It was just a speck, a slight flicker at the start.

It would have probably been a cold winter's day when William Hunt, John Ebenezer White and George Clarkson were digging in the Kuranui Stream with their pickaxes.
They were one of many groups who had flocked to the Coromandel in search of gold.

Dressed in old mud-covered rags and living in tents the allure of a £5000 reward to whoever discovered the first payable goldfield was enough to make the atrocious conditions worthwhile.

Then, 150 years ago today they hit the jackpot.

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Buried in the rock face of the waterfall they spotted the speck that would forever change their lives - they found gold.

The discovery was the first big strike in the Coromandel and within months the Thames foothills swarmed with men.

For Hunt, White, Clarkson and their friend William Cobley, life would never be the same again. They turned into millionaires overnight.

Mud, mud and more mud

Backtrack a few days and the men were living in awful conditions with others who were hoping to find their fortunes.

The rain was relentless, the mud so thick and deep even horses ended up stuck, neck high, struggling to move.

There were no roads, no buildings apart from a few whare, nowhere for the miners to keep dry.

Many who had flocked to the area with dreams of finding gold initially settled on the flat, around the Shortland Wharf.

They soon moved up into the hills where they slept on ponga fronds in floorless army-issue tents.

Author and historian Kae Lewis, who runs The Treasury website, says it was a wetter than usual August in 1867.

"We're talking about a very primitive camp. And what's more, that camp was on a swamp. All the land where Thames now sits was a swamp, with four or five rivers coming down through the centre so it was not a pleasant place to be."

Women traipsed through knee-high mud just to cross the main street. Men just remained dirty most of the time.

"Their beds were full of mud because they were in mud all day and then nowhere to have a shower or anything, you just climbed into your bed."

Lewis, who has also written a book Goldrush To The Thames 1867-1869, said food was basic and they cooked over an open fire.

Biscuits were a staple, and the peach trees local Maori had planted around Mt Pleasant were raided.

Their equipment was also primitive. Miners either had a pick, a shovel or a wheelbarrow to smash through the hills.

The Shotover Mine, showing the receding waterfall as it is progressively quarried. Photo/Coromandel Heritage Trust Treasury Collection
The Shotover Mine, showing the receding waterfall as it is progressively quarried. Photo/Coromandel Heritage Trust Treasury Collection

The discovery

On August 10, Hunt, White and Clarkson decided to search a waterfall that flowed into the Kuranui Stream.

They climbed up and George Clarkson's son, David, has written that it was his father who "saw a speck of gold" as he walked closer to the waterfall.

Others claim Hunt made the discovery.

Regardless of who saw it first, the men would have used a pickaxe to knock the moss off the stone. Soon after it was confirmed the trio had made the biggest single discovery of gold in Thames.

Cobley, who was friends with Hunt, wasn't with the trio when they made the discovery, but they needed a fourth person so he was brought in to allow the size of their claim - the area a miner was allowed to canvas for gold - to be expanded.

After finding the gold, the hard work began.

Cobley's great-great-granddaughter Angela Curtis, who has written a book about the find called The Shotover, said their first job was to smash the quartz rock.

Angela Curtis worked out that the four men got about $19 million each from their golden discovery.
Angela Curtis worked out that the four men got about $19 million each from their golden discovery.

They did so by building battering rams out of trees and putting iron on the end, she said.

Cashing in the gold as they went gave them enough money to buy explosives and hire help and get machinery to crush the rock to keep extracting the gold.

It took a couple of months to establish the extent of their find but once it had been the men came flooding to town as word spread in newspapers around not only New Zealand but Australia and beyond.

Many flocked to the rivers expecting to be able to pan for it, but Lewis said within the first month they realised that was fruitless and they had to dig for it.

"People were just starting to decide 'this is useless, let's go home' and then Hunt's claim was discovered and the figures started coming out about how much gold he was pulling out of that place."

The windfall

It didn't take long for the men to benefit from their discovery.

