Volume 10

Richard Ross - The Last of the Original Goldminers Part I

Richard Wilkins, Great Grandson

Part I. The Man

The life of Richard John Ross is notable for three reasons. He was in the first contingent that arrived on the Thames Goldfield in August 1867, he actively mined until 1927 at the age of 81, and he lived on a residence site on Eureka Hill close to his first claim from 1868 to his death in 1935.

Covering his career in one article is not possible, so I will start with his personal life, and in the second part, move on to the actual goldmining and goldmines.

My mother, Norma Wilkins, superbly researched the basics of his family tree in the 1990s and produced a genealogy file containing approximately one thousand names of ancestors, descendants and hangers-on, which is available in the Treasury Collection. Long after all other residents had left Eureka Hill, 'King Dick' as he was known, hosted members of this extended family who made the pilgrimage back for holidays, Xmas, New Year etc. Twenty or thirty visitors, including locals from Thames, were not uncommon, all feasting like kings on produce from the extensive gardens and orchards.

As a child, I listened to my grandparent's generation tell stories of Richard Ross. Apparently, he forever spoke of there being more gold in those hills than had ever been taken out. Clearly he was obsessed by it, and this was a driving force during his whole adult life. As they told it, he gardened from dawn to dusk when he was not mining, read the Bible every night, did not drink or smoke and ran a pretty strict household. He regaled listeners with sailor stories (and took a teaspoon of sugar soaked in kerosene every day – a throwback to those days?). The only hint that there was another dimension to all of this was his advice to his daughters, 'Never let a sailor get an inch above your knee!'

So what is really the story of his life? It turns out to be one of two halves – the robust fast-living sailor-come-miner until he was about thirty years old, and a transformation around 1880, when he was in his early thirties, into a more respectable lifestyle. His second family, all of whom I knew, only saw this side of Richard Ross and probably were blissfully ignorant of most of his early 'exploits'.

Richard Ross was born on February 22nd 1846 near Gravesend, London where his father Alexander was a Trinity Pilot. Generations of the Ross family had qualified as pilots and Master Mariners so it was natural that Richard was apprenticed to his father for five years on the 12th of March 1861. For some highly unusual and unexplained reason, Richard abruptly left England at the end of May 1861, signing on to the Ida Zeigler as an Ordinary Seaman and arriving in Auckland on August 21st 1961. Here he jumped ship, or as he put it took 'French Leave'. Initially, he got a job in a bank but was asked to leave because he was posted as 'left ship'.

This is when the fun began! He retreated to The Wade, which was a favourite backwater for those keeping out of the way of the law and initially worked as a pit sawyer. Here he first heard gold stories from an old Californian miner. It seems that it wasn’t long before he was a 'sailor boy' again in cutters that plied out of Auckland, up and down the Firth of Thames and Coromandel Peninsula. Most likely, his piloting skills were often called upon, utilising what he had learnt from his father. During this time, he joined the Auckland Naval Reserve and spent time around Miranda about 1864-65 when hostilities were in full swing. From his notes, it also appears there were some amateur attempts at prospecting in Cabbage Bay, Coromandel in 1862.

He freely admits in a 1917 interview in The Observer, August 18th 1917 that there was a lot of hard living and drinking in these days. Just how much so can be inferred from his liaisons with Sarah Godfrey (nee Goodall). Sarah had been married at 15 to a soldier, but her first four children were to Edward English, seaman, who disappeared off the scene when Richard arrived in 1866. Richard and Sarah’s first child was born in November 1866 and their second in October 1868. All this must have amounted to a pretty desperate situation financially as Richard admits to having absolutely no money when he arrived in Thames in August 1867.

Fortunately, the Eureka claimthat was pegged out by Ross, the Goldsworthy brothers John and William, Andrew Gratten, John George and Charles Robinson immediately gave rich returns and, in Richard’s own words, 'from not being able to raise five pounds between them, they all now had a start.'

An early photo of Richard Ross (standing) taken in January 1869, with Richard Grattan (seated). Ross wears a ring on his second finger.

