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Volume 11 (2018)



by Lisa Donnelly

Along with hundreds of other gold miners, my great great grandfather, Charlie Rowley, came to The Thames in mid-1868. He was following the next big rush. He had already been on the Victoria, the Otago and the Hokitika gold fields in 1853, 1861 and 1865 respectively.

Charles Rowley was born in London, England in March 1834, one of twin boys born to Mary Walker, an unwed mother who worked as a cook in a London lodging house. Mary surrendered the boys to The Foundling Hospital (orphanage), and it was there that the boys were given the randomly chosen names of Thomas and Frederick Rowley. Thomas was later known as Charles or Charlie, and that is how I refer to him in this article. The twins spent the rest of their childhoods at The Foundling Hospital. Here they would have lived a rigid routine life, received a basic education, were fed and clothed, but love and affection would have been at a premium.

The Foundling Hospital, Greys Inn Road, London.
Photo courtesy of The British Library Collection.
Click to enlarge the photo.

When he was aged 14, Charles was apprenticed to a master tailor in London. At the age of 19 in 1853, Charles set sail for the Victorian gold fields to seek his fortune.

In 1861, Charles made his way to Dunedin and the gold fields of Otago. With each new rush, Charlie followed – and thus he ended up in The Thames in 1868. There are several references to Charlie in the Thames newspapers of the day referring to his job as mailman, newspaper agent and gold miner. He seems to have moved around the Thames area prospecting for gold and turning his hand to anything to make a living. He is also mentioned as being in Puriri, Hikutaia and Tairua. He was credited as being the prospector who found gold at the Phoenix gold claim in Tairua, along with a Mr Mann.

In all the previous gold fields, including Victoria, Australia, Charles had been a mail delivery expressman and newsagent. He travelled across the gold fields by horse delivering mail, packages and newspapers to and from the miners. At The Thames, he took up the same business, while also gold mining and prospecting.

A typical advertisement for Rowley's Express.
From the New Zealand Herald 18 September 1868.
Click to enlarge the photo.

From The Daily Southern Cross 7 August 1868:

'Mr Rowley, late of Otago, has recently commenced delivery of letters, papers etc in Shortland and the surrounding vicinity. This will prove a great boon to business men; any person on the weekly payment of one shilling can now have his letters delivered at his residence at an early hour in the morning...'

An August 1917 article in The Thames Star tells the story of how Charlie got his job as a contracting postman in Thames:

'...Business people wearied of the delay in the delivery of letters so combined together and appointed the well-known Charlie Rowley to receive and deliver their letters, Charlie receiving one shilling per week for such service from each client. Charlie was a great politician in his way, and always smoked a nice fat cigar.'

Charles son, 'Tommy' Rowley,
taken about 1875, in Thames.
Source: Couresy of Pat Brocklebank.
Click to enlarge the photo.

The author and great great
granddaughter of Charles Rowley
with one of the red posting boxes
installed in Thames in 1869.
Photo taken January 2018.
Click to enlarge the photo.

From The Thames Star 22 January 1877

'Sir: ...We the residents of Hill Street (Block 27, Shortland) have our letters left on the shelves of the Post Office for months, to our loss and disadvantage in many ways. We contribute to our share of taxation, and living in the township, how it is that we are left out in the cold, none of us know. Is it the fault with the present official of the Post Office? I think it must, for when Mr Fitzgibbon was Postmaster and Charles Rowley letter-carrier, we got them delivered; now they lie on the Post Office shelves for months... I am, & c. RATEPAYER.'

