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Norway to Otago

Goldfield Entrepreneurs: the Norwegian party of Waitahuna Gully, Otago
by Ross Barnett (Lawrence Athenaeum and Mining Institute, $35, available here.)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan

Waitahuna cover_sThe New Zealand gold rushes in the early 1860s attracted an influx of young men keen for adventure and to make money. Many nationalities took part in the search for gold, and much has been written about English-speaking gold-seekers as well as Chinese and Māori miners. This book is unique in dealing with a group of Norwegian miners who worked at Waitahuna, near Lawrence in west Otago. There is little mention of Norwegian miners elsewhere – for example they are entirely overlooked both in Te Ara – the online Encyclopedia of New Zealand and in the the recently published anthology Rushing for gold: life and commerce on the goldfields of New Zealand and Australia.

While the Norwegians were not part of the initial rush to Gabriel’s Gully in 1861-62, they arrived at nearby Waitahuna in 1864, and the party remained there for almost half a century, building one of the largest water-races in Otago which undoubtedly contributed to the longevity of their mining operation.

The gold-bearing rock they were mining was a cemented gravel known as the Blur Spur Conglomerate. Because of its hardness, effective gold recovery has always been difficult, and the mining party progressively refined their methods to improve the results. I was amazed at the persistence of the Norwegian group, working in a difficult environment. It seems that the key to their success was effective organisation and a high level of cooperation.

They adopted a regular working schedule, and systematically cleared and prepared the next areas for mining, while depositing tailings in worked-over blocks. While this might seem self-evident, mining history is replete with stories of haphazard workings, and tailings needing to be moved several times.

The Norwegian party worked the claim profitably until 1915, when they sold out to another mining operation. During the 49 years they had worked the mine they produced a cumulative total of approximately 84,000 ounces — in today’s values, slightly more than $US 100 million. None of the miners made a fortune, but for almost 40 years they were able to make a comfortable living from their claim.

The author, Ross Barnett, has a family connection with one of the original miners. Unlike some other nationalities, the Norwegians were keen to be assimilated into New Zealand. By the time the mine was sold, they were comfortably off, had been naturalised, and most had anglicised their names. Without the painstaking research undertaken by Ross Barnett, assisted by John Reed, this fascinating story would have remained hidden.