Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2011

John Vittle

page 6
Portrait of Mr Vittle. Davis 10162-1, Nelson Provincial Museum.

Portrait of Mr Vittle. Davis 10162-1, Nelson Provincial Museum.

Refer page 14 for author’s notes on image.

page 7


“Loneliness had little terrors for the old diggers as many of them would go off alone in the back country prospecting for months at a time...” To my knowledge, John Vittle was the first pakeha resident of Upper Takaka. He spent his life, until his disappearance in 1914, as a gold miner in Upper Takaka and never married. No firm details are recorded of his origins, and there is no official death certificate for him. Given that he was reported to be over eighty in 1914, a possible best fit has been found in the England censuses of 1841 and 1851. John Davis Vittle was born on 15 May 1836 at Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire, Wales and was baptised at Marloes. His parents were Patrick and Mary Vittle and he had siblings. His parents respectively died in 1853 and 1856. He looks to be in his 30s in his portrait by William Davis, and a date from 1866 onward would fit with the photographer’s period in Nelson Province from 1860 to 1873.1
The first gold rush in Golden Bay began at the Aorere Valley in February 1857, with many miners, including Maori, arriving from other parts of New Zealand. Many also came from the Australian gold fields of Victoria. By September 1857, 1,000 miners were at the Aorere gold fields. Another rush began in early October 1857 at the new Takaka diggings. Schooner operators advertised sailings to the Takaka Diggings from Nelson to Waitapu. A report by Constable Robert Taylor in the Examiner heralded the discovery of gold in the Anatoki and Takaka Rivers during the same month. He noted that the Anatoki River was flooded, page 8
Barron Flat. Map courtesy Peter Frew Tasman District Council.


Barron Flat. Map courtesy Peter Frew Tasman District Council.

page 9 due to the snow melt, and all work was curtailed.1 William Skeet’s party found gold at Upper Takaka in November 1857.2 In May 1858 miners were reported to be doing well in the Waitui River.3 The following month, Mr Saunders Rogers was reported as having been prospecting in the Waikaro (sic) (Waingaro river), and the prospects looked good for the coming summer.4

The first record of John Vittle in New Zealand appears in an account by James Mackay Junior of his exploration of a route to the Buller River from the Takaka River.5 He recorded that John Vittel (sic) arrived at John Lindsay’s house on the evening of 7 December 1858. Lindsay’s house was at Uruwhenua, probably section 9 Block VII, and was the furthest house up the Takaka Valley. James Mackay and his travelling partner, Captain Lockett, were staying the night there, having travelled from Collingwood. Next morning the four men headed south, along a track heading for Riwaka, but on reaching Long Ford on the Takaka River, they turned west and went up the Takaka River. They lunched at John Vittle’s campsite, located about Section 3 Block XI, and camped for the night by Rheumatic Creek, alongside what is now called the Blue Pool, on the Cobb Valley Road. Next morning they climbed up the ridge now called Kill Devil. Vittle and Lindsay headed down into the Waingaro to prospect for gold, while Mackay and Lockett headed along the ridge to what is now Mt Peel. Vittle and Lindsay appear to have been gold digger mates on the Waingaro Gold Field at this time.

An advertisement in the Nelson Examiner of 21 March 1860 includes both Vittle, miner, Takaka, and Lindsay, farmer, Takaka, in a list of those qualified to serve as jurors in the district of Golden Bay for the years 1860 to 1861.6

In 1870 John Vittle was granted land by the Nelson Provincial Government, a farmlet of 36 acres on section 53 Block XV7, which is at the start of the Waitui road. In the same year he was charged two shillings and two pence for rates, plus the previous years by the Takaka Road Board.8 In 1874 he was granted a lease over 487 acres in the Takaka District, for which he was charged an annual rental of £7-15-0.

It is interesting to note that, in a lease return of 1876, John Vittal’s (sic) lease was double the size of those of three other Upper Takaka residents, George Hailes, John Lindsay and Joseph Breadmore. Six years later, in 1880, J. Vittle is listed as having forfeited his lease for non payment, with the land now open for application. The 437 acres were described as sections 69, 70, 75, 76, square 89, and adjoined his section 53 in a south-easterly direction, across to Aaron Creek. John Vittle appears in the 1880 and 1890 electoral rolls as a miner in Upper Takaka, owning section 53. In Wise’s Nelson Westland & Marlborough Directory 1894-1895 he is in the Takaka listing as Vittal, (sic) John, miner. In the 1896 electoral roll he is listed with

page 11

a residential qualification in Upper Takaka, while those for 1905, 1911 and 1914 list him as a miner, Upper Takaka.

