Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gum, refuge and liquor: the Don Buck's Camp years

Auckland Weekly News, 31 August 1900, Ref 7-A2866, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Library

Don Buck, aka Francisco Rodrigues Figuiera (c.1869-1917) is one of West Auckland's most prominent legends from real life.

The Black Bridge is on the Great North Road, about a mile from Swanson railway station, and at the foot of what used to be called Don Buck's Hill, well known to gumdiggers and anyone bound Helensville-wards.

Just on the left-hand side of the bridge, looking north, there is some rising ground, gorse-covered, with a few old pines round a deserted house. A few years ago that house was a busy store, and the knoll was encircled with the queerest imaginable collection of sack shanties and whares. In a semicircle they stretched round the store, all under the eagle eye of Don Buck.

His real name was something very different —one of those characteristic Portuguese names ending in "eirara"— but we never knew him as anything but Don Buck, "Don" for short, "and among friends" as Falstaff says. He was born in Madeira, and in his younger days went to South Africa where he made some money, and then, happening to hear of the gumdigging in New Zealand, something of its bohemian character appealed to this rolling stone of a "Portugee." Not that Don ever handled spear and spade as far as I know; his forte was running a store and financing the wild crew that then followed the elusive gum. Wild they were with a vengeance. All gone to their account many years ago. To-day you won't find more than a handful of the real old fashioned digger anywhere. There is still a sod-shack or two between Riverhead and Kumeu—land that was once thick with the failures of the towns and the thirsty men and women who found it difficult to keep out of the lock-up when they drifted within sight of the lights of the city.

The matter-of-fact methodical Dalmatian has revolutionised the gum digging, robbing it of its wild bohemianism. When a colony of sober, stalwart foreigners will dig deliberately a six-foot face through a swamp, clearing it of every particle of gum, there isn't much room for the casual spear and spade lonehander, whose only ambition was to get enough to keep the tucker box full and give him a surplus for an occasional hilarious burst in town —which invariably wound up in Mount Eden.

A Rough Mob.

When Don first settled near Swanson on what was known far and wide as "Don Buck's Camp" I can't say, but when I first knew the outfit he had firmly established himself there as storekeeper and uncrowned king of as rough a mob as you could muster in the whole province. It was naturally a floating population, but generally there was a score or so of subjects, male and female. Anyone down-and-out used to make for the camp, and whatever Don's failings he never turned a man or woman away, so long as they played the game. They say there is honour among thieves, and there certainly was a certain kind of it in that strenuous little kingdom.

Don was tall, good-looking, with a deep voice, handy with his fists, always had some "shooting irons" about the house, and he was held in considerable respect, so that in all the broil*, battle and sudden death that shook the camp, none of them ever swept nearer than the front steps of the throne. The carousals and the fights used to afford his Majesty a certain amount of amusement, but were never allowed to invade the sacred territory of the palace. His friends could have as much fire-water as they liked, in fact Don used to do a bit in that line himself, and many a keg of whisky used to arrive in the three-horsed trap he drove from the railway station, but they were not allowed to drink about the store.

Oddly enough, living in that little kingdom of inebriates, real hard drinkers, who did not get merely drunk, but mad drunk, Don never touched a drop himself. He had failings, but drink was not one of them.

Whenever a down-and-out arrived at the camp, it might be from some other field, but it was more often from gaol, the procedure was always the same; Don would furnish him with an axe and some sacks. With the axe the newcomer would go down to the bush-clad creek and cut some poles, and with these and the sacks he would build himself a sack shanty, making one more in the large semi-circle. Then Don would come to light with a week's stores, spade and spear, and then he would keep his protege under surveillance. If the newcomer turned up regularly with his gum, Don would know he was playing the game, and he would be admitted to the freedom of the camp.


Although he had no objection to turning an honest penny out of the whisky he brought out from town, Don would often give his subjects a bit of good advice. When pressed for a "couple of bob for a booze," he would say, "That's no good to you, lad; I'll give you some stores, and it will be better for you to get out on the field after gum."

Close as a miser in some ways, he was generous in others, and it was characteristic of Don that he would think less of giving some of the ladies of his realm a half crown than he would of giving a man sixpence.

