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Steve Braunias on the town that died

To mark the publication of a stunning collection of black and white photographs taken of a West Coast ghost town, Steve Braunias posts a Sunday Star-Times column he wrote about the place in June 2006.

The old always seem to be up and about early, so I phoned Bill Gidley, 88, at his home in Christchurch just after 7am. We talked about another winter’s morning. He said, “I can remember the date. July the seventeenth, 1951, I think it was.” And then he said: “Is that right, mum?” Bill was asking his wife, Reece, who came out to New Zealand from Cornwall when she was three years old. They met when she was 16. “We went together for five years before we got married. And we’re still married. Coming up to 63 years.” They have a son, Grahame, who now lives in Albury. He used to live in Perth, where he had gone into what might be called the family business: mining. The mineral he chased was iron ore. The mineral Bill chased was gold, in Waiuta, the West Coast town that disappeared on July 17, 1951.

Diana Calvert wrote to me about Waiuta. Her grandfather, Tasman Hogg, was the mine manager. He worked with a man called Jos Divis, who probably knew my father – they both had the rare privilege of being cooped up as enemy aliens on Somes Island, in Wellington harbour, during World War II. My father was Austrian. I’ve always thought that was exotic, but Divis came from Morovia, a Slavic nation so exotic that it doesn’t exist anymore. A 1952 newspaper article describes his “courtly manners”. It also lists his mining injuries – a limp, a fractured skull, and what was known as the Waiuta Sign, a missing finger: “Many Waiuta miners have mutilated hands where fingers, crushed by falling stones, have been amputated.” When the story was published, Divis was a veteran of two places that no longer existed.

He told the reporter: “I want to be the last man to leave this hill.” Waiuta is between Greymouth and Reefton, hidden high in a fold of hills, thick with manuka, soaked to the skin – it might qualify as the damp capital of the Wet Coast. Diana gave me the phone number for Bill Gidley. He remembered a year when it rained for 200 days. Of course he remembered Diana’s grandfather. “Tas Hogg, he was a Maori. Only one in Waiuta. No, hang on. There were two.”

And of course he remembered Jos Divis. “A very prim and proper man.” But he said the Morovian was taken away from the hill, and “finished up in Reefton hospital”. Bill found work in the bush, cutting silver pine; he was still in Waiuta during the 1954 general election. “I got a job as the…what do you call it…the votes…Mum?…Oh, yes. I was the electoral officer. I counted the votes. And do you know how many there were? I’ll tell you. There were 10 votes.” And then he said: “They were 10 Labour votes.” But National won the election that year. It was the age of the boss.

A town with an adult population of 10; but Waiuta, founded in 1907, was once home to 500 people, a goldmining town which sunk the deepest shaft in New Zealand, and by 1939 was producing 13% of the nation’s gold. Single men lived in red huts. It had the essentials: school, pub, post office, police station, two butcher shops, hospital, cemetery. Everyone had coconut matting and outside toilets and wood ranges. Bill had a good garden – scarlet runner beans, carrots, parsnips, silver beet, “but you could never get tomatoes to ripen. Not enough sunlight.” Crime? “Nothing. No child molestation, or anything like that.” Booze? “I suppose the pub was the best goldmine in town.”

The rain and the gold and the aroma of coal burning day and night. Miners went underground with their crib – sandwiches, and a billy of tea – and chipped at the quartz. But the money was in England: most of Waiuta was owned by Blackwater Mines, a company with its head offices in Broad Street, London. In distant Waiuta, on the night of July 9, 1951, No 2 shaft caved in, 350 feet below the ground, sealing off ventilation. An expedition to assess the damage was taken a week later.

On the morning of July 17, six men, including the inspector of mines, were wound down in the cage. That was Bill’s job: “I wasn’t keen working in the ground. Didn’t think it was healthy.” The six men wanted to look at the twelfth level underground. At the sixth level, they knocked four times, the signal for Bill to winch them back to the surface.

“I drove the cage up, and said to them, ‘Did you forget something?’ They said their candles had gone out. There wasn’t any oxygen. So then the inspector said, ‘Gather the men around. I’m going to make a big announcement.’ And he said to us, ‘The mine’s closed.’ The cage never went down again.”

And that was that. Effective immediately. The town vanished, became a ghost. “It was a sorry thing,” said Bill. “It shut down overnight. A whole township. And then – nothing.” There was an enormous party at the pub, and then the pub burned down. Everything closed, everyone left. Bill stayed until just after the 1954 election. He went back at Easter, for a Waiuta reunion that attracted 150 people. He found the chimney of his house lying in scrub, and marked the way by tying yellow ribbons around the trees.

Photographer Joseph Divis (right) and friend above Waiuta.

Photographer Joseph Divis (right) and friend above Waiuta. (Image: Simon Nathan)

Curiously really modern looking women working the alluvial claims for gold.

Curiously really modern looking women working the alluvial claims for gold. (Image: Simon Nathan) 

A hangi in Waiuta.

A hangi in Waiuta. (Image: Simon Nathan)

Somewhat astonishing Waiuta School production, c1933. It represents the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, when St Nicholas arrives accompanied by Zwart Piet and his black assistants.

Somewhat astonishing Waiuta School production, c1933. It represents the Dutch celebration of Sinterklaas, when St Nicholas arrives accompanied by Zwart Piet and his black assistants. (Image: Simon Nathan)

Waiuta locals put on their best clothes and travel to Ikamatua on March 14, 1934 to see a grand sight - Sir Charles Kingsford Smith landing his plane Southern Cross.

Waiuta locals put on their best clothes and travel to Ikamatua on March 14, 1934 to see a grand sight – Sir Charles Kingsford Smith landing his plane Southern Cross. (Image: Simon Nathan)

“He say me have to work, work, work, work, work, work”: Waiuta mine manager Tas Hogg (left).

“He say me have to work, work, work, work, work, work”: Waiuta mine manager Tas Hogg with miner. (Image: Simon Nathan)


Through the Eyes of a Miner: The Photography of Joseph Divis (Friends of Waiuta/Craig Potton Books, $40) by Simon Nathan is available at Unity Books.

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