NZ Gold History

All that glitters

Although rumours and traces of gold surfaced in New Zealand as early as the 1820s, the first European discovery of payable gold is attributed to Charles Ring, a Tasmanian who found it at Driving Creek near Coromandel township in 1852. Discoveries near Collingwood in Golden Bay (1856), Gabriels Gully in Otago (1861), Wakamarina in Marlborough (1864) and at Greenstone Creek on the West Coast (1864) followed. Not all discoveries translated into major finds. The ones that did were on Coromandel Peninsula, in Otago and on the West Coast, where there were significant gold rushes followed by decades of mining.

The early mining of the 1860s in Otago and on the West Coast was mainly undertaken by individuals working alluvial deposits (river gravels). In three separate years in the late 1860s and early 1870s the amount of gold won exceeded 20,000 kilograms. These totals have never been bettered. From the 1870s mining became more mechanised. Companies were floated, and dredges and sluicing ventures won more and more gold. Underground mining, which tunnelled out quartz veins that were crushed to release their gold, boomed on the Coromandel Peninsula and West Coast from the 1870s.

Gold mining had declined by the 1920s, and from the 1950s it was a very small industry. The rise of gold prices in the late 1970s brought about a revival, with new technology allowing opencast pits to be dug in Otago and on the Coromandel Peninsula in the 1980s and 1990s.

How much gold?

No one knows exactly how much gold has been found in New Zealand. Official records show that up to 2003 a total of 998.71 tonnes had been mined – about 0.8% of all the gold mined in the world. Because gold-production records have been collected in different ways over the years there are gaps in figures and inconsistencies. Available figures show that up to 2003 a minimum of 312 tonnes had come from the Coromandel Peninsula, 274 tonnes from the West Coast, and 265 tonnes from Otago.

The two major booms in production were in the 1860s (alluvial gold won by diggers) and in the decade after 1900 (underground hard-rock mining). There was a smaller boom starting in the late 1980s (opencast hard-rock mining).

Production peaked in 1866 at 22,870 kilograms, and came near this total again in 1871 (22,704 kilograms). The amount of gold that was recovered in the early gold-rush years has never been repeated. The year 1906 (17,536 kilograms) came the closest when the Coromandel Peninsula and West Coast hard-rock mines were operating, as were many gold dredges in Otago and on the West Coast. As silver only occurs on the Coromandel Peninsula, surges in its production represent hard-rock mining booms there. The recent surge in gold production can be traced back to the early 1970s, when the price of gold was floated on the open market.

Source: Annual production reports, Mines Department (later Ministry of Energy, then Crown Minerals, Ministry of Economic Development)

New Zealand’s goldfields

New Zealand has three main goldfields and each has its own geology. In Otago (and Marlborough) gold is found in quartz veins in schist and in river gravels which have weathered from schist. On the West Coast and at Golden Bay, gold is found in older Paleozoic greywacke and argillite rocks in faulted areas called shear zones. On the Coromandel Peninsula gold and silver are found in quartz veins within volcanic rocks. Although gold has never been mined there, it occurs in the Taupō Volcanic Zone in geothermal deposits.

Source: Crown Minerals

Where you find it

Gold, any miner will tell you, is where you find it – as the Cornish miners said, ‘Where it be, there it be’. Many geologists would agree, but they would also add that gold is likely to be found only in certain areas. In New Zealand these areas are Otago, Southland, the West Coast, Golden Bay and Marlborough, Coromandel Peninsula, and a few other localised places.

Gold is a rare element. It is inert, very heavy, shiny and malleable. It is gold’s aesthetic properties and rarity that command a high price. Only 10% of global production is used for industrial purposes. Its main use is in making jewellery. It rarely occurs in a pure form, and is usually mixed with silver and other metals. In New Zealand, Otago and West Coast gold is purer (93–98% gold, with 2–7% silver or silver plus mercury), while on the Coromandel Peninsula it occurs as the gold–silver alloy electrum (typically 65% gold and 35% silver in the Martha mine at Waihī) along with separate sulfide minerals.


