DON BUCK'S GUM-DIGGERS CAMP, BIRDWOOD, Nr. HENDERSON.
by Anthony G. Flude. ©1974,1977, 2008, 2012.
**This account of Don Buck's Camp by the author was first published in October 1974 in the Auckland Historical Journal #25.
It was re-printed in 'HENDERSONS MILL', 1977 and 'HENDERSONS MILL' 2008.**
HENDERSON TOWNSHIP, now swallowed up in the greater Auckland City, lies thirteen miles west of Queen Street. It was known as Henderson's Mill until 1881 when the railway first came through. Henderson was named after Thomas Henderson, a hard-nosed Scottish businessman, who erected a timber mill at the junction of the two creeks and milled thousands of feet of kauri timber for export, cut out of the Waitakere Ranges between the years 1844 and 1868. To the north of Henderson lie the suburbs of Massey-Birdwood and Swanson.
Don Buck's infamous gum-diggers camp at Birdwood on the outskirts of Henderson brought notoriety to the normally quiet township in the early 1900's. The camp was run by a flamboyant and colourful Portuguese character whom the local people had decided to call ¨Don Buck ¨ as they were unable to pronounce his long foreign sounding name.
Don Buck's early life is sketchy. He was born around the year 1869 in the Canary Islands where he was given the name of Francisco Rodriquez Figuero and was believed to be one of the sons of wealthy parents. At age 22 in the year 1892, his father had given him a small sum of money and purchased him a passage to New Zealand aboard a trading schooner. He made several attempts to establish himself in business in Auckland but each one failed and almost all his funds were lost seven years later in 1899.
During his years in Auckland township, Don Buck had learned that kauri gum was a commodity in great demand by overseas shippers and a good profit could be made if sufficient quantity could be found. The Henderson area, where Thomas Henderson's men had felled the tall kauri trees many years before for the timber mill, seemed a likely place to begin a small venture. All that was needed was a place to dig out the gum, a spade, a sack and a spear and as many gum diggers, male or female, as he could muster.
Ensuring his fine black stallion was safely aboard the railway truck at Auckland Station, he boarded the train for Henderson. In the public bar of the Falls Hotel in the small township he asked where gum was to be found and what local land was for sale. He was told of large blocks of land at Birdwood which could be purchased through the Lands Office. Saddling up his horse, Don Buck rode some three miles outside the township to the base of a steep hill at Birdwood, where he found a flat area of land, a swift running stream and a row of tall macrocarpa trees to offer shelter. Here, employing some of the locals, he built a small shanty using the black wattle trees which grew in abundance along the stream and adjacent area. In later years he built a large timber gum store, with better accommodation at one end and a stable for his horses at the other but he did not formalise title to any of the land before 1913, when he applied to the Lands Office for a free 10 acre settlers grant.
Don Buck was described as a tall slim man with dark features and a black moustache, sometimes waxed and others drooping. He spoke English with a strong accent and could speak several foreign languages. Always dressed well, Don Buck wore a black calf length coat in the cooler winter days, a colourful waistcoat and boots up to his knees. He was seldom seen without his broad sombrero hat and his leather bag slung over his saddle. On a lanyard around his neck he carried a small pistol tucked into a holster. Mounted on his shiny black stallion, Don Buck cut quite a figure as he rode across the Pomaria estate to the Henderson Township. Around his camp and into the foothills, where there were no boundaries, he found an abundance of kauri gum.
Using contacts he had made in his earlier days in Auckland, Don Buck approached two Police Magistrates of the Auckland Law Courts, named Cullen and Kettle. His proposal was to get them to sentence drunks, petty thieves and lay-about's who were told to get out-of -town, to ¨two weeks in Mount Eden Prison¨ or the same at Don Buck's camp gum-digging. The magistrates agreed to his proposal, as the prison was full of criminals with no space left for the likes of these people. Miscreants preferring gum-digging to prison, were put on the train to Henderson Railway Station, where Don Buck would be waiting to collect them in his cart. They were taken to the camp site at Birdwood and told to build themselves a whare beneath the row of tall macrocarpa trees.
Others, released from Mount Eden with nowhere to go were given a train ticket to Henderson and told to be out-of -town by sunset. Don Buck offered accommodation of sorts; a whare or mud hut for a shilling a week. As there were no fences or gates in the district, gum diggers would roam at will over many acres of bush covered land where the tall kauri trees had once stood. Each was given a spade, spear and sack and told that he, Don Buck, would buy all the gum from them at a fair price or exchange goods from his store. Slowly the gum store filled and when the price was right he sold the sacks of kauri gum to the shippers in Auckland.
Don Buck sold no alcoholic liqueur, probably a condition laid down by the Magistrates, but camp inmates could easily walk or ride into the Henderson township to the Fall Hotel to buy beer or wine, returning to the camp in a very drunken state.
