Mining at Conroys Gully
Conroys Gully was one of the richest mining areas on the Dunstan field. Gold was discovered in there on 1 October 1862. Inspection of the site by Commissioner Keddell revealed a very narrow gorge, with three small basins (Muir Flat, Dawsons Flat and Iversons Flat) with alluvial plains. By the end of October fantastic returns were reported, including a party of four miners each with 3.3 kilograms of gold for three weeks work. By November 400 men were mining the gully over a wide area, with almost every significant alluvial area in the basins worked. By 1863 there were from thirty to forty thousand diggers on the Clutha. Prospectors were also successful in Butchers Gully and Blackmans Gullies to the north and south of Conroys respectively.
As the easy rich finds tailed off by the mid 1860s miners left for other fields. Those who stayed applied for residential areas. Two miners Andreas Iversen and Richard Dawson built up substantial claims in the Conroys Gully area. Dawson's claim was some 2.4 hectares, and employed 6 men. These large claims were worked with a system of ground sluicing and accompanying tail races.
Benny Luke and Martin Brothers had some of the most elaborate workings at Conroys, known as the Great Eastern. They undertook extensive tunnelling with some of the branch tunnels up to 400 feet (91.5m) long. Water from Conroys Creek was diverted into the tunnels for sluicing. By 1864 though, mining was declining. By 1868 the populations of Alexandra and Clyde were dwindling. About half the mining population at this time was Chinese miners, who worked abandoned claims, tailings and river beaches along the Clutha.
Mining alone was no longer a sustainable income source. Miners diversified their activities, and in Conroys Gully this took the form of orcharding. In 1863 Mrs Dawson had planted imported fruit trees, which was the beginning of one of the most famous stone fruit orchards in Central Otago. By the 1870s the orchard had been expanded when William Fraser, owner of Earnscleugh Run within which Conroys Gully was included, offered to release two forty acre (16 hectare) blocks. In 1875 apricot trees were imported from Australia. Previously mined stony ground was reclaimed with soil carted from surrounding hillsides. There are still stone fruit orchards in the Conroys Gully area.
Chinese Workings in Conroys Gully
Little is known about the lives on individual miners in the Conroys Gully area. What follows is a general history of their known involvement in the district, rather than an account of any one individual. The history is indicative of the experience of Chinese miners, of their relationships with the wider community, as well as their closely knit groupings.
Historian John McCraw notes that Chinese miners began to work Conroys gully in the 1870s, going over the tailings abandoned by earlier miners. By the 1880s they were getting results. Chinese miners received good returns from a claim Richard Dawson had sold them in 1879 for £80. In 1881 Chinese miners bought James Muir's claim in the upper basin for £40, working the previously unworked ground of the prior homestead and garden area.
Competition for water rights was evident in Conroys Gully, and sometimes this brought out thinly disguised racism against the Chinese. Dawson and Iversen held a one head water right from the lower reaches of Conroys Creek. This was of lower priority than the three heads held by William Noble and Craven Paget drawn from the headwaters of the Creek. Noble and Paget had to allow two heads of water to pass for general use. Chinese miners bought Dawson and Iversen's one head water right along with their mining claims. In 1889 in a particularly dry season Noble and Paget diverted all the water from Conroys Creek. The Chinese miners applied to the Wardens Court to force Noble and Paget to release the two heads as they were supposed to. Noble and Paget objected. The warden compromised, and ordered one head to flow at all times. There was some protest in the paper saying the warden should have stuck to the law and released the full amount of water, and that the lesser judgement was because Chinese miners were involved. Noble and Paget sold their right to Chinese miners in the neighbouring Butchers Gully.
There were some other disputes with European miners. Richard Dawson claimed that You Chow and party were not entitled to an extended claim, recently awarded them by the Warden's Court as the claim was not marked out according to regulations. He claimed further that the Chinese party was holding in total more area than they were entitled (1 acre per holder of miner's rights). The Chinese were defended in the Warden's Court by James Rivers, a prominent Alexandra merchant with strong financial interest in mining. Rivers admitted that the claim was not marked out correctly, but argued that the claims were genuine, and that allowance should be made for lack of English and therefore some difficultly in understanding the fine print, and that the Chinese had more than enough mining rights between them. The Warden ruled against the Chinese, opening the claim to all-comers. The judgement resulted in all parties immediately racing each other back to the claim. The Chinese, being prepared for the negative judgement, had a prearranged hand-signalling system and had re-marked the claim before Dawson and the others had even saddled the horses.
