Friday, 16 October 2009

A little bit of History: Life at Skippers

Skippers is said to be named after Malcolm “Skipper” Duncan, an Irishman. He had spent many years at sea and is credited with discovering gold at the junction of the Skippers Creek and the Shotover River late in 1862. in the early months of the gold rush there were probably several thousand miners in the upper Shotover area, but with the discovery of gold in other areas, particularly the West Coast, the population declined to a few hundred by the late 1860s. Skippers became a service center for this dispersed mining population.

Skippers was never a mining town in the popular sense. There never was a main street lined with hotels and stores and populated by drunken miners on a spree.The Skippers settlement was dispersed across limited flat ground available on Burke’s and Aspinall’s Terraces. The school, cemetery, Bourdeau’s store and the Mt Aurum Homestead were located on Burke’s Terrace and the Otago Hotel (which was the only hotel), the Skippers Hall and the Library were located on Aspinall’s Terrace.There were a few miners cottages in the immediate Skippers area but most of the population was located close to the various mining claims dispersed along the banks of the Shotover and Skippers Creek.

The earliest miners lived in simple canvas tents along the banks of the Shotover.Many lost their lives in the first winter of the gold rush (1863), when the river rose several meters overnight after heavy rain and the flood waters swept away the miner’s camps. Once the height of the gold rushes had passed ad mining became a more settled activity the miners built more permanent dwellings, sometimes of stone but more often of wood and corrugated iron. These were often simple two room cottages which would be added to as family numbers grew. The grandest house at Skippers was the two story house of John Aspinall, which was located on Aspinall’s Terrace.

Skippers was always an isolated location. Until the 1880s all the supplies were carried in on horse back along pack tracks. One pack track reached Skippers from Queenstown via Ben Lomond, Moonlight Creek and Stony Terrace.The other, more popular, pack track followed the line of the Coronet Peak road and then went down Long Gully on the eastern side.The track is still visible from the Skippers road on the other side of the gully.From Long Gully the track passed along the valley well above the existing road until it came down to Maori Point.Winter weather made travel along the pack tracks very difficult.During the first winter of the gold rush, 1863, many miners suffered severely from scurvy because of a lack of fresh food. The road was constructed during the 1880s and remains in use today.

Because of the isolation the Skippers residents had to provide much of their own food.Many kept goats as a source of milk. Cows could only be kept in flatter areas. Large vegetable gardens were a feature of most cottages. During the winter root vegetables had to be stored in covered pits in the ground, lined with tussock to prevent the vegetables freezing and rotting.By the late 19 century there was also plenty of fruit available from the fruit trees planted by early miners. Strawberries and raspberries can still be found around the Otago Hotel site.

Mutton was a major part of the diet. It was often salted to preserve it during the heat of summer, and in the winter it would be hung under a tree where it would freeze naturally. Rabbits were eaten and also supplied the children who trapped them with pocket money from the sale of their skins.

Clothes, if they weren’t home made, were bought from catalogs from stores in Dunedin.Footwear might be bought in Queenstown. But a trip to Queenstown took two days so often shoes were ordered by the size only and the lucky recipient often ended up with shoes that weren’t a good fit. Traveling hawkers would visit Skippers to sell various small clothing items such as handkerchiefs and underwear as well as cheap jewellery, perfume and trinkets.These men were known as Syrians but they probably came originally from Lebanon.One other itinerant visitor was the organ grinder and his monkey.

Despite being the center for a surrounding population of several hundred there was never a church at Skippers. The hall was used for services by visiting Anglican and Presbyterian clergy as well as the salvation Army. The services for the Roman Catholic community were held in private homes. Visiting ministers would arrive by horse and buggy and stay in a local’s house overnight.

In this isolated community social events were very important. The big annual event was the New Years Day picnic held in the grounds of the school. People from the whole area would attend.There were sports events during the day and then in the evening a dance was held in the hall.Important local events, such as the opening of a new gold mine, became occasions for celebration. The opening of the current bridge across the Shotover River in 1901 was a major social event. In common with the rest of New Zealand the Skippers residents were patriotic members of the British Empire, and British victories in the Boer War were celebrated with a concert in the hall.

There was a friendly rivalry with the neighboring mining community at Bullendale.The Skippers / Bullendale cricket match was a popular event. The game was played on Londonderry Terrace and was followed by dinner at the Otago Hotel.The hotel was the focal point of community life.When the coronation of King George V in 1910 was celebrated, the street in front of the hotel was the scene of foot races and wrestling matches.These were followed by a dinner in the hotel and fireworks.

As time passed the hotel also became the scene for farewell dinners for miners leaving the district.In 1919 the hotel closed as the remaining population was not large enough to support it. The few remaining miners slowly left during the 1920s and 1930s, until by the 1940s the only permanent occupants of Skippers were the owners of the Mt Aurum Station.

One group of miners lived on the fringes of the Skippers community. They were the Chinese miners who had come to New Zealand from villages in the area around Canton. Many had left wives and families to make money on the gold fields with the aim of buying land back in China. They often lived in isolated locations in small huts built of stone next to their claims. They lived very simply, growing their own vegetables and buying their rice and other supplies from the Chinese store run by Wong Gong between Skippers and Maori Point. Now the only reminder at Skippers of the presence of the Chinese is the solitary grave of Hoy Yow in the Skippers Cemetery.

This information was brought to us (Queenstown Heritage Tours) by a customer who joined our Unforgettable Skippers Canyon Tour. Some information can as well be found in the Skippers Schoolhouse.

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