A group of workers pose outside a rough looking mine entrance, some time in the 1920s or 1930s..

Waiuta: Memories of a Ghost Town

29 Apr 2024
Inspired by the exhibition Cast In Light, we searched the Archive for audiovisual records of Waiuta, a now-abandoned gold mining town.


Hero image: Group of miners waiting to go underground at head of Blackwater shaft in Waiuta. Divis, Joseph, 1885-1967: Photographs of New Zealand gold mining. Ref: 1/2-233070-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/45730989

An exhibition currently at the National Library called Cast in Light: Life in a Mining Town offers visitors a local’s view of the West Coast ghost town Waiuta in its heyday.

Waiuta was founded in 1905 around a gold mine, and at its peak it was home to about 600 people. It was a busy little community while it was the company town for the South Island's largest gold mine, but when the mine closed in 1951 there was no other work and it quickly emptied out. Fortunately for historians, a miner called Jos Divis was also a skilled photographer, and he left behind a detailed record of life in Waiuta during its boom years.

In Divis’ black and white photographs, we see New Zealanders at work and play in the early to mid-20th century, including men in the subterranean world of the mineshaft itself. One striking image from 1931 shows a court of beauty queens in dreamy white dresses, posed in front of the imposing and grimy mine buildings. You get the impression that the mine was at the centre of town life.

A row of people in fancy dress pose in front of a West Coast mine, as part of their small town's Queen Carnival.

Group posed outside mine buildings during Queen Carnival

Divis, Joseph, 1885-1967: Photographs of New Zealand gold mining. Ref: 1/2-233178-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/45743135

Watch and listen

To complement Divis’ photographs, some of which you can view online here, we’re sharing a few audiovisual items that tell the story of Waiuta.

This striking amateur film takes us into the mines with the men who worked there. A series of processes and tasks are depicted in and around South Island gold mines, including the one at Waiuta.

Spectrum 188: The Streets were Paved with Gold

The long running series Spectrum took listeners to Waiuta several times over the years. In episode 188 two former residents take host Alwyn Owen on a tour of the ghost town and meet the one remaining person who lives there.

Spectrum 536: Return to Waiuta

At Easter 1986, Waiuta hosted a town reunion. Attendees shared their fond memories with the Spectrum crew, and several mention how devastated they felt when they were forced to leave.

Spectrum 624: Packhorses and Public Works

Life was not easy in Waiuta, and the work took a serious toll on many miner’s bodies. Joe Cooper lost his father to silicosis from breathing quartz dust, a common problem that left families unsupported.

Ghost of a Gold Town

In this 1968 radio documentary, former residents of Waiuta share their memories of life in the town.