The New Goldfields

3: The New Goldfields

In early January of 1863 Ah Foo, Jack and one of the Irish migrants, Brian O’Connell, left Dunedin for the trip to the town of Alexandra in Central Otago.

Gabriels Gully 1864

Gabriels Gully 1864

The gold rush had created an industry in transportation and feeding of the more than 10,000 miners who had come to the area. Roads were rough and the horse and carriage bumped over creeks and up steep rises on the way to the central part of the deep South of New Zealand. Passing through Lawrence, just 2 miles from where the first big gold strike at Gabriel’s Gully had triggered the Otago gold rush, Ah Foo was inspired by stories of the fortunes made and was amazed at the size of the town that had grown in less than two years from a handful of farmers to almost 12,000 people. However Ah Foo was dismayed at the primitive conditions that the Chinese miners lived in, and the local by-law that did not allow Chinese to live within the town boundary. Although small in numbers at this time, most Chinese had set up camps around the town, and worked the tailings left by the large sluicing operations that took only the easy pickings.

On arrival in Alexandra, Ah Foo was unhappy at having to stay in one of the camps, and did not want to work the tailings on the side of the Molyneux River (now called the Clutha River) but having come this far he decided this was the only way to survive. At least he had many friends who spoke in Cantonese and he started working in desolate conditions panning or working the wooden sluicing racks in search of small flakes of gold. In June of that year, Jack secured him a job on one of the 30 dredges that worked in the stretch of river between Alexandra and Clyde. Ah Foo settled in for two years of low pay and long hours working as a deck-hand on the huge gold dredge “Riley’s Revival’ on the frightenly wild river. His life, while hard, was at least bearable given the surroundings. The winters were fiercely cold and working on the river he saw many friends perish or give up and leave for home, without the fortune they had come to find. Brian worked on another dredge nearby and occasionally the three would join for a night of food and talk and gradually Ah Foo learned of the lives the prisoner of Pentonville and the Irishman who inherently hated the English – except Jack it seemed. The three became firm friends and Jack continued to write short notes into his book about the stories told.

During the early part of 1865 the Otago Provincial Council sent a letter of invitation to the 40,000 Chinese miners in Victoria to come to Otago to help mine the gold. At the time only 1,200 Chinese were known to be in Otago. Few took up the offer due to the known resentment and mistreatment of the Chinese workers, but the Otago Provincial Council promised equality for Chinese workers and the flow started. By mid 1865 Ah Foo started to see many more Chinese arrive in his settlement and in December of 1865 the first official Chinese mining party arrived.

In February of 1866 Ah Foo left Jack and Brian in Alexandra and went up-stream to the sluicing area known as Bannockburn near the small settlement of Cromwell (The Junction), where the Kawarau and Molyneux rivers joined. The area had been developing as a gold mining area since 1862 but it had become more lucrative in the past year as bigger dams were built to provide water for larger scale sluicing operations. Ah Foo had become quite experienced in the process of gold extraction from the mix of mud and rock and he had been put into a team of workers where his experience, and his good English endeared him to the managers of the site. He was given a site to build a small hut and was paid quite well as he worked alongside English, Irish and the occasional German workers. Few Chinese had ventured into the area, most remaining in the camps of Lawrence or Alexandra, or returning to China, no richer than when they left. Ah Foo worked the Bannockburn sluicing for 6 years, a very long time for any worker to remain on one site in those difficult days. He felt no desire to return to China and was illegally in New Zealand, having no papers of immigration. Ah Foo had saved well and had accumulated a small but worthwhile sum of money that he planned to use at some time to build his own business. While in the first year of being at Bannockburn he maintained contact and friendship with both Jack and Brian, as time passed his trips to Alexandra stopped and he lost contact. However Jack’s notebook turned up almost a century later in a cottage in the Northern English town of Gornal Wood, and the fragments of the legend of Ah Foo began to fall into place.