In February 1883 Charles Lewis, the local surveyor, was instructed to make a trig survey from the Tableland to the Karamea. He had three fellow travellers: Henry Phillip Washbourn, who wrote an account of the trip, Arthur Berry and James Hargraves 11. Washbourn noted an old digger, who may have been John Vittle, and wrote: “Loneliness had little terrors for the old diggers as many of them would go off alone in the back country prospecting for months at a time, but the most remarkable case was a man in Takaka who used to be away in the very back country for months at a time. It was not as if he were saving up for a special purpose or making much money, but it was his way of enjoying life. For food he depended entirely on catching eels, wekas and kiwis and lived on these without bread or vegetables.”... ”We came across him in a gorge (Grecian Creek) of the Upper Takaka river. He had a 6ft x 8ft tent and his bed was a few boughs on the ground and not sufficient of them to hide the moss underneath them so he must have been always more or less wet as he had no means of drying anything and no sun to do so. He had been living that life a good many years then and continued to do so till a good old age, in fact as long as he could. At least 40 years of his life were spent in this way. Not many years ago the man was very ill and it was thought that there was no chance of his recovery and he was always worrying very much about a place where he thought there was a bit of gold, but he could not go to it by himself. George Gibson (miner Kaituna), a very much esteemed man who was talking to him, thinking to kindly ease a dying man’s mind said, when you get well I will go with you. To the surprise of everyone the man did get better and Gibson being a man of his word, to his dismay had to go, but before they started from Takaka the man found that he was not up to going so the jaunt ended.”12

My guess is that the man would have been John Vittle, doing some fossicking during the warmer time of the year before going back to his hut on section 53 for the winter. A hut existed on this section in my father’s lifetime and, to his knowledge, it had belonged to Vittle. I have not been able to confirm for how long he owned the section. He certainly would have been hardened to life as a digger and was still doing it in his eighties, existing on only a loaf of bread and a bit of cheese, and in poor health when he came to grief.

There is no evidence of Vittle obtaining an old age pension, so his income was derived solely from selling gold. The Bank of New Zealand’s Takaka Branch records show that J. Vittal (sic) sold gold to the bank between 1885 and 1896, with Takaka given as its origin. In 1893 he sold gold sourced from the Waingaro.13

page 12

Charles Lewis had blazed a track from Upper Takaka to the Tablelands for the Collingwood County Council in 1882. Collingwood and Takaka were both part of the Collingwood County between 1877 and 1904. In 1883 the surveyor, H. A. Tarrant, defined a line of road from Upper Takaka to Grecian Creek, which later became Barron’s Flat Track.14 Today it is known as the Upper Takaka Track. John Vittle probably already had a digger’s track near the one which Charles Lewis blazed, going to the ridge that looks down on what is now the Takaka River Bridge. When we planted pines on the land facing the Takaka Bridge Flat, we discovered a 75cm wide track going down the ridge to the flat adjoining the bridge. We also found an old slasher there. John Vittle may have made this track, or it could have been put in by Mr Burns, who later farmed the area, before the Cobb Road was put in during 1937

It was on this flat that John Vittle had erected his new tent at the time he went missing in 1914. He had probably realised that, at eighty plus, he was too old to be walking up a river which he had to cross seven times. He therefore established a base where he didn’t have to cross the Takaka River, and was gathering his gear from the base up-river when he disappeared. No body was ever found, which isn’t surprising, as it was October and the spring thaw would have been in progress. The rocks would have been slippery and the water very cold for a man of his age. The search didn’t start until a month after he was last seen.

Rumours that John Vittle had been bumped off for his gold began to circulate locally. One of his neighbours, George Galey, bought a new car, and this was a time when there were very few cars about. There was speculation about where the money for it had come from, and the rumours increased when he suddenly moved permanently to Australia. George Galey, who had helped in the search, did contract work with horses and bullocks for the County Council and had been paid £108 for contracts in 1912. He had dissolved his farm partnership with his brother in 1913. People were shifting to Australia at this time, an example being my mother’s two aunts, who went to Tasmania. I doubt that Vittle would have had large amounts of gold, as the Takaka River was not considered to be a good prospecting area. I only discovered that there had been gold digging in the Takaka River while researching this story, having previously thought that John Vittle was a Waitui digger. His body was said to have been dumped in a tomo on Waitui Hill.

Iva Cameron (nee Lindsay) wrote the following in her Memoirs: “John Lindsay kept a store from about 1860 onwards, for a number of years, to enable gold diggers above Guards to obtain grocery supplies. When my mother (James Lindsay’s daughter) was a school girl she and others panned for gold in the Waitui Creek and always obtained a few colours. There were gold diggers up at the head of the page 13 Takaka and Cobb rivers. An old Mr Smith and Mr Jack Vittal (sic) worked diggings there for years. Jack stayed with my grandfather (James) Lindsay on occasions and he gave my father enough Takaka River gold for my mother’s wedding ring. Jack Vittal disappeared from his camp up river and even though a police party went in search of him he was never found. Aunt Flora Loch (nee Lindsay), told me before she died, that a man whom we all knew came to her father’s house and was wearing Jack Vittal’s ring. It seems Likely!!!”15

The following account of the search for, and assumed demise of, John Vittle was published in the Golden Bay Times of Thursday 5 November 1914:

“Missing; MR JOHN VITTLE.”