Whether or not Richard’s youthful excesses only started with his new-found wealth is not clear but in the 1917 interview, he boasts of making thousands from the Eureka Claim, then selling a quarter of a share for £300 and 'cutting it out' in nine days! It is probable that most 'rest and recreation' would be during Auckland excursions centred on the Thames Hotel, which was a favorite haunt of Naval Reservists. Richard Grattan, Andrew’s brother, worked there, and he and Richard Ross became close friends, possibly even 'blood brothers'. The Grattan brothers’ financial affairs were messy, but somehow Richard Grattan raised the money during late 1872 to buy the Thames Hotel, possibly with loans from Richard Ross and Andrew. Tragedy struck in late 1875 when Richard Grattan died suddenly. The financial state of the estate was complex, and it is possible that several people were out of pocket. Whatever the case, the tragedy devastated Andrew who died in 1898 after, in his widows words, '23 years of suffering.'

Meanwhile, back on February 12th 1869, just a few weeks after the Ross – Grattan photograph was taken, Richard married Sarah in Auckland. (Private Godfrey, her husband, had died a few months before.) From that time on, they lived on a Residence Site at Eureka Hill with their 'instant' family of 6 children.

Various threads of evidence suggest that, even with family responsibilities, Richard was not living a completely responsible life. At least some of the Eureka money must have gone on buying a house and furniture, probably in Sarah’s name but there is little evidence of his money being put to good use. (This was in contrast to the Goldsworthys who all made prudent investments, returning handsome dividends). When the Eureka Company morphed into the bigger Eureka Gold Mining Company in May 1869, Richard Ross did have 1647 shares (7.6% of the total capital of £21,750) but when this in turn morphed into the Eureka Hill GMC in 1871, it seems that he soon forfeited whatever shares he had.

Just how he made his living in the early 1870s is not clear, but it appears it was largely as a tributer on a variety of claims. (By agreement, a miner, either alone or with his own workers, mined a defined area, returning a certain percentage of the gold revenue to the owners. Some of these tribute operations were very large.)

In 1870, Eureka Hill (or Eureka Flat as it was first known) was a thriving community of some 200 residents with a shop and a school opening in 1871. Most of the housing was in the hollow at the top of the Kuranui (or Shotover) Valley, just below the Moanataiari Fault. Some of these residences (1/4 acre) were on the Eureka Claim, but most must have been in the Teutonic claim area in the hollow proper. The Teutonic claim was taken over by the Kuranui GMC in early 1871 while sometime later, in 1875, the Moanataiari GMC took over and incorporated the adjacent Eureka Hill GMC.

The Ross Residence Site of 1 acre, as it exists today, is about 200ft West of the original Eureka Claim and although Richard Ross many times said he lived on or near this claim it is not certain that he always lived in the same house.

From 1869 he maintained a large garden, was active in the Eureka Hill community and was a stalwart of the school during the nine years it was open. Times were changing though and the mining was becoming an industrial operation; individual operations were increasingly difficult to maintain and families were rapidly leaving communities such as Eureka Hill and moving to the Thames township or leaving Thames altogether. Operating a tribute was one way of maintaining some independence, and Richard was involved in a number of these, notably with the Le Manquais brothers in Long Drive; although details are sketchy, I suspect that he had not given up his early irresponsible ways. After all, he was hardly thirty! Financially, there is some evidence that things hit rock bottom in early 1877.

From about 1878, things changed markedly and I believe this is the start of the 'second phase' of his life. He became active in a number of mining ventures, acting as secretary for tenders, pegging out claims, taking up shares in companies (along with his stepson Samuel) and even standing for the County Council in 1878 (he lost!). In part, I think this change was mentored by Francis Manquais who was a member of the Salvation Army in Thames. Although, his children were baptized in mainstream churches, Richard stated in 1917 that he had 'for a period been in the Salvation Army.'

He and Sarah had three more children (plus two who died as infants) so by 1878 there was a family of nine.

  1. Sarah Ann English* (6 Mar 1858-5 May 1899) born in Coromandel.
  2. Samuel English* (abt 1860-abt 19 Sep 1903) born in Auckland.
  3. Selina Caroline English* (15 Aug 1862-3 Aug 1936) born in Auckland.
  4. Ellen Elizabeth English (Nell)* (13 Oct 1864-2 May 1923) born in Auckland.
  5. Matilda Jane English+ (13 Oct 1864-3 Mar 1865) born in Auckland.
  6. Clara Ross (21 Nov 1866-31 May 1950) born in Auckland.
  7. Mary Beatrice Ross (Polly) (28 Oct 1868-17 Sep 1941) born in Auckland.
  8. Eliza Beatrice Ross+ (abt Apr 1871-abt 18 Aug 1873) born in Thames.
  9. Alexander Douglas Ross (Alex) (7 Jun 1873-17 Oct 1958) born in Thames.
  10. Richard John Ross (Dick) (26 Nov 1875-18 Jan 1943) born in Thames.
  11. William Ernest Ross (24 Jun 1878-14 Mar 1957) born in Thames.
  12. Thomas Alfred Ross+ (abt 1881-26 Oct 1883) born in Thames.

