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Volume 3 (2010)

John Gibbons - Goldfield's Engineer and Entrepreneur


by David Wilton

In a recent study of the history of the Una Gold Mining and Quartz Crushing Company, and its battery and tramway, one name kept recurring - that of John Gibbons. That soon led to an interest in the man, and his many business ventures around the Hauraki region. It soon became apparent that, in many ways, his is typical of the entrepreneurial approach that accompanied the development of a goldfield in a pioneer setting. These notes are not intended as a detailed biography of a notable pioneer engineer and businessman, but rather a brief snapshot of a typical “man of the times”; albeit one who was apparently very successful, in his local business ventures.

John was the eldest child of John (senior) and Elizabeth Gibbons. The Daily Southern Cross of 8th September 1863 records a court case, in which John (senior) was found to be 'of unsound mind', apparently following a stroke. During the case, evidence given by Elizabeth Gibbons, and second son Ebenezer, provides key details of the family history. John and Elizabeth were married in Newfoundland (Canada) in 1819. There were five sons and four daughters in the family, born between 1828 and 1847. The family moved to NZ in 1852 or 1853, and settled in the Huia area, on the northern shore of the Manukau harbour. At the time of the court case, John (junior) was living in Melbourne and was already married, with children. Ebenezer later became a prominent figure in the timber trade in the Huia area. Another son, Robert, also made an impact in the timber trade, including joint ownership of the Kirikiri sawmill, near Thames, with his brother John.

When John Gibbons returned to NZ from Melbourne is not certain, but he apparently arrived in Thames in late 1867 or very early 1868. Why he headed for Thames is not clear. His sister Mary Ann had married a Mr Fowler and was resident at Cabbage Bay (now Colville) by that time, which may have provided a Coromandel connection. Or, he may just have been seeking business opportunities offered by a new goldfield. Kae Lewis' Miners Database (2009) shows that a John Gibbons recorded numerous mining claims in the Coromandel area in 1867 and 1868: five in the Karaka (Thames), and several others at Waikawau, Coromandel and Tararu. Thames gold was not easily obtainable by panning gravel in the creeks or by sluicing, as it was firmly bound up in quartz rock deposits and needed extensive crushing and chemical separation methods to liberate. The trend was to amalgamate small claims into larger areas of ground and to raise venture capital to establish the extensive crushing plants (known as batteries) and chemical separation techniques that were required (Weston 1927 p.62-65). It is likely that one, or some, of John Gibbons' Karaka claims formed the basis for the Una Company, but that is not certain. However, it would be consistent with the trend noted above.

The Daily Southern Cross of 17th February 1869 provides a list of gold mining companies registered in the Thames area at that time. This records the Una Gold Mining and Quartz Crushing Company (GM & QC Co); registered 9th October 1868, with 400 shares, nominal capital of £4000 and paid-up capital of £2250. The legal owner is recorded as William F. Buckland. However, several Daily Southern Cross reports of bi-annual meetings of the Una GM & QC Co (e.g. January 1870, July 1870, January 1871, February 1873) record the presence of John Gibbons, in several roles, including Managing Director and Chairman. These confirm his key status in the company over several years.

It appears that the original Una GM & QC Co ceased operations in 1878. After a gap of about ten years, parts of the original claim were taken up by new companies and private ventures, who mined the Una Hill area intermittently through to the 1940s (Downey 1935 reprinted 2002 p136, Williams and Williams 1994 p198-9).

John Gibbons, having an engineering background, was also intent on establishing infrastructure required for a quartz-based goldfield. The Daily Southern Cross of 9th November 1867 included the following advertisements:

Click to enlarge the photo.

Sufficient interest was obviously forthcoming, as John Gibbons had at least one battery in operation on the Thames field within about three months of placing the ad. According to Thames Gold Fields Miner's Guide (1868, reprinted 1975 p94), the batteries operating in Thames by late 1868 included: 'U.N.O. [probably Una] Quartz Crushing Mill (late Gibbons') ten stampers, water power, and steam power for eight stampers when deficient of water. Commenced crushing in February 1868, crushed 500 tons of quartz since April 1868.'

The Daily Southern Cross list of registered companies, dated 17th February 1869, mentioned above, also includes the Tapu Creek Tramway and QC Company, registered 8th July 1868, with the legal owner recorded as John Gibbons. He was also involved in the construction of another battery at Tararu. The Daily Southern Cross of 30th June 1869 advised that: 'The material for Mr John Gibbons new battery is being transported to the site of the building on the Golden Fleece bend (Tararu Creek) and the site is levelled and ready for the building.' This battery was sited at a prominent bend in the Tararu Creek, approximately 1 km upstream from the coast, and adjacent to the Flora McDonald claim. The same newspaper, on 20th September 1869, includes Gibbons Battery, Tararu, with 20 stampers, as one of the batteries '… at present working on the Thames goldfields'.

