Agathis australis, or Kauri in Maori is one of New Zealand’s oldest and mightiest coniferous trees that can grow upwards of fifty metres and can live around two thousand years.
Found in the northern districts of New Zealand, the Kauri was once prolific covering 1.2 million hectares from the far North of Northland to Te Kauri near Kawhia, when the first people arrived in New Zealand, 1,000 years ago.
Due to deforestation from heavy logging that began around 1820, the number of Kauri has considerably decreased and Kauri dieback was first discovered in the 1970s on Great Barrier Island. Also known as Kauri Collar Rot, the disease was identified as a new species in 2008 and causes yellowing leaves, thinning canopy, dead branches and lesions, ultimately causing tree death.
Since the disease’s discovery, the Department of Conservation has issued guidelines to help prevent the spread of the disease, including keeping to defined tracks and footwear cleaning stations located at the entrances and exits of Kauri forest areas.
Although use of Kauri today is more restricted, it is still considered one of New Zealand’s finest first rate timber for construction and in the past, its size and strength made it a popular wood for ship building, particularly for masts of sailing ships, whereas the Kauri stump was much appreciated for its beauty and sought after for ornamental wood panelling and high end furniture.
However, far more valuable than the quality of its wood was the commodity of the Kauri’s gum, its naturalised sap or resin.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Kauri gum was a highly valuable commodity, particularly for varnish and thus spurring the development of the great Kauri gum Trade.
During this period of time, the collection and sale of Kauri gum provided a much needed supplementary income to farmers in the Auckland regions of Howick and Whitford. Farming alone was often a struggle to make a decent living from due to poor clay soil, so Kauri gum was farmed. The presence of gum that was found deposited on farmers land indicated that there were Kauri forests that once stood in those areas, but deforestation, mostly due to fires or tree felling caused what became known as Gum Reserves.
Most of these Gum Reserves were found in Northland, Coromandel and Auckland, the sites of original Kauri Forests. Initially the gum was readily available, often found lying on the ground, although it was short lived and by 1850, most of the surface-lying gum has been picked so people had to start digging for it, thus creating work for people known as Gum Diggers.
As most gum was dug from the ground, gum spears were used, a pointed probe used to spear the gum and blade-edged spades known as ‘skeltons’ for cutting through the wood, soil and the rot of stumps. Digging in the swamps however was more gruelling and complicated and a longer spear was often used, fitted with a hooked end to scoop out the lumps. Often, the Gum Reserves needed to be cleared first, usually by fire, a costly method as often the swamp or scrub fires could burn for weeks delaying digging time. As field gum became scarce, Bush Gum was obtained by purposely cutting off the bark of the Kauri and returning months later to retrieve the hardened resin. Eventually this practise was banned in 1905 due to the damage of the Kauri.
Gum Diggers were men and sometimes women who worked long hard hours in the Gum Reserves, most of which were covered by swamp or scrub. Most Gum Diggers were transient, moving from field to field and lived in rough huts or tents. It didn’t pay well as gum prices was set by weight and conditions were tough, but it still attracted many Maori and European settlers. As mostly transient workers, not settlers, much of what they earned was sent out of the country resulting in eventual resentment from the local workforce. Because of this, in 1898, the Kauri Gum Industry Act was passed which meant Gum Reserve grounds were then reserved for British subjects requiring all other Gum Diggers to be licenced.
But as Kauri Gum was largely used in the manufacture of varnish the Gum Trade flourished from the 1850s onwards and played an important role in developing the economy in Auckland.
Although Gum Reserves were mostly found in the Northern parts of Auckland, there in fact has been a presence of Gum Reserves in South Auckland, particularly within Papakura, Awhitu and the Manukau Peninsula.
1897 was when the discovery of the Papakura Valley Gum Reserve was found, where the Kauri Gum fetched for around £25 to £30 a ton in Auckland. In the Papakura Valley, Kauri Gum was in abundance, so workers could often make at least five shillings in a days work, digging for Gum throughout the valley.
As South Auckland Gum Reserves were plentiful, they were active digging grounds that were home to thousands of nationalities of Gum Diggers, and once the surface gum was exhausted, deeper diggings were developed with a large number of shanty towns and tents set up in the vicinity of what is now Porchester Road and provided a much needed boost to Papakura’s economy.
Furthermore, gum was also gathered Karaka, Waiau Pa, Glenbrook, Mauku and Pokeno. Some of these areas showed so much promise with its abundance of gum that one owner, George Potter of Purapura to the South of Waiuku had developed a method of extracting the gum by systematic trenching rather than random potholing and also paid his workers set wages rather than by the weight of gum extracted.
In later years the Kauri gum trade prospered well into the twentieth century. The trade did see a setback during the First World War, but made a comeback thereafter, but slowly declined again as synthetic materials largely began to supersede the Kauri Gum in varnishes and linoleum. By the 1960’s there was a brief revival for the trade due to demand of the pale gum, used in the dental trade (gasket cement) and brown gum for high quality varnish. Even in 1965, sons of a former Gum Digger were still operating a Kauri gum depot in Penrose until its decline.
Today, there are still substantial deposits of gum remaining in the Manukau district, although mostly inaccessible under housing or pasture land with only surface pieces uncovered by ploughing and discing operations. Furthermore, there is very little Kauri Gum remaining for sale, although occasionally you might find individual pieces that have been polished online or in antique shops, as the prices rapidly increase, it remains harder to source good quality Kauri Gum.