*Took the Ross surname
+died in infancy.

The decline in gold mining, with the majority of the early miners leaving Thames in the 1870s is well documented elsewhere. The actual number of miners left on the field by the mid-70s was less than 2000 with the bulk working on the bigger claims, often as or for tributers. Big companies, supported by investors in Auckland and England had largely taken over, utilising some 50 steam engines and one thousand stamper heads, which processed huge amounts of 'stuff' at about 10 shillings a ton, each ton yielding no more than a few ounces of gold, and often less. The residents of Thames had to put up with horrendous noise from these stampers, thus one advantage of living on Eureka Hill was that, although still very obvious, the noise from most of the batteries would be more of a background hum.

As mentioned before, depopulation was especially dramatic in outlying areas such as Eureka Hill, and an 1873 census showed there was only a total of 75 people (43 male and 32 female) resident there as opposed to over 12,000 in the greater Thames area. This represents only about a dozen or so families remaining at Eureka Hill, with the Eureka School numbers dwindling to only 21 junior children in attendance when it finally closed in 1880. Richard Ross presided at the farewell for the teacher (Mrs McManus). In spite of the depopulation, he soldiered on, obviously intent on keeping Eureka Hill as his base, even though he was involved in big projects at distant sites, for example developing the Otanui claims in the Kaueranga valley in 1882.

Personal tragedy struck in 1883 when his wife Sarah died at the early age of 42. The next two years must have been incredibly difficult with 9 children in the house. Then in 1885, he married Frances Allen. How they met is not known, but it is interesting that the wedding was at the house of Francis Le Manquais who together with his wife acted as witness. Frances listed her occupation as servant (Richard’s servant?), and it is possible that they met in the Salvation Army, even though the officiating minister was Wesleyan.

During the 1880s, Richard was associated with a number of initiatives, for example, acting for parties in registering claims, working on tributes and even in 1890, registering his own Little Mabel claim (Mabel his daughter was born that year!) above Eureka Hill.

At the same time, he was building a solid reputation amongst his peers as a hard working and careful miner, reliable, skilled in all aspects of the work and capable of overall management of a mine – in fact, he acted as a de facto mine manager, for at least one mine, Moanataiari North in 1895. In about the mid 1890s, he decided on a career move and studied (at night) at the Thames School of Mines, qualifying as a first class mine manager by examination in 1898. At this stage, he relinquished the Little Mabel claim.

There were considerable attractions in becoming a Mine Manager – the salary was £5-10 per week, more than twice that of a skilled miner, and employment was more reliable, at least in theory.

He needed the money! By 1900 there were eight more children in the family. Although some of his first family would have left by this time, there always seemed to be 10 or more people in the home right through to 1910. The children from his second marriage were:

  1. Sarah Alice Ross (3 Feb 1886-12 Jun 1962).
  2. Frances Ross (15 Jul 1887-4 Jan 1889).
  3. Thomas Ross+ (23 Oct 1889-17 Jun 1974).
  4. Mabel Ross (31 Jul 1890-10 Aug 1971).
  5. Jessie Ross (16 Jul 1893-30 Jun 1979).
  6. Joseph Ross (23 May 1895-26 Feb 1969).
  7. Eva Ross (16 Apr 1897-17 Apr 1987).
  8. Leonard Ross (21 Aug 1899-20 Jan 1970).
  9. Edward Robert Ross+ (13 Jun 1902-30 Aug 1902).

All born at Thames
+ died in infancy

Becoming a Mine Manager did not stop him from being stroppy. When he finally got on the County Council, he stood up for the employees' working conditions and defended his actions in the newspaper. Likewise, he was not short of an opinion in the mining arena. For instance in April 1899, at a packed meeting in the Miners Union Hall, he and Mr O’Keeffe, President of the Thames Miners Union, confonted the local Member of Parliament. Things got very heated, and they suggested the MP and/or Minister of Mines, Mr Cadman were liars, with regard to reneging on a fairer formula for tribute payments. (Thames Star 26th April 1899) The crowd were a bit restless, and when Richard Ross stood up for a final go someone shouted out 'We have had one sermon tonight'. Richard sat down muttering 'that the present Government was worst for him.' It wasn’t clear whether he meant for him personally, or Cadman’s appointment as Minister of Mines! Such fiery performances featuring McKeeffe and Ross was commonplace in Thames around 1900, and they were widely respected for supporting the rights of the workers and criticizing cost-cutting measures of mine owners (though both were qualified Mine Managers themselves).

