A stroll through the streets of Clyde leads past timeless cottages from an era when, as the gold town of Dunstan, Clyde dominated the district. Later a more aggressive Alexandra usurped Clyde’s administrative functions, so helping to sustain her old-world charm. More recently, the headquarters for the Clutha Valley Power Development Scheme have been established nearby at Cromwell.
Now by-passed by Highway 8, the village stands hard by the left bank of the once-restless Clutha at the southern approach to the Cromwell Gorge. This impressive canyon, whose early roadworks yielded much of the stone for Clyde’s first buildings, is now the setting for the massive Clyde dam, the country’s largest public undertaking. A number of herbs, notably thyme, grow wild hereabouts.
Clyde shares its name with the river (Clutha is the Highland equivalent of the Scottish Clyde). It may have been named after Lord Clyde, better remembered as Sir Colin Campbell, famous for his relief of Lucknow. John Turnbull Thomson named several centres after figures in and battles of the Indian Mutiny.
The great Clyde gold robbery
As the frantic first rushes passed, the pattern of life settled down and steady returns were won. Twice a month the Northern Escort would collect gold from banks at Queenstown, Arrowtown and Cromwell and deposit it overnight in the lockup at Clyde. From there the main gold escort would collect it for carriage to Dunedin. Remarkably, the gold escorts, with armed police „riding shotgun“ and rifle-toting troopers as outriders, were never ambushed, despite the lure they presented. Instead, one night in 1870, £13,000 in gold and banknotes simply vanished from the Clyde gaol. The town was in an uproar.
Shown a poster promising £1,500 reward and „a free pardon in the event of the person giving such information being an accomplice in the robbery“, a shoemaker, George Rennie, promptly confessed, naming Constable Malcolm McLennan of the Clyde police camp as the mastermind.
The two had emigrated from Scotland together on the Edward P. Bouverie the year before. McLennan had obtained a duplicate key to the outside door and loosened the screws to the inside door. The way was clear for Rennie to slip into the unguarded gaol and decamp with the shipment. But the robbery was too successful, and Rennie’s horse could not cope with the load. The haul was to be buried in the local cemetery, where freshly dug ground would provoke no comment, but Rennie did not know his way there in the dark. Instead, he set off in the opposite direction and was soon forced to hide gold bags in the rocks to relieve his overburdened mount. Then, in a moment of panic, he lit a fire to burn his false beard, moleskin trousers and bridle. Miners investigated the blaze and Rennie was soon in custody.
Miraculously, Malcolm McLennan escaped conviction, for though Rennie’s evidence was corroborated in several respects, the jury reflected popular opinion that Rennie had breached „mateship“ by informing on his friend. The hapless Rennie received not a pardon but a six-year gaol term – the pardon was for „accomplices“, not principals in the robbery. McLennan went free, but in time the injustice of the situation was mollified by a reduction in Rennie’s prison term. In 1930 a local resident, while out hunting, stumbled on gold nuggets in a perished bag which were taken as being Rennie’s first plant.
Violence, murder and mayhem, the Central goldfields knew them all, yet by comparison with goldfields in Australia and California they must be rated as relatively law-abiding. There, armed holdup men robbed and killed at times with impunity; here, the greatest of all robberies was accomplished with a complete absence of violence.