Gold Miner The New Zealand Goldrush Journal

Volume 4 (2020)


by Kae Lewis

The author would like to acknowledge the work of Ann Bale whose contemporary descriptions of Harold Sparke are reproduced here.


Harold Leonard Sparke was born in Thames on 9 November 1889 to parents Alfred Howes Sparke and his wife Eliza Anne. He had three brothers: Alfred Gill Sparke born in 1885, Wallace Howes Sparke in 1887 and Sydney Thomas Sparke in 1891. All four boys were born in the house by the Thames North School in Tararu, Thames, owned by their Smith grandparents. Their father Alfred Sparke operated the Norfolk battery located there. After her husband died, Eliza took up the licence of the Kopu Hotel in 1891. Harold would have been about two then, and grew up there at Kopu.

Although Wallace and Sydney Sparke served overseas in WWI, Harold was rejected (reason given in his Army medical examination was hypertrophy of the heart, rhuematic fever in 1912, and 'thick in head'.) At the time of his Attestation for the army in 1917, his occupation was goldminer, employed at the Martha Mine, Waihi, and he was living at Moresby Ave, Waihi. There were no signs of any such health issues when he spent 40 of his 83 years prospecting and mining at Marototo (located near Paeroa, Hauraki). He had the knowledge and experience, as well as the determination and stamina of a true prospector. Harold Sparke was always known to his friends as Sparkes or Sparkey.


Harold Sparke alias Sparkes or Sparkey lived in his miner's hut at Maratoto for more than 40 years.

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Sparkey with goldpan
Sparkey was always ready to brew up a pot of tea for anyone who called in to see him.
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Sparkey never married and lived alone in a one-roomed tumbled down, rusty shanty surrounded by the high ranges of the Maratoto. He ate frugally but always offered hospitality to visitors at his remote claim. He was always ready to brew up a pot of his black billy tea for anyone who called in to see him. Few men knew the geology of the Maratoto as well as Sparkey did, so many would-be prospectors would draw on his extensive knowledge as well as his hospitality. He seemed to always find enough gold and silver to keep himself going.

Sparkey's hut
Sparkey's hut at Maratoto where the door was always open for visitors.
Click to enlarge the photo.

In her 1971 book, Maratoto Gold, Ann Bale describes her first encounter with Harold Sparke:

The door was held slightly ajar by a lump of rock and we poked our heads curiously into the gloomy interior.
'Hello there,' said a surprised voice from within.

Startled we stopped in our tracks, feeling rather like criminals caught breaking and entering.
The man who came to the door looked almost as forgotten and derelict as the shanty. I stared unbelievingly, for he could have walked out of a photograph taken about fifty years ago. He wore a couple of thin tattered shirts, each layer trying to cover up the holes in the other. A piece of yellow fuse was twisted around his waist holding up dirt-spotted, baggy grey trousers that were tucked into old leather boots. A stubble of grey bristle covered his face and short tufts of hair spouted out of his ears. His face was deeply lined and his scrawny neck folded into a thousand tiny crinkles. He looked at us quizzically out of blue eyes twinkling under bushy grey eyebrows.

'I'm terribly sorry old chap,' said my father, embarrassed. 'We had no idea anyone was here.'

'That's all right,' said the man, smiling to reveal a few nicotine-stained teeth.

'Come in,' he said with the hospitality we were to find so typical of him. He introduced himself as Harold Sparke as he stretched out a rough and somewhat dirty hand to shake ours in turn. He was ever-after known as Harold, Sparkes or Sparkey. We later found out he was somewhere in his seventies, although he was surprisingly alert and energetic for his age and looked a great deal younger.

'Don't mind my old shanty, Missus,' he said to my mother. 'I'll get around to giving it a clean out one of these days. Sit down. Would you like a brew of tea?'

We accepted his kind offer. He scratched through the dying embers of the fire to rekindle the flames, tossed a few sticks on, then hung a pitch black kettle on a two-way hook attached to a piece of wire across the chimney.

His shanty was hot and airless. The only window was covered with dirt and cobwebs inside and creepers outside, while the walls and ceiling were black with soot. The door was kept open, not just because the day was hot, but also as a source of light.

When my eyes became accustomed to the dimness, I felt as though I had stepped back in time to at least the beginning of the century. I was sitting on a green plush-covered bed pushed against the far wall, opposite the door. A number of dirty clothes hung from nails jutting out above the bed. A few dirty towels were draped as if to dry over a piece of twine strung across the shanty.