In addition to the whisky there was an even more potent factor in the frequent carousals that got the camp such a notorious name, and led to many visits from the police, and that was the local wine which had a kick like a mule, and was responsible for all sorts of wild doings when the camp "saw red." The chief purveyor of this potent stuff t was a single chap who was not impervious to blandishments. The procedure was to send over one of the ladies, who s would negotiate for a certain amount of wine, and while this was going on other emissaries from the camp would find the keys of the cellar and hand out the deadly stuff in quantities. Much of the wine was new, and therein lay its potency.

Drunken Orgies.

Bacchanalian and fearful were the scenes enacted at the camp on wine days. The ordinary jollification of a gum diggers' community is sometimes colossal, but at Don Buck's they went a bit too far. One man was hacked to death with an axe, another couple disfigured each other with the jagged ends of broken wine bottles, and one man got so completely drunk that he fell face down in the fire, and was suffocated where he lay.

There were other minor failings which made the camp the worry of the police. Many of the "subjects" were notorious gaol birds, and it was common knowledge among those who gathered there that some of the property that was exchanged had not been acquired through the usual channels. Don Buck did not mind dealing in this stuff as long as he knew before hand whether it had been obtained on the square or was "crooked." If you wanted to deal with Don you had to make a clean breast of it to him; once you deceived him he would never trust you again. He had a large and varied acquaintance in town, and apparently had no difficulty in getting rid of any of the stuff he purchased from his queer people.

Don Pines Away.

Visits of the police were common at the camp, and some of the mounted men used to tell queer tales of the goings on they were sent to investigate.

Eventually things got so bad that the police had to clear out the whole nest of frail folks. It was after the affair of the drunken man who fell in the fire and was burned to death that the end came. Once deprived of his subjects Don seemed to lose all zest for life. First he got a cold, then dropsy set in, and at the comparatively early age of 56, or perhaps less, he passed away.

A careful man, he from time to time bought up for a mere song whole tracts of the cheap gum land, and at his death he left an estate worth several thousand pounds Where it went I don't know. Search was made for Portuguese relations of Don's, but without effect, though I have heard that some years afterwards a brother was located in sunny Madeira.

Notorious he undoubtedly was, but Don had his good qualities, and even to this day you will find old "gummies" have a good word to say for the big masterful "Portugee."

(by "Vagabond", Auckland Star 10.8.1926)

"Don Buck" purchased two large areas of land in the early years of the 20th century -- 157 acres of part of Lot 6A, Parish of Waipareira in 1902, beside the Huruhuru Creek (NA 109/147), and 150 acres, Lot 15 in the same parish in 1904, fronting Swanson Road and including today's intersection with Don Buck Road. (DI 9A.774) While he was active as a merchant in the Henderson-Swanson area from c.1898, the camp may not have existed until 1902.

To the Editor.—Sir—l was summoned as a witness in the case Queen v. Sullivan in the Supreme Court last week. On the summons it stated that if I did not attend I was liable to a fine of £100. I left my shop unattended, paid my railway fare (two shillings and eight pence) and lost the whole of Monday in attendance at the court. I was not called as a witness, as I was told the case was dismissed, and when I applied for my expenses I was told I should get nothing. Now, Mr Editor, is this correct or am I entitled to any recompense for lost time and expenses incurred? If not it is time that the law was altered so that a person cannot be dragged away from his business against his wish and receive nothing to recoup him for his expenses and loss of time.—l am. etc.. Don Buck, gum buyer and storekeeper, near Henderson. 

(AS 28.11.1898)

Don Buck was fined 5/ and 7/ costs for driving without lights after sunset on the Great North-road … 

(AS 5.6.1903)

The local authority, the Waitemata County Council, began to get complaints about the gum diggers camp almost immediately.
Sanitation at Henderson. Dr. Makgill submitted the following report to the Waitemata County Council this morning concerning sanitary arrangements at "D. Buck's Camp," Henderson:—"No privy accommodation exists here, and as the huts, though of the most primitive description, are leased as dwellings, they come under section 46, Public Health Act. Probably two privies would prove sufficient for the group, including the store. The present lack of accommodation is offensive, and tends to endanger the purity of the water in the creek, which is used for domestic purposes. I recommend therefore that the Council take action to compel the owner to provide privies."—lt was reported that the owner had been officially requested to remedy the defects. 

(AS 4.9.1903)

And, despite the fact of a letter supposedly written by Don Buck in 1898 being published in the Auckland Star (see above) -- he was apparently not truly bi-lingual. At least, not where it mattered.

