What lies beneath

In 2005, a tree stump and a crumbling hearth, part of the old Waipori township, lie uncovered by...
In 2005, a tree stump and a crumbling hearth, part of the old Waipori township, lie uncovered by receding lake levels. Photo by ODT.
Waipori township in the late 1800s. Photos supplied.
Waipori township in the late 1800s. Photos supplied.
Waipori, Dunedin and Government dignitaries in Waipori on Settlement Day, in March, 1924, the day...
Waipori, Dunedin and Government dignitaries in Waipori on Settlement Day, in March, 1924, the day the township was handed over to the city for flooding to create a lake for hydro-electric power generation.
Wilfred Victor Knight.
Wilfred Victor Knight.
Waipori Reunion organiser Kerry Driscoll stands on the site of the Hibernian Hotel, above what is...
Waipori Reunion organiser Kerry Driscoll stands on the site of the Hibernian Hotel, above what is now Lake Mahinerangi, where her great, great, great grandfather Richard Atkinson was fatally stabbed.
Waipori historian David Still attaches a reunion notice to the Waipori Cemetery gate.
Waipori historian David Still attaches a reunion notice to the Waipori Cemetery gate.

Now submerged by Lake Mahinerangi, west of Dunedin, the township of Waipori has a fascinating history, writes Bruce Munro.

Today it is a tranquil, hinterland lake cradled in a draped chartreuse and olive, patchwork landscape under a big Otago sky.

But beneath those waters lie the remnants of a once-bustling gold mining town

drowned to satisfy Dunedin's demand for electric power.

In its heyday, Waipori town, 40km west of Dunedin, had several hundred residents, a bursting-at-the-seams school, 11 hotels, 11 bridges, two banks, two bakers, dance halls, blacksmiths, six billiard saloons, many gambling dens, and even an undertaker.

The place was described as a "humming hive of activity by day and revelry by night''.

Three generations settled, lived and died there until it was acquired by statute and progressively swallowed by a man-made hydro-electric storage lake, erasing virtually all trace of its existence.

Almost all trace, but not all memory, Kerry Driscoll, who is a direct descendant of some leading Waipori families, says.

"I grew up listening to stories from my much-loved grandfather Bob Cotton who was born in Waipori, in 1914,'' Ms Driscoll, of Christchurch, says.

"When Granddad died, his ashes were scattered with his people in the old cemetery. I visited and simply fell in love with the place.

"I often say that Waipori just gets under the skin . . . This place is like a bug that is inherited, and lives in the heart.''

Waipori town leapt in to existence when, on December 17, 1861, some men heading overland from Dunedin to join Otago's recently announced gold rush at Gabriel's Gully, near Lawrence, found gold in Lammerlaw Creek.

In less than a week, there were about 400 goldminers working the banks of the creek and its tributaries.

Within months, the population was closer to 2000, including several hundred Chinese miners.

Many moved on, but hardy souls stayed and built a thriving, if sometimes rambunctious, community.

David Still, an amateur historian, of Brighton, has been working on a detailed history of Waipori town for several decades.

He hopes to have the book published in time for a Waipori Reunion planned for Easter.

At one point, Lawrence-based barmaids formed what amounted to a trade union and refused to work in Waipori, Mr Still says.

The women complained that the men "although amorous, were not inclined to marriage''.

Mining went from panning to sluicing, to quartz-mining and hydraulic elevating and on to dredging.

In 1950, it was estimated that gold worth £2 million was taken from the Waipori area.

It seems the Waipori townsfolk were particularly hardy despite, or perhaps because of, the difficulties of life.

A doctor was reported advising fellow physicians not to set up practice in Waipori because they would not get much custom.

From those miners who put down roots, grew families including the Johnsons, Bertenshaws, Blackmores, Caudwells, Crowleys, Cottons and Knights. Robert Cotton, for example, was a runholder, hotel-keeper, bullocky, miner, dredgemaster and county councillor.

The risks involved in pioneering life generally, and gold-mining specifically, were real.

And if a husband was killed, resourcefulness was needed to survive and provide.

Waipori had a number of notable widows, Ms Driscoll says.

One such character was Ms Driscoll's great, great grandmother Margaret Cotton (nee Atkinson).

Mrs Cotton had survived an attack in which her father was killed and later had to contend with the death of her first husband.

Before her first husband died and after she married Robert Cotton, she ran more than one business in the town, including a boarding house and a butchery.

"By all accounts, she was a force to be reckoned with and was notorious for galloping her one-eyed horse, and cart, over the Waipori Bridge,'' Ms Driscoll says.

"Although a tough and successful business woman, she is also remembered for never going to bed until every door and window were bolted, and, even then, slept with a candle light in the window, and a pistol under her pillow.''

The Knights were involved in mining and owned a store, a bakery, a hotel, and a post office.

The family also had the sad distinction of one of their own being the first New Zealander reported to be killed at Gallipoli during World War 1.

Wilfred Victor Knight was born at Waipori in 1890.

He attended Waipori School, Lawrence District High School and Otago Boys High School.

He obviously had a keen sense of humour.

During his last year of high school, he attended the Waipori Bachelors' Ball, a costume dance, disguised as a woman.

He danced with several other young men before being caught, causing "no little merriment''.

Mr Knight moved to New South Wales, Australia, when he was 21.

He enlisted in August, 1914, and his battalion embarked two months later.

Private Knight was among the second and third waves of landings at Anzac Cove on April 25, 1915.

He was one of nearly 5000 men killed during those first two days of fighting.

Gold was what made Waipori.

Electricity was its undoing.

But the origins of that demise were in gold mining.