At right angles to the bed stood a long wooden bench under which was a conglomeration of equipment - gold pans, opossum traps, boots, rocks, a rifle and an axe being the most discernable. Opposite this wall was a sturdy rather battered old-fashioned dresser, newspaper covered the shelves that were littered with an assortment of dusty crockery, magnifying glasses, candles in jars and two quill pens in a bottle of ink. Cups, twine, bottle openers and yellow fuse dangled from hooks.

A small table stood alongside the dresser on top of which was what appeared to be all the food he possessed - a few pitted apples, bread, jam, soft butter, tea, sugar and a tin of condensed milk that had congealed on the top. Fitted snugly in the corner alongside the fireplace was Sparke's rough wooden stool under which a small pile of firewood was stacked. An old glass lampshade, covered with dirt and cobwebs, hung from the ceiling, a reminder of the day when there had been a generator in the valley. Now he used the kerosene lamp that stood beside his bed on the dresser. The floor sloped markedly in a westerly direction.

Sparkey panning
Sparkey demonstrates panning to an attentive audience.
From 'Maratoto Gold' by Ann Bale 1971.
Click to enlarge the photo.


Gold was disovered in the Maratoto along the banks of a stream called McBrinn's Creek in 1873. The prospector Richard McBrinn made the first major strike. Richard was mining at Thames, Tapu and Coromandel during the 1868-9 goldrush, before moving on to prospecting at Maratoto. The rush to Maratoto that followed led to the discovery of a number of somewhat patchy gold and silver reefs. McBrinn sold out to the Mt Cecil Company who built a ten head stamper battery and is said to have been profitable for awhile. An assay of the ore at the time showed 86oz of gold and 1500 oz of silver per ton which is rich! After the company abandoned the site, the claim was taken over by Harold Sparke who continued to work the mine until the 1970s. He was processing his own ore using a berdan when there was no stamping battery available.

Sparkey works berdan
Harold Sparke working his berdan to pulverize the quartz and extract the gold and silver. He has dammed the creek to provide the water he needed for this process. The photograph was taken in 1964, photographer unknown.
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'When Sparkes offered to show us his mine, we knew that at last he completely trusted and accepted us. He told us he had taken the claim out in 1937 for 42 years, and that the mine assayed at 4 oz of gold and 12 oz of silver, with loose lumps of quartz assaying 2oz of gold. Although these were quite good assays, he did not have the capital for development but shortly hoped to go into a partnership with a friend who he hoped would put up enough money to enable them to process the quartz.'
From 'Maratoto Gold' by Ann Bale 1971.

This assay indicates that Maratoto ore averaged only 25% gold, 75% silver. In comparison, ore found in Thames averaged about 60% gold and 40% silver while that found in Tapu had an even higher gold content than Thames. Since silver is worth about 100 times less than gold on the open market (today), the higher the silver content, the lower the profits. Therefore this assay does not bode well for the profitability of mining in Maratoto

Once Sparkey had pulverized his quartz in the berdan, he would add mercury to amalgamate the gold and silver. The mercury-amalgam would then be retorted, vaporizing the mercury and leaving behind the gold and silver mixed alloy. This was the same process that had been used on the Thames goldfield since the 1860s.

Harold Sparke's ingot which he still had in his possession at the time of his death. Its colour indicates that it has a high silver content, probably close to 75% as indicated in the above assay of Maratoto ore.
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Harold Sparke's holds bullion worth about 160 in the 1960s.
From 'Maratoto Gold' by Ann Bale 1971.
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'Like most men who spend much of their time alone, Harold Sparke is quietly spoken and unloquacious. He was particularly modest about the Order of Merit he received in 1954 for rescuing a man who had fallen into a disused mine shaft. This rescue against all the odds was only made possible by his intimate knowledge of the old mine workings.' From 'The Maratoto Valley' by Cecile Read

Murray Evans came often to Maratoto for hunting and was an old friend of Harold Sparke:

Sparkey hated cities and even Paeroa was too civilised for him. Clothes were just not important to him, and it was Murray who kept him supplied with old clothes in a reasonable condition. Sparkey's brothers all worked in the mines, Syd in Thames and Alf in Waihi. From 'Maratoto Gold' by Ann Bale 1971.

Sparke brothers
Harold Sparke in the centre, his brother Wallace Sparke on the left and Jack Smith (their uncle, mother's brother) on the right.
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It was this friend Murray Evans who fell down the mine shaft while they were out on the hills pig hunting. He slipped when trying to retrieve a length of pipe from the top of the shaft and fell 100 feet down the shaft. He was knocked out cold, and his legs were badly damaged.
Murray related years later:

'Many of the mines go into the hills for thousands of feet and branch in all directions. They're old, the timbers are rotten, and usually the roof has fallen in. It certainly was a hell of a spot to be in, but there was nothing I could do about it. I thought that if anybody could find the way in, Sparkey was the man. He had lived in the valley most of his life. The next thing I knew I was in hospital.'

