Thursday, 5 June 2014

George Magnus Hassing - An Extraordinary New Zealand Pioneer (Part One of Two)


George Magnus Hassing
1837 - 1928
[From my own collection]

The Danish born George Magnus Hassing led the most extraordinarily varied and fascinating pioneering life. From globe-trotting seaman, to bush saw miller in New Zealand, to Clutha River log raftsman, to gold rush store-keeper and ferry-man, to West Coast Explorer, to gold miner during the glory days of the Otago and West Coast Gold Rushes, to respected long-term country Schoolmaster, but not forgetting a prolific Journalist; before finally retiring in 1921 at the venerable age of 85.


The notation on the reverse of the above photograph
[From my own collection] 

This two-part resumé will highlight the incredibly diverse life of this capable and adaptable Danishman. While Hassing's name and varied exploits are little known today, we are at least left with his many autobiographical "journalistic vignettes", later being published as a whole in 1930. Hassing's very descriptive first-hand eyewitness accounts of his pioneering years in the Gold Field towns are in fact often the primary testimony available to historians today, particularly of early Cardrona and Bendigo. Hassing additionally rubbed shoulders with many now well-known, if even infamous, individuals. His wonderful grasp of the English language and descriptive manner of writing truly brings these colourful characters to life. This two part Blog is but a small edited fraction of those many stories.



The Lure of the Seven Seas :

Having been born in Denmark in 1837, well educated, and upon reaching the age of 15 years and anxious to see the world for himself, the lure of the seven seas called George Hassing to exotic and lonely far-flung shores. Serving on merchant sailing ships for seven years he truly criss-crossed the globe from such far-flung ports as exotic Canton China and Yokohama Japan in the Orient, to the isolated Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean, to lonely Elephant Island off Antarctica where Shackleton's crews were later hold up, to bustling San Francisco where he took time off to indulge in the "California gold rush fever". In 1852, and off the Cape of Good Hope, he observed Brunel's great steamship, the "S.S. Great Britain" [which his vessel "spoke" to], while on her first voyage to Australia and carrying 630 emigrants. In 1859 he sailed to Port Cooper [now Lyttleton] New Zealand on the "Ambrosine", then taking "french leave" (i.e., jumped ship) with two ship-mates. With the law hard on their heels, they safely made good their escape via the whaling station at Kaikoura to Wellington.

The Indian Rebellion, 1857 :

But arriving at Bombay [Mumbai] India on the "Pride of the Ocean" in the summer of 1857, Hassing and his ship-mate William Ellacott visited the British Army Barracks "and fraternized with the troops just returned from Cawnpore [Kanpur] after the shocking massacre at that town." It is believed that 120 British women and children were killed and up to 7,000 locals were executed in "retaliatory counter-atrocities". Hassing makes no other comment on what he may have been told nor does he lay blame on any one party involved in this incredibly brutal massacre. It was in fact Hassing's glowing description of New Zealand that encouraged the English born Ellacott to also come out to New Zealand, then joining Hassing on most of his adventures through the 1860's. After Ellacott's death in England in February 1912 Hassing deposited Ellacott's diaries of his early Wanaka adventures in the [then] Otago Settler's Museum but despite best efforts they cannot now be located which is a great loss.   

This Britain of the South :

Hassing returned to the sea but obviously not before seeing enough of New Zealand and the opportunities it offered to interest him to return - without the law hard on his heels! An able seaman would be paid £2.10/- a month, the food was mainly "sea horse and weevily biscuits", accommodation was a less than comfortable bunk alongside the windlass, and the hours were long. But one could earn £1 a week "with an unlimited allowance of damper [campfire bread] and mutton in this Britain of the South".

West Wanaka Station, of around 30,000 acres, includes
the area marked "Wanaka West" on the left hand shores
of the lake in the above map. From a map dated 1888.
[From my own collection]

Back-Breaking Work :

In 1860 his first job in New Zealand, along with a close mate, Bill Atkins, was pit-sawing timber, posts, rails and shingles for the West Wanaka Station in the rugged back-blocks of the South Island, back-breaking work requiring tremendous physical strength. As we shall read, George was an extremely adaptable individual.

