A few years ago, in slightly whimsical post-holiday mode, I did a post highlighting a snippet I’d discovered in the Whakatane museum that until about 1950 the Whakatane port handled more shipping tonnage than Tauranga’s did. These days, of course, Whakatane’s “port” is known only for sports fishing and White Island tours and Tauranga handles the most cargo of any port in the country. How economies change in just a few decades.
This summer we spent our holiday at Waihi (with my in-laws) and Waihi Beach. I’ve come to quite like Waihi, and it seems I’m not the only one. Just a few months ago it was named the “most beautiful small town” in New Zealand, and if that surprised me a little it is certainly a pleasant place, with an air of prosperity about it – and decent French and German bakeries – one often doesn’t find in small towns these days. It seems to share in the same sort of insane zoning practices that hold up house prices almost everywhere (if you get on the right side of the council rules there is apparently money to be made subdividing semi-urban sections – which in any sane world wouldn’t happen for a town set surrounded by large amounts of fairly flat rural land.) As for the air of prosperity, probably it helps to be on the main road from Auckland to Tauranga, but Waihi has a more prosperous feel than Paeroa, 15 miles nearer Auckland, and I presume that must be down to mining – represented by the huge open-cast pit perhaps 50 metres from the main shopping street.
What perhaps makes Waihi something of an anomaly is that it is both prosperous and well-kept and yet has fewer people than it had 100+ years ago.
Just prior to World War One, Waihi had an estimated population (31 March 1913) of 6740. By New Zealand standards, that made it a big place. Here were the urban area populations at the time. Of course, then the urban population was mostly in handful of large cities (the old “four main centres”)
but Waihi was the 13th largest town/city in the entire country, not much smaller than places like Nelson and Plymouth (and ahead of those other six places I’ve shown, all now substantial cities). Of those top 13, only Waihi and Palmerston North were not ports.
And why? That was (gold) mining. Waihi was by far the largest gold mining operation in New Zealand (and had been the location of the major miners’ strike the previous year – a confrontation that at its height involved 10 per cent of all New Zealand’s police, and the death of one striker). And mining in New Zealand wasn’t on a trivial scale. These were the days of the Gold Standard, when many monetary systems (including our own) were backed by/convertible into gold. In 1910, New Zealand – mostly Waihi – accounted from just over 2 per cent of the world’s annual gold production. Gold production was similar to that from the Australian state of Victoria. Of the Australian states, only Western Australia produced a lot more (3 to 4 times total New Zealand production).
What about now? There is still gold (and quite a lot of less-valuable silver) being mined in Waihi. In fact, just recently Labour ministers overruled one of their Green Party colleagues on a decision that will facilitate mining for some years to come.
But relative to what is going on elsewhere it is a shadow of what it was (and, of course, much less labour intensive). Total New Zealand gold exports are now about 5 per cent of those of Western Australia. As a gold producing country, New Zealand now ranks between Ethiopia and Finland, mining about a quarter of one per cent of the world’s new gold production (did you know – I didn’t – that China is now, by some margin, the largest producer of gold?). Most likely, there is a lot of gold elsewhere in the Coromandel Hills, but the political barriers to exploiting it remain formidable.
And as for Waihi, if the mine and its gold and silver production helps keep a town fairly prosperous and well-kept, the latest SNZ population estimate is only 5160, just behind Dannevirke, Carterton, and Dargaville. Waihi’s population means it is now only our 56th= largest urban area, almost halfway down the SNZ list. The smallest of the other places on my earlier chart – Blenheim – now has six times Waihi’s population. In fact glancing down the list of 115 urban areas from 1913, Waihi’s drop in the ranking looks more precipitate than any other town in New Zealand, perhaps matched only by a handful of (then much smaller) South Island mining towns.
Natural resources really can make a difference. Even today, they are the difference between Waihi and numerous down-at-heel rural communities scattered around New Zealand.