Story: Peebles, Alexander
Carrier, bush contractor, prospector, mine manager, farmer, local politician, businessman
This biography was written by Alison B. Heath and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 3, 1996
Born on 10 January 1856 at Boghall, a 400-acre farm at Kingsbarns, Fife, Scotland, Alexander Peebles was the second child of George Peebles, a farm labourer, and his wife, Janet Turnbull. George was offered a contract as head ploughman on Purvis Russell's estate, Woburn, near Waipukurau, New Zealand, and the family sailed from London in the John Bunyan in November 1860. From Wellington they sailed by cutter to Porangahau beach, before travelling by dray to Woburn.
Alex Peebles had no formal schooling. He started his working life at nine as a mail runner, and at 15 was in charge of a bullock team, carting timber to Napier. By 1879 he had established his own carrying business in Waipawa and had built a home. He married Eliza Hope at nearby Kaikora on 4 February 1880, but was widowed in November when she died in childbirth; the child did not survive. Peebles then began studying medicine and surgery from books, and, in the absence of doctors, applied his skills to bushmen, miners and family members, using whisky as an anaesthetic and sterilising agent.
Peebles moved to Te Aroha in 1881 and worked as a bush contractor for eight years. He also prospected for gold, and was rewarded with a strike at Mt Te Aroha, but moved on to Mercury Bay where he became an expert at building kauri dams. He represented this district on the Coromandel County Council and on the local hospital and charitable aid board, and was responsible for many roading improvements in the area.
In March 1889 Peebles discovered gold in Bald Hill, Kuaotunu, and was awarded a prospector's claim. The Great Mercury and Red Mercury companies were floated to manage the mine and process the gold. As manager of the latter, Peebles pioneered the use of the cyanide method of extraction, which brought about a revival in the Kuaotunu goldfields. In 1892 he passed his second-class mine manager's examination, allowing him to manage more than one mine. He was made a justice of the peace, appointed chairman of the Thames School of Mines committee at Coromandel, and developed a dairy farm to supply the miners with milk and butter. The adjacent creek was named after him. On 9 August 1893, at Auckland, Peebles married Annie Bright Jackson.
Peebles was appointed mine manager of the Invicta Goldmining Company in June 1895 but was aware that goldmining in the area was slowing down. When a ballot was held for land at Opouriao in the Bay of Plenty in February 1896, Peebles was allotted 315 acres, which he swapped with the land allotted to another settler, William Wardlaw. He named the farm Neidpath after a castle in Scotland, and while still retaining his job in the mines he arranged for two houses and farm buildings to be erected. In April the family, including Peebles's parents, boarded the Chelmsford at Mercury Bay. They struck a terrible storm, and sheltered at Tauranga for a week before arriving at Whakatane to continue to the farm by wagon, traversing rough tracks and fording rivers five times.
Alex Peebles began three decades of public service in the Bay of Plenty when he was elected to the Whakatane Road Board in 1899. In 1900 he became chairman of the newly formed Whakatane County Council, and was elected to the board of the Opouriao Dairy Company. In 1904 he sold his farm and bought 50 acres of land in Waimana. He also bought the corner store at Taneatua, which included the telephone exchange, mail room, insurance and motor agencies, a butchery, a bakery and a cartage business. He later built a house, Riverlea, moving to a larger home, East Neuk, in 1913. Over the next 20 or so years his business expanded steadily as he became agent for a variety of companies. The family moved several times as houses became too small for the growing number of children: there were eventually four sons and three daughters.
In 1907 Peebles helped to start the Whakatane Agricultural and Pastoral Association. He was elected to the Bay of Plenty Hospital and Charitable Aid Board, becoming chairman in 1911, a position he retained in 1918 when the region was subdivided. He was largely responsible for the completion of Whakatane Hospital in 1923 and represented the county on the Bay of Plenty Electric-power Board from 1929.
Peebles leased out his business in 1922; it was taken over by his son George in 1926. The firm gave credit to customers during the depression but was devastated by a fire in 1931. All buildings and their contents were lost, along with the financial records and accounts. Many outstanding debts went unpaid and Peebles never recovered financially.
Alexander Peebles died at Whakatane on 11 April 1934 and Annie Peebles on 15 October. Energetic and enterprising, Peebles had succeeded at mining, farming and business, and had played an important part in the development of the central Coromandel and Waimana districts.