Rats, as White as Millers :

Setting up a camp at the mouth of Minaret Burn [shown in upper centre-right of the above map], some three miles above West Wanaka Homestead, and being surrounded by precipitous mountains and having just one cockleshell boat, they were effectively "imprisoned in the bush for six months". But with plenty of food, they soon "tumbled down the giants of the forest and made the sawdust fly". The bush teemed with plump pigeons and kakas which provided them with fresh food. But one night, they had a visitation of rats, "which swooped down from the mountains in thousands". Hassing and his mate "killed hundreds of them with forks tied to the end of sticks", including those that ventured under the wooden platform which partly covered the floor of their accommodation. Anxious to secure their precious supply of flour, this was hoisted up a tree. But a couple of nights later, when the need to obtain some flour required the sack to be lowered, "a dozen or more rats, as white as millers sprang out of various holes before it reached the ground. However we had to make the best of it till the boat arrived with a fresh supply." Within a fortnight every rat had disappeared as suddenly as they had arrived. 

The Makarora River Valley and Forests, shown at the
head of Lake Wanaka. From a map dated 1888.
[From my own collection]

One Unbroken, Seething Ocean of Flame :

In early 1861, Hassing, accompanied by Mr H.S. Thomson of West Wanaka Station, set off up the Makarora Valley at the head of Lake Wanaka to examine the pine forests some seven miles up the valley. In the valley they discovered a ruined Māori village dating from a raid in 1836. Further access up the valley was only possible by following the river beaches and fording the river wherever necessary, the valley being "covered with an impenetrable mass of cabbage trees, flax, and fern, growing to a height of 8ft to 10ft and the ground a jungle of dried and decayed vegetation, over which it was impossible to make any headway". So to assist in clearing a path, the pair started a fire at the head of the lake. Unfortunately "this soon developed into one unbroken, seething ocean of flame from hillside to hillside, and fanned by a southerly wind, it raged for three days and nights, travelling up the valley 20 miles". Ironically, by 1865 Hassing found that the fire had transformed the valley into "a beautiful carpet of luxuriant grass over which it was a pleasure to travel".   

Dunedin, pictured from Bell Hill in 1862
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

25 Jolly Adventurers :

In August 1862, while killing wild pigs on the Waipara Run in North Canterbury, and hearing of Hartley and Riley's discovery of gold on the Molyneux, Hassing immediately packed his swag and took a passage on a vessel for Dunedin. Here he found the place bustling with activity with hundreds of men eager to get away to the new "rush". Joining four others, they then took a small steamer for Waikouaiti, calling at the well-known Johnny Jones' store for provisions, tent and gold mining tools. On the journey through the hinterland others joined the merry group, now numbering "25 jolly adventurers" off to seek their fortune. The picture of that jovial group singing round the blazing camp fires at Coal Creek reminded Hassing of similar scenes he had witnessed on the Californian goldfields in the fifties. And what of the enterprising fellow who laid a long plank across a creek and charged 6d each to cross? All willingly paid the "toll". And of the "cute business acumen" of an enterprising and isolated Station cookhouse which not only sold mutton quarters to their passing trade but also offered them boiled mutton, the resulting hot soup with barley and onions, and freshly baked scones... "All enjoyed a merry feast".  

The Burgess & Sullivan Gang, 1866.
Philip Levy appears at bottom.
[Source : National Library of NZ]

Three to Four Ounces of Gold a Day :

Having arrived at "Mutton Town", a canvas town of 30 to 40 tents, already complete with a canvas store run by a Jewish firm, "Levy & Co." which included one Philip Levy, later to be hanged as one of the notorious Burgess and Sullivan gang of Bushrangers. The group first set up camp then all obtained Miner's Prospecting Rights issued by the well-known Vincent Pyke, the first Commissioner of the new goldfields. Prospecting was then carried on up the Clutha River to where Clyde is now situated however nothing of any consequence was found. But upon travelling along the Fraser River to Butcher's Gully, "a splendid prospect" was found on a steep high bank of the river which averaged around three to four ounces of gold a day. The river claim was quickly pegged off.    


An example of a Prospecting [Miner's] Right
issued by the Province of Otago in 1862
[Source : NZMuseums]

Disaster and Retreat :

Concurrent with panning, the wash dirt from the claim was carried back up from the beach and stacked close to the steep bank, "some forty or fifty loads of auriferous gravel-wash". Their panned gold was "stored" in a crater like hollow of a large rock across the river. Then one day a heavy rain set in which continued all day and all night. By noon the following day the rock now lay across a raging and impassable river, being at least 8 to 10 feet under water and the carefully stored wash dirt would have been swept away. The party decided that the river had won and left for Dunstan [Clyde] which had now replaced Mutton Town. Surprisingly, Hassing never returned to the scene and pondered later if the panned gold remained in that hollow rock.     


