This issue we take a step back to the nineteenth century with the story of the Seven Irishmen of Tinkers, whose tenacity in the face of extreme odds saw them develop the Undaunted Mine in Central Otago. Their incredible story, and that of their benefactor Gilbert Sinclair, was documented in the July 1948 issue of the New Zealand School Journal. Thanks to Marie Hopkins (granddaughter of Thomas Donnelly, who later managed the Undaunted Mine Company) for passing on the journal, which provides us with a fascinating glimpse into the past.
The discovery of gold in New Zealand in the later half of the nineteenth century saw the arrival of many adventurous, energetic, and hard-working men to the country.
Among them was a group known as the Seven Irishmen, who in the 1870s, left behind a life of poverty in Ireland to try their luck in the gold fields of Central Otago.
The group included Tom and Peter Flannery, whose mother encouraged them to look for opportunities on other side of the world as there was “little to be got in Tyrone”, where they were subsisting on potatoes, eggs, buttermilk and stir-about (porridge).
However life wouldn’t prove much easier in New Zealand in the beginning, so it was perhaps just as well the men were used to working hard and doing without.
Although known as the Seven Irishmen there was actually eight of them, the Flannery brothers, John Leamy, Patrick Murphy, Andrew Murphy, Edward Murphy, Patrick McDonald and John Slattery.
They had been told about a claim at Tinkers (now Matakanui) by Felix Donnelly who worked the nearby Blue Duck claim, and could see it had definite potential.
However no one else had taken the claim up because of the huge amount of work that would be required to establish it.
“When they (the Irishmen) prospected around, they found there was a great deal of overburden, but there was gold underneath they were sure of that. All they had to do was bring water to the claim and wash the gold out,” said the story in the School Journal.
“They hunted about for water but of course every miner wanted water and every creek belonged to someone else. The nearest water was at Chatto creek, twenty-one miles away. The labour of building a race would be enormous and they had practically no money, but nothing could daunt those seven Irishmen.”
The men called on Gilbert Sinclair, an Englishman who ran a store at Blacks (now Ophir).
In those days it was customary for storekeepers to stake miners with food and other necessities, sometimes for months while they prepared their claims.
He agreed to stake them, knowing the task ahead of the Irishmen was huge and that he wouldn’t be paid until they started to recover gold, if there was any.
The Irishmen set to work building the 21 mile water race, identifying a place well up a hill for the head of the pipeline so they would have enough pressure at the sluicing point.
They marked out the line of the water race with a spirit level, sighting from spur to spur along the side of the mountains until they arrived at Chatto creek.
Then began the monumental task of constructing the race.
“The water race was made by building up the outside with stones. Then the stone walls were lined with soil which soon became waterproof when wetted. There were millions of stones on the Dunstan mountain sides, but they had to be carried, shaped and fitted in firmly. Some of the walls were built up twenty-five feet where they had to cross cliff faces.”
Through the burning summer and freezing winter the hardy Irishmen worked.
They lived in tents or sod huts they built themselves. When they couldn’t borrow a horse they carried their food on their backs, cooking their mutton and damper over open fires.
Shovels and pick heads were blunted and worn out, and the soles of the mens’ boots were cut to pieces on the sharp schist gravel.
There wasn’t an engineer or surveyor among them but the men understood every yard of the race had to slope just enough to let the water run and no more.
To keep the slope even they used a six foot triangle, fashioned from three boards with a plumb-bob that hung from the apex. It was a simple method of levelling that never failed them.
By the end of the first year they had no money left. Everything from their tea, food and tobacco, to matches, tools and clothes came from Gilbert Sinclair who gave it to them without question.
They toiled on and in the second summer completed their tenth mile, building up walls around steep faces, cutting through outrops of rock, and constructing small aquaducts of boards to carry the water across creeks.
At the beginning of the third year they still had eight miles to go, with some of the hardest sections remaining.
“They looked at the cliff in the gully against which they must build up a great wall to carry their race. They looked at the massive grey rocks that barred their way along the hillside. But they were as hard as rocks themselves by now. Nothing could daunt them. They lifted great slabs of schist, they fitted rock after rock to their wall in a frenzy of tireless toil. And they won.”
At the end of the third year the water race was finished and the sluicing pipes were ready. But there was no guarantee the claim would give up any gold.
