Gabriel’s Gully (1861)
Land that lured the long white crowd
On 8 June 1861 the Otago Witness reported that Gabriel Read had found payable quantities of gold ‘shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night’. It took a while for the penny to drop, but by December perhaps 14,000 people - several times Dunedin’s population - had pitched their tents on the Tuapeka and Waipori fields and staked out their 8 x 8 m claims, 4000-5000 of them at this gully and nearby Wetherstons alone. The first of New Zealand’s three big gold rushes (Otago, Westland and Thames) – and the third of the transformative Pacific rushes (California, Victoria and New Zealand) was on.
Dunedin almost emptied out before new waves of fortune-seekers, the ‘New Iniquity’, swamped the ‘Old Identity’, as the mainly Presbyterian Scottish conservatives called themselves. ‘We cannot resume our Arcadian simplicity: greatness is forced upon us’, the Witness sighed as it and most of its readers happily pocketed the cash. Otago’s population soared by 80% between 1861 and 1864, when Dunedin became our largest city. Read’s fossicking in this undistinguished little gully would also transform New Zealand. It had taken 20 years for New Zealand’s European population to crawl from 2000 to 60,000; in the next 20 it would soar to 470,000, swamping another ‘Old Identity’, Māori New Zealand.
The savage winter of 1862 bested ‘new chums’, driving 7000 of them out for good. The hardy stayers lived a distinctive lifestyle, clad in the goldfields uniform of moleskin pants, blue shirt, wide-awake hat and boots. They spoke a common vernacular, said Erik Olssen, adding wickedly that they ‘appear to have contributed largely to the national skill at swearing’. After the easy pickings were cradled out the big boys moved up the slopes with the stampers and sluicers that would bury the 1860s diggings beneath tens of metres of debris. Large-scale mining petered out early last century, although desperation brought some unemployed back during the depression of the 1930s. Things are quieter at the Gabriel Read Memorial Reserve today, where tourists photograph the ‘pick and shovel’ monument erected for the centennial celebrations in 1961. It is worth taking time to explore further. Follow the loop track that leaves from the car park up Poland’s Hill, down into Munro’s Gully on the far side of Blue Spur and back via the site of the Great Extended Mine Company’s mine. There is plenty to see here and at the goldfields museum down the road in Lawrence.
This site is item number 27 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.
On the ground
The site’s features are clearly marked.
- DOC information
- Heritage New Zealand List
- Gold and gold mining - Te Ara
- Gabriel Read biography - Te Ara
- Lawrence site information
- Tom Field and Erik Olssen, Relics of the goldfields: Central Otago, John McIndoe, Dunedin, 1976
- John Hall-Jones, Goldfields of Otago: an illustrated history, with supplement, Craigs, Invercargill, 2012 edition