KAURI GUM DEALER FINED. The first local prosecution of a kauri gum dealer for neglecting to keep a record of his transactions was heard by Mr H. W. Brabant, S.M., this morning, the defendant being Francisco R. Figuiera. a Swanson dealer familiarly known as "Don Buck." The case was conducted by Sub-Inspector Black.

Mr A. Blair, who defended, said his client was guilty, but being a Spaniard and not well up in English, did not keen a record which was sufficient to comply with the requirements of the Act. He only bought gum from men who worked on his land and were practically his servants. Defendant was now being taught how to keep the book in English.

Sub-Inspector Black said that six months ago Figuiera was warned by the police that it was necessary to keep the record, or he would he prosecuted. His Worship remarked that had the licensing authority known of his inability to keep a book, he might not have secured a license. He imposed a 5/ fine, and reserved his decision as to whether he had power to endorse Figuiera's current license for an offence which occurred during the currency of last year's license. 

(AS 25.1.1904)

NOTICE. That it is my intention to apply to the Waitemata County Council, at a meeting to be held on 8th March, 1907, for permission to Erect a Swing Gate across Waitakerei-rd., near the junction of the North-rd, and Waitakerei-rd. 

(AS 2.3.1907)

Francisco Rodregney Fugueiro Cabo, alias "Don Buck," was on the list charged with purchasing kauri gum from one James Dowrick, on two occasions, at Henderson, without being the holder of a kauri gum license. Sergeant Hendry explained that with the consent of defendant's counsel, Mr. Lundon, an adjournment would be asked for until Friday. This was agreed to by the magistrate. 

(AS 2.12.1907)

From 1908, Don Buck proceeded in selling off his lands and assets. The days of vast profits from gum were over in West Auckland, and he was under increasing pressure from those critical of his set-up.

FOR SALE, about 60 Pigs and Sows.— Apply Don Buck. Henderson. 
(AS 19.1.1910)

FOR SALE, Hundreds of Acres, between Henderson and Swanson, in lots to suit purchasers. All good level country. Some improved, some otherwise. —Apply Don Buck, Henderson. 
(AS 19.1.1910)

FOR SALE, 5 to 300 Acres; good stream runs through property, full winter and summer; all fenced.—F R Figueira, Henderson. 
(AS 12.10.1910)

GREEN FLAX.—100 Tons for Sale, delivered to Henderson station.—Apply Don Buck, Henderson.

47 PIGS—For Sale, 7 Breeding Sows, 3 Boars and 50 Young Pigs, all first-class. Apply Don Buck, Henderson. 

(AS 8.7.1911)

By 1912, the camp was infamous for "Chain Lightning" -- a mixture favoured by the inhabitants of Don Buck's shanty huts, which was especially shocking in the midst of the rise of temperance feeling in Auckland.
About three miles out of Henderson is a spot which has earned for itself the special regard of the police. It is a place of periodical sensations, being the centre of a comparatively small but exceedingly choice population of gum diggers and their consorts, with a free admixture of the reckless spirits in whom are to be found the lawless tendencies that in the "roaring forties" made the camps of California noted. Don Buck's Camp, thus constituted, is in its isolation allowed latitude in the conduct of its society which could not be countenanced in other than an Ishmaelite community, and though regular surprise visits by the police keep the spirit of anarchy within reasonable bounds there is now and again an outburst which calls for swift and summary punishment.

Such an outbreak of lawlessness occurred on Thursday, and evidences of it met the eye of Constable Waugh, of Avondale, when he made one of his periodic visits yesterday. The unnatural silence of a whare awoke suspicion and the constable investigated, to find an old man named George Fry lying unconscious and in a pool of blood on the floor. His head was cut and bleeding in numerous places and in such a way that the damage suggested that Fry had been beaten with a bottle. Venturing further afield, the constable came across a stalwart Maori lying on the ground bleeding from a couple of wounds in the side of the neck. Obviously the Maori’s explanation that he had fallen down and hurt himself was insufficient and aroused the suspicion that he had reason to say little about the affair. Still further investigation, in which information was grudgingly given, enabled the constable to piece together the story of how the state of affairs had come about.

It appeared that the Maori, who is well known variously as "Maori Jack," Jack Denny, and Uru, had come to blows with another man of the camp, when Fry interfered and, it is alleged, struck Maori Jack with a tomahawk. The big native thereupon turned on the old man with a bottle and, it is stated, beat him unmercifully about the head. Constable Fry placed the Maori under arrest, and later had both him and Pry conveyed to the Auckland Hospital. George Fry is a man 60 years of age, and his head injuries are such that his condition is reported to be critical.

