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Golden Days

Rushing for Gold: Life and Commerce on the Goldfields of New Zealand and Australia
Edited by Lloyd Carpenter and Lyndon Fraser (Otago University Press, $45)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

RushingForGold--001This work arose from a conference held in 2012 to mark the 150th anniversary of the Otago gold rushes. The conference was hosted, not as you might expect by the University of Otago, but jointly by the University of Canterbury and Lincoln University where the book’s editors are on the staff. The 20 diverse contributors include seven Australians.

The subheading of this book is somewhat misleading. It is in fact almost entirely confined to the Otago rushes and their links with the rushes in Victoria. The result is a work that provides new insights into the Otago rushes – for example the extent of the two-way traffic between Otago and Victoria, and the cultural diversity of the goldfields, making Central Otago the least Scottish part of Otago-Southland.

The first section focuses particularly on the Victorian connections – commercial, legal, mining and personal, including migration statistics. But for me the most interesting chapters were in the middle sections about the people of the goldfields. Lloyd Carpenter’s chapter on Māori showed that they were aware of gold in various places before its discovery by Pākehā; there were also Māori miners in Australia, California and the Yukon.

Three chapters focus on the Chinese miners who were invited to Otago by the Provincial Council (which promised equal treatment before the law) to offset the early miners moving on. Paul Macgregor describes the career of the Melbourne businessman, Lowe Kong Meng, one of the Chinese who facilitated this migration. Joanna Boileau reveals the extent of Chinese market gardening on the goldfields from the time of their arrival: it was not just a post-mining activity. James Ng’s chapter, illustrating how they transported and maintained their culture, is especially fascinating.

Sandra Quick highlights the authorities’ ambivalent attitude towards women publicans. While they did not give licences to single men as they wanted there to be a woman about the place, they were not keen to give a married woman a licence, even if she was in fact the manager while her husband ran another business or if she was a widow (or purporting to be one). One of the fascinating results of the detailed research that lies behind some of these chapters is the exposure of the significant number of business people, lawyers and others who headed to the goldfields to escape a previous life, often changing their names in the process. Julia Bradshaw describes some of the “women of abandoned character”, and Jeremy Finn identifies some scurrilous lawyers.

The relationships between miners and business people are also examined: Lloyd Carpenter and Tom Brooking reveal the extent to which merchants acted as the miners’ bankers, particularly once the short-lived individual gold panning phase was largely replaced by collective alluvial mining which required capital. Rosemary Marryat provides a completely different perspective, pointing out the detrimental effect that a gold rush had on William Rees’s efforts to establish sheep runs in the Wakatipu area as miners’ claims took over pasture. The final section includes an interesting account by Neville Ritchie of his innovative role as an archaeologist employed by the Historic Places Trust for ten years on the Clyde Dam project with large numbers of student assistants.

As this collection covers a wide range of topics, different chapters will appeal to different people. The quality of the contributions varies, but anyone interested in the Otago gold rushes will find items of interest.