This strong belief in fair play was central to Richard Ross' life. For instance, he was sacked as Manager of the Mananu Mine in Whangamata in 1901 because he vehemently disagreed with the owner’s ultimatum that he had to choose between being a Mine Manager and a member of the Miners Union.

Richard Ross in his garden – Early 1900s

Despite his strong opinions, Richard established a solid reputation and had no trouble getting Mine Manager's positions, with the last one in this period of his career being at the Karangahake mine. He resigned from this in 1909 and seemed to go back to mining, as a tributer and 'prospecting'. None of these ventures were particularly successful.

In the meantime, the resident population on Eureka Hill had dropped dramatically. Thus, while in 1885, the Wise's Directory listed some 18 adult males on Eureka Hill (some of these may have been in the same household, and we do not know how many females there were), by 1903, there were only two residences remaining, those of Richard Ross and William Lang. Samuel Ross had his own Residence Site in 1885 but by 1903 he had moved to Thames. As people left, the Ross family took over most of the cultivable land in the area and established large vegetable gardens and orchards over many acres, milked a cow etc, and had a large number of hens and ducks. (Many gardeners commented that the microclimate in the hollow of Eureka Hill was superior to that of Thames proper). They produced far more food than they could eat themselves and, for example, in some years Richard Ross recorded over 3000 eggs being collected. His son Joseph supplemented the poultry by shooting large numbers of kereru – many others also did this and Joe told me, that as the berries came into season, mountains of shotgun cases would pile up under the trees.

From 1910 onwards, Richard seemed content to stick close to this home base, to prospect and mine in the vicinity. But he did not make any money!

In 1913, Richard decided to apply for his New Zealand War Medal. This exercise proved extremely difficult and frustrating. He had to prove that he had seen active service while in the Auckland Naval Volunteers which was not easy as the action was in Miranda in November 1863. He finally got a recommendation from his commanding officer of the time, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Parker but he still did not get satisfaction. Finally he had his old mining mate, Thomas Rhodes MP onto his case, writing to him on the 18th of September 1913,

'I never intended making application for the Medal but I want to get the Veteran's Pension as I have been prospecting a bit of ground of my own for the last two and a half years without any returns, consequently my funds are run out.'

Again on the 25th of October in desperation:

'If there is any hope of me obtaining the Veteran's Pension, I can do without the Medal.'

To the Minister of Defence:

'….I have a family of 15 living at the present time…'.

He did finally get the medal and the pension!

In the next five years he did mine with some success, both for himself and as a tributer. From 1915 to 1920, he sold gold worth £1400.

Richard and Frances Ross in 1916

Apart from money problems, he had other worries as his son Joseph was involved in heavy fighting in France and was wounded twice. In addition, on the home front, his wife Frances became ill and died in December 1917. Given all of this, it is amazing that he 'performed' the way he did in the August Jubilee proceedings.

Richard Ross in the 1917 Jubilee Photograph.
(From the Auckland Weekly News)

When Joe returned from the war, he and a daughter Mabel tried to convince Richard to enter a ballot for a returned soldier's farm but he refused, and stated that he never would move off Eureka Hill, and just to prove it, he took out yet another claim! The three of them continued to live in the house along with, from 1926, a widowed daughter May and a grandchild Norma. These were very busy times for the family, catering for large numbers of holidaying family members, and maintaining large gardens and orchards. The Thames family home became an increasingly appreciated resource for the extended family as the depression took hold!

All this aside, the Thames Borough Council was keen to get people off Eureka Hill as maintaining the access roads was an ongoing issue. In May 1920, the Borough foreman said:

'it was in a deplorable condition and necessary work to it would cost £35 16s.

Mr H. Lang and party also wrote to the Council offering to do the work for £35. Cr. Rowe said at one time, there was a good population up there with a store and a school, but now there were only two residences there. The Mayor said that in some places, it would pay the Council to buy out people and persuade them to live in nearer the centre of population, rather than maintain roads.' (Thames Star May 1st 1920.) No doubt Richard Ross bounced into the Council offices the next day.

Richard took on yet another Mine Manager's position around 1924, his last. The claim adjacent to Barry's Reef encompassed what was known as Ross Reef, named after guess who! By this time, at the age of 80, he was really past this kind of work and the directors eased him out. The mining continued for a few years under another Mine Manager but nothing of note was produced.

