Gumdigger Days

Cleaning and sorting Gum in the Early 20th century 


Early settlers in this area found an abundance of kauri gum and learned from Maori to use it as a fire starter or, wrapped in flax, as a lantern. As the land was cleared, collecting gum to sell became a useful way to supplement income. Once the surface gum was exhausted, it was unearthed from the hillsides and dug from the swamps and beaches. The settlers were the part-time diggers. In another category were those who flocked to the gum fields, armed with spear and spade, often living a hand to mouth existence. By the 1890s there were 20,000 people engaged in gum digging, nearly 7000 fulltime. Gum reserves were established where licensed diggers could work. Snells Beach was a small reserve of 343 acres, mean high water to low water. It could only be worked at low tide and was a scene of feverish activity as diggers raced to extract the gum before seawater covered the work place. The gum-rich Omaha Flats were one of the last places producing gum, along with Kaipara Flats.Te Arai, Mangawhai and Wayby.

Kauri gum was once an important export used in the manufacture of varnish and linoleum, but as the industry declined and supplies dwindled, usage changed to more specialised trades such as jewellery and the making of polish for violins.

The gum varied greatly in size and colour, the most prized being translucent pale gold. Large nuggets were polished as ornaments and these are now valued museum exhibits.  The Warkworth Museum has a small collection, However the Kauri Museum at Matakohe has probably the largest collection in New Zealand