Wednesday, 25 November 2020


Lonely life followed by lonely death for two Coromandel gum diggers

The disappearance of “Robinson Crusoe” in mid-1890 did not set off any alarm bells at Mercury Bay. For the past year or so, the 65-year-old had kept to himself as he tirelessly searched for gum in the area. He preferred to be alone, hence the nickname, and thus the lack of concern when he dropped from view.

Gum digging was a gruelling life and by the early 1890s gum was becoming difficult to find. The amount found was different every day and  was never much more than a digger could carry in his pack.

A gum digger often dug up wood by mistake. Tea leaves for brew up and food were wrapped in newspaper or stowed in the billy. His campfire smoke drifted through stands of manuka. It was said the tree the digger remembered was not the kauri, but the distinctive flowering manuka.

Home was often a shack of sod and sacking, or ponga logs and nikau fronds, the earth beaten for a floor, and bunks made of sacking nailed to manuka frames.

At night, after a scanty meal, gum was cleaned, a knife scraping away the outer weathered rind encrusted with soil. Many tedious evenings and wet days were spent this way. The life was wretched and a digger barely earned enough to pay for food and other provisions. 

The fates of gum diggers were often grim and so it was for Robinson Crusoe. In 1891, many months after his disappearance, his remains were found in an old bushman’s hut. Even his real name was uncertain - he was either Edward Moran or Edward Morant. On his body was found indications of a past, more prosperous life. An old cheque from 1868 drawn on the Australian Joint Stock Bank at Bowen, Queensland, showed the amount of £15 17s 6d. There was also an old station order for £3. Edward had 1s 8d in cash on him.

Edward had arrived in Adelaide, Australia from Ireland in 1849. He moved on to New Zealand in 1871. He was said to have two daughters in Auckland. An inquest found he died from natural causes. It was a poignant end for the reclusive man, dying alone in a disused hut near Mercury Bay.

In the same year that the body of Robinson Crusoe was found, 64-year-old Canadian gum digger, Roderick Robinson, was discovered lying on a track in a helpless condition about three miles from Gumtown.

Gumtown was once a flourishing township, lively with busy stores, butchers, shoemakers and saddlers. Over 200 gum diggers with dozens of pack horses carried gum and provisions in and out of camps daily.

But with the decline of gum digging also came the decline of Roderick Robinson. He had been heading for his camp about seven miles distant when he became ill and lost the use of his legs. He lay out all night in the fern. Roderick was taken to the Gumtown hotel where the landlord, Mr Nicholson, did everything he could for him, but Roderick did not survive.

At the inquest, Dr Bedford, the local doctor, stated he had treated Roderick several times for heart problems. The jury returned a verdict that Roderick died from exposure and exhaustion along with heart disease. Roderick was a single man from Nova Scotia with no known relations in the New Zealand.

The man known as Robinson Crusoe was buried at the Tairua Historic Cemetery, his grave now unmarked. Roderick Robinson also lies in an anonymous grave somewhere in Mercury Bay.

Pictured: The Tairua Historic Cemetery with its many empty spaces and unmarked graves. Photo by Mike Hawkes.


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