It has been suggested that the total population of the West Coast at the time of the gold rushes may have reached 50,000 or more. However, analysis of data including the 1867 census results suggests that the West Coast population at the height of the gold rushes that year was about 28,700 – a few thousand less than in the early 2000s.
With a population of 4,866, Hokitika was the largest town. Greymouth and Westport each had less than 2,000.
Although alluvial gold had been found in many places, the richest sites were soon exhausted, and miners began to look for other work. There was still employment for miners in large sluicing claims and underground mines, and also in building roads and railways.
An outflow of single miners was partly balanced by continuing immigration, including of single women, wives and families. The population dropped by a few thousand after 1867, but gradually increased again after 1882.
Most of the early European settlers arrived on the West Coast independently, under the spell of gold. West Coasters are proud that most of their ancestors arrived under their own steam, rather than as assisted emigrants.
Most of the miners who arrived on the West Coast had been born in the United Kingdom (which then included the whole of Ireland). More than a third were Irish, many of whom came via Victoria, Australia, where they had gained mining experience. The proportion of Irish settlers was much higher on the West Coast than elsewhere in New Zealand, where emigration schemes gave preference to English and Scots emigrants.
After 1867 several distinct groups settled on the West Coast:
- Chinese gold miners – about 2,000 moved to the West Coast in the 1870s, mainly to work old tailings. Because the Chinese population was almost entirely male, no identifiable descendants remain.
- Shetland Islanders (from northern Scotland), who arrived in groups in the late 1860s and 1870s. They settled mainly at Charleston and Karamea.
- British coal miners, who were needed to work coal mines in Buller and the Grey valley. Most came from mining districts in northern England and lowland Scotland, bringing with them a strong union tradition.
In 1875 immigrants were recruited by the government for a special settlement at Jackson Bay, to work in farming and forestry. Most were from non-English speaking parts of Europe such as Germany and Italy. The climate was too wet and by the late 1870s most had left for Otago.
After the 1880s the proportion of Irish immigrants dropped dramatically, while Scottish arrivals increased to over 30%. English immigrants were consistently the dominant group. The Reefton gold mines had problems recruiting experienced hard-rock miners, and attracted a steady flow of miners from Cornwall, where the industry was in decline.
The Buller County Council gained notoriety in the late 1970s and early 1980s for its hostility to people living unconventional lifestyles. They demolished a solar-powered house built by activist Owen Wilkes because he had refused to get a building permit, and prosecuted residents of the Stone Kingdom community near Karamea for living in tent-like houses.
Late 20th-century arrivals
The West Coast had a steady decline in population during the second half of the 20th century. However, there was a small inflow of people from elsewhere in New Zealand, often attracted by the availability of cheap land. From the 1960s they included people living what were seen to be unconventional lifestyles, such as those in organised communities. Collectively grouped together by locals as ‘hippies’, they were not always welcomed.
Although the numbers were small, this group has been responsible for the development of craft industries and organic farming.
The population in the early 2000s
Population movements over 140 years have resulted in a population that is predominantly of European heritage. In the 2013 census, ethnicity statistics showed only 10.5% Māori (compared with 14.9% for New Zealand overall), 1.0% Pacific Island (compared to 7.4%), 2.2% Asian (11.8% nationally) and 0.4% Middle Eastern, Latin American and African (1.2%).