Thumbnail Image

Financial struggles and (rare) successes of miners in general and at Te Aroha in particular

The price for gold mined at Waiorongomai was comparatively good during the 1880s and 1890s. But miners hoping for a windfall from their efforts found that the reality of their lives was a constant struggle to make a reasonable living. Although the cost of living in the Te Aroha district was somewhat lower than in some other mining centres, they faced considerable costs in obtaining mining requisites, treating ore, and paying for tramway cartage. As wages were low, usually not significantly above those of unskilled labourers, it was common to supplement wages with other work plus working small allotments. In general, miners preferred to be independent workers rather than ‘wage slaves’, in the expectation of higher rewards, but in practice such miners had to combine mining with other work. At least wages men (when in work) received a steady income compared with independent miners. Holidays were unpaid. Increasingly, contractors were preferred by mine owners, with competition for these sometimes driving down tenders to unprofitable levels. Wages were paid monthly, if then, forcing miners to sue for unpaid wages and to live on credit, which caused problems for storekeepers and miners alike, the latter being encouraged by this system to live beyond their means. Many were forced to borrow money, and many were sued for small debts. Bankruptcy was common, and some were fraudulent. Sometimes debts of both individuals and companies had to be waived, and sometimes debtors evaded paying, for instance by moving elsewhere. Work was not always available, nor was it constant; shortage of water-power, for instance, meant batteries could not operate and mining had to cease, forcing miners to seek other work. Irregular employment usually meant poverty, and local and national government was asked to provide work in periods of high unemployment. Financially desperate miners (like others) sought work elsewhere, with varying success. Unemployment could lead to suicide, and in one case financial loss provoked an attempted murder. In general, the standard of living was low, and few miners were able to save much money. Indeed some did not try to save, wastefully spending any sudden (and rare) wealth, notably on alcohol. Examples are provided of poverty and its consequences for both miners and non-miners. Before old-age pensions were provided, children were required by law to assist their aged parents. Charity, both institutional and personal, assisted many poor, elderly, sick, or (in the case of wives and families) abandoned. Although some examples of prosperity are given, these were unusual. It has been argued that nineteenth century miners should be seen as ‘free independent capitalists’, but their freedom rarely brought significant financial rewards.
Working Paper
Type of thesis
Te Aroha Mining District Working Papers
Hart, P. (2016). Financial struggles and (rare) successes of miners in general and at Te Aroha in particular. (Te Aroha Mining District Working papers, No. 49). Hamilton, New Zealand: University of Waikato, Historical Research Unit.
Historical Research Unit, University of Waikato
© 2016 Philip Hart