In New Zealand silver mainly occurs in association with gold on Coromandel Peninsula, where about 1,440 tonnes of silver have been recovered from mining of the gold–silver deposits (1,212 tonnes of this has come from the Martha mine). Early reports of silver finds near Collingwood in Golden Bay and other localities amounted to nothing of economic value.

Hard-rock sources

Gold occurs in fissures and fracture zones, where it has been deposited in quartz veins. It is almost always in very fine flecks in the quartz veins, usually too small to be visible. Gold can be deposited near the earth’s surface (epithermal gold) and at greater depths (mesothermal gold).

Epithermal gold can be found with silver in quartz veins on the Coromandel Peninsula. It has been deposited at depths of up to 1,500 metres by hot spring fluids at temperatures of 180–300°C.

Mesothermal gold occurs in the schist rocks of Otago and Marlborough. Here, gold has been deposited at depths of 3–12 kilometres by hot fluids at temperatures of 200–400°C. Greywacke and argillite rocks in the Aorere valley in Golden Bay, Lyell, Reefton and Mt Greenland on the West Coast, and at Preservation Inlet in Fiordland, also contain mesothermal gold in faulted areas known as shear zones.

'Chinaman’ and ‘Maoris'

While washing gravel with millions of litres of fresh water, the alluvial miners working in Central Otago named things as they saw them. Large quartz boulders that had been stained yellow by leaching minerals were called ‘Chinaman’, while dark, heavy boulders rich in iron were ‘Maoris’.

Alluvial gold

Alluvial or placer gold comes from eroded hard-rock sources. Rivers and glaciers flowing over gravels have washed and sorted them, concentrating the heavy gold in certain layers. This often makes placer gold deposits much richer than their hard-rock sources.

Alluvial gold can be mined by digging it up with earth-moving equipment, sluicing, dredging, or by hand with a gold pan and shovel. There are localised deposits in Nelson and Marlborough. Little placer gold has been found on the Coromandel Peninsula. It is most widely distributed in Otago and the West Coast, including West Coast beaches such as Gillespies Beach, and at Orepuki in Southland. Offshore gold deposits exist off the West Coast and Otago, although prospecting has been limited by the difficulty of sampling the sea floor.

Mother lode

The gold in river gravels convinced many miners in Otago that there must be a mother lode – a hard-rock source upriver. In a few places rich veins were found and worked – at Skippers, Bendigo and Macetown. Over thousands of years, glaciers and rivers had ground away Otago’s schist, which contained gold-bearing quartz reefs. So the gravels beneath glaciers and rivers often contained higher gold concentrations than the existing hard rock. There was no mother lode; or rather, the mother lode was the alluvial gold itself.


Rivers of gold

Historically in Otago the majority of recovered gold was alluvial – less than 10% came from hard rock. Otago’s gold is linked to its schist rocks. Over the past 100,000 years glaciers ground away at the rocks, which were threaded with quartz veins containing gold, and rivers washed and sorted the gravels. These processes concentrated the gold by separating the heavier minerals from the lighter ones. The first miners literally picked up nuggets where they lay.

Gabriels Gully

On 23 May 1861 Gabriel Read gained esteem and provincial government bonuses when he found gold. He also saw his name given to the locality of the find, Gabriels Gully, near Lawrence. Another character, Edward Peters, had found gold earlier than Read in the same area, but he had not proven that the deposits were extensive enough to be economically worked. Eventually he was awarded a smaller bonus.

Thousands of diggers hastened to the scene of New Zealand’s first major rush. The gully became a canvas town overnight as diggers moved in to work the rich blue-spur rock where Read had uncovered gold ‘shining like the stars in Orion’.

The Dunstan rush

When American Horatio Hartley and Irishman Christopher Reilly deposited a bag of gold weighing just under 40 kilograms on the Treasury desk in Dunedin in August 1862, the rush to Dunstan (the area around Cromwell) was on. Diggers worked the river beaches of the Clutha, Kawarau and Shotover, and higher up in their tributaries. A lucky few made a packet. Many perished in heavy snowfalls and winter floods. In icy gorges the sun never reached the floor and piles of wash froze cement-hard. A diet of flour and tea meant that many developed scurvy. At the peak of the Otago rush in 1863 the goldfields population was estimated at 24,000. Other discoveries in Otago followed, and men moved from field to field.

