Saturday, January 3, 2009

Coal in them thar Rosebank Flats!

In 1882, steps were taken by Avondale's community leaders, such as John Bollard and Francis Gittos, to become involved with investigating a possible coalfield in Avondale. It certainly, for a time, caught local imaginations.

A decade before, probably something that was keenly recalled, Walter McCaul stuck his neck out and put his finances on the line for the idea that coal existed beneath his Waikumete property. On 22 November 1872, he called a meeting of interested businessmen and investors at the British Hotel.

A meeting of gentlemen interested in prospecting for a coal mine at the Whau was held at the British Hotel, Queen-street, yesterday. There was a fair attendance. Mr. J. Buchanan occupied the chair. Mr. W. McCaul, the convenor of the meeting, read the report of Mr. Kelsall, the person engaged in testing the ground at the Whau, from which it appeared that after sinking 5ft. he came on a bed of fireclay. At 9ft. a blue shale and sandstone was cut, and at a depth of 28ft. a small seam of coal was met. The boring was down 47ft., and the report further stated that the strata from the top to the bottom were of a true coal indication. Some discussion took place as to the best mode of going to work to have the ground thoroughly tested, and whether it should be confined to the ground on which the boring was at present being carried on, or whether it should be extended to the surrounding district. It was proposed that a committee, consisting of Messrs. Rowe, Keesing, Gibbon, and Buchanan, be appointed to visit the district and to report at another meeting to be held within the next 14 days, as to the best place to commence operations upon. An amendment was made to the effect that a collector should be appointed to collect subscriptions to assist Mr. McCaul in the matter, and that he should continue the boring. The amendment was lost, and the original motion was carried. A vote of thanks to the Chairman.
(Southern Cross, 23 November 1872)

Unfortunately, by March the following year, McCaul's prospects as the owner of West Auckland's first coal mine were well and truly kiboshed.

On several occasions our readers have been made acquainted with the progress which is being made by Mr. Walter McCaul in his borings for coal in the Whau district. The boring was being satisfactorily proceeded with, and every indication existed to show that coal was near at hand. A depth of 292ft. had been reached, and in that distance several thin seams of coal had been cut through. The various strata gone through indicated underlying coal. A good seam of coal discovered within seven miles of the city, and at a point where vessels could sail up to and take on board a cargo of coal, and land it on the Queen-street Wharf within an hour, would most materially advance the commercial interests of Auckland. Coal found at that depth would likely have been of a more compact nature than any yet found in New Zealand, because it would have been subjected to a sufficient superincumbent weight to have produced a degree of solidification not otherwise attainable. The successful opening up of coal measures under such circumstances would have at least proved that there were exceptions even in that community which was maligned a few years ago as being wanting in public spirit. Unfortunately for the completion of Mr. McCaul's work, and the realisation of his expectations, he was under the necessity of borrowing the set of boring rods belonging to the province. A brief history of this work at this time will be interesting, and will show how the Provincial Government aids in the development of the resources of "our province."

For many years Mr. McCaul has been persuaded that a seam of coal underlies the whole of the Whau district. In August last year he heard that a vote had been taken in the previous session of the Provincial Council to aid in the development of coal seams within the province, and on the 8th of that month made application to the Provincial Government (Mr. Joseph May being then deputy-Superintendent, while Mr. Gillies was attending the General Assembly) for some aid, stating that coal existed on his ground at the Whau. On the 24th of that month Mr. May replied to the application, stating that there have no funds available out of which a money grant could be made for the purpose named, but expressed his willingness to place a set of boring-rods at Mr. McCaul's disposal, to be placed in the hands of a practical man to test the discovery. To this letter Mr. McCaul replied on the 26th of September, informing Mr. May that he had engaged Mr. Richard Kelsall to conduct the boring operations, who, along with four other practical and skilled mining engineers, had expressed an opinion that a good seam of coal would be found at the place indicated.

