Thomas Read, known by his second name Gabriel, was born in Tasmania between 1824 and 1826. His mother, Margaret Terry, was a miller's daughter, and his father, Frederick Read, was a merchant and banker.
Gabriel Read's childhood was marred by a hunting accident in which he suffered serious head injuries. It left him prone to bouts of violent and bizarre behaviour, which would plague him for the rest of his life.
He was well educated, especially in literature, and he could have had a steady career in Tasmania if he had wanted it. However, he was a restless soul and instead travelled to the Californian goldfields to seek his fortune. He did not have much luck, and soon took up a new venture as a trader in the Pacific Islands.
In 1850, when Read was in his early twenties, he returned to Australia to have another crack at goldmining on the fields in Victoria. Again his success was limited. In 1860, after becoming upset by the general lawlessness in the area he returned home to Tasmania. Shortly after, he heard that gold had been struck in the Mataura River of Otago. He set sail for New Zealand as soon as he could, and arrived at Port Chalmers, Dunedin, on board the Don Pedro II in February 1861.
He soon learned that the Mataura find was not all it was cracked up to be, so he cancelled his expedition to Otago and went to visit some relatives instead.
However, many people were convinced that significant amounts of gold still lay undiscovered in the Otago region. One of these people was John Hardy of the Otago Provincial Council. He believed that if enough gold could be found, it would lift his province out of its financial depression. Hardy urged Gabriel Read to try prospecting further up country. Soon Read was once more heading to Otago, this time for Woolshed Creek at Glenore, in the Tuapeka district. He was not to regret it!
On 23 May 1861, Read made the discovery that was to change Otago life dramatically. In his own words, 'At a place where a kind of road crossed on a shallow bar I shovelled away about 2" feet of gravel, arrived at a beautiful soft slate and saw the gold shining like the stars in Orion on a dark frosty night.' (1)
At first, locals were cautious of this newly reported find, but in June 1861, John Hardy told the Provincial Council that he and Read had prospected a country '.about 31 miles long by five broad, and in every hole they had sunk, they had found the precious metal ...' (2) The Tuapeka goldrush was on!
Read stayed in the area until July, then discovered the Waitahuna field. After that, the Otago Provincial Council commissioned him to prospect the Waipori, Pomahaka, and Mataura districts, but in these places Read found no significant amounts of gold. He grew discouraged, and in November 1861, he resigned as a prospector for the Council, saying he did not feel he was 'sufficiently qualified to prosecute enquiries relative to new goldfields.'
He stayed in Otago for three more years, mining the Dunstan and Wakatipu fields, then in 1864, he returned to Tasmania, became a farmer, and married his cousin, Amelia Mitchell. His violent behaviour grew worse, and in time it became unmanageable. In 1887, when he was in his early fifties, Read was admitted to the New Norfolk Hospital for the Insane. He was diagnosed with a manic-depressive disorder, and stayed in hospital until he died from a stroke in October 1894.
(1) Miller, F W G. (1971). Gold at Otago.New Zealand's Heritage: the making of a nation 2: 28 p 757.
(2) Miller. (1971). p 758.
Some of the following publications may be found on the Discovery Centre bookshelves, or in Te Aka Matua Library and Information Centre on Level 4. Photographs of Te Papa collection items may be ordered from Images, on Level 4.
Binney, Judith, Bassett, Judith and Olssen, Erik. (1990). The People and the Land. te Tangata me te Whenua: an illustrated history of New Zealand 1820-1920. Wellington: Allen and Unwin.
Hearn, T J. (1990). Thomas Gabriel Read 1824-26?-1894 in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. vol. 1. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs.
McKinnon, Malcolm. editor. (1997). BatemanNew Zealand Historical Atlas: ko papatuanuku e takoto nei. Auckland: David Bateman and Historical Branch.
Gabriel Read 1887 Courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington Neg. no: 413MNZ ¼