The first £10,000 Hunt put in the bank is equivalent to at least a million or more in today's terms. As a comparison, wages at the mine at the time were up to £3 a week.

Lewis said a report in 1868 showed they got £30,000 each out of the mine in their first year.

"That's quite a lot of money. We're talking about millions."

But just how many millions is also unclear.

Lewis said it's been widely reported the group made about £40,000 each in the end which, in today's terms, would be about $7.3m each.

However, Curtis, of Papamoa, said she had done the math, tracing all the transactions and worked out that each of the four men got about $19m each.

"It is all in the realms of myths and legends because there was very little accounting going on while they were hauling it all to the bank," Lewis said.

"Often much of it went under the radar because they did not want to have to pay government duty on the gold."

There was also opportunity to palm it off privately, and "duty free", Lewis said.

What is clear from newspaper excerpts from the time, is bags and bags of gold were being transported to Auckland each week - varying from 1.7kg, to more than 226kg at a time.

The four men went on to use their windfall in various ways.

Hunt liked the extravagant things in life and spent some of his money on getting a gilded carriage built for him.

Cobley opted for 40 acres (16ha) near Cheltenham Beach and international travel.

White helped a relative publish a book and Clarkson was reportedly the most sensible with his money, which stayed in the family.

Controversy reigns

Although the history books attribute the find to Hunt, Clarkson's descendants challenged that and submitted a piece to the Coromandel Heritage Trust's website, thetreasury.org.nz, stating that it was George Clarkson who found the gold.

The Herald was unable to track down any of Hunt's family and, unlike Cobley, there is no book. There were plenty of news reports about the discovery and how the town flourished before the people left, with most eventually moving away.

Reverend Brenda Marshall, the great-granddaughter of John Ebenezer White, was 61 years old before she knew she had a direct link to the discovery.

Brenda Marshall was shocked to learn her great-grandfather John Ebenezer White was one of the four who found gold in Coromandel.
Brenda Marshall was shocked to learn her great-grandfather John Ebenezer White was one of the four who found gold in Coromandel.

Marshall said White's son, John Leigh White, died when her mother was only 6 years old, so the history that was passed down was full of half truths.

"All the stories and truths died with him because he left a wife and two kids - my mum and her brother - but everything got twisted and in the end my mum didn't really know what was truth and what wasn't."

Marshall said her mother grew up thinking her great-grandfather had worked in coal mines so she got a huge shock the day she walked into the Thames School of Mines to discover he was part of the Shotover Four.

"When I found out I had to sit down. I was absolutely stunned that he discovered gold. This man leaped out of his chair, reached out his hand and shook it vigorously and said, 'how do you do, great to meet you, you're famous', and I said 'oh am I?' and my husband is standing there with his mouth open."

As for the debate over who found the gold, Marshall said she was "horrified" that it was still an issue, and Clarkson's great-grandson Ruskin Cranwell, 76, said he wasn't bothered.

"It's a long time ago now. They all came out with a lot of money but they all died virtually broke."

Cranwell, 76, grew up being told stories from his uncle, Trevor Clarkson, about his family history.

A sore point among the family was the fact George took his son David Clarkson to Australia to prospect for gold, leaving two wives at home to fend for themselves for a couple of years.

"That desire to find gold was pretty deep."

Curtis said Cobley was 28 when he became an overnight millionaire.

"His life changed overnight, they became famous worldwide. The goldrush started. Auckland emptied out in a matter of weeks. By December, there were around 5000 people living on the field."

Moving on

Coromandel Heritage Trust member and archaeologist Dave Wilton said the men sold up after three or four years.

Mining continued - its biggest production was recorded in 1871 - but largely quietened down in the area until a last "bonanza" in 1905 at the Waiotahi Mine - about 1km south of Thames.

In 1875 a new gold rush sprang up at nearby Waihi that led to the discovery of the Martha Mine three years later. It was closed in 1952, but open-cast mining resumed at the site in the 1980s and continues today.

