The author would like to acknowledge the work of Ann Bale whose contemporary descriptions of Harold Sparke are reproduced here.
Harold Leonard Sparke was born in Thames on 9 November 1889 to parents Alfred Howes Sparke and his wife Eliza Anne. He had three brothers: Alfred Gill Sparke born in 1885, Wallace Howes Sparke in 1887 and Sydney Thomas Sparke in 1891. All four boys were born in the house by the Thames North School in Tararu, Thames, owned by their Smith grandparents. Their father Alfred Sparke operated the Norfolk battery located there. After her husband died, Eliza took up the licence of the Kopu Hotel in 1891. Harold would have been about two then, and grew up there at Kopu.
Although Wallace and Sydney Sparke served overseas in WWI, Harold was rejected (reason given in his Army medical examination was hypertrophy of the heart, rhuematic fever in 1912, and 'thick in head'.) At the time of his Attestation for the army in 1917, his occupation was goldminer, employed at the Martha Mine, Waihi, and he was living at Moresby Ave, Waihi. There were no signs of any such health issues when he spent 40 of his 83 years prospecting and mining at Marototo. He had the knowledge and experience, as well as the determination and stamina of a true prospector. Harold Sparke was always known to his friends as Sparkes or Sparkey.
Sparkey never married and lived alone in a one-roomed tumbled down, rusty shanty surrounded by the high ranges of the Maratoto. He ate frugally but always offered hospitality to visitors at his remote claim. He was always ready to brew up a pot of his black billy tea for anyone who called in to see him. Few men knew the geology of the Maratoto as well as Sparkey did, so many would-be prospectors would draw on his extensive knowledge as well as his hospitality. He seemed to always find enough gold and silver to keep himself going.
In her 1971 book, Maratoto Gold, Ann Bale describes her first encounter with Harold Sparke:
'The door was held slightly ajar by a lump of rock and we poked our heads curiously into the gloomy interior.
'Hello there,' said a surprised voice from within.
Startled we stopped in our tracks, feeling rather like criminals caught breaking and entering.
The man who came to the door looked almost as forgotten and derelict as the shanty. I stared unbelievingly, for he could have walked out of a photograph taken about fifty years ago. He wore a couple of thin tattered shirts, each layer trying to cover up the holes in the other. A piece of yellow fuse was twisted around his waist holding up dirt-spotted, baggy grey trousers that were tucked into old leather boots. A stubble of grey bristle covered his face and short tufts of hair spouted out of his ears. His face was deeply lined and his scrawny neck folded into a thousand tiny crinkles. He looked at us quizzically out of blue eyes twinkling under bushy grey eyebrows.
'I'm terribly sorry old chap,' said my father, embarrassed. 'We had no idea anyone was here.'
'That's all right,' said the man, smiling to reveal a few nicotine-stained teeth.
'Come in,' he said with the hospitality we were to find so typical of him. He introduced himself as Harold Sparke as he stretched out a rough and somewhat dirty hand to shake ours in turn. He was ever-after known as Harold, Sparkes or Sparkey. We later found out he was somewhere in his seventies, although he was surprisingly alert and energetic for his age and looked a great deal younger.
'Don't mind my old shanty, Missus,' he said to my mother.'I'll get around to giving it a clean out one of these days. Sit down. Would you like a brew of tea?'
We accepted his kind offer. He scratched through the dying embers of the fire to rekindle the flames, tossed a few sticks on, then hung a pitch black kettle on a two-way hook attached to a piece of wire across the chimney.
His shanty was hot and airless. The only window was covered with dirt and cobwebs inside and creepers outside, while the walls and ceiling were black with soot. The door was kept open, not just because the day was hot, but also as a source of light.
When my eyes became accustomed to the dimness, I felt as though I had stepped back in time to at least the beginning of the century. I was sitting on a green plush-covered bed pushed against the far wall, opposite the door. A number of dirty clothes hung from nails jutting out above the bed. A few dirty towels were draped as if to dry over a piece of twine strung across the shanty.
At right angles to the bed stood a long wooden bench under which was a conglomeration of equipment - gold pans, opossum traps, boots, rocks, a rifle and an axe being the most discernable. Opposite this wall was a sturdy rather battered old-fashioned dresser, newspaper covered the shelves that were littered with an assortment of dusty crockery, magnifying glasses, candles in jars and two quill pens in a bottle of ink. Cups, twine, bottle openers and yellow fuse dangled from hooks.
A small table stood alongside the dresser on top of which was what appeared to be all the food he possessed - a few pitted apples, bread, jam, soft butter, tea, sugar and a tin of condensed milk that had congealed on the top. Fitted snugly in the corner alongside the fireplace was Sparke's rough wooden stool under which a small pile of firewood was stacked. An old glass lampshade, covered with dirt and cobwebs, hung from the ceiling, a reminder of the day when there had been a generator in the valley. Now he used the kerosene lamp that stood beside his bed on the dresser. The floor sloped markedly in a westerly direction.'