The Clutha River meanders from Pembroke / Newcastle
(upper right), and down to Cromwell (lower right)
where it joins the Kawarau River, 1888
[From my own collection] 

Thank God it is Safely Over :

In 1862, the great drawback to gold mining and construction in Central Otago was the complete absence of wood in the surrounding area which had to be brought in my bullock teams. Thus even simple wooden hand cradles for slicing the river wash retailed at £10 each. Wooden gin and brandy cases (even minus the contents) were in hot demand! Thus Hassing, along with others, took on the risky and perilous task of rafting logs of timber lashed together from forests at the heads of Lakes Wanaka and Hawea some 50 miles down the rough and turbulent Clutha River. Hassing noted that some lost their lives at this work through not having the requisite qualifications, i.e, a strong nerve, capable of swimming in rough water, and possessed of a thorough knowledge of the river. Parts of the river, such as "Snake Point", "The Devil's Nook", and "The Boiling Pot", were very aptly named. Hassing's last river trip was in 1876 when he brought Mr Deans, the Curator of the Otago Acclimatisation Society with his tin cans from Wanaka down to Cromwell, after having released the first trout ovum in the lake. Deans described the river trip as "the most exciting experience of my life, and I can only say, thank God it is safely over".


A group of early Wanaka Pioneers including William Ellacott
who shared many of George Hassing's Wanaka adventures.
Taken outside Norman's Hotel at Albert Town, Lake Wanaka 
in 1866 by Mr Rich, a travelling Photographer.
Back Row : (L to R) Henry Palmer, William Ellacott,
Joe D. Ross, Henry Norman;
Front Row : Robert H. Norman, Richard Norman,
AE Farquhar, William Waterson, James Isbell.
[Source : The Otago Witness]

It Pays to Advertise :

But by 1863, and in the midst of the rush of gold miners from the Dunstan and Gabriel's Gully to the newly discovered workings on the Arrow River, Hassing foresaw the advantages of setting up a ferry and his own store at Sandy Point, thus providing a convenient crossing of the the Clutha River some 10 miles below Albertown to the east of Wanaka. It pays to advertise, and after putting up 100 posters along the route from the Dunstan near Cromwell there were 40 miners and pack-horses following him. Later in 1863, Hassing and his partner sold out to the Māori Chief Patu and his tribe who had "accumulated a little pile" at Maori Point on the Shotover River, the Chief then inviting most of the Māori's from Moeraki, to join him.

The Cardrona river flowing from lower left to
Pembroke [Albertown] at upper right centre.
[From my own collection]

The Boiling, Seething Torrent :

From July to September 1863 the disastrous"Old Man Flood" swept through the district, claiming the lives of upwards of 63 miners. Crossing the Cardrona River at Albertown in June 1863, and already "then roaring down in high flood", his horse was swept off its feet while the rider was "plunged headlong into the boiling, seething torrent". Despite wearing "a big top-coat and a pair of long nugget boots", luck was evidently on his side this day and he made it to the bank while his horse had to be dragged out with ropes but later died.

The Sanctimonious Shepherd :

In the early 1860's, Hassing observed a stranger arriving in Albertown, "A strange looking individual, dressed in a peculiar garb, lean, tall-featured, with a stubble of grey beard, and keen restless eyes... He wore a shabby-looking brown frock coat, a a Scotch bonnet, and carried a large carpet bag." Introducing himself as "McKay McKenzie", he stated that he had been engaged as Shepherd on a run at Roy's Bay on Lake Wanaka. Assigned to a hut at Glendhu Bay with a young man named Ned Poole, Hassing often heard, when he had occasion to row up or down the lake, "their voices pouring forth in scared song across the placid waters of the lake of a calm evening". But the fear of McKenzie becoming demented forced the manager to discharge him, eventually having to be taken under an escort of diggers to the Dunstan, thence to Dunedin. But his old brown coat and carpet bag remained at Glendhu, the latter being opened by the Station Manager, "Imagine the surprise... when Scottish bank notes to the value of £800 were unfolded.

The Origin of the "Loot"? :

McKenzie later returned to the station, apparently now sound of mind. Inquiring as to his coat and bag, he was advised these were still in the hut at Glendhu Bay. But "the country was then overrun with gold-seekers" and McKenzie was disconsolate to find the coat had been taken by persons unknown. Hassing surmised that it contained hidden papers sewn into the lining. In fact, the carpet bag, which remained, appeared to be of secondary importance to him. The "contents" were counted out to him, and being all in order, he left for new employment at Morven Hill's Station. But upon Hassing later relating this tale to an intelligent young man at Albertown named McLeod, the lad replied, "I was born and brought up in Sutherland, in Scotland, and I have been in New Zealand only a few months. I remember a cattle dealer in Sutherland named McKay McKenzie answering exactly to the description you have just given. He was trusted by the local farmers and crofters to collect all the cattle they had to dispose of, and drive them to the periodical sales, and there dispose of them to the best advantage... After each sale McKenzie would return and settle up fairly with the respective owners of the cattle... But on his last trip, when he had collected a larger mob than ever before, he did not return with the proceeds... but he disappeared to parts unknown".      

