Topic: Bright Fine Gold by Heather Whelan

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Archived version here. 

In 1847 when farmer Thomas Stopforth drank himself to death, his eldest son Richard was just twelve years old.  With his mother long dead, a bleak future was on the cards for Richard and his young siblings.  After some years working as a servant on his uncle’s farm, Richard decided to join the crowds heading to the goldfields of Australia. 

A ballad of the era echoes the rumours that spurred a generation of poor and dispossessed men to leave everything and everyone they knew and loved behind: ‘…The yarns that we were told, of how the folks of Aus-tra-li-a would pick up lumps of gold…’ 

Richard’s family farm and also his uncle’s were in the Lancashire countryside, albeit close beside coal mines.  It was an area which was beginning to change from its rural nature into something more industrial, and some of Richard’s family worked as coal miners.  Little in Richard’s experience could have prepared him for pioneer life in Australia.  Even the sea voyage would have been an adventure, possibly terrifying at times.  Richard may well have never seen the sea prior to his arrival at the port of Liverpool.

The young farm boy survived the rigours of the ocean crossing, which would have taken two months or more.  Many ships lost dozens of passengers to fevers, typhoid and dysentery.  However, Richard didn’t find the lumps of gold he had hoped to gather up in Australia.

Undaunted, the illiterate 26-year old dictated a letter to his sister in England from ‘Mr Raynors Township of Ceres, Banabool Hills, near Geelong, Victoria’, dated October 1861.  ‘You will no doubt have heard of the great rush at present taking place to New Zealand where a new gold diggings has been discovered which is reported to be very rich and a great number of persons are going from here every week and if all goes well I shall be off in a short time to try my luck … if I should be fortunate you will soon see me back in old England.’

‘Tit for tat, Ballarat, bright fine gold’ went the jingle on the Australian goldfields.  Richard Stopforth, now a young digger, joined the Australian miners sailing for the new gold rushes in New Zealand.  He might first have tried his luck on the goldfields in Otago or Nelson where the balladeers were already singing about New Zealand’s goldfields: ‘Bright fine gold.  Bright, fine gold.  Wangapeka, Tuapeka, bright, red gold.’

Richard is next heard of in the booming new town of Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island.  Founded on gold mining, it became one of the country’s most populous towns, second only to Auckland at this boom time.

Although many miners searched with little luck at one gold rush area after another, it seems that Richard soon grasped the realities of the now famous song, ‘Bright Fine Gold: ‘I came to make my fortune, far across the sea, but the riches of the river were not for such as me.’ Richard decided to set up a general carriers business and set about buying land on Weld Street.

At this time Hokitika’s main streets around the bustling harbour consisted of little more than hastily built one- and two-storey shops and hotels on dirt roads.  There were two hundred pubs within the radius of a mile.  Thousands of settlers were living in tents on their sections, while others paid three shillings a night to sleep on the floor or on a table in a boarding house or hotel.  The wharves were crowded with up to forty ships at a time, their spars and rigging visible over the settlement.

The town was fairly wild and lawless and a magistrate’s court was set up to deal with offenders.  Richard was fined for being drunk and disorderly in June 1865, the first of many court appearances over the years reported in the local paper, The West Coast Times.

In 1867, three years after setting up in Hokitika as a carrier, Richard married an Irish girl, Catherine Ryan.  They had two children, Margaret, born the following year, and Thomas, born in 1870.  Around this time Richard wrote to his uncle back in England. ‘Dear Uncle, I have sent several letters to you and have not received any reply, and I fancy you must never have received them, as I feel sure you cannot have forgotten the promise you made to me in the last words we had together, before I left home.  I should like to know very much whether you got any money from Uncle George Gaskell out of my father’s sale.’

Whether his uncle, presumably John Stopforth, replied and whether Richard got any inheritance money is not known.  He did, however, forge a life for himself and his family in Hokitika.

 

An idea of how Richard’s life progressed can be pieced together from extracts in the local papers.  There are several instances where he was fined for allowing stock to wander on the roads.  It seemed a common occurrence for others, too, and was probably the nineteenth century version of getting a parking ticket!  Richard could have had a quick temper, though, or a quarrelsome nature, as he was involved in several disputes with his neighbours.

The West Coast Times reported that in June 1877 ‘Mary O’Donnell was charged by Richard Stopforth with assaulting him and using threatening language.  A cross information was laid by Mary O’Donnell against Richard Stopforth for assault and abusive language.  The newspaper reported:  ‘From the evidence it appeared that the parties are neighbours and a quarrel arose between them respecting a piece of timber which Mary O’Donnell picked up.’  Mary O’Donnell said that Richard had knocked her down but he denied this.  Mary’s doctor reported seeing a large bruise on her shoulder and her young son also swore that Richard had knocked his mother down.  The court however found for Richard Stopforth saying, ‘The man was peaceable but the plaintiff was a notorious woman.’

The following year Richard had trouble with another Irish woman.   ‘Annie Donnelly was bound over to keep the peace for six months for assaulting Catherine Stopforth and Richard Stopforth in one surety of twenty pounds or one month’s imprisonment’.

What seems likeliest is that Richard had a drink problem.  In 1884, almost twenty years after he was first fined for being drunk and disorderly, the court made an order ‘prohibiting publicans from supplying Richard Stopforth with liquor for twelve calendar months…on the application and evidence of Catherine Stopforth.’ (His wife.) Since his father died of delirium tremens it is possible that there was a hereditary disposition towards alcoholism.

Richard seems to have had a few other brushes with the law.  He was fined five shillings with costs in 1874 ‘for removing night soil during prohibited hours and depositing the same on a section on Weld Street’. 

On another occasion, in 1886, he was found innocent in a court case because he was illiterate.  The lawyer submitted that Richard Stopforth ‘was an illiterate man and could not read the instrument which the public trustee admitted he had not read word for word.  Stopforth had merely allowed his name to figure on the agreement on behalf of someone else.’  The signature was void because ‘he never intended to sign on his own account and because he did not know what he was signing’.

 

Whether Richard was as innocent as he claims in these court cases, we’ll never know; but in most respects he seems to have been a good husband and father.  Catherine was a Roman Catholic and although Richard was not, their children were brought up as Catholics.  The family took an active part in school, sporting and church events. Richard became a well known pioneer citizen and was recorded giving money to charity causes, including donating towards a fund to set up a library.

 

Richard died in 1887 aged fifty one. The Hokitika Guardian noted that ‘an old resident of Hokitika...Mr Richard Stopforth expired...after a short illness.  He leaves a widow, unfortunately afflicted by blindness and two children.'

Catherine Stopforth lived for another sixteen years as a widow.  Richard’s daughter Margaret had one child and his son Thomas had twelve.

 

Richard Stopforth never returned to England and his family there, nor did he strike it rich on any goldfield, either in Australia or New Zealand.  He was, however, a pioneer settler of Hokitika and the carriers’ business he founded continued for four generations.  Some of his descendants still live on the block of land on Weld Street that he first acquired in 1864. 

 

 

‘Bright Fine Gold’ was written for the Memoir & Local History Competition 2011, run annually by the New Zealand Society of Authors Bay of Plenty Region with support from Tauranga Writers.

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This page archived at Pema CC in October of 2016: https://perma.cc/W6HD-BYWK

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