Gold in them thar tills

Herbert and Co. owner Archibald McKinlay (left) lines up with staff (from second left) A. McLean,...
Herbert and Co. owner Archibald McKinlay (left) lines up with staff (from second left) A. McLean, J. Brooks, W. Robertson, F. Vivian, C. Brooks, J. Marshall, J. McKay and A. Robertson, in 1890 outside the Ross Pl premises in Lawrence. Photo from the...
Otago is preparing to mark the 150th anniversary of the discovery of the first payable gold in New Zealand, a wealth that spread far beyond the stones or soil in which it was found. Shane Gilchrist reports. 

"Taking all things into consideration we have seen no place we like better than Lawrence." So wrote trader Edward Herbert in a letter to business partner Archibald McKinlay in 1881, 20 years after Gabriel Read, using a butcher's knife, spade and pan, dug a hole on the banks of a stream and discovered gold.

Why mention Herbert, McKinlay and Read in the same sentence? Well, they all saw an opportunity.

Read, a Tasmanian with a good education, an experienced surveyor and prospector who was involved in the 1849 Californian gold rush and the Victorian rush that began two years later, boarded a boat carrying horses from Hobart to Port Chalmers early in 1861.

He'd heard rumours about gold being found in the Tuapeka area in 1858 by shepherd Edward Peters ("Black Peter") while sinking post holes on a run managed by George Munro, a pioneer resident of the district.

Detail of Lawrence town centre.
Detail of Lawrence town centre.
Peters later prospected for - and found - gold at Evans Flat, several kilometres west of what is now Lawrence. His finds and those of a survey party made shortly afterwards near the junction of the Tuapeka and Clutha rivers, were not widely publicised. Yet, somehow, Read had got word.

He began prospecting on Evans Flat in May 1861, but on May 20 he tramped over a ridge and into a valley; following a creek downstream, he stopped, unpacked those aforementioned tools, dug a 75cm-deep hole and struck gold in a place that now bears his name.

Read returned to Dunedin and reported his discovery, but it took a few weeks before the news spread; although the Otago Witness reported the find in a short article on June 6, it was the subsequent arrival of the first guarded coach, the Escort, into Dunedin on July 12 with 500oz of gold that prompted an exodus of residents.

The rush was on. A few months after Read's discovery, that once quiet grassy gully was home to nearly 11,500 fortune-seekers, more than twice the population of Dunedin at the time.

They came from further afield, too, says Peter Cummings, a fourth-generation Lawrence farmer whose great-grandfather, Patrick, arrived in 1861 from the Victorian goldfields, made enough money from gold to buy land and build the house in which Peter and his wife live.

Mr Cummings has been involved in writing a series of plaques explaining the historic significance of many of Lawrence's buildings; the aim is to have them in place before the four-day Gabriel's Gully 150th anniversary celebrations starting in Lawrence on Friday, March 18.

"The more you get into it, the more you find. It's amazing what I got from Papers Past [website] and cemetery records."

According to family legend, Archibald McKinlay "... found passage to New Zealand hard to obtain, so he approached a ship's captain and left Melbourne in a barrel covered over with loaves of bread". (This is believed to be the reason his name does not appear in any ship's manifest.) Edward Herbert is said to have arrived at the diggings carrying a pack of drapery goods with him.

By the end of September 1861, the miners' camp at Gabriel's Gully included seven bakers, 13 butchers and 44 storekeepers, their ranks expanding in February 1862, when James McIndoe sold his merchandise store (operated from within a calico tent) to the enterprising McKinlay and Herbert, a transaction that heralded the formation of a store with the longest history on the Otago goldfields.

Having each earned 900 in about six weeks of gold digging, McKinlay and Herbert, together with Edward's brother, John F. Herbert, entered business as Herbert and Co. Eighteen months later they moved to Peel St, Lawrence and finally, in 1870, to Ross Pl, the town's main street, where they built a large brick store, described by Mr Cummings as "quite spectacular".

Gold buyers, drapers, grocers, sawmillers and joinery manufacturers, hardware, wine and spirit merchants, they imported many of their supplies from agents in the United Kingdom and competed successfully with Dunedin merchants. They also had their own brand of tea, Avinca, and a crockery hire service.

"They made quite a bit of money from supplying the gold-miners," Mr Cummings said. "They also built a grain store next door and another one around the corner."

It was not a matter of business lining up at the shop counter though. The company's delivery staff would start their day at 6am feeding a team of horses before loading up and setting off on the rounds, and would be lucky to be back by 9pm. Archibald McKinlay did his early rounds on horseback, fording the Molyneux River (now the Clutha) at Island Block in the days before bridges and punts.