Gold was disovered in the Maratoto along the banks of a stream called McBrinn's Creek in 1873. The prospector Richard McBrinn made the first major strike. Richard was mining at Thames, Tapu and Coromandel during the 1868-9 goldrush, before moving on to prospecting at Maratoto. The rush to Maratoto that followed led to the discovery of a number of somewhat patchy gold and silver reefs. McBrinn sold out to the Mt Cecil Company who built a ten head stamper battery and is said to have been profitable for awhile. An assay of the ore at the time showed 86oz of gold and 1500 oz of silver per ton which is rich! After the company abandoned the site, the claim was taken over by Harold Sparke who continued to work the mine until the 1970s. He was processing his own ore using a berdan when there was no stamping battery available.
'When Sparkes offered to show us his mine, we knew that at last he completely trusted and accepted us. He told us he had taken the claim out in 1937 for 42 years, and that the mine assayed at 4 oz of gold and 12 oz of silver, with loose dumps of quartz assaying 2oz of gold. Although these were quite good assays, he did not have the capital for development but shortly hoped to go into a partnership with a friend who he hoped would put up enough money to enable them to process the quartz.'
From 'Maratoto Gold' by Ann Bale 1971.
This assay indicates that Maratoto ore averaged only 25% gold, 75% silver. In comparison, ore found in Thames averaged about 60% gold and 40% silver while that found in Tapu had an even higher gold content than Thames. Since silver is worth about 100 times less than gold on the open market (today), the higher the silver content, the lower the profits. Therefore this assay does not bode well for the profitability of mining in Maratoto
Once Sparkey had pulverized his quartz in the berdan, he would add mercury to amalgamate the gold and silver. The mercury-amalgam would then be retorted, vaporizing the mercury and leaving behind the gold and silver mixed alloy. This was the same process that had been used on the Thames goldfield since the 1860s.
PAY ROCK: Another early mine opened at the same time as McBrinn's. H. H. Adams was one of the very early Directors of this company.
LIVERPOOL: A third smaller mine further down the gully but it was never very profitable.
Up the next gully called Maratoto or Silver Stream Gully:
JULIA: Rich in silver, it was discovered by Mr Pennell who was a roadman working on the Waitekauri Track. It was taken over by the Maratoto Company eventually.
SILVER QUEEN: It was first opened in 1887 and had a reef 6-7 feet wide of mainly silver.
CAMOOLA: About 100 feet from Silver Queen. It had a wide reef but content was patchy.
These three claims were later mined by the Ohinemuri Gold and Silver Mines Company. Then the price of silver fell precipitously to 1/- an oz and it was no longer profitable to mine. Although they also found some gold, it was not enough to compensate them for the cost of the development of the mine and it was abandoned.
ST HIPPO: It was discovered before 1880 up on the saddle about 3000 feet from the Camoola. Although the company built a long aerial tramway and a 20 head stamping battery, it was never profitable.
PEEL'S CREEK, later known as UNITED: it was situated at the south end of the Maratoto reef, about three miles from Komata. The drive was 1500 feet long and produced a lot of gold.
KOMATA: Worked by the Komata Mining Company and produced about £1 million of gold.
In the 1940s, Harold Sparke was mine manager for the Golden Spur Mine which is on the right hand side of the Maratoto Stream, on a bald knob at the top of a hill. They operated a five stamps battery using water power from the Maratoto Stream. The drive went in 300 feet and showed good prospects. One assay showed 100 oz of silver and 10 oz of gold per ton but it was patchy and broken down, so was difficult to work profitably.
'Like most men who spend much of their time alone, Harold Sparke is quietly spoken and unloquacious. He was particularly modest about the Order of Merit he received in 1954 for rescuing a man who had fallen into a disused mine shaft. This rescue against all the odds was only made possible by his intimate knowledge of the old mine workings.' From 'The Maratoto Valley' by Cecile Read
Murray Evans came often to Maratoto for hunting and was an old friend of Harold Sparke:
Sparkey hated cities and even Paeroa was too civilised for him. Clothes were just not important to him, and it was Murray who kept him supplied with old clothes in a reasonable condition. Sparkey's brothers all worked in the mines, Syd in Thames and Alf in Waihi. From 'Maratoto Gold' by Ann Bale 1971.
It was this friend Murray Evans who fell down the mine shaft while they were out on the hills pig hunting. He slipped when trying to retrieve a length of pipe from the top of the shaft and fell 100 feet down the shaft. He was knocked out cold, and his legs were badly damaged.
