A story goes that Biddy brought A pigeon to the ground, But when she ran and pick'd it up No injury was found; For when the poor old pigeon saw The one who held the gun, The shock was quite sufficient so He tumbled down - said one! (1)
This is the third stanza from a long ode to Biddy Goodwin, a West Coast legend. Goodwin was a rarity - a female goldminer. Four foot nothing, she wore moleskin trousers, smoked a pipe, drank hard, and - shocking to many - lived with two men, neither of whom she was married to.
Her origins are mysterious. She was born somewhere in Ireland, sometime between 1802 and 1827. There is evidence to suggest that her surname at birth was Dunbar, and that she later married a Mr Goodwin, but we can not be certain.
Her mining career began in Australia - at Bendigo and Ballarat. Then in the 1860s with her two male friends in tow, she followed the goldrush to New Zealand. They mined around Collingwood in Nelson, then made the long trek to the West Coast and the Buller River. It was here that she was given the nickname that would stick for the rest of her life - 'Biddy of the Buller'.
Goodwin probably had little or no education, and it is believed that she could not read or write. However, she was strong and physically capable, and was firmly in charge of her two men, making the decisions and giving directions. When their goldmining efforts had earned them enough money, the threesome would live it up for several days, until they had drunk every last penny away.
In the 1880s and 1890s, Goodwin and her companions probably lived together in a hut near Lyell township. By now they were getting old. One of the men died, and several years later, the other - who is believed to have been called Jack - also passed away. By all accounts, Goodwin was heartbroken. She settled in Reefton for the rest of her life, and became a practising Anglican.
By some Victorian standards, her morals were questionable, but her generosity and loyalty won her many friends. Parishioners from her church visited her regularly to be regaled with tales of her early life.
At least twice in the 1890s, Goodwin was admitted to Reefton Hospital with unrecorded ailments. She died in Reefton on 19 October 1899. How old she was is another mystery. Depending on whom you choose to believe, her age at her time of death was seventy-two, eighty-six, or maybe even ninety-six.
(1) Burns, Berta, Sinclair. editor. (1946). The Poetical Works of Hugh Smith: thebard of Inangahua. Christchurch: Hugh Smith. p 259.
The following publication 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.
Orr, Katherine W. (1990). Bridget Goodwin 1802-27?-1899 in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. vol. 1. Wellington: Department of Internal Affairs.
Biddy of the Buller Courtesy of the Nelson Provincial Museum
West Coast story
Many years after her death, Hugh Smith, 'The Bard of Inangahua', told Biddy's story in verse ...
Old Biddy of the Buller Was a wonder to be sure; Wore a pair of moleskin trousers- Not because she was so poor- With a leather belt around them For to keep her firm, she said, And the pockets were so handy When her finger-tips were dead.
Old Biddy was an adept At the cooking of a hen Of any sort-at "Maori" ones She was a chef in ten; Kept the dripping for her "water-tights," Or other kinds of boots, And to ease acute rheumatics Or sciatic pangs and shoots!
A story goes that Biddy brought A pigeon to the ground, But when she ran and pick'd it up No injury was found; For when the poor old pigeon saw The one who held the gun, The shock was quite sufficient so He tumbled down-said one!
Old Biddy had a husband, but- There were no legal rights, To define their plan of living Or the number of their wights; But none was ever kinder- In the world than poor old Jack, And Biddy was the queen that ruled The realm in that old shack.
On Sunday mornings Biddy always wore a wincey skirt, With a body-piece of print stuff, But without a speck o' dirt. It wasn't in her plans and styles To wear a satin gown, The wincey and the bit o' print Were good enough for town.
They combed the Buller beaches And its tributaries too, And many said that Biddy had A safety roll or two. She took a hand at euchre Now and then at old Berlins' And if a chump got ropey She would send him off his pins.
For each, for both-for one, for two, Seem'd fixed and plann'd throughout, And if there wasn't quite enough, Well, both would do without. From early morn she'd rock and rock The cradle * to and fro, And Jack would keep it half-way full, With grit from down below.
And Biddy had the "comber's" art Of panning off a dish- The little twist, the little lilt, The little noiseless "swish" That brought the "colours" up to sight- Sometimes the "rough" stuff too, And Jack would say, "Well, well, old lass, We'll see this corner through!"
She would sit upon a sand bank, Whether things were right or wrong, And smoke an old clay cutty With stem two inches long, And while she rock'd the cradle By the well-worn handle grips; Her old black pipe for certain, Would be hanging from her lips.
They'd sit within the shelter of some overhanging scrub, And have a bit o' lunch at noon, Two equal bits o' grub- And talk of where they would be At the middle of next week- Somewhere about the "willows," Or "Ohika-nui" creek.
At Inangahua Junction, Or a little lower down, Where the Buller flows by "Walker's," Then they'd have a day in town, When they'd stock their simple larder, Get a pair o' socks for each, Or a "butterfly"* to shade them From the rains out on the beach.
Every waggoner knew Biddy, From the wharf to Jim McKay's, There were no 60 milers-or And Biddy would be waiting When a waggon came in view With a pannikin of cocoa- And a butter'd scone or two.
I met her some years later, One cold, bitter winter day, At a corner up in Reefton- Near the hearse-shed by the way. Poor old soul, she look'd so lonely, With a cloth tied on her head, And she shiver'd when she told me That her poor old mate was dead.
The shack that was their shelter, Went away in some big flood, And got stranded down at Westport, Filled with driftwood, weeds and mud. Biddy pined away and wither'd, Long the sport of cruel fate, And they laid her in God's acre Near her old, kind, helpful, mate. (1)
*The cradle here referred to was a type of pan used in gold-washing. *An oilskin coat
(1) Burns, Berta, Sinclair. editor. (1946). The Poetical Works of Hugh Smith: thebard of Inangahua. Christchurch: Hugh Smith. pp 259-261.