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n intellectual giant. Down to
earth. A real character. Harold
William Wellman still invokes
affection with all who knew him.
Retired Professor Rodney
Grapes was a student at Victoria
University and later a colleague
of Wellman’s. They spent many years together.
“ He never lost his English accent,” Prof Grapes
Harold Wellman was born in Devonport, England
in 1909 and in 1927 the family moved to the naval
base at Devonport, Auckland, where his engineer
father had been assigned for a three-year tour of duty.
The younger Wellman started work as a clerk for
the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand,
but early in 1931 he qualified as a registered sur veyor,
but even qualified jobs were hard to get during the
Unemployed, he travelled to the West Coast and
began prospecting for gold, with varying degrees
of success at Ross, Waiho Beach (Franz Josef ),
Gillespies Beach, Paringa and Haast.
During the mid-1930s the DSIR (Department
of Scientific and Industrial Research) began new
geological and geophysical sur veys for mineral
resources. It was then that Wellman joined
a geophysical team at Otama, in Southland,
prospecting for copper rather than gold. Regular
work continued with geomagnetic sur veys at Reefton
and elsewhere, but he was advised to obtain a
university degree if he wanted to succeed in geology,
so he did.
In early 1943, as a geologist he was posted to
Greymouth to sur vey coal resources.
Although the Alpine Fault is clearly delineated in
the topography, it was not recognised as such until
1940, when Wellman and another geologist, Dick
Weillett, were in South Westland looking for mica
deposits, needed to make electronic components for
wartime radio equipment. They hitched a ride on the
back of an open-deck truck.
In places, the rock was pulverised, and Wellman
noted that, “ The broken schist looked like the result
of explosions, or perhaps we were seeing the heart of
By the time they made it to Haast, Wellman
realised that they had been following the line of a
massive earthquake fault that was at least 200km
long, and had started to call it the ‘Alpine Fault ’.
He made the astonishing suggestion at the Pacific
Science Congress at Christchurch in 1949 that there
had been a lateral displacement of 460km. The name
‘Alpine Fault ’ was formally adopted in 1942 and by
1948 it was included on geological maps.
Harold Wellman died 16 years ago. Although
‘famous’ in geology circles, he is little known on the
Coast to the point that the Greymouth Library does
not stock his biography.
One man trying to put that right is Gray Eatwell,
who runs Alpine Fault tours from his base in
Whataroa. He takes visitors right up to the faultline
at Gaunt Creek near the Waitangi-taona River, at
Whataroa. While visiting geologists have heard of
Harold Wellman, the wider public generally has not.
Mr Eatwell includes information about him on his
tours: “As he made his way up every valley seeking
mica he obser ved a definite change in the rocks and a
sideways land shift in each valley.
“In fact, in 1949 Wellman went to the South Pacific
science congress and presented his finding of the
fault and told the congress that he had established
that there had been a 460km shift along the faultline.
Many doubted Wellman, but modern science has
supported his findings to be remarkably accurate.”
The BBC even made a documentary on him, The
Man Who Moved Mountains.
He was, Eatwell says, more of a sur veyor and
goldminer than a geologist.
Traditionally the history of the Alpine Fault is not
well told on the Coast.
“There is a lot about the early explorers,” Eatwell
muses, wondering why Wellman does not feature
“O bviously, he had a very sharp eye, he noticed
the difference in materials. And he did find mica,”
he adds, referring to that fortuitous trip when he
identified the faultline.
Prof Grapes recalls a very down to earth man, a real
character who was as comfortable discussing geology
in the pub as the lecture hall.
“ He was probably one of our greatest geologists.”
Scientist and author Simon Nathan published the
2005 biography Harold Wellman: A Man Who
Moved New Zealand.
He noted that Harold Wellman lived in
Greymouth from 1942 to 1946.
Nathan inter viewed Ross Taylor, who back
then was a young graduate student at Canterbury
University College about Wellman’s subsequent
presentation on the faultline.
“The highlight of the meeting was Harold
Wellman. Word had got around about his ideas, and
the room was full. He displayed a large handmade
geological map of the South Island, and then, after
talking for a while, suddenly proceeded to slide
southern Westland 300 miles along the Alpine Fault
to match the strata near Nelson. It was a dramatic
moment that I have never forgotten,” Nathan says.
Harold Wellman is often called the most influential
New Zealand geologist of the 20th century. His
other West Coast milestones include being the
first to map the Pike River coalfield, and he also
examined the Kotuku oilfield.
“ Technically, the potential for coal in Pike Stream
was first identified in 1911 but Harold was the first
to visit the field in 1947,” geologist Murry Cave says.
“It is a real wonder why he isn’t better recognised
for his identification of the Alpine Fault. He also
compiled the most comprehensive report on the
Kotuku oilfield, which has proved valuable to
subsequent explorers. ”
Cave says Wellman did not ‘discover’ the Alpine
Fault and the term was coined earlier by Henderson
“But Harold and Willett were the first to connect
the dots and realise its significance.”
Harold Wellman died in Karori, Wellington, in
1999, after a long illness. He was sur vived by his
wife, two daughters and a son.
Harold Wellman was sitting on the back of an open-decked truck when
he made what is arguably the most important discovery in West Coast
geology. While searching for mica, Wellman noticed pulverised rock —
and soon realised he was staring at the Alpine Fault. LAURA MILLS
rediscovers a near-forgotten chapter in West Coast history.
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