Elton Fraser at Thames School of Mines

For Elton Fraser, taking on the role of Property Lead at the Thames School of Mines represents a long-anticipated homecoming.

 

Elton Fraser leans on a fence in front of the Thames School of Mines.
Elton Fraser outside the Thames School of Mines. Photo: HNZPTexpand/collapse

After 25 years of working around New Zealand and abroad, the Parawai School and Thames High old boy is back to look after one of the region’s most significant historic places, cared for by Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga. 

And for Elton, it’s personal.

“Goldmining featured heavily in my mother’s family history and various family members once mined in Thames and at Tapu. My mother’s Great Grandfather, for example, had been the Manager of the Cambria Mine in the 1880s,” he says.

“Like a surprising number of properties in Thames our house had an entrance to a mine shaft out the back.”

Many of his family have had an association with the Thames School of Mines over the years, including Elton himself.

“I remember visiting the School with my class. We were all intrigued with the rows and rows of brightly coloured chemicals and technical instruments. I can still remember the smell of the wooden rooms; that unmistakeable smell of history and shared experiences.”

Bringing the School to life for a new generation of visitors is all in a day’s work for Elton and his team who believe the history associated with Thames – and the School – is both unique and exciting.

“In 1867, the discovery of gold on ‘The Thames’ resulted in an influx of thousands of eager gold-seekers from all over the world coming here and making Thames their home,” he says.

“It may be hard to believe now, but by the early 1870s Thames was one of New Zealand’s most populous towns. It was a microcosm of everything that was going on in New Zealand at the time, and the School – built in response to the burgeoning gold industry – reflected those events; even diversifying to teach agriculture after the gold industry waned.”

The Thames School of Mines is many things to many people according to Elton. Some are drawn to the Mineralogical Museum – one of the largest geological collections in the Southern Hemisphere – while others are captivated by the atmosphere of the school itself, as if they are there in the early 1900s and the students and teachers have just stepped out.

Many children who visit the School of Mines liken the historic science laboratories to the Harry Potter movies – a point of interest that Elton is not slow to exploit.

A professional theatre actor, Elton also worked in TV and radio before moving into the heritage sector where he worked for the Museum of Wellington City and Sea and later the Air Force Museum in Christchurch.

Throughout his career, whether rehearsing for a stage show or working in a museum or library, Elton has found a common thread.

“There was a constant theme: people and their stories – the idea that we spend our lives developing our identity by looking at where we come from while trying to work out where we want to go. Story telling is at the heart of what I do,” he says.

“I’m an experienced manager and researcher, but I am also fascinated by the stories of the men and women who travelled from the other side of the world to find a better life for themselves. I’m equally interested in what Tangata Whenua experienced.

“I’m committed to identifying appropriate and honest stories that, when told, will enable visitors to be transported back in time. Our guides are an important part of that, and really take visitors on a journey.”

Elton’s family links reinforce his connection to the School of Mines.

“Growing up I mostly associated mining and Thames history with our neighbour the late Alistair Isdale – a local legend whose legacy lives on through his books and the School itself. Years later a dear family friend and seasoned educator, the late Suzie Halley, worked as a curator and I remember her describing the mining to me and Thames social history projects that she had been working on.”

Weariness with last year’s Covid lockdown saw Elton leave Auckland to take a well-timed trip home to Thames. Both the School of Mines and Mineralogical Museum were on his itinerary.

“I hadn’t visited the school since the 1980s and I wanted to check out its ‘Rock Shop’ based in the complex,” he says.

“I found some great fossils. Susanna, who runs the Rock Shop, was knowledgeable about the school and its collections. The whole experience was very nostalgic.”

A couple of months later, Elton – who had always wanted to work for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Tanoga – saw a job vacancy for the Thames School of Mines Property Lead and applied. The rest is history – and a most enjoyable homecoming.

“I love being home and reconnecting with people, and also with this extraorindary place.”

- John O'Hare