Despite their good fortune and subsequent wealth it's widely believed the four men finished their lives with little more than they originally had when they slept in those army tents in muddy clothes.

Although they - and their money - are long gone, their legacy remains.

Their story is now on display at a special exhibition at the Thames museum to acknowledge the discovery that changed their lives in a way they could never have imagined.

The men who struck gold

WILLIAM ALEXANDER HUNT

William Cobley used his sudden fortune to buy what is now known as Devonport, in Auckland.
William Cobley used his sudden fortune to buy what is now known as Devonport, in Auckland.

Aside from being a co-discoverer of the first major gold find, Hunt courted controversy of a different kind.

In newspaper reports from the National Library of New Zealand, it turns out Hunt was a bit of a playboy, historian Kae Lewis says.

"In those days you couldn't play around with a girl unless you were serious about her. He took this girl ... they had a bit of hanky panky and then he shot off and married another lady."

It was so serious, the case was heard in the Supreme Court on December 18, 1868.

An article from the Daily Southern Cross headlined the case, "Action For Breach of Promise of Marriage".

The woman involved, Margaret Knox, was an orphan who lived with her aunt and uncle.

The uncle launched proceedings after claiming Hunt had promised to marry Knox.

"In the court case it was revealed that he did compromise this girl," Lewis said.

Not only did Hunt lose the case and was ordered to pay £5000, he was only a few days into his new marriage, which came to an end soon afterwards.

Hunt also liked the extravagant things in life. He hired the best builders in Auckland to build a gilded carriage to travel around the city.

It was later reported he moved to Australia where he bought a horse and carriage
previously used by the Duke of Edinburgh when he visited Australia in 1869.

WILLIAM COBLEY

William Cobley used his sudden fortune to buy what is now known as Devonport, in Auckland.
William Cobley used his sudden fortune to buy what is now known as Devonport, in Auckland.

Cobley's great-great-granddaughter Angela Curtis said one of his most interesting purchases was what is known as the town of Devonport, which was 40 acres near Cheltenham Beach.

He travelled to England, taking a load of kauri to build his parents a mansion. There he met his wife, whom he brought back to New Zealand and also built a kauri mansion on his land at Devonport.

The pair travelled extensively and he took her shopping in Paris and other exotic locations.

He later returned to Thames and became a labourer before returning to Auckland. He died there in 1913 aged 74.

JOHN EBENEZER WHITE

White had a close association with Maori.

While living in Ponsonby, he used his fortune to help his cousin publish The Ancient History of the Maori. Six volumes are still in print today.

He also helped establish the White Star Line between Auckland and Gisborne.

According to White's great-granddaughter Brenda Marshall, his Scottish wife lived in "absolute poverty" and was in her 30s when White died in 1892.

As well as his wife, he was survived by three children.

GEORGE CLARKSON

It's reported that Clarkson was the most sensible with his millions, and most of the money stayed in the family.

However, that's a surprise to Clarkson's great-grandson Ruskin Cranwell, of Auckland, who had no idea how it was spent. He went even further, adding it was the gold that destroyed his family.

The men reportedly made £40,000 each. The average wage in the mine was about £156 a year - or a measly £1.5 a week on a farm in Hamilton.

A division in the family meant the family stopped talking and they took their stories of what happened to the grave.

Newspaper excerpts showed that Clarkson arrived in New Zealand on a boat from Glasgow in 1875.

Of the four, he was the longest to live, eventually dying in Auckland in March 1922.

* additional information sourced from Thames Museum
THE GOLDEN ERA

• Charles Ring discovers gold at Coromandel in 1852
• Gold rush to Collingwood-Takaka 1856
• Gold rush to Otago 1861
• Gold rush to Marlborough 1862
• Gold rush to West Coast 1865
• Gold rush to Thames 1867
• Gold rush to Waihi 1875