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Old, lonely Gillespies
The Catholic church in ruins in the 1920s. It was built in the 1880s, and the altar shipped in from Hokitika. The church was razed in the early 1930s to let the dredge work the site.
A pioneer’s headstone, complete with shamrocks from their Irish homeland.
PICTURE: Department of Conservaton
A dredge worker’s hut in the 1930s or 1940s. The miniature settlement sprang up in much the same place as the origina miners’ l huts.
established in 1865, following the
discovery of gold by James Edwin
Gillespie. It opened simultaneously with
Sandfly (Omoeroa) Beach, just south of
the Waiho River, and soon there were
1500 men on the two fields. By June
1865, the population peaked at more than
At its height the settlement included
11 stores, two butcheries and two
bakeries. By July 1866, as Hokitika and
Greymouth boomed, the population
began to decrease and within four years
there were just 40 stragglers left.
But the construction of water races
in early 1870 saw a resurgence in the
number of miners working the beach
and it began to take on the appearance
of a permanent settlement. Substantial
homes were erected, gardens fenced and
cultivated and in 1872, the first mention
of children was made.
There were two hotels (owned by
McBride and Ryan), and two stores
(run by Richie and Matheson). In
1877, a school was established and a
small wooden church was built by the
predominantly Irish Catholic population.
Although the gold returns declined
quickly, farms were established nearby,
particularly around the Cook River,
towards the present day Fox Glacier.
In 1891 the first gold dredge, the Von
Schmidt, was assembled. It failed and was
sold to 12 men who converted it into a
That failed, too, due to a limited yield
but also the death of the dredge master,
Mr Hartnell, whose legs were caught
in the cogs and badly crushed in 1892.
Although one leg was amputated, he died
In 1895 a visitor reported: ‘The little
town stands about 20 yards from the
beach, where the great surf rolls in night
and day with a thundering noise. The
majority of the population consists of
children under 10 years of age. Besides
the little wooden dwellings of the settlers,
there is a fine school-house with a large
enclosure and a post-office. The latter is
combined with a flourishing store, and
the mails are brought occasionally by a
horseman, who rides along the beach
some 80 miles from Hokitika.’
In 1932, D Fletcher purchased the old
Molyneux dredge, which had previously
worked the Clutha River, for Â£1000 and
brought it to Gillespies Beach to work
the dunes along the foreshore. Dredging
commenced in 1934 and saw an influx of
workers and their wives, with a miniature
settlement of huts and cottages spreading
across the beach in much the same place
as the houses of the earlier township.
When it stopped in 1947, the huts were
gradually dismantled or removed. When
Jack Thompson died in 1956, the beach
was uninhabited for the first time in
nearly 80 years.
The report prepared for DOC says
there was some evidence to suggest the
cemetery was not the first there. The
earliest date on a headstone is 1890, but
there are a number of graves that do
not have headstones with inscriptions.
Thirteen grave sites were identified
during the archaeological sur vey.
There are significant differences physical
differences between the Gillespies Beach
cemetery and others on the West Coast.
Gillespies Beach has the most ornate
headstone (that of Eleanor Meyers),
when compared with Lyell, in the Buller
“This, and the greater number of stone
grave markers suggests that Gillespies
Beach may have been a wealthier
settlement than Lyell -- and thus also
that farming was more profitable than
goldmining. More research is needed,
however, to test this hypothesis,” the
One intriguing difference between the
Gillespies Beach and Lyell cemeteries is
the wording used on the grave markers.
Most of the Gillespies Beach inscriptions
begin with ‘In loving memory of ... while
most of those at Lyell begin with ‘Sacred
to the memory of ...’ .
One possibility is that this reflects
religious differences. Another is simply
that it reflects highly localised fashions.
The inscriptions also highlight the Irish
Catholic nature of the settlement.
Surprisingly there were headstones
inscribed in Wellington, but whether they
came by road or sea is not known.
The authors make a number of
suggestions, including ensuring the long-
term preservation of the iron and wooden
grave surrounds, and the headstones. They
also propose using ground penetrating
radar to find unmarked graves.
Taken from the report ‘Baseline
Inspection and History Values
Assessment of the Gillespies Beach
Cemetery’ by Emma Clifford and
Katharine Watson, 2014.
PICTURES: A C Graham Collection, Hokitika Museum
The Gillespies Beach Hotel in 1895.
Gillespies Beach, seaward of Fox Glacier, was almost just another gold ghost town. But it survived, barely, with an intriguing little cemetery as the last resting place of some of its pioneers. A report recently
commissioned by the Department of Conservation has thrown up some interesting questions about the West Coast’s southern goldfield. EMMA CLIFFORD and KATHARINE WATSON, from Underground
Overground Archaeology Ltd, did not just study the Gillespies Beach cemetery. They delved into the history of the beach, in the days of pounding surf and well tended gardens, of thumping gold dredges and
quiet church services.
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