‘Charles Rowley’s son, Joseph 'Thomas' Rowley, wrote a letter to the Thames Star, which was published on the 5 Feb 1918.:

'..I was a youngster of tender years..the only son and heir of the first Shortland postman, who used very often to take little Tommy around on his letter delivery rounds, and so I had the privilege of coming into personal contact with many of the leading celebrities of Shortland, amongst them being the Rev. Father Nivard...On one memorable occasion, just prior to his departure from Thames for China, (I think it was China) dad had some letters to deliver to his reverence, when Father Nivard, with his slight foreign accent, spoke somewhat as follows to him: 'Well, Mr Rowley, I am about to leave for another country, and as you have been very good in bringing my correspondence to me for some time, I would like very much to give you a prsent, but as I am only a poor man, I can't very well do so. But if you would kindly accept one of my photographs, I would be very pleased to give you one.' Needless to say, it was accepted in the same spirit as it was given, and it is today one of my most treasured momentoes of a kindly Christian gentleman, also of the good old early days of dear old Thames.'

(Father Nivard arrived in Shortland (now Thames) on 18 October 1867 and left for the Chinese mission in 1873. He died in 1882. From 'The First Priest at Thames.')

Charlie was a well-known face around Thames in these early gold mining days. His name appeared in the newspapers for his association with the miners and their rights ... in one article he is quoted as being 'the great Thames agitator'. In 1876, he was regularly convening meetings for the miners, regarding 'the present condition of public affairs', 'to take into consideration the depressed state of the field', 'to appoint a committee to cooperate with the miners ... taking measures against the licensing system at Tairua' and 'to take into consideration the present condition of the field in connection with the proposals of government affecting the Thames'.

At a meeting regarding the Thames Election on 29 Dec 1875:

'… Mr Chas Rowley (who was received with cries) addressing the assembly as miners, said he wouldn't address them as gentlemen as they would think he was humbugging them. He came forward at a most important crisis. He looked upon this election as a colonial question. He went in for Abolition and a bit of land, and he couldn't get as much as would bury himself. They were grinding them down with taxation...'

Charles often spoke at these meetings:

From the Thames Star 21 April 1875

Tairua and the Leasing System
Public Meeting

A Public Meeting, convened by Mr William Rowe, was held at the Academy of Music (Thames) last night at seven o'clock. There was a large attendance, the body of the hall and the gallery being crowded. The object of the meeting...was to 'take into consideration the question of granting of leases in new districts....'

The Chairman was about to put the resolution, when Mr Alexander suggested an expression of opinion from others present.

There were cries for 'Rowley' and Rowley’s voice could be heard, 'I am here ..'

Mr W. J. Speight then ascended the platform and said he quite approved of the resolution but considered that it did not go far enough. Their business was not to interfere with individual licenses, but to strike at the evil of the system, and ask the Superintendent to annul the proclamation under which the district was opened...

There were again cries for 'Rowley', and Charles ascended the platform... He protested against the leasing system six years ago, but every one had his finger in the pie, their respected Chairman (Mr Sims) amongst the number. He had come down from the new field (Tairua) today. Mr Rowley related his experiences of the new field, and made an appeal to the miners to go in for their rights, and be careful who they put upon the deputation, or they would be sold. They should insist upon having bona fide miners on the deputation to the Superintendent.'

By 1875, Charles had moved to Tairua (near Whitianga) where he ran the Rowley’s Rest Hotel:
From The Thames Star 20 April 1875:

Tairua Goldfield.
(From our Special Reporter)
Rowley's Rest Hotel, Sunday morning.
'A very nice place, indeed, to spend a Sunday, and at nine oclock, we had every prospect of having such a pleasure. The rain commenced about this time, and very soon, a small torrent was rushing down the track past the door. If Rowley had picked out a spot to erect a house of accomodation, he could not have got a better place. It is just at the foot of the track into the bush, and just as far as a horse can be taken. Pegging out this site was worth £50 to Rowley; and with the good stock of provisions as it was, Charlie has got another start in life.'

There was a recession in Thames at the beginning of 1876, and the newspapers reported that Charles Rowley was 'wildy telegraphing' the Superintendents of Nelson, Wellington, Canterbury and even NSW, Australia, for jobs for 300 to 400 men from The Thames. He also convened local meetings in relation to this crisis and in July 1876 convened a public meeting 'regarding the present condition of public affairs'.

