A Boy on the Thames Goldfields


In April 1869, two years after the first gold strike, I was born in Thames. At that time a great part of the township was still owned by the Maoris. In the peach season they would camp on the sea-front, plaiting flax baskets to hawk the peaches round for sale, and cooking their meals in a big iron pot or perhaps a hangi.

The first-comers rented small sections from the Maoris, erected tents, and then built small two-roomed timber houses with shingle roofs, adding more rooms as time went on. The precious rain-water from the roof was collected in a beer barrel or a rectangular iron tank. If more was needed, the women would take their buckets to the nearest creek. Hardly a house had a bathroom. A half-barrel stood on the bedroom floor; into this the hot water was poured, and the children bathed. Each cottage had a colonial oven, or an open fire with a camp oven for baking bread.

When night came on, the kerosene lamp on the wall was lighted, and a candle used when moving from one room to another. In the poorer houses the home-made tallow candle was used, but the sperm candle (made from whale oil) shed less grease and gave a better light. On a dark night when visiting a neighbour, a man would carry a lantern - a contraption with four glass sides and a candle within. Another kind was made by standing a glass bottle in boiling water so that the bottom fell out; a candle was then pushed into the neck of the bottle and a wire framework twisted round it for a handle. Miners often carried these to work when on night shift. Not until 1873 were gasworks built, and gaslight provided for hotels, shops, street corners, and a few private houses.

Pollen Street, as I first remember it, had ten hotels along the eastern side and ten more along the west. Among the shops were a pawn-broker's, a tent-maker's, and several where pack-saddles and all kinds of harness were made. Horses could be hitched to the iron hook or ring which hung on every verandah support. Many places of business had stables out at the back, with a big manure heap - especially at the carter's - as a breeding place for flies.

When the north wind blew, white dust settled on the groceries and on the quarters of beef hanging in front of the butcher's shop. At the rear there was a piggery to use up the offal. The brine and washing-up water ran into wooden water-tables along the street; and thousands of blowflies added their annoyance to the stench and the squealing of the pigs. There were no laws against this.

Miners came and went in their mullock-covered clothing. (Mullock is the refuse from which gold has been extracted.) Today we live in a healthier age, and a miner goes to work dressed like a bank clerk, with changing-rooms and showers on the job itself.

There was no redress in case of accident. Once, when two miners were descending in a cage, one of them lost his fingers from a projection on the side of the shaft. He applied for compensation, but received none; he took it to Court, and again recieved none. The Miners' Union then took the matter before an Appeal Court and it was proved that the mine manager had not inspected the shaft as he should have done. This case heped to bring about the first law for workers' compensation.

In 1873 there were a number a private schools conducted by old ladies and attended by very young children. A few superior schools took pupils up to fifteen or sixteen years, and taught book-keeping, Latin, French, music and even dancing; but in the ordinary schools, many left to go to work at about the age of twelve.

I went to the Karaka School where the fee was 1/- a week for infants and 1/6 for the standards. We sat six-to-a-desk in one big classroom, and the master sat on a raised platform like a pulpit. We sharpened our slate-pencils on a roadside stone before school, ready for the nine o'clock inspection when our boots had to be polished and our hair tidy.

In 1877 the free public schools came in, and many private schools were closed. The Kauaeranga School was a large building with baize curtains separating one classroom from another. Now we sat two-at-a-desk, with a rack for the slate, a groove for the slate-pencil, and inkwell and a place for books. Each of us had a Vere Foster copybook for writing lessons.

In the playground we had horizontal and parallel bars, a vaulting horse, Roman rings and an overhead ladder. Once a week a drill instructor came to teach us how to use this apparatus, and also dumb-bells and Indian clubs. The schoolgrounds were too small for football or cricket but 'rounders' was common, being similar to American baseball but played with a soft rubber ball. One school had a pole like a ship's mast, with a ring at the top from which hung a number of ropes. The boys swung round and round on the pole, as with the Maori swing or morere. It is known as the Giant's Stride.

We had our own game -kites, spinning tops, marbles and buttons. For the last game, brass buttons were generally used. A boy would strike the button against the school wall and attempt to make it bounce far out. The next boy would do likewise and the boy whose button sprang farthest took the rest.