Then Sparkey took up the story:

'Murray was tossed into the air like a peanut and was down before I had time to move, bumping into the walls and then disappearing into the blackness. There was a loud thud from deep in the shaft and then a few small stones pattered down after him. I shouted down the shaft to Murray but all was still and silent. I ran back through the bush and was lucky enough to come across four other pig hunters. I quickly told what had happened and one of the men dashed off to the nearest farmhouse for equipment and to phone for an ambulance, while the rest of them came with me to look for the mine entrance. I had a rough idea where it would be, but even so, we were lucky to find it, for it was almost completely blocked by a landslide and half covered with ferns. We clambered inside, and there to our dismay was a quagmire of mud stretching before us. One of the hunters went back to direct any further help, while the rest of us waited patiently. Eventually, they arrived back with the farmer laden with torches, ropes, spades, pickaxes and an axe.

Against the advice of everyone there, I began crossing the mud, picking my way carefully on one side of the tunnel. At one time, I was up to my knees in mud, but slowly I made my way on to firmer ground. Then I came to the first fall. It did indeed look dangerous. Very slowly I began to inch my way through, carefully winding myself around the rotten timber, hardly daring to breathe. Finally I was on the other side, and then walked on for about 100 yards before I came to the next fall. This time it completely blocked the tunnel. However I was determined to reach Murray and began pulling at the wet pieces of timber and rubble. In another ten minutes, I had made a small opening. I quickly wriggled through and had only gone a short distance when the drive branched in two directions. My instincts favoured the left branch. I turned and quickly covered about 2500 feet, scrambling through falls as I went. Then I saw a faint pinprick of light ahead. I rushed forward to find Murray lying here covered in blood, and a pool of blood at his legs. I felt his heart and to my great relief it was still beating. There wasn't anything I could do for him then but drag him out.

I couldn't hold on to the torch at the same time, so went a few feet ahead and left the torch shining back, dragged him on, then went back for the torch. When I came to the first fall on our way back, I propped the torch up on a lump of rock to shine on the gap and carefully hauled Murray through. Then I went back to get the torch. I did this so many times that I lost count before reaching the last and most dangerous fall of all. I slowly began to inch Murray through. A piece of timber fell, dislodging a few small rocks, and dirt showered down on us. It seemed hours before things settled and I dared move again. It was a nerve-wracking experience, I can tell you. Once on the other side, I lay exhausted on the floor beside Murray, catching my breath for a few minutes. It was all I could do to drag him on. Then at last I saw a yellow shimmer of light. I shouted and many willing hands took over.'

Then Murray spoke: 'I had broken both my legs. Show them your award, Sparkey.'

'Sparkes, still rather shy about it all, rummaged around in the drawers at the end of his bed and produced a framed certificate from the Royal Humane Society. The glass was cracked and dirty and looked as though it hadn't seen the light of day for years. He also had a letter from the Mayor of Auckland complimenting him on his bravery.'

From 'Maratoto Gold' by Ann Bale 1971.
Harold Sparke's award from the Royal Humane Society for rescuing his friend Murray Evans from an old mine shaft on 29th January 1954.
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In the 1960s, a big mining company, The Consolidated Silver Mining Company, became interested in mining for silver and gold in the Maratoto Valley. Where Sparkey once had the valley's ghostly old mines to himself, 30 men were now employed, bulldozers carved out a road and engines roared again.

Consilver Mine
The Consolidated Silver Company's quartz crushing mill at the head of the Maratoto valley. Photograph taken by Allan Beck in about 1965.
Click to enlarge the photo.

Harold Sparke was a particularly interesting personality who linked both past and present of the Maratoto. Right up to the 1970s, he was still living in one of the original miner's huts not far from the remains of the mining plant. The interior of his hut was a perfect replica of the past, with a gold-washing pan leaning against the cupboard in which he kept his stores, and a camp oven beside the rough fireplace. He lived for nearly forty years in the Maratoto and was an experienced miner, processing the silver and gold ore he took from his claim near McBrinn's Creek.

Sparkey retired to live with family in Waihi in about 1971. He was there when Ann Bale's book came out at the end of 1971, and she sent him a copy with the inscription on the flyleaf: To our dear friend Harold Sparke with affection, remembrances of the days we had together in the valley. The Bale family. Harold's grandniece, Bronwyn Spurr visited him in hospital every Friday and read to him from the book at each visit. Bronwyn recalled, 'He thoroughly enjoyed it although frowned at the odd personal comment.' Harold Sparke died in the Waihi hospital in 1973 at the age of 83.