John Gibbons' business interests also included timber milling. The Daily Southern Cross of 29 July 1875 records his ownership interests in the following sawmills:
'Kirikiri, on bank of Waihou River; purchased 1871-72. Cuts white pine [kahikatea] occasionally, as well as kauri. Hauraki Saw Mill Company; erected 1869, situated at Turua on Waihou River. This mill cuts white pine only; a great part is shipped to foreign markets, the remainder is consumed at Grahamstown and Shortland.'

Little has been found on John Gibbons' business interests after about 1875, but it is thought that his personal involvement in business had begun to decrease by that stage, at least around Thames. According to his obituary (see below), he had saw-milling interests in Te Aroha later in his life. Numerous Thames street directories give the Gibbons family's residential address as being on the eastern side and at the southern end of Eyre St (now known as Queen St). (Note that there were no house numbers in Thames until about the 1960s.) John's occupation was listed as 'engineer'.

John was married to Mary (nee Robertson). Apparently the service did not take place in NZ, as no record was found in a search of the NZ births, deaths and marriages database (Dept of Internal Affairs (NZ) c2008). According to the same source, only one of their children is recorded as being born in NZ. The birth certificate of Isabel Una Gibbons records she was born in Auckland, on 23rd December 1866. As this event preceded the formation of the Una GM & QC Co by about 18 months, it is likely that the company was named after her - possibly it was a traditional family name.

The Thames Star of 29th January 1900 published the following front page obituary:
'Death of Mr John Gibbons At his residence in Shortland there died yesterday Mr John Gibbons, one of our oldest and most respected residents. From the earliest days of the field, Mr Gibbons held a prominent place among the business men of the Thames. Of late years, he has not been so active, the weight of over 70 years telling on him. The late Mr John Gibbons was a native of New Foundland, and arrived in New Zealand with his brothers over forty years ago. In his day he was a most enterprising and energetic business man. He took a deep interest in the goldfields, and showed his enterprise in erecting mining batteries and speculating in gold mines. He held a large interest in the Una mine, one from which a great deal of gold was won in the early days of the field. He built the Una battery, which was long known as Gibbons battery, and situated in the Karaka Creek. Later on, the Una was formed into a company. He also owned and erected the Flora McDonald battery at Tararu. He next directed his attention to saw-milling, and erected the Hauraki sawmills at Turua, afterwards the Thames River mills, lately owned by the Kauri Timber Company, and later, he erected saw mills at Te Aroha. Mr John Gibbons was for years a member of the Thames Borough Council [1875-76; according to Kelly (1968)] and other local bodies. He was, in all relations of life, ever a good man and a citizen. He leaves to mourn him a wife, five sons and two daughters, and a large circle of friends. The interment will be private, at the request of the deceased, who wished no ostentation to be displayed over his remains.'
According to Weston (1927 p191):
'The Thames has never been without its Gibbonses - essentially an engineering family, as to whom an old acquaintance once said to the writer, 'Give them a few bits of scrap-iron, and they'll make a sawmill out of it.' Mr John Gibbons erected the Una battery, one of the first on Karaka Creek, and he and his brother Robert were concerned in the early days of the Kopu [probably Kirikiri] sawmill. His sons Frank and Edward inherited the family talent for iron-work, another son Fred, was in the telegraph service, and his eldest son John went into journalism, became about the best known reporter in Wellington, and died a few years ago, when Chief Reporter of the Evening Post there. Yet another, Captain Robert Gibbons, went to sea, commanded steamers running in the Gulf, and has been for many years Harbourmaster of the Manukau.'
Mary Gibbons died in 1902 and is buried with her husband in Shortland cemetery, Thames.

Figure 1: The grave of John and Mary Gibbons in Shortland cemetery, Thames
Click to enlarge the photo.

References:


Dept of Internal Affairs (NZ) (c2008). Births, Deaths and Marriages Historical Database, Accessed 1 October 2009.
Downey, J. F. (1935 reprinted 2002). Gold-Mines of the Hauraki District, Cadsonbury Publications, Christchurch.
Kelly, W. A. (1968). Thames: the First 100 Years, Thames Star, Thames.
Lewis, Kae (2009).Gold Miners' of New Zealand Database, Accessed 1 September 2009.
Unknown Thames Gold Fields Miner's Guide 1868(Originally printed by Edward Wayte, Queen St, Auckland, reprinted 1975, Capper Press, Christchurch.)
Weston, F. (1927). Thames Diamond Jubilee Souvenir: 1867-1927, Thames Star, Thames.
Williams, Z. and Williams, J. (1994). Thames & the Coromandel Peninsula: 2000 Years, Williams Publishers, Thames.
Newspaper references are from Papers Past, apart from the Thames Star, which is held on microfilm at The Coromandel Heritage Trust's Treasury collection, Thames.
Wilton, Dave. The Una Gold Mining and Quartz Crushing Company The Treasury Journal, Volume 3, 2010.


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