Thames School of Mines from the outside at dusk with the lights on

An introduction to Thames School of Mines

For a while there in the late 19th Century, mining schools sprang up like mushrooms, encouraged by Aotearoa New Zealand governments keen to stimulate returns from a significant arm of the economy. Of the 30 that were formed in this period, the largest was the Thames School of Mines, which is also one of the rare survivors. When you visit, you’ll see that it’s also one of the most authentic and best preserved.

By 1886 when the school opened, the Coromandel was entrenched as one of the hubs of the country’s gold industry. A couple of modest finds in the 1840s and ’50s had been followed by a big strike in 1867, which kicked off a rush on the Thames foothills. Most of the gold discovered was locked in quartz reefs and had to be mined then extracted using stamper batteries. The Thames School taught advanced mining techniques, geology, mine management and other skills to help the gold men squeeze out every last penny.  

Its beginnings were not auspicious. The land on which the school stands was formerly an urupā associated with three local hapū, and was gifted to the Wesleyan Church by Ngāti Maru specifically and only for the construction of a place of worship. Less than 20 years later, the Wesleyans transferred title expressly against the iwi’s wishes. New Zealand Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga) acquired the property in 1979. In 2004 Thames School of Mines was recognised as wāhi tapu and appropriate tikanga Māori protocols were put in place to ensure respect be given to the former urapā site.

The cluster of utilitarian buildings grew with the addition of an experimental metallurgical works and a mineralogical museum, which opened to public in 1901. Later, as mining declined, the school broadened its curriculum to keep itself relevant, offering among other things courses in agricultural science, engineering and mechanical drawing, until the doors finally closed in 1954.

To step into the school is to get a vivid sense of how practical science and technology was taught in our pioneering past. You’ll see authentic period equipment and classic gold rush machinery, classrooms, labs, microscopes and maps of the gold fields, a model of a whole stamper battery system and an actual small-scale stamper battery, mining documents and historic photos. The original furnace room, where gold was laboriously extracted and then assayed, is well worth a look. So, too, is the minerological museum, a geologist’s paradise that houses one of the largest collections in the southern hemisphere, with 3500 specimens of rocks, minerals and fossils. Among many treasures, you’ll find pieces of meteorite and a chunk of rock from the Pink and White Terraces, which were buried by the Mt Tarawera eruption in the year the school opened.

When you’re finished, head along to the Thames Goldmine Experience for a more hands-on lesson in the mechanics of 19th Century goldmining. Located at the northern end of town, the complex includes an operational restored stamper battery, a sawyer battery, powder house and photographic museum. The guided tours take you through the stamper battery and into an underground mine of the day.