Mr. McCaul suggested that a grant of £50 should be made to aid in defraying the boring expenses, and proposed that such amount could be taken from the vote of General Contingencies if no other funds were available. The rods having been obtained were being employed under the direction of Mr. Kelsall, & gentlemen who had large experience in coal-mining. To Mr. McCaul's last letter Mr. H. H. Lusk replied on the 9th October, re-asserting the inability of the Government to give any pecuniary aid to the work of opening up the coal measured at the Whau. Meanwhile rapid progress was being made in boring operations, and, as one thin seam of coal after another was cut through, the hope of the workers brightened, and a sum of some £140 had been expended on the work. Mr. Gillies, however, had meantime returned from Wellington, and further progress is arrested. About the middle of February last Mr. McCaul got the first intimation of the " public-spiritedness " of his Honor's Government, by receiving the following letter :—

"Superintendent's Office, Auckland, May 15, 1873. Sir,— I have the honour to request that you will immediately return to Mr. Allright the boring-rods belonging to the Provincial Government, which have been in your possession for some time past. When those rods were lent to you, it was stipulated that they should be returned within a certain time; and, as that period has now long since elapsed, and many applications have boon received for the loan of the rods, Government cannot allow you any longer the use of them. Be good enough to give prompt attention to this request.—I have, &c., T. B. Gillies. Superintendent – Mr. W McCaul, High-street, Auckland”

To this letter Mr. McCaul replied as follows :— " Waikomiti, February 21, 1873 —Sir, I beg to acknowledge receipt of your Honor’s letter dated 15th instant, requesting the immediate return of the boring rods, and stating the stipulated time for which they were lent to me has long since expired, and that Government cannot allow me any longer the use of them. In reply, I beg to say that I got a portion of the rods, 239ft., until the 7th instant, a few days previous to which I discovered that the Government had 60ft. more, for which I applied first to Mr. Allright, who said he was perfectly willing if Mr. Lusk was. I immediately saw Mr. Lusk, who would not at the time say yes or no, but agreed, if I should send for the additional rods in the course of a few days, that, in the event of their being given to me, it would as a matter of course follow that I should have a reasonable extension of time to use them. The rods are now all down except 35ft., which I cannot make sure of putting down in less than three weeks, which I hope your Honor will be so kind as to grant; but if I accomplish it sooner, they shall be returned the moment I have done. — I am, &c, W. McCaul — T. B. Gillies, Esq., Superintendent."

Although it was manifest from the above letter that the rods were being made good use of, and that every additional foot put down was bringing the hidden object of their search so much nearer, the small privilege sought was refused in the following spirited terms: — "Superintendent’s Office, Auckland, 26th February, 1873. Sir,— In reply to your letter dated the 21st instant, I have the honour to inform you that you cannot any longer have the use of the boring rods, as there are other persons who have prior claims to the use of them in localities where they can with certainty be more usefully employed. You will, therefore, have the goodness to return the rods without delay. —I am, &c., Thomas B. Gillies, Superintendent. — Mr. W. McCaul, Waikomiti, Auckland."

The boring rods have been returned to the Provincial Government, and further progress in the work at the Whau is at an end. It is reported that the rods are to be, or have been, sent to Mangonui, to test the coal measures believed to exist in that locality. It is evident that a hardship has been inflicted upon Mr. McCaul by the action of his Honor’s Government. Expenses had not been incurred at Mangonui, as had been done at the Whau, and therefore there was no immediate urgency in the case. When Mr. McCaul was daily using the rods at considerable expense to himself it would have been but fair that he should have had their use while he was willing to work them, or at least for some time longer than was allowed. No one can calculate beforehand the length of time that will be required to reach by boring a certain depth, as progress in such operations depends so much upon the condition of the strata through which the rods must pass, and there does not seem to have been any unnecessary delay caused in the use of the rods at the Whau.