Cooking at the camp was mostly communal, goat meat and milk being provided by a herd of goats that roamed the area, returning to the camp at night. Wild young piglets were occasionally found in the bush areas. To help preserve meat from a kill, large holes were dug into the clay banks of the Swanson Stream below the high water mark and the meat wrapped in muslin cloth and stored in these. The meat stayed fresh for several days. Every two or three weeks, Don Buck went by train from Swanson to Kingsland to purchase his bulk supplies of sugar and flour and grain for his horses at Kingsland's Bulk Supply store run by A. W. Page. The railway station was close by and the track ran conveniently alongside the road.
Many of the Henderson residents and local children feared him, but he gave them no cause to do so and was friendly and spoke to many of the orchardist's along the Swanson Road where he purchased fruit and vegetables. Some of the children living in the area often hitched a ride on his cart into Henderson on the way to school, although their parents disapproved. On wet days the clay roads and dust turned into deep ruts and holes filled with water and the children would arrive at school is a very muddy state.
Don Buck seems to have been a man of sober personal habits, perhaps because of the heart condition he suffered and finally died from. He was never seen drunk, nor in the company of disreputable women; and local residents told of his kindness to an elderly couple who fell on hard times, neither being able to work. When they could not meet their mortgage payments on their small cottage, Don Buck gave them money and supplies, never seeking repayment. Others told of his honesty in gum dealings A clerk who worked in a kauri gum store commented that the Don had a good reputation for always bringing in a ¨good¨ weight with no stones in the sacks he offered for sale to Auckland merchants and shippers. He even brought in bags of peaches for them when the fruit was in season.
By 1905, when the local vineyards were producing sherry and wine, the camp began to acquire a reputation for drunken orgies and fights and brawls were reported with some injuries occurring. The camp became a haven for all the discards of society, not merely petty first offenders but for those sought by police for more serious crimes.
One of the characters in the camp was a lady called Tiger Lil. She travelled to Auckland taking the train from Henderson, returning to the camp each evening. Passengers sitting opposite her in the carriage had to be careful where they looked, for, if she thought they might be eying her up, she would fly into a rage and call them very derogatory and unprintable names. Depending on her mood, she would sometimes try to get them to come and sit next to her; if they refused she would again give them a mouthful of abuse. For a lark, some of the men getting into the carriage would make sure that some unsuspecting male was squashed up against her and then wait for the fireworks and entertainment to start.
Wild drunken scenes occurred at the camp and brawls, together with two known deaths, one by misadventure and another by drunken murder, and were the cause of frequent visits by police from Avondale, the nearest police station.
The New Zealand Herald of 19 November 1912 described an incident at the camp in which a digger, Harry Whiteside, was found huddled, dead, in the fireplace of a whare. The camp was described as consisting of eight or nine typical gum-digger’s whare’s with turf chimneys and roofed with iron or raupo. A heavy drinking spree lasting several days had evidently been in progress. A woman interviewed said she and friends had been drinking heavily and dancing all Sunday night. Two two- gallon kegs of wine had been consumed. When the visitors left her hut at 3 a.m., the woman, Barbara Craiga, got out of bed and stumbled over something she thought was a dog. She discovered it was Whiteside’s leg and that he was dead. The Coroner’s report showed William Henry Whiteside was 55-year-old boot maker. He had turned to drink and gum-digging and was often seen worse the wear for liquor.
Dr. Moir, who conducted the post mortem, found no marks of violence and believed death was the result of suffocation. He remarked that it was easy for a drunken person to fall on his face, pass out and die. Another witness said nine bottles of wine were consumed as well as the two kegs. Detective Hammond, of Avondale Police, said that the previous day he had seen a perfectly sober man drink one glassful of wine and, within two minutes, became completely intoxicated.
Don Buck also gave evidence. He said he was a farmer and had a number of huts on his property that he rented to gum diggers and that the deceased had been one of these. All the jurors, bar one, were satisfied the cause was ¨death by misadventure¨ Summing up,the Coroner remarked it was time the camp was disbanded in the interests of society at large. There was the inevitable public outcry for the place to be ¨cleaned up¨. Police of the day were not overly interested in deaths through alcoholic poisoning and Don Buck held the view that if the camp occupants wished to drink themselves to death ¨then that was their affair.¨
Five years later, in 1917, Don Buck was found by camp inmates collapsed on the floor of his Birdwood shack with a heart attack. His faithful black stallion had attracted attention by continually kicking at the door of his stable until help came.
He was taken to Severn Hospital in Ponsonby and died there a few days later on the 5th August at age 47 years. Don Bucks remains lay in an unmarked grave in Waikumete Cemetery until the year 2011, when a memorial headstone was erected.
The camp was closed marking the end of a notorious but colourful era in Henderson’s history. Don Buck Road, Massey, a nearby bridge, several schools and a cornerstone erected at the junction of Swanson Road and Don Buck Road, commemorate him and his nearby gum-diggers camp on Glen Road, Birdwood.