The Man with a Face – James Burnett

Born in 1826 in Northumberland, England, James Burnett migrated to New Zealand on board the sailing ship Joseph Fletcher in October 1852, along with his mother, brother William and two sisters.

Initially they settled in Whangarei, where he married Martha Fletcher but in 1858, they moved to Nelson to take up his new role of Nelson Provincial Engineer.

Much of this work in Nelson involved exploration and surveying in search for new development opportunities – for transport routes, for settlement, for mineral deposits, valuable raw materials, resources as well as potential employment opportunities for a young developing nation.

One of his early interests was in coal, in particular the early short-lived coal mine at Enner Glynn and another small mine at Motupipi in Golden Bay.

In 1860 he joined Julius von Haast on his West Coast expedition, an area of New Zealand, which up until this time was mostly unexplored by Europeans, accessible only be sea. It would also serve to follow up on work carried out or about by Thomas Brunner and John Rochfort.

Looking back, it seems the race for success was well underway. Today, maps made by Rochfort (Buller River) and another by Haast and Burnett (Denniston Plateau) in 1860, still exist as evidence of the amazing physical efforts of these early explorers. There, right under their noses were the coal rich areas of Denniston, Coalbrookdale, Burnett’s Face and Cascade awaiting development, capped by the high peak of Mt Rochfort.

Over the next 20 years this development was planned and implemented and by 1886 the first resident took up a small home at Burnett’s Face, the gully with faces of coal clearly visible. By 1906 the settlement had a population of more than 200 citizens including several families with young children for whom a school was built. There were two hotels, a bakery, three stores and a butchery. By 1926 the population was just under 400. However, by 1951 the population had dropped to 84 and by 1956 it did not feature in the population census.

When I first visited Burnett’s Face in 1990 there was virtually no trace of any mining or buildings, just a regenerating scraggy gully. The only clue was a small sign that told me it was Burnett’s Face.

When I visit there again soon, I am quietly hoping there might be something more to help identify the site for visitors and a map pointing out Mt Rochfort and the Cascade, so well covered in Phil Walsh’s recent book Conquering Cascade.

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