By the decision come to a large amount of money has been spent in vain, which there is reason to believe would not have been the case if the rods had not been so abruptly taken away. Again, his Honor appears to set himself up as a geological authority, for he tells Mr. McCaul that the rods are now to be used in a locality where they can “with certainty be more usefully employed." What his Honor's qualifications are to thus pronounce dogmatically upon the coal-prospecting operations at the Whau, which by inference he does, we are not informed. He will probably find that the community are not quite unanimous in pronouncing him a qualified judge to decide upon such a case as this, and certainly a promising venture has been for the present nipped in the bud by the exercise of what seems ill-timed caprice.
(Southern Cross, 28 March 1873)

Moving forward, to 1882. According to a history of Avondale written in 1952 by a Mrs. W. Ritchie, a quantity of fine peat was discovered on Dr. Daniel Pollen's vast holdings at the tip of Rosebank Peninsula, and this was what led to speculation that where there's peat, there's coal. A public meeting on 1 October 1882 at Avondale's public hall led to the settlers to apply to the Government for the use of boring rods so they could conduct the same tests McCaul worked on 10 years before, on the other side of the Whau River.

The Premier himself, Sir Frederick Whitaker, promised in early November to send the Government geologist, Mr. Cox, to examine the signs of coal deposits found. The Weekly News of 14 April 1883 reported what seems to be the final word on the carboniferous deposits in the Whau:
Mr. Cox, Government Geologist, has paid an official visit to the Avondale district to report as to the nature and character of the district re coal formation. He will report in due course to the committee appointed at the public meeting, but we have reason to believe that the report will be unfavorable, and that Mr. Cox, who has previously made an exploration of the district, does not anticipate the finding of coal seams in Avondale.
An update (7 August 2009): Mrs. Ritchie's 1952 history was incorrect, but only in that the discovery wasn't made on Pollen's land, but on Dr. Thomas Aickin's estate. In October 1882, his former farm was put up for sale in subdivisions.
"Dr. Aickin's Avondale estate will be sold to-day at noon by T. W. Hickson and Co. The district is a rising one, and bids fair not only to be the residence of a large suburban population, but the seat of a series of important industries owing to the fine clay deposits existing there for brick making as well as for the finer classes of pottery. The recent discovery of lignite coal must also have an important bearing on its commercial future. As the district is connected with the city both by road and rail the steady increase in the value of property there may be regarded as assured and certain."
(NZ Herald, 24 October 1882)

"The important discovery made within the last few days at Avondale, on the property of Dr. Aickin, of extensive beds of lignite exactly similar in character to that found overlying the Bay of Islands coal mines, is likely within a short time to lead to important results, as we learn that a movement is now on foot amongst owners of property in the neighbourhood to thoroughly test the substrata, in the belief that coal will be found to underlie the lignite seams at no great depth below them. An application will be made to the Government for the use of the diamond drill for the purpose. We are glad to see the matter so energetically taken up by those immediately interested, and should be pleased to see their efforts crowned with success. The importance to Auckland of a discovery of coal in such close proximity to the shipping and to the city is obvious. Large barges can be brought right up against the bank where the find has been made, and the coal delivered into them direct from the pit's mouth and delivered alongside any vessel in the harbour within an hour. A branch line of railway about a mile in length, and over perfectly level ground, could be taken from a little beyond the Avondale station right to the ground."

(NZ Herald, 24 October 1882)

I now also know that Benjamin Gittos was chairman of the committee of five gentlemen appointed at the district meeting on 31 October 1882 "to collect information as to the most practical and business-like way to set to work". He was too ill to attend the second district meeting in December. (NZ Herald, 9 December 1882) At that meeting, they decided to await the word back from Cox, the Government Geologist seen above, the word from him was negative.

Update 12 June 2011:
This from the Evening Post, 18 May 1928

Some excitement was caused in Avondale by a rumour that jets of steam were issuing from the ground on the property owned by the Avondale Jockey Club, and formerly the site of a brick works. It appears that some three months ago a fire was lighted in the locality to burn some rubbish and the heat had caused an outcrop of lignite to catch fire. This had been smouldering underneath the ground ever since. It had made such headway that a good deal of heat was generated and the heavy rain this week had evidently penetrated a fissure in the ground, coming into contact with the burning matter. Lignite will burn or smoulder for many months, as on a previous occasion a lignite seam on an adjoining property burned throughout the winter.

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