By 1900 the romantic figure of the digger with his pan and shovel was history – he had been replaced by dredges and underground mines.

West Coast


Following the discovery of payable gold in Otago in 1861, the Canterbury provincial government offered a reward of £1,000 to anyone who found gold in Canterbury. This gave prospectors an incentive, and colours soon showed up in gold pans in West Canterbury (today’s West Coast). Payable gold was discovered in Greenstone Creek, a tributary of the Taramakau River, in 1864, leading to the frantic rushes of 1865–67 as more discoveries followed. Like Otago, the early gold on the West Coast was alluvial. It attracted men from the Otago goldfields, and ships landed diggers directly from South Australia.


There were no roads and the diggers had to cut their way through bush. It took time before they could set up stores, and the first miners ate kererū (wood pigeons), potatoes, fern and kōnini berries. They explored the country between Greymouth and Hokitika, and mined beach sands at Ōkarito, Addisons and Charleston. The diggers described the alluvial deposits as ‘tucker ground’ – good enough for yielding food, but it was as if the gold had been spread evenly but sparingly by some unseen hand.

The rush

Richer finds followed, and the success of the rush could be seen at Christmas 1865, when all of Hokitika’s 72 hotels were packed with boozing miners. These were the days of the wild West Coast. Sly-grog shops illegally selling alcohol sprang up with each new field. Towns like Goldsborough emerged from the bush and disappeared when the gold was worked out. At the peak of the rush, in 1867, there were probably about 29,000 people on the West Coast – around 12% of New Zealand’s European population at the time. One in five of the European men in New Zealand were on the ‘roaring’ coast, but there were few women.

The 1860s goldfields could be lawless. Fights, claim-jumping and murders occurred, although most trouble just stemmed from drunkards. The goldfields had their own terminology. Planting gold to give a false indication of a field’s wealth when selling up was known as salting the claim. And rushes that resulted in no gold were duffer’s rushes (on the West Coast there are numerous Duffers Creeks).

Quartz reefs of Reefton

The discovery and development of gold-bearing quartz veins near Reefton around 1870 marked a shift from alluvial to hard-rock mining. Unique names are a remnant of the coast’s hard-rock mining days. Crushington lies south-east of Reefton, and was where quartz-crushers worked day and night extracting gold from the Globe mine. Quartzopolis was an old name for Reefton (shortened from Reef town), where mines such as the Wealth of Nations and the Keep-it-Dark paid handsome dividends to lucky shareholders. The reefs were rich, but hard-rock mining also required a much bigger investment. Companies were established and machines did more of the work. Quartz was crushed by pounding stamper batteries – between 1870 and 1951, 84 Reefton mines produced 67 tonnes of gold.

Once gold dredging proved itself in Otago it was also used on the West Coast to work river gravels or old river channels. Sluicing was practised extensively in places such as Kūmara. Gold was taken from beach gravels using riffle tables on wheels (known as Long Toms). The gold occurred in thin layers of black sand, and because the particles were so fine, much was washed away. To prevent this, some miners used boxes fitted with copper plates coated with a mercury amalgam which caught the gold.

1. Henry W. Harper, Letters from New Zealand, 1857–1911: being some account of life and work in the province of Canterbury, South Island. Christchurch: Kiwi, 1999, pp. 167–168 (originally published 1914).

Coromandel Peninsula

Payable gold

The first rumours of gold in New Zealand came from the Coromandel Peninsula in the 1820s. Nothing came of the reports for decades. Then in 1852 some Aucklanders offered a reward of £100 for the discovery of a payable goldfield near Auckland. When the reward was increased to £500, a sawmiller named Charles Ring claimed it after he found golden flakes in his pan at Driving Creek, near Coromandel town. His find led to only a small patch of alluvial gold – by April 1853 less than £1,200 worth had been won. But even a small strike attracts prospectors, and if the original strike fails they search again. Prospectors found little until quartz reefs were uncovered in the hills of Coromandel Peninsula in the early 1860s. But extracting gold from quartz was difficult.