Exploring the Haast River and West Coast Passes :

In 1865, Hassing accompanied the Explorer and Prospector, William Docherty, on a 90 day expedition from Makarora up the Haast River and across to the West Coast. They not only negotiated very difficult terrain, but also dangerous river and mountain crossings, an unexpected "flash flood" almost trapping them in a river cave, a rapidly rising river threatening to wash away their camp overnight, relying on their dog "Spriggins" to catch kiwis, kakapos and wekas for their meals, and unexpectedly discovering 10,000 acres of open grass land which they decided to apply for as a run. But being Winter in June, and camped beside "a mountain lagoon" [tarn] atop a mountain plateau heading to the West Coast, they were subjected to "a blinding snowstorm which continued without intermission for 48 hours". Only the top of the tent remained visible. Their almost buried tent had to be left behind as it was "frozen hard as iron and buried in frozen snow", eating only "raw oatmeal and salt".

Swearing, Tearing and Skull-Cracking :

In early 1867, Hassing, who was then in Hokitika on the West Coast, heard of gold being discovered in the Buller River. With 40 or 50 other goldminers he left on a coastal steamer for the Buller. They were quickly followed by "several hundreds" eager to get up the river on small ferry-boats and stake a claim. But, arriving on the Sabbath, and as it was illegal to peg out claims on a Sunday, the miners merely pitched camp close to where they would stake their claim come Monday morning. Expecting a tussle, the other miners were true to form, Hassing describing "the swearing, tearing and skull-cracking... on that Monday morning as something to be remembered." In less than a fortnight over 1,000 men were on the field. The claim staked by Hassing and his friends proved unsuccessful, digging a "slabbed" shaft down 25 feet whence they struck a rush of water which filled the shaft. As his friends were without funds, Hassing stood the cost of this fiasco which amounted to several hundred pounds, "but such losses were borne without flinching". After some unsuccessful prospecting Hassing returned south again.

A Young Looking Richard J. Seddon.
In 1877 he become Mayor of Kumara.
[Source : Teara.Govt.nz]

The Fenian Riot of 1868 :     

With a quite uncanny ability to be the "the man on the spot" during significant events in the very eventful history of New Zealand, Hassing, along with an old mate, then set up a terrace gold claim at Waimea next to that worked by one Richard John Seddon (later becoming Prime Minister of New Zealand). It was only two months later that the 'Fenian Riot' took place in Hokitika, taking possession of the cemetery, and holding a mock funeral in commemoration of the Manchester martyrs, Larkin and O'Brien. Hassing joined the 'Waimea Contingent' which then, under the leadership of the one-armed Lawyer "Button", marched to Hokitika, scattering the rioters and, amidst much rejoicing, restored order in Hokitika.   

A Celebrated and World-Renowned - Imposter! :

At this time, a German National by the name of Christian Friedrich Schäfer landed in Hokitika, Hassing staying in the same hotel where he took lodgings. Hassing described him as "long, wiry hair, a very short body, but abnormally long legs and arms... He resembled an orang-utang or an overgrown baboon more than a human" [Note : period newspapers make mention of his having been a cripple with a damaged back, having been run over by a carriage when young and was thus only 4ft 9in]. Being taken as "an unprincipled imposter, [he] did not take on in Hokitika." But arriving in Dunedin, Schäfer had a public reception as "the celebrated and world-renowned German traveller". But he eventually landed in gaol for his escapades up north. Hassing notes (post 1918) that as remarkable as it may seem, it was esteemed a high honour to be a German and thus Schafer was accordingly treated as a distinguished personality.

Please click Here to read the final part of this Blog.


Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • Watson Family Photographic Collection (held by the writer)
  • Personal Family Papers and Photographs (held by the writer)
  • "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
  • "The Memory Log of G.M. Hassing", 1930 (from my own collection)
  • "Looking Back 100 Years - Heddon Bush School 1881-1981" (from my own collection) 
  • "Golden Days of Lake County", by FWG Miller, 1962 (from my own collection)
  • "The Flame Unquenched", By G. McDonald, 1956 (from my own collection)
  • "The Interior Cold Lakes of Otago", NZ Survey Map, 1888 (from my own collection)


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