Lyell, in the South Island’s Buller district, was a major producer of gold and the centre of considerable quartz mining activity in the surrounding hills until the mid 1890s.
Gold was first discovered in the area by Maori prospectors in the early 1860s. As word spread of their finds, miners arrived from other fields and overseas. The only access was by canoe on the Buller River with its many rapids and it was some years before a road was built along the banks of the Buller Gorge. Cliff Street, Lyell’s only street, where its banks, hotels and newspaper were located, was constructed in the 1870s. By then, the wives and families of miners had arrived, tents along Lyell Creek were replaced by houses around Cliff Street and a more settled community flourished until it had a population of more than 2,000 in the late 1880s.
The first newspaper, the Lyell Argus and Matakitaki Advertiser, launched in 1873, was published weekly, and for a time twice weekly. Its four pages carried international and local news, particularly mining developments and advertisements for the growing number of retailers along Cliff Street. It was run by James Graham Niven and later by Thomas John Metcalfe. It closed in 1882, very likely because of the arrival of a competitor.
The Lyell Times and Central Buller Gazette was begun in 1881 by Edward Percy Smyrk. He had served an apprenticeship under John Tyrrell, then owner of the Westport Times, before working on the Inangahua Times in Reefton. After Smyrk sold the Lyell Times to Walter Atkin in 1888 he worked on the Westport Times again. Later, as proprietor of the short-lived Gisborne newspaper the New Zealand Standard, he filed for bankruptcy in 1892, with liabilities of £349, more than three times his available assets. Interestingly, among his debtors were two well-known newspapermen, Henry Brett and William G Geddis. He subsequently worked on Hawke’s Bay newspapers.
Walter Atkin, originally from Ireland, had managed the Inangahua Times before taking over the Lyell Times. In 1896, the paper’s Cliff Street office was victim of a major fire that also destroyed the National Bank, three hotels and a number of other buildings. Few of the businesses were insured, but Atkin was covered for £200. With the township badly affected by the fire, Atkin closed the Lyell Times a couple of years later and purchased the Westport News, a morning daily. Unlike many early newspaper proprietors he left a sizeable estate – £2,326 – on his death in 1911. (About $375,000 today.)
Lyell recovered to some degree from the 1896 fire, but the closure of the area’s largest mine a decade later led to a major exodus of residents. A number of surviving buildings were destroyed by another fire in 1926 and most of those still living there left after the 1929 Murchison earthquake. Today the cemetery and a picnic ground with display boards outlining the area’s history are all that remain.