Hard rock at Thames

The first big strike was near Thames in August 1867, when a speck of gold was seen in the rock face of a waterfall in Kuranui Stream. Other reefs were uncovered, and within months the Thames foothills swarmed with men. Mining quartz reefs needed capital investment to tunnel, mine the ore, crush it and separate the gold. This type of mining favoured larger companies and gradually they took control of production.

Some reefs were spectacularly wealthy. In 1870 the Caledonian mine in just over a year produced 140,000 ounces (3,969 kilograms) of bullion (silver and gold). At the peak of the rush in 1868, 18,000 people were living in Thames. Other very rich reefs were soon discovered and quickly worked out so that by the 1890s the big gold rushes were over. Miners now knew where the gold was, but they needed to find an economic way to mine it.

Recovering the gold

Machines called stamper batteries, which crushed quartz into powder, were set up in the Coromandel ranges. Most mines were steadily producing ore, but the recovery methods were highly inefficient (only 45% of the gold and barely any silver was recovered).

In 1889 the cyanide process was trialled by the New Zealand Crown Mines Company at Karangahake – the first time in the world cyanide had been used on a large scale for commercial mining. Cyanide was added to crushed quartz ore. Gold and silver dissolve in cyanide, allowing more of these metals to be recovered (about 90% of gold and 50% of silver). They are extracted from the cyanide solution using chemical processes.

The new process was a leap forward as it made lower-grade deposits profitable. Previously, much fine gold had been lost, and in places it paid to rework tailings (waste rock) with cyanide to recover the lost gold. Cyanide recovery stimulated investment. Mining continued successfully until the 1920s, by which time many ore reserves were depleted. The depression saw a brief flurry of new mines but nothing came of them.

A handful of very rich mines dominated production. One was the Martha mine at Waihī, which when it closed in 1952 had produced a total of 992,233 kilograms of bullion. Waihī was the site of a large miners’ strike in 1912 – a bitter wrangle that lasted six months and resulted in New Zealand’s first death in an industrial dispute.

In the late 1960s the Tui mine at Te Aroha and the Ohinemuri gold and silver mine at Maratoto reopened. They did not last. Both closed in the 1970s after producing a further 5,018 kilograms of mainly silver, and some gold.

Other goldfields

As time would tell, the big deposits were in Otago, the West Coast and on Coromandel Peninsula, but gold was also found elsewhere in New Zealand.

Golden Bay and Nelson

Golden Bay is not named for its sunshine, but for its gold. As early as 1853, traces were found in the Aorere valley, and larger deposits were opened up in 1857. Some 2,500 men spread out from Collingwood working alluvial gravels. Good gold was found elsewhere in Nelson in places such as the Mātakitaki valley, Mt Arthur, Wangapeka, and in the Buller Gorge at Lyell.

Wakamarina River, Marlborough

In 1864, gold was discovered in the Wakamarina River, a tributary of the Pelorus River. Up to 6,000 Otago miners rushed to the workings, as initially these were very rich. A tent town sprang up, with 3,000 men giving the name Canvastown to the area. But the river gravels were worked out quickly and the rush soon passed. Later, reef gold was also discovered, but it was low grade and the reefs were mainly worked for the tungsten mineral scheelite.

Terawhiti, Wellington

Traces of gold were known from Cape Terawhiti, near today’s Wellington suburb of Karori, as early as 1852. In the 1870s and 1880s a number of quartz reefs were


Once gold was discovered and an area proved workable, it could be declared a goldfield by provincial governments. However, there was little governance. In the late 1850s the rush to Collingwood in Golden Bay had exposed the lack of laws regulating goldfields. This prompted the Miners’ Code, which outlined procedures such as how claims were to be staked and disputes settled, and it gave rise to the Mining Act 1859. Gold wardens were appointed to oversee goldfields, and disputes were heard in the warden’s court.

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