Letters sent from Herbert and Co (now held in the Hocken Collections), to suppliers in the UK include inquiries about tinned ling fish, concerns about a consignment arriving at a bad time in the market (perhaps indicating the difficulty of the delay between the order and ultimate arrival of goods) and requests for reaping machines "with the most recent improvements", capable of working "hilly land".


Significantly, one letter to UK suppliers ends with the line: "Whiskey, send the oldest and best of the brand ordered." It needed to be good to start with, as water was added before sale to ensure it was not over-proof. At one time the firm was selling whisky at the rate of 100 gallons a week.

Branches were established at various times at Waitahuna, Beaumont, and Roxburgh but were eventually sold to employees, while the company's area of operation stretched halfway to Milton in the east, and inland to Queenstown. They had an extensive network of business contacts in Dunedin.

Edward Herbert, who had sold out of the firm in 1900, died in Rothesay, Scotland, in 1909, while Archibald McKinlay remained in Lawrence until his death in 1910. John F. Herbert, who sold his share of the business in 1873, purchased Ardmore Station, at Kelso (great-great grandson John Herbert still farms on part of the original property at Heriot).

The McKinlay family carried on the Lawrence business (as Herbert and Co.) until 1951 when it was sold to Wright Stephenson and Co and W. G. Skinner, who took over the retail operation, trading as a grocer and general merchant, followed by a succession of owners from 1959.

It is, perhaps, unfair to focus entirely on the early gold-miners' commercial endeavours. As those drawn to Gabriel's Gully soon established their own form of open-air "Athenian democracy", according to W. R. Mayhew in his book Tuapeka: The Land and its People, quickly organised Sunday church services, busied themselves setting up "progress" committees and generally set about the business of putting down the foundations of a community. 

Both Herbert and McKinlay were prominent in these efforts. Edward Herbert was Lawrence's mayor from 1872-1874.

As illustrated by the early success of McKinlay and Herbert, the wealth of a goldfield spread far beyond the glittering stuff found in pans or, later, extricated by sluices and stamping batteries.

From butchers, bakers, blacksmiths and banks to hoteliers and showgirls, those serving the miners benefited. The Provincial Government of Otago charged a duty on any gold sold, the taxes used to build vital infrastructure, including schools, public buildings, roads and railways.

With the prospect of fortune came people: before Read's find in 1861, the population of Otago and Southland numbered just under 7000; a decade later, it was nearly 70,000.

Though Dunedin, as key gateway to the goldfields, initially struggled with the arrival of masses of men on their way inland (issues included clean drinking water, sewage and cholera), it quickly rose from a small settlement to become the wealthiest city in New Zealand for a time. It is no coincidence several notable establishments, including Allied Press, the Otago Chamber of Commerce and the Bank of New Zealand, celebrate their 150th anniversaries this year.

Other towns in Otago (Queenstown, Arrowtown, Clyde, Bannockburn, Naseby and St Bathans) also owe a debt to gold. Horatio Hartley and Christopher Reilly's 1862 find sparked the rush to Dunstan (the areas around Clyde, Alexandra and Cromwell) with diggers working the Clutha, Kawarau and Shotover rivers as well as their tributaries.

At the peak of the rush in 1863, the various goldfields populations were estimated at more than 23,000, of whom some went on to find other uses (farming, orcharding) for the land they had worked.

But what of Read?

As the discoverer of Otago's first payable goldfield, he received 500 (and the same sum in 1862, for "further services", including the discovery of gold at Waitahuna).

He spent three years in New Zealand, searching for gold on other Otago fields, while also travelling throughout the South and North Islands, but returned to Tasmania in 1864 and married, turning his hand to farming in 1866.

The man who had generously shared news of his discovery in a letter to the Otago Provincial Council, on June 4, 1861 (the same month he was quoted in the Otago Witness: "Although the being able to work secretly for a time would greatly benefit me, I feel it my duty to impart these facts") died in 1894 at the age of 70 in a Hobart mental hospital.


Gabriel's Gully 150th Anniversary celebrations

The Gabriel's Gully 150th Anniversary starts in Lawrence on Friday, March 18 and runs until Monday, March 21. It includes historical tours and displays, music, visual art, drama and games. A very small sample includes ...

Friday 6.30pm-8.15pm
Gabriel's Gully Historic Reserve
The celebrations begin with a re-enactment of the gold rush.

Gabriel's Gully Historic Reserve
Try your hand and your luck.

Gabriel's Gully Historic Reserve
Saturday night dance.

At the same time, in Dunedin, the four-day Layers of Gold event marks the city's golden connections. Events include the arrival of tall ship Steadfast at Birch St Wharf on Saturday, March 19 at 10am.

• For more information on all events, visit:


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