Remains of house in Welshtown

In 1871 the “New Bendigo” began gaining a reputation as a new gold rush – albeit at a time when the alluvial gold was already in decline. This site was higher in the Dunstan Ranges where quartz reefs were deep shaft mined and stamping batteries were being used to extract gold from the rocks. Being familiar with this type of gold extraction from his days in Victoria, Ah Foo said farewell to his friends and bosses in Bannockburn in March of that year and made his way up on the new once per week horse & coach service to the township of Welshtown. Arriving in the town he was full of enthusiasm about finding a good job, maybe managing the shaft head or organizing the labour. However resentment of Chinese workers was strong in Welshtown and Ah Foo was offered only laboring jobs – mostly at the bottom of the shafts. At the same time Ah Foo had moved to Bendigo, a fleet of 6 chartered ships had arrived in Port Charmers with 2,000 Chinese miners from Victoria. Many of these Chinese miners made their way to Welshtown and Logantown and with the influx – came opportunity. With the permanent damage caused by his previously broken arm limiting his ability to work at the bottom of the shafts, Ah Foo, now nearly 40, had to find another way to make a living in the area. The town of Welshtown and neighboring Logantown was home to about 500 miners – but now the population had many more Chinese as a percentage and the Otago Provincial Councils edict of equal rights seemed to be working. The Bendigo school served as a central place for children of the families and there were 7 hotels in Logantown alone. Businesses to support the town’s infrastructure began to develop and local farmers set up trading hubs for food, mining tools and general supplies. Ah Foo set up a labour centre in Welshtown for Chinese workers to work for the European companies. His organizational skills and ability to negotiate labour rates, leaving a good margin for himself, built a substantial business. Working initially from a shanty hut on the edge of town, the business gradually built until a small rental on an office near the surveyors building was made available.

Over the next two years Ah Foo developed his business as a labour exchange. New Chinese coming into the Bendigo region quickly found registering with Ah Foo was one of the safest ways to get into a good job. Ah Foo ensured conditions were as safe as could be expected and provided some assurance of reasonable pay rates and handled the management of disputes that were constantly arising between the mine owners and the Chinese labour. So good was business that he became regarded as one of the more prominent businessmen in Welshtown – although he never gained favour with the local councilmen. Some of the new immigrants paid Ah Foo with Chinese coins – some of which are still being discovered around Ah Foo’s final dwelling. While these were of no value in New Zealand, Ah Foo was willing to accept whatever some of the workers could offer in order to get them into good jobs. He saved well and started to consider the possibility of becoming a land owner in the region, possibly in the small town of Cromwell near the side of where the Molyneux and Kawarau rivers met.

In the hot summer of 1873 Ah Foo decided to purchase of a small section of land in Cromwell. He planned to set up a business of trading various goods that he would import, and of continuing his labour exchange for general labour. He was seeing significant slow-down of gold mining as the quartz gold seams ran out and the alluvial mining became unprofitable, but wanted to stay on in Otago for at least another 5 or more years. Under Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel plans had been drawn up in 1871 to attract many more immigrants to New Zealand to “to engender social order and British civilization”. Workers from various industries were being encouraged to migrate to New Zealand to build roads and railways and they would get access to land as part of their reward. As the success of this immigration effort started to fail in the early part of 1873, Ah Foo considered the idea of supplementing some of the labour with Chinese who were no longer required in the gold fields, and decided this would be a substantial business opportunity.

The town had a few ideal sites for setting up a small business and the process he thought, seemed quite straight forward. In accord with the local council process, Ah Foo filed papers to secure title of a plot just East of the river junction. It was near to a black-smith and a general store. Ah Foo returned to Welshtown after filing the papers, assured that after just a week or two the land would be his. However more than three weeks had passed with no news, so in the first week of March he returned to Cromwell to get some news.

On arrival at the office of the Otago council Ah Foo was ushered off into a small room. It seemed his lack of valid immigration papers was going to prevent his land purchase, and was also likely going to result in his being fined or jailed, and then deported. Having friends in the gold fields was not going to help in the more official domain of the council officers. They had turned a blind eye to most of the illegal immigration at the start of the gold rush, but now that work was scarcer the newly formed Department of Immigration was out to prove their worth.