The place which is the scene of the episode is on a wide stretch of country owned by Don Buck, who one time carried on a store out Henderson way, but is now farming. Patches of the land were once fairly rich in gum, and when a man came along who, for reasons of his own, preferred to make a precarious living on the gumfields, away from the eye of the world, the storekeeper was willing to provide them with a spade, a spear and outfit, to enable them to dig gum on his land. Of course, the provisions came from his store, and he was willing to trade them for gum. In this way became established what is known as Don Buck's camp, and the men and women who took up seclusion there consisted in great part of a pariah class.

The years went on, the field became less prolific of gum, the store closed down, but the camp has remained, its personnel ever-changing. Though the decrease of the gum has made the conditions of work hard, the place is yet by many considered a place of refuge, and their pleasures are as strenuous as their work. It is in such places that one hears of the pleasures of methylated spirits. From a prominent police officer it is learnt that this spirit is much favoured for [illegible] purposes by the hard-bitten drinkers. The proper blend, it is stated, is one bottle of methylated spirits to four of whisky, making five quarts of "chain lightning," which is the dope aimed it. Another variety is a mixture of the local wine and methylated spirits, while the women who have cultivated a fine taste in such matters prepare for themselves a soothing night-cap from sweetened tea brewed strong, and the inevitable methylated. The wonder is not that those who indulge in such gentle concoctions occasionally kick over the traces but that they should have the life left to kick at all. 

(AS 6.1.1912)

The public has heard something recently of the home-grown wine that is the staple beverage of Don Buck's camp, near Henderson, and an authentic instance was related at the inquest on Tuesday of how a man got drunk on a glass of the drink. It might be mentioned that the real article is a dark, heavy liquid resembling port, with a pleasant fruity flavour. It, however, takes some considerable time for proper stomachic assimilation, and when a fresh supply is imbibed on top of the previous days' potations, the fumy effects of the combination are said to be decidedly exhilarating. It is the custom of the aforesaid camp community to drink this un-mellowed wine daily, and in gulps of half a pint a measure, after the style of beer drinking. When it is considered that, in addition, many of the imbibers with the excitement of methylated spirits for the sake of adding a bite, the mental and physical effects of wine-pest in the camp may be imagined. 

(AS 21.11.1912)

Buck's Camp, situated midway between Henderson and Swanson and already notorious in regard to several previous tragedies, during the past week-end was the scene of a drunken orgy, culminating in the death of a man named Harry Whiteside. Evidence given at the inquest showed that there had been drinking, dancing, and fighting, in which three men and two women participated, that all the men were supposed to have left the whare in which the carouse took place, but that next morning Whiteside was found lying on the floor dead. Medical evidence went to show that although deceased might have been injured by a blow, the injuries were not sufficient to cause death, and that death had been caused by suffocation, probably through the man falling on his face while drunk. The jury returned a verdict accordingly.

(AS 23.11.1912)

 Now, the Waitemata County brought in Dr. Makgill, the District Health Officer, in response to increasing complaints about the camp.

The District Health Officer forwarded for the consideration, of the Waitemata County Council a report by Inspector Grieve regarding what is known as "Don Buck's Camp.''

The Inspector reports having visited Don Buck's Camp, or to give the proper name of the owner, Francisco Rodergues Figuerra. The report states that this man owns a block of land midway between Henderson and Swanson. He lives in a fairly well-built wood and iron house on his property. Scattered round the main building are a number of huts, and the remains of several which have apparently collapsed. They vary in size from about 12 by 12 to 8 by 8. Six of these huts are riddled with toredo holes. They have neither lining nor windows. There are three other sod huts with sacks for roof covering. At the time of the inspector's visit the whole camp was deserted and all huts locked up. The whole of the shanties present a very squalid appearance. Mr Grieve added: "I met the owner on the road after making my inspection, and he argued that these huts were no worse than many that could be found elsewhere on the gumfields. This has to be admitted, but I think there should be a distinction between what any one man in poor circumstances might erect for his own shelter and these places erected by a man who can apparently afford something better, and let for his profit."