They sluiced for ten months and still didn’t know how much gold they would get, or whether they would be able to repay Gilbert Sinclair.
As they began the wash up they were delighted to find their hard labour had paid off, as the mine relinquished a decent amount of gold.
One of the men rode the eight miles on horseback to Sinclair’s store with the first takings and put the bag on the counter in front of him.
Sinclair weighed the gold, and said it would square the Irishmen’s account, but rather than keep the money himself, told the Irishman to take the money back and put it into developing the mine instead.
“I’ve waited four years. I can wait a bit longer,” he said.
The Irishmen worked the claim in the years that followed with great success.
It was originally called Murphy and Party, but after the first wash the name of the mine was changed to Undaunted, in respect of the men’s tenacity, hard work and belief.
They Irishmen later prospected in Southland and Thames and Undaunted Mine was taken over by The Undaunted Gold Mining Company, which was managed by Thomas Donnelly, son of Felix Donnelly, who in 1879 had been killed by a fall of earth while working his Blue Duck claim.
Felix Donnelly’s widow took up farming in order to provide for her 11 children (including Thomas Donnelly) and also ran two hotels, an amazing accomplishment for a woman of the era.
In 1882 Gilbert Sinclair also passed away.
He had fallen ill, and knew he was dying, so when potential beneficiaries started to circle, he brought a lawyer up from Dunedin to make his will, telling him to gather all his accounts.
He was owed thousands of pounds by many miners in the district, some who hadn’t been as lucky as the Irishmen at Undaunted Mine.
“Burn the lot,” he told the lawyer, insisting he did the job right there in front of him.” I’m not going to have my friends persecuted for money when I’m gone.”
The lawyer did as he was asked.
Sinclair’s death was mentioned in the Otago Witness on 27 May 1882, stating, ‘Although his stock of merchandise never shone brilliant or appeared of much value, still at the time of his death he was possessed of much wealth.’
The generous benefactor was gone, but before his death his assistance had been a key to the success of many early gold mining operations in Central Otago, including the Irishmen of Undaunted.
UNDAUNTED MINE UNDER THOMAS DONNELLY
In the early 1890s, Thomas Donnelly became legal manager of the Undaunted Mine.
This was part of an area of 114 acres mined by The Undaunted Mine Company, Matakanui which was registered in March 1898.
Thomas Donnelly wrote in a note in in the New Zealand Mining Handbook of 1906, that, “Matakanui was better known amongst the early diggers as Tinkers, and is so called by many persons to the present day. It is computed that 100,000 ounces of gold has been won by private parties and companies on this rich field from a comparatively small area.”
By this time there were four companies, including Undaunted carrying out operations at Matakanui. Between them they held around 300 acres of unworked ground, with an estimated further 1000 acres of auriferous ground in the locality, said Donnelly’s report.
It is unclear how long mining operations continued at Undaunted. It was still definitely in production in 1914.
Thomas Donnelly was later mentioned in the 1947 book In Search of Central Otago by G. Hugh Sumpter.
Donnelly, then aged over 80, was described in the book as a “spectacular figure and grand old man” with a handsome white beard and a dangerous twinkle in his eye, who talked about the boom days at Tinkers (Matakanui) when there had been about fifteen mining companies in the district, two hotels and one “sly grog” shop.
By the time a writer for the School Journal visited Tom Donnelly and his wife at Matakanui in 1948, and was given a tour of the old workings, the mine had not operated for some time.
“Under our feet were the walls of the old races, built fifty, sixty and seventy years ago, still straight and sound, but dry and no longer used,” said the report. “Wherever you go in this country you find there’s a prospector who’s been there before you. They’ve burrowed into every creek bed and tried every valley. They were the first real explorers.
Donnelly was a miner all his life, and a genuine Central Otago character, known for his toughness and tenacity.
These traits appear to have been passed through the generations, with at least 10 of his direct descendants representing New Zealand at various sports over the years, including great grandsons Bevan Wilson and Tom Donnelly, both former All Blacks; granddaughters Marie Hopkins and Monica Flannery, and great-granddaughter Donna Flannery who all played hockey for New Zealand; Paula Flannery, who was in a World Cup winning New Zealand Women’s cricket team; and Commonwealth Games cycling gold medallist Nigel Donnelly.