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William Sharman Crawford (Billy) Nicholl, the prospector who discovered the Martha lode at Waihi: his life, told largely in his own words

Billy Nicholl was that rare miner, one who recorded his life. Born in Ireland, when still a boy he arrived in New Zealand in 1862. After his father died at an early age, he acquired a step-father, whom he disliked, with good reason; and in her later years his mother’s mind would fade. From 1868, when he was probably aged 14, until shortly before his death, he was a prospector and miner. Excited by the early Thames mining days, he learnt the skills needed to be a successful prospector, and during the 1870s worked with several mates on the Coromandel field, with some success. After briefly participating in the Te Aroha rush of 1880, he saw from the summit of that mountain the outcrops of the Waihi reefs, and turned his attention to that largely unexplored area. Although there was considerable claim and counter-claim about who first explored the area and who first found gold, Nicholl was the first to discover a payable lode, the famous Martha. After telling his mates of his discovery, they marked out the line of reef and started to develop several claims. For a time Nicholl was in charge of developing his find, and took a leading part in attempting for form a company to work the ground, succeeding on the third attempt. For a while he operated the first battery. But in time he lost control over his discovery and, far from profiting, lost a large amount of money. After leaving Waihi for Karangahake, he would be forced into bankruptcy in 1884. His first experience of overseas prospecting was in Fiji, where he found traces of gold but nothing payable. Returning to Waihi, he struggled to earn a living for his young family, taking contracts and owning a small farm to supplement his mining endeavours, notably at Maratoto in the 1890s. During that decade his wife abandoned him and their children, and to make his fortune – and because of the lure of another gold rush – he went to Klondike, where he had many exciting experiences but, being unable to mine there, returned poorer than before. In Nicholl’s last years he did some farming but his main interest continued to be prospecting, and he explored the Waitekauri area into his eighties until declining health forced him to desist. In his later years he recorded details of his life, notably several versions of the discovery of the Martha lode, to the great benefit of posterity.
Working Paper
Type of thesis
Te Aroha Mining District Working Papers
Hart, P. (2016). William Sharman Crawford (Billy) Nicholl, the prospector who discovered the Martha lode at Waihi: his life, told largely in his own words. (Te Aroha Mining District Working papers, No. 57). Hamilton, New Zealand: University of Waikato, Historical Research Unit.
Historical Research Unit, University of Waikato
© 2016 Philip Hart

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