The Life of a Miner

Following the discovery of gold in Otago, men from all over the world rushed to the southern regions of New Zealand. There they endeavoured to earn themselves a living from mining gold, but life on the fields proved to be extremely tough for all involved. Central Otago, in particular, was an isolated and rugged place. It was an extremely difficult place to get wagons into, and it would often take several weeks to get supplies to the miners on the fields. The men who actually drove the wagons had to cope in extremely harsh conditions for the duration of their journey, with conditions reportedly “cold enough to freeze their beards”.[1]

The miners themselves had much more to worry about than just the cold. Daring miners found themselves crossing rough terrain such as ravines and rivers in order to found new areas where gold could potentially be waiting. Crossing previously-explored areas was potentially life-threatening, as the conditions could be extreme. The environmental factors put these hardy souls at risk, and the infrastructure provided little help. Bridges were described as “primitive and dangerous”[2], and hastily constructed roads and paths made travelling laborious. Mining gold at established goldfields was almost as dangerous, as accidents were common. These accidents often resulted in funerals, as miners were fatally injured by falling boulders and collapsing terraces.[3] Underground miners also ran the risk of falling down the shafts around them. As well as these accidents, miners were also susceptible to sicknesses caused by the conditions they were exposed to on a daily basis. Conditions caused by the inhalation of dust and fumes could result in very nasty sicknesses.  One particular condition, called silicosis, was caused by inhaling quartz dust. This was a very serious condition which caused breathing problems and often proved to be fatal.[4]  Contagious diseases also spread very quickly through the gold mining communities, as open drains and sewers failed to cope with the rapid increase in population. Rates of diphtheria and dysentery were reportedly higher than those in London at the time.[5]

When it was discovered that gold was present on the West Coast of the South Island, there was very little European civilisation present in the area. There were no roads in the area when miners first arrived, so they had to carve paths through the dense bush. There were also no stores in the area, so the miners had to fend for themselves in the wild. They ate food that they could find in the bush, such as kereru, ferns and berries.[6]

Konini Berries Konini Berries, like the ones eaten by the earliest West Coast miners.

Even if a miner made it safely to the gold fields, and wasn’t struck down by disease or an accident, they still faced the day-to-day challenges associated with being a gold miner. These included the physical demands and stress of being in uncomfortable positions for long periods of time, which would often lead to injury.[7] The fatigue and injuries meant that all miners had to be very strong, both mentally and physically. Anyone who wasn’t simply wouldn’t have been able to survive on the fields for a reasonable length of time.

The towns which sprung up around the goldfields presented challenges of their own.  Gold miners would only leave their claims once a week to journey into the nearest town. Many miners would spend this time at their favourite pub, and a culture of drunkenness was developed in and around the goldfields.[8] The presence of alcohol often led to the behaviour of the miners deteriorating, as violence, theft and general trouble-making became an issue in many towns. The fields themselves were not immune to drunken misbehaviour, as alcohol often made its way out to the claims. As well as the potential trickery of those competitive miners who started false claims, the miners also had to watch out for the more serious crimes of claim-jumping, theft, fighting and even murder.[9]

These challenges resulted in gold mining being an extremely hard way for a man to earn a living in the 1860’s. All miners faced these obstacles, but very few hit the big jackpot. Most miners struggled for several years, barely making a profit, only to eventually leave with not a lot to show for their efforts. Miners lived a hard life, and the toughness required to handle the challenges became a feature of the southern miners of the 1860’s.


Some tough Southern miners panning for gold, despite the uncomfortable conditions.

[1] Te Ara, Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Page 3, From

[2] Olssen, Erik and Stenson, Marcia, “A Century of Change -New Zealand 1800-1900”, Published by Longman Paul Limited,Auckland, 1989, Page 168

[5] Brooking, Tom,  “Milestones: Turning Points in New Zealand History”, Mills Publications, 1988,  Page 74

[6] Te Ara, Page 4,

[8] Sinclair, Keith, “A History ofNew Zealand”, Penguin Books, 1959, Page 109


6 responses

5 07 2011
Tyrone Biggums

My life changed dramitically after reading this, I can honestly say I’m changed man. I’ve been rehabilitated and I’m no longer a danger to society.

24 03 2016

same dude

27 02 2014
Billy Tonga

It’s been a while but somehow I always find myself drawn back to this page. The pleasing layout enables me to read with maximal comfort. The time period which it describes truly resonates with my being. As a migrant from the Pacific Islands I feel as though I am one with the miners (many of whom came from overseas to seek their fortunes in this beautiful land of peace and prosperity).

Today was not a good day. My kid was killed in a tragic fire because I did not install smoke alarms. However, a quick read through this quickly restored my faith in humanity. Thank you again for such a compelling look into our history.

Billy Tonga.

28 03 2016

I am truly sorry for your lots.

16 06 2014

sounds hard

28 03 2016

You’re not wrong.

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