It was an unwritten law that when tops were in, buttons were out and so were marbles. If boys were caught playing marbles in the wrong season, any one could come up and say: 'allies are out, smugging about' - amd immediately seize the offending marbles. This was known as 'smugging'.

We played hopscotch and a game called 'King of Seni'. A long retangle in the playground was marked out into three portions, North, South, and Central. The boy who stood in the central space was the King, and he dared the others to run from North to South through his territory. If he caught a runner the King would pat his head three times and say 'King of Seni, one two three, you're the only man for me. King, king, king!' Then that boy became a King too and helped to catch the others running the gauntlet.

When only a few remained in the North and South, the Kings could invade and try to drag them into King territory. The defenders were allowed to punch the Kings in the ribs but the Kings could not. Sometimes the game became very rough, with palings ripped off fences and shirts torn, until parents complained and had it stopped.

Illustrations by David A. Cowe.

The more daring boys carried their amusements into the classroom with a shanghai or a pea-shooter - this being a piece of tubing with a supply of rice. When the teacher's back was turned, the boy would fill his mouth with rice and send a shower across the room. Sometimes at assembly an order was given: 'Empty your pockets!' and out would come the buttons, marbles, knives - and perhaps a pea-shooter, a shanghai, or even a pipe and tobacco. These last were confiscated and the offender punished with a strap or supplejack.

If, in the summer, the upper class boys felt they would like an hour off, they sent in a petition to the headmaster or 'Baldy' as he was generally called. 'We, the undersigned boys, respectfully ask your permission to be allowed to hold a paper chase at 2 p.m. today. The following are the names of the hares and the hounds ...' The petition was granted and away went the hares leaving a trail of paper, with the rest of us following five or ten minutes later. But there was really no need for a trail, for it always led to the nearest swimming-place - the mill pond at Shortland.

Every 29th January (Auckland Anniversary Day) the Sunday Schools held a gala, and hundreds of children carrying flags and banners marched in procession to the Parawai Gardens. Here, the merry-go-round, boat swings, and seesaws were in evidence; we had races, lollie scrambles, ring games, also sandwiches, cakes and ginger beer. The Catholics had their gala on St Patrick's Day.

About once a year the circus came to town, with monkeys riding on dogs over hurdles or through hoops on fire, and clowns turning somersaults and walking tightropes. Sometimes at night there was a magic-lantern display of pictures of the Holy Land, or other places; and near the school breaking-up day, there was the fun of decorating the school rooms for the prize-giving ceremony. We were allowed to go back into the bush with tomahawks and bring back leaves of nikau or treefern, or pohutukawa blooms.

In the 1870s there was great loss of life among children. Out of 47 deaths in a single month, 35 were children under twelve years of age. Many of us attended the funerals. A hearse drawn by two black horses were followed by a long train of mourners marching in twos and all dressed in black. When a father died, his family would wear black for a long time and the widow would attend church with a heavy black crepe veil.

There was no such thing as a uniform school clothing; we came in what our parents could afford. Many of the small boys wore long trousers down to their boot tops. If the boots were of moleskin stiffened with glue, they gave out an unpleasant odour in the schoolroom when damp. The boots often had copper toe-caps so that when stones were kicked there was no damage done to the leather. Many came to school barefoot. Vermin-infested heads were common, and every mother kept a small-toothed comb in addition to the ordinary brush. Usually she also kept a pot of 'brimstone and treacle' (flowers of sulpher mixed with molasses) to give children when suffering from sores.

We had our pets too. The rabbits were large snowy white creatures with pink eyes and lop ears, or perhaps black or tortoise-shell. Some had white rats, or white mice, a parrot or a cockatoo. Others tamed a kaka or a seagull.

No longer do we hear at 6 a.m. the cry of the milkman as he made his rounds and shouted 'Milk ho!' to announce his coming. No longer does the fish hawker come along with his freight of snapper or flounder, yelling out, 'Fish ho!'. We never see the Chinese with pole on shoulder and two huge cane baskets filled with vegetables; and the butcher boy, riding round before breakfast for orders, is as extinct as the moa.