Today, all mining activities have been abandoned and, after 150 years of enterprise and endeavour, the Maratoto echoes only to the sounds of birdsong.

Sparkey's hut 1988
Sparkey's hut taken in November 1988, about 17 years after he had left it.
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Sparkey's hut
A photo of Sparkey's hut taken from the road, showing that it was located on a rise just above the road.
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McBrinns Creek
McBrinn's Creek, Maratoto in front of Sparkey's hut.
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McBrinn's Creek
Sparkey obtained the water for brewing his tea by dipping his kettle at this spot on McBrinn's Creek.
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Sparkey's hut 1996
This photo was taken in 1996 when all that was left was the corrugated iron roof. Fittingly, the rest had gone back to nature.
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Harold Sparke
Harold Sparke... he was untouched by the march of progress.
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From Waihi Gazette, Thursday 6 December 1973.

With the recent death in Waihi Hospital of Mr Harold Leonard Sparke, at the age of 84 years, a former resident of Maratoto Valley, Hikutaia, New Zealand lost one of those rare, lovable and colourful characters seldom found in the country today.

A fine old-timer who was always just himself, lived most of his full but isolated life at the top of the quiet but lovely Maratoto Valley, was always softly spoken, hospitable and entirely untouched by the changing face of life today.

Born in Thames in 1899, the third son of Harry and Eliza Sparke, owners and mine-hosts at the Kopu Hotel, he was nicknamed 'Buller' in his youth but over the years, this changed to 'Sparky', a name he liked to be called and one by which he was known to many people in all walks of life.

Sparky made his first journey into his beloved Maratoto Valley when at 19 years of age, he and his uncle Jack Smith worked there cutting posts. After that, he worked in Maratoto Mines and then spent several years in the Martha Mine in Waihi.

Again Sparky returned to live and work in Maratoto, and when the mines closed, he chose to stay on, prospecting and operating his own treatment plant and shipped out over 100 parcels of gold and silver ore which provided him with a comfortable living according to his own simple standards.

A one room shanty was his home, about which old fashioned pink roses and honeysuckle grew and bloomed, brought to the area by miners' wives who lived in the settlement of long ago.

His home once boasted electric light but for many years, only candles provided illumination and the conveniences of a past era, and open fire and a camp oven were used to cook all meals, plus a big black hanging kettle for tea making.

Only Sparky knew the hills, shafts and drives of the romantic-sounding names of the quartz reefs, Golden Spur, Golden Dawn, Saint Hippo, Silver Stream, Golden Cross, Camoola and his favourite McBrinn's. Established mining companies in the area often drew on his extensive knowledge of the geology of the Valley, of which he had no peer.

Sparkey became known to hundreds outside his Valley when in 1971, Ann Bale wrote 'Maratoto Gold', a story around him and his life, and Shirley Maddock had him in her series of 'Tall (Trees) and the Gold' which screened on tv for a number of weeks.

Sixteen years ago, he featured in the provincial press when he saved the life of Murray Evans, a young Paeroa pig hunter after he fell down an old ventilation shaft. For this, Sparky was awarded the Royal Humane Society Citation for bravery.

He also saved a family from drowning when the river flooded in the Maratoto Valley.

His outings were a day in the town (Paeroa), and he walked or rode his old horse as far as the road or Norton's homestead where he caught the cream lorry. Once in town, his first call was the Royal Mail or the Criterion for a bottle of stout and a talk on 'what's winning' --

Shopping came next, then if he didnt have a ride home with a valley farmer, he walked from Hikutaia, or took a taxi, Lou Niven's for many years, did the job.

A free-lance miner, prospector and custodian of the Golden Spur Mining Company of which he was also a director, although it had not operated for many years, Sparky had a sad ending to his life as he spent his last three years in the Waihi hospital, loosing a leg two and a half years ago, and his eyesight also failed.

But a real dream came true for him when the Consolidated Silver Mining Co. reopened the mines and started production again after 40 years of being idle. As Sparky always said:

'There's more gold and silver still in those hills than was ever taken out.'

Harold Sparke
..'An open fire and a camp oven were used to cook all meals, plus a big black hanging kettle for tea making.' This is not Sparkey's hut but typical of the scene in miner's huts on the goldfields.
Source: The Irish Abroad.
Click to enlarge the photo.
Maratoto plug
The ancient volcano plug of Maratoto looming over the Maratoto stream.
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Maratoto Stream
The Maratoto Stream which runs right up the valley. The power line was put in for a modern mine right at the top of the Maratoto Valley.
Click to enlarge the photo.

The author would like to thank Bronwyn Spurr who kindly provided family information and photos for this article.


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