It was reported on 26 April 1876 that there was a meeting of miners with a large attendance where 'Mr Rowley assured the miners he would protect their interests from the wily speculator...'

He was also involved in gold mining and prospecting. He had a short stint at Puriri where he is listed as being a store keeper, and he also had a ‘household dwelling’ at Hikutaia at around this time. I believe gold was discovered in all these places.

Sometimes Charles also appeared in the newspapers for other reasons, like being attacked and nearly drowned at Puriri by a man who thought Charles had stolen his scales. He also received a fine of ten pounds and had to keep the peace for three months (and received some time in the police cells) for being drunk and using profane language in a public place. In addition, he was reported as organising meetings for the Good Templars (a temperance order). From the Auckland Star 16 June 1877:

'(Charles) was a great temperance agitator about five years ago, and used frequently to deliver speeches at St.Georges Hall, Grahamstown'.
He seems to have fallen off this particular wagon towards the end of his life.

Early Grahamstown with large building on left known as St Georges Hall.
Source:1/2-065412-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Click to enlarge the photo.

Sadly, Charles’ interesting and full but hard life was cut short when he fell off Queen’s Wharf in Auckland. He had been drinking earlier that afternoon in an Auckland Hotel. The bar maid testified that he seemed drunk at one stage, but also that he was drinking soda water only, after about 5 pm. Charlie went to catch the steamer back to Thames at 9 pm, lost his footing, fell in the water and drowned on the 14th June 1877. His cries could be heard but he was unable to grab on to anything to keep afloat. His body was found two weeks later.

The following obituary was published in The Thames Advertiser 16 June 1877. when it was first discovered that Charles Rowley was missing.

Reported Death by Drowning of Charles Rowley: There is too much reason to fear that an old Thames Resident, Mr Charles Rowley, who has for some time past been living at Tairua, met a watery grave in Auckland on Thursday night. It appears that Rowely has been in town for a few days attending the meetings of directors of the Pheonix Company.. He was last seen on his way to the wharf to leave for Thames. Last night, about nine o'clock, the agonising cries of a man struggling for life were suddenly heard from the eastern side of the Queen Street wharf...The narritive of facts points to the very great probability that the drowning man was none other than Charles Rowley, the old identity of this field, one of the pioneers of the Tairua goldfield, and an old hand of the Otago and Victorian goldfields. Rowley's wife and young family are resident in Shortland, and we regret to say, in very poor circumstances, for, with all his goldfields' experience, he was not a frugal man, and had great difficulty sometimes in keeping his family in comfort, owing to his restless, roaming spirit, which led him to prefer prospecting new localities to keeping steadlily at work. Mr Rowley was a mail contractor on the Otago diggings in the early days of the discoveries there, and took a very prominent part in all political agitations on the goldfields...'

The Thames Advertiser 18 June 1877:

We regret to learn that nothing more has been heard of the probable safety of Mr Charles Rowley, and that circumstances only confirm the worst fears.. as to his fate. Mrs Rowley proceeded to Auckland in Saturday night in the "Enterprise", to make further inquiries, and Mr Graham was busily engaged all the day in Auckland searching, in company with the water police, for the body of the man who fell over the wharf near the steamer 'Lalla Rookh' on Thursday evening, but without success."

A report on the Inquest appeared in The Thames Advertiser 29 June 1877.

The inquest on the remains found floating in the harbour, and identified as the body of Charles Rowley, late of Thames, was held this afternoon, before Dr Philson. The principal evidence was that given by Mr Robert Thomson Graham, commission agent, who had known the deceased through the floating of the Phoenix Gold Mining Company, the ground having been originally taken up by the deceased.