Murray related years later:
'Many of the mines go into the hills for thousands of feet and branch in all directions. They're old, the timbers are rotten, and usually the roof has fallen in. It certainly was a hell of a spot to be in, but there was nothing I could do about it. I thought that if anybody could find the way in, Sparkey was the man. He had lived in the valley most of his life. The next thing I knew I was in hospital.'
Then Sparkey took up the story:
'Murray was tossed into the air like a peanut and was down before I had time to move, bumping into the walls and then disappearing into the blackness. There was a loud thud from deep in the shaft and then a few small stones pattered down after him. I shouted down the shaft to Murray but all was still and silent. I ran back through the bush and was lucky enough to come across four other pig hunters. I quickly told what had happened and one of the men dashed off to the nearest farmhouse for equipment and to phone for an ambulance, while the rest of them came with me to look for the mine entrance. I had a rough idea where it would be, but even so, we were lucky to find it, for it was almost completely blocked by a landslide and half covered with ferns. We clambered inside, and there to our dismay was a quagmire of mud stretching before us. One of the hunters went back to direct any further help, while the rest of us waited patiently. Eventually, they arrived back with the farmer laden with torches, ropes, spades, pickaxes and an axe.
Against the advice of everyone there, I began crossing the mud, picking my way carefully on one side of the tunnel. At one time, I was up to my knees in mud, but slowly I made my way on to firmer ground. Then I came to the first fall. It did indeed look dangerous. Very slowly I began to inch my way through, carefully winding myself around the rotten timber, hardly daring to breathe. Finally I was on the other side, and then walked on for about 100 yards before I came to the next fall. This time it completely blocked the tunnel. However I was determined to reach Murray and began pulling at the wet pieces of timber and rubble. In another ten minutes, I had made a small opening. I quickly wriggled through and had only gone a short distance when the drive branched in two directions. My instincts favoured the left branch. I turned and quickly covered about 2500 feet, scrambling through falls as I went. Then I saw a faint pinprick of light ahead. I rushed forward to find Murray lying here covered in blood, and a pool of blood at his legs. I felt his heart and to my great relief it was still beating. There wasn't anything I could do for him then but drag him out.
I couldn't hold on to the torch at the same time, so went a few feet ahead and left the torch shining back, dragged him on, then went back for the torch. When I came to the first fall on our way back, I propped the torch up on a lump of rock to shine on the gap and carefully hauled Murray through. Then I went back to get the torch. I did this so many times that I lost count before reaching the last and most dangerous fall of all. I slowly began to inch Murray through. A piece of timber fell, dislodging a few small rocks, and dirt showered down on us. It seemed hours before things settled and I dared move again. It was a nerve-wracking experience, I can tell you. Once on the other side, I lay exhausted on the floor beside Murray, catching my breath for a few minutes. It was all I could do to drag him on. Then at last I saw a yellow shimmer of light. I shouted and many willing hands took over.'
Then Murray spoke: 'I had broken both my legs. Show them your award, Sparkey.' 'Sparkes, still rather shy about it all, rummaged around in the drawers at the end of his bed and produced a framed certificate from the Royal Humane Society. The glass was cracked and dirty and looked as though it hadn't seen the light of day for years. He also had a letter from the Mayor of Auckland complimenting him on his bravery.'
From 'Maratoto Gold' by Ann Bale 1971.
In the 1960s, a big mining company, The Consolidated Silver Mining Company, became interested in mining for silver and gold in the Maratoto Valley. Where Sparkey once had the valley's ghostly old mines to himself, 30 men were now employed, bulldozers carved out a road and engines roared again.
Harold Sparke was a particularly interesting personality who linked both past and present of the Maratoto. Right up to the 1970s, he was still living in one of the original miner's huts not far from the remains of the mining plant. The interior of his hut was a perfect replica of the past, with a gold-washing pan leaning against the cupboard in which he kept his stores, and a camp oven beside the rough fireplace. He lived for nearly forty years in the Maratoto and was an experienced miner, processing the silver and gold ore he took from his claim near McBrinn's Creek.
Sparkey retired to live with family in Waihi in about 1971. He was there when Ann Bale's book came out at the end of 1971, and she sent him a copy with the enscription on the flyleaf: To our dear friend Harold Sparke with affection, remembrances of the days we had together in the valley. The Bale family. Harold's grandniece, Bronwyn Spurr visited him in hospital every Friday and read to him from the book at each visit. Brownwyn recalled, 'He thoroughly enjoyed it although frowned at the odd personal comment.' Harold Sparke died in the Waihi hospital in 1973 at the age of 83.
Today, all mining activities have been abandoned and, after 150 years of enterprise and endeavour, the Maratoto echoes only to the sounds of birdsong.
The author would like to thank Bronwyn Spurr who kindly provided family information and photos for this article.