Today, a fine tar-sealed road and a railway-line run over the land where the Maoris used to camp, and the road-maker's car is parked where once he used to walk miles to work. But when I think of the cool, dense bush in the gullies less than half an hour away, and the many birds within it, and the swimming holes; or the old wharves where we fished for shrimps, and eels, and kahawai - it seems to me we have lost a lot, after all.

Extracted from: 'The Long Up-Hill Climb' New Zealand 1876 - 1891 by Elsie Locke. Originally published as School Journal Part 4, No 1, 1966.

Treasury Notes:

Taken from an article from The School Journal, Part 4, No 1, 1966:

'THE KILLERS OF CHILDREN: It was not only in Thames, as described by Mr Hammond, that the funerals of children were once a common sight. But what could have killed so many?

Young babies often died of digestive troubles, and high on the list were four infectious diseases - tuberculosis, diphtheria, scartlet fever, and typhoid fever.

Today, nearly all of us are protected from tuberculosis and diptheria by medical knowledge and the work of the Health Department; and scarlet fever is neither common nor dangerous. As for typhoid, your family doctor may never have even seen a case of it.

Yet in the years 1876 - 1891 there were 1,312 known deaths of Europeans from typhoid (in New Zealand) and many more in Maori villages where no figures were kept. Those who recovered had fought for their lives through days and nights of suffering.

This was the terrible price paid for the dirtiness of our towns. Proper drains and sewers were only just coming into use. Dirty water and dirty milk are what typhoid germs love best in the world. No wonder children died.'

The Thames Star 1954, May 11 page 5:

'Mr T. W. Hammond, one of the original pupils of the Waiokaraka (Central) School, ringing the school bell on Saturday afternoon, while nearly 1000 old pupils marched into the school grounds. The school was opened during early 1879. Mr Hammond remained there as a pupil until 1882. In 1886 he returned as a pupil teacher for three years. Later he was appointed assistant master.'

Ringing the School bell.

Waiokaraka (Central) School Reunion May 1954.

A newspaper clipping from the Southern Cross newspaper, Sat 1 May 1869 records the birth of a son on the 24th April 1869:

HAMMOND  On April 24, at her residence Eyre St, Shortland, the wife of Thomas Hammond, of a son.

There was only one Hammond birth recorded in the Birth Registrations for that year:
1869/4018 Hammond Thomas William George Howard

Thanks to the magnificent work of the Hauraki Thames Indexing Group, we have one of his school records which shows again his birthdate of (25) April 1869. He is using one of his middle names William to distinguish him from his father Thomas, and his birthday is recorded as 25th April instead of 24th April 1869:

School Records (APWs)
Name: HAMMOND William
School: Waiokaraka Public
Register Number: 0017
Admission Date: 15 May 1879
Parent / Guardian: Thomas HAMMOND
Address: Pollen St
Birthdate: 25 Apr 1869
Last School: Kauaeranga Boys'
Further enquiries to Hauraki Thames Indexing Group.

(Editor's note: This must be why his name is recorded on the above School Journal as Mr W. G. Hammond.)

In Thames he became known as Toss Hammond and after a long and distinguished career in education in Thames, he died in 1967 at the age of 98 years old.

His official death registration:
1967/41827 Hammond Thomas William George Howard 98Y

The Thames Star 5 December 1967:

DEATHS: HAMMOND, Thomas William George Howard (M.B.E.). On December 4, 1967 (peacefully) at his home, Thornton's Bay, Thames Coast, dearly loved husband of Grace and loved father of Eva, William, James and the late Howard and Ian and loved father-in-law of Mary and Ruth, loved grandfather of Patricia (Mrs Brimblecombe), Howard, Marion, Nina, Sonja and Anna, and great grandfather of Gregory and Kendrah; in his 99th year. Private internment at Thames Wednesday at 1.30 pm.

Thomas William George Howard (Toss) Hammond is buried in the Totara Memorial Park Cemetery and his parents Thomas and Mary Ann Hammond in the Shortland Cemetery. These cemetery records can be searched on the Thames Coromandel Cemetery Search.

Mr T. W. Hammond's obituary appears in The Ohinemuri Regional History Journal Vol 5, No1, May 1968.

Toss Hammond (1869 - 1967)


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