Mobile Unit. Alexandra memories

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A group interview with elderly Alexandra residents Louis Reilly, Gus Magnus, Catherine Sawyer and Miss M. N. Symons. They discuss their memories of early Alexandra, including details of early settlement, floods, mining, schools, children, and Chinese and Irish miners.

The recording begins with Miss Symons (born in Otago in 1894) speaking about her grandparents, Mr and Mrs Lewis Cameron, who arrived in New Zealand (via Australia) in 1862. They travelled in the ship ‘Muldora’, and on arrival first spent some time in Waitahuna before moving on to Alexandra in 1863. There is some discussion of the journey to Alexandra.

The group talks about flooding in 1878, and also of the ferry which ran before the bridge was built. Mr Dooley ran the punt with his father, and Mr McKearsie. Miss Symons reads from her Aunt’s memoirs (Kate Cameron, later Scott) about the 1878 floods, the punt, and schools. There is discussion about the duties children undertook, including helping out with younger children, cooking, and cleaning.

Miss Symons speaks about the price of mutton and schooling (from her Aunt’s memoirs). Evening school was a penny a night, and day school was sixpence a week. The evening school was not just for children - adults would attend, after working during the day. There is further group discussion about schools and Sunday school.

The Alexandra Bridge across the Clutha River was opened on 1 June 1882, the contract to build it having been carried out by Messrs Drummie Symons and Beresford, with the Engineer L D McGeorge, and the stone masonry by local men. The opening of the bridge was undertaken with much ceremony and celebration.

The group then discusses gold mining, including the discovery of a large gold nugget helping to start the gold rush in the area. A population of several thousand lived across the river, many in tents. Water was supplied to the township in a large water barrel, at one time by a Chinese man – he was said to have the best water. The group talks further about water supply, including from a reservoir up on a hill, with water run down the gutters. This water was used for cleaning and washing, and Miss Symons says it was no wonder there was a bad typhoid outbreak, due to the poor conditions of the water facilities.

Catherine Sawyer (born 1858) speaks about her arrival in Alexandra, which was a very small township at the time. She speaks about the miners and rabbiters, and the [gold] dredging which started later. When Gus Magnus arrived in 1885, there was one Dunedin steam dredge on the river. He speaks about the “current wheeler” on the river, run first by Captain Hodges, whose share was later taken over by Magnus’ brother. It was a pontoon (or two pontoons) with a large wheel approximately 20 feet in diameter. Both the current wheel and the steam dredges had buckets to bring up dirt and gravel from the riverbed. The dirt and gravel was sent through a chute to be washed and screened for gold. Gus Magnus worked as a Dredge Master at one time, and could get up to 120 ounces in a week on ‘the little current wheeler’. He also talks about Richard Seddon visiting a dredge in Greymouth.

Louis Reilly (born in Waipori in 1879) then talks about travel by coaches and bullock drays. Mr Fowler ran a team of bullocks (up to 30 in one team) at Roxburgh. Another team was owned by the Ottrays. The roads were quite bad at the time - just mud, not metalled. The first roads were made by the bullock drays. The group then talks about stone masonry, and the construction of bridges.

There is much discussion about the Chinese who used to live in the area. Catherine Sawyer says the Chinese were good for Alexandra, they lived all over the area and kept the town going. Louis Reilly says the treatment some of the Chinese received was disgraceful. There is mention of the pigtails they wore, and that some lived in the back of Ventry Street.

Catherine Sawyer reads from her Aunt’s notes about the Chinese miners. They were very law-abiding, and at their New Year would treat the children with preserved ginger and little rice biscuits. At one point the Chinese were “hustled out of the town” and moved up to Chinatown. When her brother George died, some of the local Chinese asked to hold a service at the grave, as they liked ‘Ah-Georgie’, as they called him, who would pack and cart their goods, write letters, and do business for them. Miss Symons recalls her grandmother speaking about the Chinese also – they used to send her grandmother a meal served in many small dishes, and she heard them singing at their religious services.

Catherine Sawyer continues to speak about Chinese New Year - the celebrations lasted for around a fortnight, and there were fireworks and music. There is further discussion about Chinese storekeepers, including Chin Lu, and “Kah Mu”; then about the Chinese gambling and playing a game called Fan Tan. They had patience with gold fossicking, and lived on very little. They didn’t go in for gold dredging in the Alexandra area, though there was a Chinese man named Sew Hoy who had dredges at the Shotover. Miss Symons then recalls Chinese being involved in market gardening, and a Chinese man who was brought up in Scotland and spoke perfect English.

There is a tale of a sheep carcass being disguised as a dead Chinese man, and dropped in the river as a practical joke. Then a tale of a goose which turned out to be just a skin stuffed with sand. They then talk about a Chinese man who actually did go missing, and speculate that other Chinese were to blame.

Louis Reilly lists the shopkeepers in Alexandra in the 1860s and 1870s, then talks about a coach driver. The group then talks about how the fruit industry started in the area, some of the first growers being Mr Terry, Mr Dawson, Mr Iverson, and Mr Nobles. Miss Symons recalls her mother saying that when she was a girl the Dawsons employed Chinese on their fruit orchard in the 1860s. There is further discussion on fruit, and the Cape Broom Hotel.

Louis Reilly then lists some facts about prices of items in the early Otago gold fields, and irrigation. Miss Symons then speaks about ‘lost industries’ of the area including coal mining, breweries, and flour mills. Louis Reilly then tells a story about Irish miners dragging their coats in the streets in Alexandra, then a tale about an Irishman named Dan Hanlan, and concludes with a tale about a man named John Lamey and a horse.

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Year 1948

Reference number 5613

Media type AUDIO

Collection Sound Collection

Genre Oral histories
Interviews (Sound recordings)
Sound recordings

Credits Reilly, Louis G. (b.1879), Speaker/Kaikōrero
Magnus, Gus (b.1863), Speaker/Kaikōrero
Sawyer, Catherine (b.1858), Speaker/Kaikōrero
Symons, M. N. (b.1894), Speaker/Kaikōrero
New Zealand Broadcasting Service. Mobile Recording Unit, Broadcaster

Duration 01:48:18

Date 1948