From The Thames Advertiser 2 October 1877.
From The Westport Times 3 July 1877:
'Accidental Death Of An Old West Coast Resident: We suppose that no man was better known in the early days of the Thames Goldfield than Charles Rowley. He was an agitator and a prominent man at every meeting. He was great on the rights and wrongs of the 'mining community', and of humanity at large. And some of his speeches, when he was thoroughly warmed up, and had risen to the occasion, were capital specimens of stump oratory. He came out strong at election times and used to tell of his achievements in the early elections of Otago. In these times, he ran 'Rowley's Express' from Dunedin to the goldfields, when he formed an acquaintance with Mr Vogel, then editor of the Otago Daily Times.
Rowley's career at Thames was a chequered one, the most peaceful period being when he acted as letter carrier, which situation he procured, it was stated, through the interest of Sir Julius Vogel. He was at Ohinemuri for a time and then went to Tairua, where he, for the last two years, has, with his wife and family, suffered many hardships. Poor Charley, a gleam of good fortune was too much for him. He was one of the old identities of the Thames...'

The citizens of Thames took up a collection and put on a music show with proceeds going to Charles’ widow, Eliza. Charles had married Eliza Rhodes in Melbourne in 1862. Eliza was the sister of Charles' friend and mail express co-worker in the Victorian, Otago and West Coast goldfields, Charles Harvey Rhodes. Charles and Eliza had eight children together before his death, four of whom died in infancy. On the 24 December 1877, six months after Charles’ drowning, Eliza gave birth to a son, Charles Frederick, the last of the nine children she would have with Charles Rowley.

Charles Rowley was a man of his times. He made the most of his life, worked hard to make his way, and tried to make his fortune. He always helped his fellow miners along the way. He came from humble beginnings and strove to better himself and his family. He was a true pioneer and had many an adventure in this new frontier. He may not have succeeded terribly well financially in his lifetime, but his life choices gave opportunity to the generations that followed him for a better life in New Zealand.


Many thanks to the wonderful NZ website of Paperspast. Without them I would have not been able to garner all this fabulous information about the life my great-great-frandfather led in New Zealand. Up until a few years ago I didn’t even know his name.


  1. NZ Herald 18 September 1868 Advertisments.
  2. NZ Herald 9 November 1868 Advertisments.
  3. Thames Advertiser 17 December 1874 Page 3 'Police Court Yesterday'.
  4. Thames Advertiser 15 February 1875, Page 3 'Police court - Saturday'.
  5. Thames Star 20 April 1875 Page 2 'Tairua Goldfield.
  6. Thames Advertiser 21 April 1875 Page 2 'Tairua'.
  7. Thames Advertiser 21 April 1875 Page 3 'The Opening of Tairua.'
  8. Thames Star 26 April 1875 'Meeting of Miners'.
  9. Thames Star 4 June 1875 Page 3.
  10. Thames Star 29 December 1875 Page 2 'Thames Election'.
  11. Thames Advertiser 1 January 1876 Page 2 'Meetings.'
  12. Thames Advertiser 11 February 1876 Page 2.
  13. Thames Advertiser 28 July 1876 Page 2 'Volunteer Notices.
  14. Thames Advertisement 29 July 1876 Page 2 'Public Meeting Tonight.
  15. Thames Advertiser 1 October 1876 Page 2 'Monster Meeting'
  16. Thames Star 22 January 1877 Page 2 'Letter Delivery.'
  17. Thames Star 21 March 1877 'Profane Language.'
  18. The Thames Advertiser 16 June 1877. Reported Death by Drowning of Charles Rowley.
  19. Auckland Star 16 June 1877 'The Case Of Drowning'
  20. The Thames Advertiser 18 June 1877.
  21. The Thames Advertiser 29 June 1877.
  22. Westport Times 3 July 1877 'Accidental Death Of An Old West Coast Resident.'
  23. Thames Advertiser 2 October 1877 Page 2.
  24. Thames Advertiser 3 October 1877 Page 2.
  25. Thames Advertiser 4 October 1877 Page 2.
  26. Thames Star 1 August 1917 Page 2 'Leading Events Described'.
  27. Thames Star 5 Feb 1918 Page 1 'Father Nivard.'

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