In 1881 it was said that 'all' of Conroys and Butchers Gullies had passed into Chinese hands, and Blackmans Gully was at risk of doing so. However a Mr Goltz still held a claim in Conroys, and two men had blocked the outlet of this gully by a dam for eight years. Good finds of gold were still possible in Conroys in 1884, but it was almost worked out by 1889 when a third share in a Chinese claim originally bought for £200 went for £5.
The Chinese miners also diversified their activities to provide income from sources other than mining. In Central Otago it was common for a Chinese miner to form a patch of garden to supply first himself, and then perhaps to supply the immediate neighbourhood. James Ng considered that this happened at Conroys Gully. Alexander Don mentioned Chinese orchards at Conroys Gully and Speargrass Flat, the fruit trees probably combined with vegetable production, as at Lye Bow's market garden and orchard at Butchers Gully. The Outlook in 1901 records a Chinese orchard in Lower Conroys, owned by Lam Seung Waai, who was almost certainly Ah Why. Lam is mentioned in Don's diary in 1901, sharing a meal with the minister, consisting of pears, pancakes, pork and potatoes. Ah Wye is listed as an Alexandra fruit grower in Wises New Zealand Directory in 1898-1899. But Ah Wye is named in Stones as a storekeeper at Conroys Gully, and in the Dunstan Times as a gardener. A market garden is mentioned in Conroys Gully in 1888, and Ah Wye's orchard is recorded in the Dunstan Times in June 1897. Lam was probably a storekeeper, orchardist, gardener, and possibly a miner as well.
Historian C.W.S. Moore mentions the Chinese as among the pioneer orchardists, and the remains of some of their orchards were still visible - best known Lye Bow's at Butchers Dam. He mentions that in Conroys Gully the Chinese reclaimed the tailings, "laboriously carting soil from the hillside by wheel barrows."
Today the land within the Aldinga Block, previously part of Earnscleugh Station is set aside for conservation purposes, administered by the Department of Conservation. The tenure review process recognised that the block of land contained sites of both historic and natural value. The special lease on the land recognises these values and aims at protecting the natural values while allowing public access to facilitate recreation and appreciation of the historic sites.
31st August 2004
Report Written By
De Goldi, Kate, 'Out of Otago Historic Energy', 4(3)
Martin, Helen, and Sam Edwards, 'New Zealand Film 1912-1996', Oxford University Press, Auckland, 1997
J McCraw, Mountain Water and River Gold: Stories of Goldmining in the Alexandra District. Square One Press, Dunedin, 2000
C Moore, 'The Dunstan A History of the Alexandra-Clyde Districts', Otago Centennial Historical Publications, Dunedin, 1953
Ng, James, Windows on a Chinese Past, Volume 1, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1993
Ng, James, Windows on a Chinese Past, Volume 2, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1995
Ng, James, Windows on a Chinese Past, Volume 3, Otago Heritage Books, Dunedin, 1999
Vincent Pyke, 'History of Early Gold Discoveries in Otago', Otago Daily Times and Otago Witness Company, Dunedin, 1963 [first published 1887]
Neville Ritchie, 'Archaeology and History of the Chinese in Southern New Zealand During the Nineteenth Century: A Study of Acculturation, Adaptation, and Change', PhD, University of Otago, 1986 [Hocken Library]
J H M Salmon, J.H.M. 'A History of Goldmining in New Zealand', Wellington, 1963
Russell Campbell, 'Microcosm/Macrocosm: An Interview with Leon Narby', June 1988 (8)
Jill Hamel, The Archaeology of Otago, Department of Conservation, Wellington, 2001
A fully referenced version of this report is available from the NZHPT Southern Region Office.
Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.
Historic Area Place Name
Illustrious Energy Hut