Our ‘Photo of the Month’ features a striking study of a Northland kauri gum digger taken about 1910 by noted Northland photographer Arthur James Northwood. Our subject has been provisionally identified in a related image held by the Alexander Turnbull Library as “Mr Gallagher”. Oddly, their image includes a rather distrustful looking cat at his feet. Obviously the cat then took fright!
From 1870, digging for Kauri tree gum used in the manufacture of varnish and later of linoleum grew to become a major Northland industry, and over the ensuing years employed directly and indirectly many thousands of people. But by the 1930’s the various fields had been worked over and synthetic substitutes were becoming available. Thus by 1960 the industry had virtually come to an end.
The gum diggers, generally of European, Māori or Dalmation heritage, faced a particularly hard life, often for very little gain. Spears were used to prod the muddy swamps or mānuka covered scrub lands where once ancient kauri forests had grown. Back breaking digging then proved the only way of extracting the buried resin.
By days end, when this image would have been taken, the diggers would sit outside their shacks with their metal pails or flax kete [baskets] of gum, and laboriously scrape away the dirty and low grade outer layers to reveal the golden hued and valuable gum underneath.
Our photo appears to substantiate the solitary and difficult life led by these hardy pioneering men in the remote backblocks of rural New Zealand; the weather beaten face, the torn and heavily patched old clothes suggesting a meagre existence, and with only a wooden box for a makeshift seat.
Coming from an accomplished Northland photographic family which included his father and two brothers, Mr Northwood set up his own studio in Kaitaia in 1909, becoming responsible for a unique collection of images capturing life in the far north. Mr Northwood died at Kaitaia in 1949.