A local miner, probably John Lawson, had the idea of using the Waipori River to generate electricity for running gold dredges.

But he sold the water rights for the Waipori Falls area to a flour miller who attracted investors for his plan to supply electricity to consumers on the Taieri and in Dunedin.

In 1904, the Dunedin City Corporation (DCC) bought the rights to the Waipori Electric Power Company for £12,500.

By July, 1913, power generation had increased to 6000kW.

But the growth of industry after World War 1 made it obvious that more capacity would be needed.

In August, 1920, the DCC Empowering Bill came in to law giving permission for the construction of a large dam which would create a storage lake, Lake Mahinerangi, which would flood Waipori town.

In 1923, work began on a 11.6m storage dam which was later increased to 18.3m.

Settlement Day was in March 1924, when the people of Waipori officially said goodbye to their town.

This is how the Otago Witness optimistically described the events, on November 2, 1926: "Now Waipori is to give to the province of Otago what is even more precious than gold - its power for electricity for the City of Dunedin and the province. Once again Waipori will lead the way.

"Waipori Mining Township will pass, and the great Waipori Dam, two miles wide, 16 miles long and 40ft to 116ft deep, will arise. The happy homes must go, and church and sheep run pass away . . . This is an epoch and Waipori makes history once more.''

Ms Driscoll says the town "disappeared relatively quietly but with great pain to the inhabitants. The memory of this loss has been something my kin grew up with''.

Today, few clues to the town's existence remain to be seen - the cemetery on the northern side of the lake, the Canton battery on the road to Waitahuna, some mining relics on private land.

But the lost township, its history and its people hold a special place in hearts and minds sprinkled throughout the country.

Ms Driscoll is organising a Waipori Reunion, a belated commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the town, to be held at Easter.

The reunion is not only for descendants, but also past and present residents, historians, storytellers and "others with an interest in Waipori''.

Among those who will attend the three day event, will be 92-year-old Bob Nicholson, who is travelling to Waipori from Tauranga, in the North Island.

Ms Driscoll says the weekend will be a fitting celebration of a place which for many has gained "zn almost mythical status of wild storms, big adventures and larger than life characters''.


Murder questionable distinction

Waipori township has the questionable distinction of being home to a murder which resulted in Dunedin's second hanging.

On December 23, 1865, John Jones, a guest at the Hibernian Hotel, Waipori, stabbed another guest Richard Atkinson and Mr Atkinson's daughter Margaret Dickson.

Mrs Dickson was the wife of the hotel's owner, Thomas Dickson.

She was not badly hurt but Mr Atkinson died eight days after the incident. Before dying he identified his attacker to police and gave a testimony which was read out at the trial.

Evidence was also given by Mrs Dickson, the local Constable John Dunn and two doctors Charles Campbell and Alexander Stewart.

Jones was executed on April 6, 1866. It was the second of four hangings carried out in Dunedin, between 1842 and 1957.

The following is abridged from the report which appeared in the Otago Daily Times, March 6, 1866, of the case which was heard at the Supreme Court, in Otago, before Mr Justice Richmond:

John Jones, alias John Poole, alias John King, was charged with having murdered Richard Atkinson, at Waipori, on the 23rd December last.

The deposition of the deceased Richard Atkinson was put in and read as follows: "I am a farmer and gardener residing at Waipori. I know the prisoner, and recollect his coming to the Hibernian Accommodation House about 1am on the 23rd December. A short time afterwards he left, saying that he was going to Waipori. He returned about 11am when there was no person in the house except my daughter and myself, and he spoke to my daughter at the counter.

"Some time after he came in, at my daughter's request I proceeded to hang up a piece of meat, and in order to do so, stood upon a chair and raised my hands up, and was in the act of placing it on the hook, when the prisoner, who was standing at my right side, stabbed me on the right side of the abdomen. He used the knife with his right hand. I fell on my back.

"My daughter Margaret called out, 'What is that you have done to my da,' and he made a dash at her. She called out, 'He has killed me'. I attempted twice to rise, but fell; the third time I succeeded in getting up and scrambled to the room, where I found a pistol.

"On returning I met the prisoner without his hat, rushing towards me with a knife in his hand. I presented the pistol at him, when he rushed out at the front door, my daughter Margaret running out at the back door. She in a short time returned, and I then endeavoured to hold in my bowels with my left hand, and barred the doors and windows with my right hand.''

The Judge summed up: "Where a man wilfully inflicted on another a wound dangerous to life, and he neglected that wound, or allowed nature to take its course, and gangrene or fever ensued, it was murder on the part of the person who struck the blow.

"But there was [another]class of cases as to which there was some difficulty, namely - where a wound has been given and is improperly treated - and it was alleged for the prisoner in this case that the improper treatment was the actual cause of death, but that the man was killed, not by the prisoner at the bar, but by the doctors.''

The jury retired at twenty minutes to eight o'clock. At a quarter past nine o'clock they returned into Court with a verdict finding the prisoner guilty, but strongly recommending him to mercy on account of the treatment which the deceased received at the hands of his medical attendants. The prisoner, on being challenged, said his age was 25 years, and on being asked if he had anything to say why sentence of death should not be passed upon him, simply replied "No''.

The Judge put on the black cap and said "Whatever sympathy might be felt for a man in your position must vanish when one looks at the unoffending victim of your unprovoked attack.

"You have heard the recommendation of the jury that has tried you, and it shall be transmitted to his Excellency the Governor, who can alone give effect to it. It is my clear duty to pronounce on you the extreme sentence of the law''.

His Honour concluded by passing sentence of death in the usual form.


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