In forwarding a certificate of condemnation of six wooden huts and three sod and sacking whares the District Health Officer, Dr Makgill, stated: "As they are continuously inhabited, it is quite reasonable to treat them as buildings intended for human habitation, and demand a higher standard of sanitation than one would for a temporary bushman’s or gumdigger's whare."

The Council agreed to serve notice on the owner in accordance with the Act. 

(AS 18.1.1913)

DON BUCK'S CAMP. To the Editor, Sir.—

At last this notorious camp has aroused the attention of the authorities to a sense of their duty to the people living in that district, and also the insanitary conditions and steps are being adopted to remove some of the evils which have existed for many years. The country people have protested against magistrates sending these undesirables to pollute and endanger the safety of the district, but without avail whatever. The magistrates who sent that class of persons to the country would object themselves to live amongst them; but when they have the option of going to gaol or country, they did not consider for one moment the respectable and law abiding people whom they were going to jeopardise. But, so long as this class of people were removed from the streets of the city they were satisfied. It is unfair and unjust that country places should have to submit to this state of things.

Now, sir, I resided about a mile from Buck's Camp seven years ago, and I had occasionally to go to Henderson on business, but one of the residents entreated me not to pass by Buck's Camp, because it was not safe to do so, as someone had been stuck up a short time and that some of the worst class of both sexes were there. I always went down the line for safety. While at Henderson I saw some of the most vile women who once paraded Auckland streets. I also met them in other localities. The out-districts were over-run with this class of women. Could not the Government devise some better means of getting rid of this class of people from the city. Not by sending to gaol for a period, but to an island of reformation, there to work out their liberty by their own reformed actions while there to justify them being restored to the society they forfeited by their evil doings. It would be well if many of the males were treated in like manner, and by humane power and influence would possibly reform them. The gaol, as a rule, does not reform, but hardens the nature of many, and they go back to liberty to commit the same deeds or worse. Justice should be tempered with mercy in many instances, not imprisonment and fines, too often resorted to by judge and magistrate. —I am. etc., R B 

 (AS 23.1.1913) 

Not all of Don Buck's land had been sold by the time he died in 1917. The Public Trustee settled his estate and arranged for sales into the 1920s. At that point, real life increasingly became legend.

 Auckland Star 21 August 1922


  1. A fascinating piece of social history. It's good to remember people like Don Buck and his hangers-on as they were a significant part of society at the time and this completes the picture. The great and good are not the only ones with stories worth telling.

  2. I lived in Don Buck Road downhill of the bridge from 1954 on, building huts and bush tracks for 12 years or so on the site of the camp. The land on the south (left) bank of the river west (upstream) of the bridge was owned by the extended Madsen family, and my friend Barry Madsen and I explored the whole area in great detail. The north bank was unknown ‘wild country’ – where all of our huts were built - up until you reached the ridgeline on Don Buck Road at the top of the hill.
    At one stage, our juvenile endeavours dammed the creek near the bridge causing local consternation. Apparently, it used to be navigable by river boats up to and upstream of the bridge (i.e. to the camp), although these river boats must have operated upstream of the falls at the mouth (at the end of Woodside Road) and transferred loads at that end. We were blamed for causing the blockage of the river - somehow, I don't think a bunch of primary school kids with WW2 bayonets for hatchets and sapling logs were up to that.
    In any event, subsequent floods which flooded the whole area through to Universal Drive (then a farm) and topped the bridge by 3 feet I am sure would have cleared any log dam built by us. These floods topped the 8 strand fences between us and the Hyland family behind us, who had several acres and grew strawberries. The Hylands were a big family with 11 kids, including the lovely Josephine, who was a year younger than me.
    At the time we did not know the origins of the building remains we found, or of the odd river pile we found in the river banks. It’s good to finally understand the history of the area as it was before we explored it. Thank you.

  3. The source of the wine was apparently the vineyard of one Charles Metcalfe, who settled a block of land where Ranui Station Road is now and developed a small vineyard. Two of his brothers settled land at the top of Metcalfe Road hill next to Babich's- hence the name "Metcalfe road". The story is contained in a small book on Ranui history in our local library.
    Your comment on how he was 'subject to female persuasion' put an interesting light on Charles- indeed the trade with Don Buck's tenants caused him grief, and led to his prosecution. Another story among the many

  4. Does anyone know how to contact Mark Norton who posted on March 9, 2014?
    "I lived in Don Buck Road downhill of the bridge from 1954 on..."