In the meantime, Richard began another fight that gained national attention. He formed and chaired the Thames Gold Producers’ Association with 24 others in 1922, and they petitioned the government for recompense for their losses consequent on the government compulsorily buying gold at an artificially low price during the World War and forbidding them selling it on the open market. What was particularly galling to the Gold Producers was that the Bank of New Zealand was immediately on-selling this gold in London for a profit of another £1 an ounce! This petition was again and again recommended for favourable consideration by select committees, the last time in 1929 when attrition had reduced the petitioners to Richard Ross and seven others. Unfortunately for the Gold Producers, the government refused to budge despite the gross injustice. No doubt they were intent on avoiding the very considerable cost nationwide if the petition was granted!

This must have been a bitter disappointment for Richard, and I am sure a lot of salty language ensued. Even the modest 600 ounces of gold he produced over the war years would have yielded him compensation of £600, a small fortune.

From about 1918, Richard’s health began to deteriorate, mainly because of Miner's Lung. The majority of the early underground miners suffered from this, as they had been exposed to a constant atmosphere of fine silica dust created by the blasting. The longer they lived, the more the degeneration, and it seems Richard Ross really began to suffer from 1925 onwards, though most member of his family were unaware of how serious it was. Although, he kept on gardening until the day he died, his gardening diary entries stop on January 27th 1933, and earlier entries from about 1925 onwards increasingly refer to Joe doing the heavy work.

Ross Residence ~1930 looking East from lower garden. Joe Ross in background.

Coincidentally, from 1933 onwards, he was no longer seen frequently in the Thames township. Presumably, lung and heart problems sapped him of the energy to walk up and down Eureka Hill.

On Christmas Eve 1935, he spent the day in the garden, came in that night and complained of feeling really unwell. Only one daughter (Mabel) and one grand-daughter (Norma aged 13) were at home that night. Norma was sent running down to Thames to get Dr Liggins but by the time they got back, Richard was dead. Dr Liggins issued a death certificate giving the cause: 'Heart failure - 1 week, Miner’s phthisis – 17 years'. Dr Liggins only charged 10/-. Bob Twentyman had joked with Richard for many years that he would 'measure him up', and he did just that on Christmas Day 1935.

Three Ross children continued to live up Eureka Hill for the next 10 years, until daughter May, her daughter Norma, and me (as a baby) moved to Thames township. Mabel followed in the 1950s. Joe continued to live up there until 1966, maintaining the gardens much as they always been and continuing to host a multitude of relatives.

Kuranui Hill Photographed 1954.
Source of Photo: National Library of New Zealand Ref: WA-36514-F
Series: emu:482467, Whites Aviation Ltd Photographs, PA-Group-00080.

The Ross Residence is clearly visible in the centre of the photo 'on' Eureka Hill (actually a shallow basin, hence the original Eureka Flat name). This is at the top of the Kuranui (Shotover) valley. The house just visible in trees about one-quarter of the way up the valley is that of Sarah Ross, Richard’s daughter. Hunt's Claim was within 50m of this house. On the very right of the photo is the next valley to the south –the Moanataiari, with the end of the road (extreme right middle of photo) marking where tracks went up and over the hill, through the Eureka claim, down past the Ross residence and over to the Shellback Creek. Note that apart from pine trees, scrubby regrowth is only just beginning to take over the denuded hills.

Richard Ross had an amazing life: longevity, fecundity, drive and self-improvement and with a firm belief in the rights of the common man. He was a skillful miner with an unshakeable belief in the potential of the Goldfield and, although he was never successful financially, he was generous in sharing his other riches.

Continued in Richard Ross - The Last of the original Goldminers (Part II )


  1. The Observer August 18th 1917.
  2. From unpublished notes of Richard Ross – various notebooks, garden diaries and loose sheets 1900 to 1933.
  3. Thames Reminiscences J.E. MacDonald. Norma Wilkins captioned it as 'Taken in January 1868'.
  4. Thames Star 26th April 1899.
  5. The Observer August 11th 1917.
  6. Auckland Weekly News Supplement 9th August 1917, p33. (Probably taken at the South side of the Thames Hauraki Pump)
  7. Thames Star May 1st 1920.
  8. NZ Herald 28th December 1935.
  9. Crop from White's Aviation Photo WA-36514-F taken on the 15th Dec 1954 (Archived in the National Library of NZ).


No items found.

Subscribe to our news

Support us