“No trace whatever has been found of Mr John Vittle, who has not been heard of for a month, and there is no doubt he has perished from exposure or being drowned in the Takaka river. The particulars of the sad circumstances are as follows:

“On the 28th ult, Constable Edwards received a wire from Messers Galey and Barnett, Upper Takaka, to the effect that John Vittle, a digger, was missing from his camp on the bank of the Takaka river, Barron’s Flat. Search parties have been out the two previous days, a further party consisting of the Constable, Messers Galey(2), Barnett(2) and 11 others, organised a thorough search of the river and adjacent hills and gullies.

“The missing prospector left Galey’s Upper Takaka on October 7th, taking with him a loaf of bread and a small piece of cheese. He carried a swag consisting of a new 6 x 8 ft tent, 1lb of tea, and a few articles of wearing apparel. The tent was pitched on the banks of the river with all above mentioned articles except the loaf of bread (a week old) and cheese.

“He left the scene of former operations some six months ago, on account of failing health (for which he had latterly been under the doctor’s care) and at that time left a tent behind, which is pitched two miles from the site of the present one. His blankets and tools having been left in the former abode, it was apparent the missing man had not visited the same. To go there would have entailed the crossing of the river no less than seven times, and it seems very evident that Vittle, who was over 80, almost blind, and in feeble health has come to grief in the river, where the stones are slippery, and been washed into one of the deep holes which abound in the stream, in places 15 to 20 feet deep. Failing this he must have undoubtedly perished from exposure and want of food; the chances of finding him alive are very remote.

“Searchers were out on Sunday but met with no success. The search parties, in most cases, are experienced men with a thorough knowledge of locality, and no stone has been left unturned to elucidate the mystery surrounding the fate of the unfortunate man. Mr Vittle was a gold digger of 50 years’ standing and was universally respected and esteemed by all with whom he came in contact, and who will deeply regret to hear of his disappearance.”

page 10

Asbestos Miners Upper Takaka

Tyree studio 54951/3 1/2. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Tyree studio 54951/3 1/2. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Tyree studio 54950/3 1/2. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Tyree studio 54950/3 1/2. Nelson Provincial Museum.

These photos show the miners’ accommodation of the day. The three miners are the same in each photo and the miner wearing the boater hat possibly resembles John Vittle. Note the dog nestled at his feet. Three different asbestos prospecting licences were issued for the Mt Arthur area in late 1889.10

page 14

John Vittle Portrait Notes

Portrait of Mr Vittle. Davis 10162-1, Nelson Provincial Museum.

Portrait of Mr Vittle. Davis 10162-1, Nelson Provincial Museum.

John Vittle’s photo was taken by Nelson photographer William Davis, who specialised in portrait photography in Nelson from 1860 to 1873.16 His negatives are now held at the Nelson Provincial Museum. The Vittle portrait is listed as Mr Vittle 10162/1 and has the name, spelt Vital, etched on the negative.

Henry Washbourn gives a very good description of a typical digger’s clothing, which matches John Vittle’s appearance in this photo.

“The general dress of the digger was moleskin trousers and blue or red serge shirts and worn outside of the trousers. In shape it was like an ordinary shirt, a common head gear was a knitted woollen sort of tight cap with the peak hanging down the back. A coat or waistcoat was never seen, except on a visitor. Even constables wore the serge shirts. The hair was generally long and the beards long and untrimmed, making the general appearance very rough and of course they all carried a sheath or bowie knife. The first sign of dandyism was seen by a few wearing a neck cloth or tie. Later a waistcoat was worn on special occasions under the blue shirt. Still later a waistcoat and coat. Both were worn and by degrees it became usual.”17

page 15


1Nelson Examiner, 17 October 1857, p. 3, Takaka diggings.
2Nelson Examiner, 7 November 1857.
3Nelson Examiner, 9 June 1858, p. 2.
4Nelson Examiner, 10 July 1858, p. 2.
5Nelson Examiner, 2 February 1859.
6Nelson Examiner, 21 March 1860, p. 4.
7Nelson Examiner, 22 October 1870; Nelson Evening Mail, 16 September 1874.
8Nelson Examiner, 16 November 1870.
9Colonist, 4 November 1880, p. 2.
10Nelson Evening Mail, 19 September, 29 October, 28 November 1889.
11Washbourn, H.P.. Further Reminiscences of Early Days, p. 24.
12Washbourn, H.P.. Reminiscences of Early Days, p. 11: ‘At home in the hills’.
13Griffin, R.H. (1984). BNZ Golden Bay Opened 1884, p. 25. BNZ Archives.
14Newport, J.N.W.. Golden Bay One Hundred Years Of Local Government, p.49.
15Iva Cameron’s Memoirs, p. 20 per Ann Lindsay.
16Nelson Provincial Museum photo “Vittle Mr” 10162/1.
17Washbourn, H.P.. Reminiscences of Early Days, pp. 6 and 9.