History – Gumfields lured hardy souls

Not all the gumdiggers found their fortune on the Albertland fields.
A gumdiggers camp at Opou Creek, 1906. Albertland Museum.

Gumdiggers were a hardy breed of men who worked long hours in the gumfields around Albertland. Typically, these men were young and single, and would earn between 25 to 30 shillings a week, much more than other labouring jobs at that time. The men would dream of making enough money to buy their own land when they were too old to continue with this gruelling work.

There were many gum fields in the district – Fern Hill Gully, Hargreaves, Oneriri, Fitzgeralds, Okahukura and Mt Brame – providing much-needed income for the district in the early years of settlement. The Opou Block, between Wharehine and the Tapora peninsula, was a favourite of Jack Riley and his gang of gumdiggers, which included brothers, Robert, and Henry Sefton. The Opou was a vast area of wilderness and scrub where large kauri trees had once flourished and giant moa once roamed.

Kauri trees produce a resin from their bark, leaves and cones. From the 1840s, this resin was used to manufacture furniture varnish and linoleum. The Albertlanders seemed unaware of its value, at first, using it as a missile to throw at loitering or trespassing cattle or as a torch to light fires.

Jack Riley, a well-spoken Englishman, was popular with settlers and fellow gumdiggers alike. His friendship with the Marsh family, who lived at Opou, meant that his gumdiggers’ ‘swags’ or personal belongings would be taken on their cart to the campsite and a ready supply of eggs, milk and bacon could be purchased from the Marsh family farm. They would set off each morning with their kit, a Skelton spade, gum spear, pikau (or backpack), a bucket and, of course, the billy to make a good strong brew. At lunchtime, the men made camp bread, before continuing to dig in swampy, muddy conditions.

They returned to their camp heavily laden with gum in their backpacks to prepare their dinner, which was often a jacket potato and tinned meat or wild pork. Their evenings were then spent scraping kauri gum by candlelight. Their huts were made of two low sod walls with a framework of ti-tree poles, and a thatched roof made from nikau leaves. The men would normally sleep two to a hut.

Sadly, for some of the gum diggers loneliness and depression marred their hard work, and on February 13, 1903, with heavy hearts, Jack Riley and his gang carried the coffin of the young Robert Sefton to Minniesdale after he took his own life at the Opou camp, aged 21 years. On October 23, 1917, his brother Henry died while serving overseas in World War I. For Jack Riley, his dream of owning his own house and land did come true, and he lived in a small cottage near the Tauhoa Creek, at Te Wheau, not far from the Opou gumfields, until his death in 1937.