Mobile Unit. Arrowtown history I

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Tono kōrero mai

A group interview with several elderly Arrowtown residents, who discuss their memories of life in the area, stretching back to the gold-mining era.

[Biographical details provided by the University of Canterbury as below]
Ellen Dennison [nee Mackie] was born on the Crown Terrace overlooking Arrowtown on her parents’ farm. She was orphaned, and went out to work at ten years old as a nursemaid. At 15 she went to work in a hotel in the mining town of Macetown, where she met her first husband Thomas Patton. After his death, she married Irishman George O’Phee and moved back to the Terrace to his farm. She was widowed again and eventually married Jack Dennison. [Her brother David Mackie appears in another Mobile Unit interview.]

Mrs Helen Ritchie was born in Invercargill in 1863, but came to Central Otago at about the age of five or six, in 1869. Her father was a shepherd and was never involved in gold mining. She lived on Kawarau Station, and went to school at the Shotover for a few years until her family moved to the Nevis when she was ten. There was no school there until five years later. Her family later owned a store and a hotel in Nevis. She worked in the family business, and then in the bank at Arrowtown. She married Jim Ritchie, Bob’s brother.

Robert Ritchie - 'Bob' was born in Cromwell in 1863, and spent his childhood there and in the Bannockburn area, where his father had a bakery that supplied the miners with bread. He went to school at the Shotover around about 1873/75. He lived in Central Otago mining districts all his life, first delivering bread and meat to miners, then taking on various cartage contracts, including the Nevis mail. He and his father and brothers were involved in goldmining and were shareholders in a dredge on the Nevis river.

Mrs Dennison begins the recording, with Mr and Mrs Ritchie then joining in.
Two other participants speak later in the interview: George Ritchie (a younger man who talks at length in the latter half of the interview) is Mrs Helen Ritchie’s son, and nephew to Bob Ritchie.

Miss Annie Ritchie (a younger woman who says very little) is the daughter of Mrs Helen Ritchie. She calls Mrs Ritchie “Mother” and Mrs Ritchie says Annie was only a little over a year old when the ice destroyed the bridge in 1903.

The interview begins with Ellen Dennison talking about her father’s cattle, a salt lick where a hundred cattle were lost, and a tale about her sister losing a foot. Helen Ritchie then talks about her parents’ arrival in Bluff in August 1862, on the vessel ‘The Flying Mist’ which was wrecked – though the passengers and sheep on it were saved. They moved to Kawarau Falls [Kawarau Station] in 1869. Her father was a shepherd. He didn’t go in for gold mining, but knew a lot of miners. She says the population of the area was larger in those days compared to the present day [1948], due to the gold mining.

There is discussion on the lives of women in the 1860s and 1870s. Ellen Dennison says they worked hard, milking cows, baking bread and looking after children. There is mention of Tom Graham and the O’Phees. She says she moved to Macetown when she was 15 and worked as a cook in Eliot’s Hotel. She talks about the dances and music. There were quadrilles held every Saturday night in the winter time.

Helen Ritchie then speaks further about living at Kawarau Station. She recalls the bridge being built, and the first school and schoolmasters, Mr Brown and Mr Fleming. Her family moved to the Nevis Valley in 1873, and she recalls when the school opened there in 1878 there were thirty children, from mining and farming families. She says there were upwards of 200 Chinese living in the Nevis Valley at the time, and a number of settled mining families. The majority of Chinese were miners, but there were two stores owned by Chinese men also. She says the Chinese were good neighbours, very peaceable.

Helen Ritchie goes on to talk about housekeeping in the 1870s. They received rations of flour, sugar, tea, and sometimes rice, and they killed their own mutton. Rations were brought in once or twice a year. For lighting, they used candles (which she made herself), and later they got kerosene lamps. She explains the process of making the candles, using clean rendered mutton fat. Miners used a ‘slush lamp’ for light. This was a tin filled with fat, with a rolled-up rag in the centre for a wick. Ellen Dennison also recalls this form of lighting.

The conversation moves on to cover how sickness was dealt with – people had to ride on a ‘hack’ to see the doctor. Helen Ritchie says they wouldn’t send for a doctor when at Nevis, as he was 25 miles away and charged 25 pounds to ride out. Later, Dr Morris brought the fee down to 10 pounds. Bob Ritchie then speaks about travelling to see Dr Morris to fetch him for a severe case; the woman died before he could get there.

Bob Ritchie says his parents arrived in 1863, and moved to the Nevis Valley in 1888. His father was a baker, working in Bannockburn for a long time before going into mining. His father would make his own oven, at first with local stone, and later with bricks. He would get his flour from Mr Butell in Arrowtown who had a mill. Bread sold for around a shilling for a four-pound loaf. Bob Ritchie’s father would deliver bread to the miners on the gold fields up on the Carrick, and to Nevis.

Bob Ritchie first started working helping his father baking, then killing sheep, a bit of gold mining, then cartage including carrying mail to Nevis from 1929. He had two horses to carry the mail, and later a buggy. Snow sometimes made travel difficult. He then speaks about the Chinese miners, saying they were good customers, and they worked hard at mining. He tells of one young Chinese man who bashed an older man with a shovel, and a Chinese doctor came to help.

There is then discussion about the use of opium among some of the Chinese miners. Bob Ritchie says they used a horn bottle, and a long pin similar in shape to a light knitting needle or a hat pin, with a flat bowl. They would light the bowl and smoke the opium, often falling asleep if they smoked a lot. Helen Ritchie says the opium was a thin putty-like substance, which turned into a powder when burned. Some Chinese would swallow the powder as a medicine. Some white men also smoked opium – “Opium Bob” is mentioned, and a brother of John R Reid. Ellen Dennison says they were stopped by the police. Helen Ritchie then describes the smell of burning opium as a “deadly, heavy smell”.

