Digging deep, Ann Beaglehole

Castles of Gold: A History of New Zealand’s West Coast Irish
Lyndon Fraser
Otago University Press, $39.95, 
ISBN 9781877372445

Mine Alone: The Story of an Immigrant Mining Engineer from Staffordshire
R D Mercer
Butterfly Creek Press, $39.95, 
ISBN 9780473120115

Stories about people from the past are supposed to help readers connect with history in a way that dusty tomes filled with dry analysis do not. Dunedin sociologist Lyndon Fraser’s Castles of Gold and Wellington writer Rosemary Mercer’s Mine Alone combine human interest with a certain amount of analysis. Though Fraser’s is an academic study and Mercer’s a family history, both writers make extensive use of diaries, letters and oral histories in combination with archival and other sources.

In my own research on the immigration histories of some of New Zealand’s non-British settlers, I used to refer rather carelessly to “British” or “non-British” migrants. I am now aware that many people have become increasingly conscious of, and assertive of, their Irish or Scottish identities, or of the identity associated with their English county. Current literature on immigration history reflects this trend, as do the books under review.

Castles of Gold focuses “on the role of ethnicity in the adaptation of migrants to a new environment”. It investigates Irish migration to the gold fields, “working lives” at the diggings and the “the trans-Tasman dimension”, by which Fraser means the majority of Irish migrants who sailed to the West Coast from Dunedin and Melbourne. The topic of diasporic identity, central in Fraser’s book, is clearly of some significance in Irish-Scottish studies and was one of the themes of a recent conference organised by the Irish-Scottish Studies Programme at Victoria University’s Stout Research Centre.

Why have so many migrant groups in New Zealand seen the gradual erosion of their ethnic identity? The loss of cultural distinctiveness is easier to understand in relatively small groups but harder in the case of a much larger group such as the West Coast Irish. Fraser finds that Irish ethnicity was less important in the Australian and New Zealand colonies than in the United States and Britain, where migrants faced considerable hostility and restricted avenues for social mobility. One of his conclusions is that Irish community leaders were not “much interested in creating an ethnic community”, with ethnic exclusiveness “never a concern for Catholic clergy” whose “spiritual labours were aimed primarily at getting their flocks to heaven”. Additionally, “a host of factors inhibited the emergence of Irish ethnic networks”, with the result that “the social and cultural distinctiveness of the migrant generation was soon eroded”.

On 8 March 1868 a “mournful cortège” of more than 700 men, women and children marched down the dusty road to Hokitika’s cemetery in memory of the Manchester martyrs – Irish patriots – executed in 1867. The book’s most vivid passages describe energies unleashed by “diasporic politics”. But these instances were the exception. The prevailing mood was “cosmopolitan”. I had thought that Irish nationalism might have contributed to the retention of Irish identity in the same way that Zionism and memorialising the Holocaust boosted Jewish continuity, similarly under threat from lack of significant barriers to social inclusion. According to Fraser:

Without an Orange-Green dynamic or anti-Irish prejudice, nationalist politics failed to provide an adequate foundation for a durable ethnicity. Instead, migrants fashioned a sense of community on the West Coast by celebrating their loyalty to the empire, their attachment to the region and their common bonds as New Zealanders.


Because of the scandal which surrounded him, Mercer had been told little during her childhood about her grandfather, Joseph Taylor. In later life, the chance discovery of her grandmother’s diary led her to embark on a book about his life. Joseph was born in the village of Wood Lane, Audley, near Newcastle-Under-Lyme in the county of Staffordshire, into a family of coal miners. By the age of 10, he himself was working in a mine. Mine Alone traces Joseph’s childhood, education, career as Unitarian minister and his marriage to Annie Emery (Mercer’s grandmother). In 1894 Joseph, Annie and their three sons migrated to New Zealand, and Joseph’s “unrelenting struggle” to earn a precarious living and to support his growing family began in earnest. His most significant achievement was the establishment of the first profitable coal mine at Puponga, in north-west Nelson. Through his efforts, the area was settled by other families from Staffordshire.

Mercer portrays Joseph as “an outsider by choice”. “The respect he deserved” was frequently “dented by one of his ill-timed bursts of aggression under his compulsion to lose friends yet influence people.” Within the church, he had the ability to provoke disharmony with his preaching. In his indomitable efforts to develop the coal mine, he fought numerous battles with the road board, the Mine Department, the County Council and the Commissioner of Crown Lands. Mercer emphasises his prodigious energy.

At the height of Joseph’s success, the mine employed 30 men, 13 horses and eight bullocks. His older sons played a crucial part. One of my favourite passages describes the arrival of a long-awaited locomotive steam engine, packed in several crates: “Joseph said to his son: ‘Now then, Charlie, put it together.’ ” Charlie did. Joseph is also supported by his loyal wife whose struggle as colonial helpmeet Mercer documents in extensive detail.

Despite the help, the pressure was in the end too much for one man. His “desperate juggling of finances … was his undoing.” By the end of 1901 Joseph had been dismissed from the mining company. Charged with production of false accounts, he served a two-year prison sentence. He never worked for money again.

Castles of Gold builds on Fraser’s previous work and is the first academic study on the history of New Zealand’s West Coast Irish. Mercer’s account contributes to our knowledge of the history of north- west Nelson. Their positive qualities notwithstanding, something important is missing from both books. The immigrants concerned benefited from Maori displacement. Is this not worth a mention? Mercer does refer in passing to Maori leaving the land, noting that the Maori population of north-west Nelson “had dwindled away” by the end of the 19th century. Fraser makes no reference to Maori. Never very numerous, and with almost the entire South Island and Stewart Island having been purchased by 1865, Maori were probably not an issue for settlers in the second half of the 19th century. From a 2008 viewpoint, however, surely something of that heartrending underlying story needs to be told?


Ann Beaglehole is a Wellington reviewer.


Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category