. (formed in London, 1910; nominal capital of £200,000) put down a trial bore (initial diameter, 5 inches) at Totangi to 273 feet. Caving was experienced when a 14-inch bore reached 513 feet. A 14-inch bore, which was started at Waihirere, near Ormond, was deepened with the aid of a rotary plant. No casing was used between 500 feet and 1,245 feet. Fine, sharp grit caused excessive wear to the pump valves. Gas was encountered at 738 feet and traces of oil at slightly over 1,000 feet. Work was abandoned at 1,381 feet and the company went into liquidation.

Between 1926 and 1931 Gisborne (N.Z.) Oilfields Ltd. (nominal capital, £250,000) drilled the following wells: Waiapu No. 1 (near Ruatoria): Gas was noticed at 585 feet and 1,248 feet; traces of oil in sand between 1,600 feet and 2,000 feet; abandoned at 2,540 feet. Waiapu No. 2 (near Tokomaru Bay): Sealed at 3,260 feet. Gisborne No. 1 (near Morere) Caving and high gas pressure proved handicaps; between 2,975 feet and 2,980 feet, what appeared to be a promising layer of sand was struck; abandoned at 3,000 feet. Gisborne No. 2 (Mangaone): Sunk to 3,000 feet with cable tools; work then continued with rotary plant; much gas and some indications of oil; abandoned at 3,901 feet. Waitangi No. 1: Work stopped at 1,682 feet. Waitangi No. 2: Persistent caving was experienced; abandoned at 2,172 feet.

N.Z. Petroleum Co. Ltd. began to bore at Totangi in November, 1938. A diesel-powered rotary rig, with a capacity of 10,000 feet, was used. Deviations and caving proved great handicaps. No trace of oil was found and the bore was plugged at 5,700 feet “on account of the unprecedentedly difficult formations.” In February, 1940, a start was made to pierce the Morere dome, where, it was anticipated, drilling would be easier, “as the strata is less steeply tilted.” When a sand layer was reached between 3,250 feet and 3,500 feet it was believed that an oil horizon had been entered. The bore was plugged at 6,683 feet.


Before he settled in Gisborne in 1872, Robert Cooper (“The Father of the Oil Industry in Poverty Bay”) was in business in Wellington. He was credited with having assisted Captain Read to obtain a number of native properties. In December, 1872, he supplied him with a bottle of oil taken from a seepage in the Mangatu district. His name in Maori page 340 form—“Papu Kupa”—soon became familiar to the natives, and, wherever he went, he quickly attracted a bodyguard of natives anxious to bargain in respect of their land interests. He died on 3 June, 1894. William Cooper, sheepfarmer, was a brother.