The group then talks about Chinese New Year celebrations. Helen Ritchie recalls one event on the Nevis that the miners and their wives were invited to. The Chinese were cooking for about three days beforehand (using a lot of oil), there were a number of different dishes, rice, and tea served in small bowls.

There were fireworks at the celebrations too: crackers twisted around a long pole twenty feet high – the fireworks would be lit at the bottom, and go off one after the other to the top. Children were also given packets of crackers. Helen Ritchie recalls a time someone tried to cut a Chinese man’s hair off. She says cutting a Chinese man’s hair seemed to be the biggest offence that could be done against them.

There is discussion about early missionaries, including a Reverend Don, who would preach to the Chinese miners in their own language. He wasn’t Chinese, but had spent some years living in China. There was a Presbyterian minister and a Methodist minister (one being Reverend Drake) that would go out amongst the European miners also.

Ellen Dennison says there were a small number of Māori living in the area, who worked in the Brackens area. A Māori man named Moses also worked in the gold mines, and ‘Captain’ Jackson Barry had a number of Māori working in the Macetown area. Bob Ritchie recalls Sir George Grey visiting Jackson Barry in Cromwell (the Mayor of Cromwell at the time).

Helen Ritchie worked at the bank in Arrowtown in 1882. She recalls gold coming to the bank from the mining at Macetown. She tells of one ‘cake’ of gold that came in, the size of a large bowl and about as heavy as she could lift. It was lodged at the bank for one night before being taken away. Bob Ritchie recalls seeing the gold escorts - policemen who would take the gold to Dunedin by coach. He then recalls the Cobb and Co. coaching company, who had many routes throughout Otago. They had many horses – George O’Phee (Ellen Dennison’s husband) supplied chaff for them.

Ellen Dennison then speaks about the method of cutting the chaff. She would help out with the work, milk the cows before and after, and also cook the meals. For years, she would get up at four in the morning and go to bed at eleven at night. She speaks further about her work, including making butter – about a hundred pounds a week. Her son made for her a large box churn, in which she would make about thirty pounds of butter at a time. This would be sold to the miners at Macetown for ten pence a pound. She would also bake bread, and explains how she would make bacon. There was also harrowing and fencing work. Bob Ritchie also speaks about cutting chaff – he did this work after coming home from working in the mines.

Helen Ritchie speaks about entertainments, including dances every Saturday night during the Winter months [the quadrilles mentioned earlier in the interview]. There were great balls in Macetown which were very popular with the miners. The dances would go from 8pm through to sunrise. The miners would often wear their “rig out”: red shirts and white moleskin trousers, with a sash around the middle.

Another entertainment was the annual school picnic, on New Year’s Day, or the day after. The picnic would be followed by a dance that night. There is discussion about the food put on for the event, and then talk of women’s fashion – there is mention of ankle length dresses, “leg of mutton” sleeves, tight waists, and high necks. Fabrics were mostly cotton or wool in darker colours, without prints. Children wore frocks and pinafores. Helen Ritchie says that bustles were worn after crinolines went out of fashion. Crinolines were sometimes five feet in diameter, with three hoops. She says they didn’t look too bad on a tall woman, but on a short woman they looked ridiculous. Up to three petticoats were worn underneath. There was also a fashion for large hats in the mid-1870s, and elderly women wore bonnets. Shawls and capes were also worn. Ellen Dennison says she carried her babies in a large shawl, which she wore tied at the front – she didn’t have a perambulator.

There is discussion on the usefulness of gin cases, which were used to hold babies when travelling; as furniture (two or three would make a big cupboard); and as cradles. They were made of good wood, and were always painted red.

There is mention of Bully Hayes, who had a hotel in the area, and was feared as a bit of a wild character. He also ran a pub and a dance saloon near the mouth of Bush Creek. He had a child with a Miss Buckingham [called his wife in this interview, though they were likely not married]. Later both Miss Buckingham and the child were drowned on the West Coast. Miss Annie Ritchie tells a story of Bully Hayes unsuccessfully attempting to take some gold from a lady in Macetown. She had hidden the gold in her umbrella handle.

Helen Ritchie says Arrowtown was once called “Fox’s”, named after the man who supposedly found the first gold in the early 1860s. Ellen Dennison says the richest area for gold was around Arthur’s Point. This is followed by Bob and George Ritchie giving more detail on cartage and mail-carrying work. Bob Ritchie would carry the mail every Winter, from 1929 until ordered by his doctor to give it up.

Bob and George Ritchie then talk about working the dredge, and difficult times with ice in Winter. Bob Ritchie recalls the miners having a hard time with the cold weather - including one miner named Mr Renshaw who got frost-bitten feet, and either lost his feet or died after being taken to hospital. He then talks about a bridge (on the Nevis River) which had loose and rotten piles being swept away by ice in the river. Helen Ritchie also recalls the bridge being swept away. Afterwards there was no way to cross the river until a wire and cage was installed.

The interview concludes with tales from Bob Ritchie about fording the Nevis River with many horses, when it was flowing dangerously high.

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Year 1948

Reference number 5727

Media type AUDIO

Collection Sound Collection

Genre Oral histories
Interviews (Sound recordings)
Sound recordings

Credits Dennison, Ellen, Interviewee
Ritchie, Robert R. (b.1863), Interviewee
Ritchie, Helen D. (b.1863), Interviewee
Ritchie, George, Interviewee
New Zealand Broadcasting Service. Mobile Recording Unit, Broadcaster

Duration 02:17:09

Date 02 Nov 1948