The Farthest Promised Land — English Villagers, New Zealand Immigrants of the 1870s
1 Brogdens' Navvies
1 Brogdens' Navvies
ON THE EVENING OFSaturday, 13 July 1872, much of the population of the little New Zealand township of Picton had gathered at the waterfront, and were waiting with considerable curiosity to welcome the colony's first batch of ‘Brogdens’ navvies', brought from ‘home’ to build their province's first railway. Picton is situated at the head of Queen Charlotte Sound, the easternmost of the Marlborough Sounds, a complex maze of sheltered waterways formed by the drowning of ancient river valleys. Queen Charlotte Sound provides a deep, sheltered waterway, nearly twenty miles1 in length, for ships approaching the north-eastern extremity of the South Island from Cook Strait. With the colony's capital, Wellington, lying just across the Strait, the people of Picton had dreams of their settlement becoming the main gateway to the South Island.
In 1872 Picton township had a population of about 700, housed in wooden buildings scattered over a limited area of flat land between the shores of the sound and the steep hills which hemmed the settlement closely on all other sides. The place had a world's-end look about it, and as yet the one road that wound out through the surrounding hills carried little traffic. It led south, to Picton's rival, the provincial capital of Blenheim, some eighteen miles away. Since the founding of Marlborough Province in 1859, its Lilliputian Provincial Council had twice shifted the capital between these rival centres, while governing in a somewhat comic opera style the local affairs of a population which by 1871 had grown to a little over five thousand, inhabiting a territory of well over four thousand square miles. Like its main port, the province was also hemmed in from its neighbours, for high mountains lay to the south and west. If the district was to escape from its isolation and parochial pettiness, it was self-evident that there would have to be a build-up of population, and a development policy to provide good land communications with the larger provinces to the south. In the past, hopes had been raised, only to be dashed. For a time it had even seemed possible that Picton might be chosen as the country's capital. Hopes had also been raised when gold was discovered at Wakamarina in 1864. Picton's population had boomed to 3,000, only to decline rapidly when the goldfield was quickly exhausted. Now hopes were raised again as the colonial government set in motion the building of a railway, planned as part of a main trunk extending the whole length of the South Island. The people of Picton were not to know that the final link connecting them to the railway system of the southern provinces would not be made until nearly half-way through the following century. They were right, however, in surmising that the planned railway would one day page 3 make their town a key link in the country's communication system. Today a fleet of road and rail ferries run a shuttle service across Cook Strait, with Wellington and Picton as its terminals.
The more staid of Picton's inhabitants could be excused for feeling a little apprehensive, as they waited that evening in the deepening twilight. Navvies had a reputation for bravado and riotous living. The term navvy comes from navigator, the name given to England's eighteenth century canal-builders. The great railway-building era of the mid nineteenth century had greatly multiplied their numbers, and sent them in rowdy, hard-drinking gangs through the length and breadth of the British Isles, so that their reputation was well-known to the largely British-born New Zealand population. New recruits to the gangs came mainly from among the half-starved agricultural labourers, and it was said to take a year's solid work to make these into navvies.2 The transformation was brought about by higher wages, which provided more and better food. Excavating, tunnelling and bridge building gave continuous hard work to develop the muscles, and the gang life completed the transformation, fostering a distinctive dress and bearing, and a delight in living up to a reputation for reckless hard-living. Having granted that Picton needed ‘livening-up’, there may well have been those among the locals who feared that the process might be carried too far.
The land everywhere about Queen Charlotte's Sound is uncommonly mountainous, rising immediately from the sea into large hills with blunted tops. At considerable distances are valleys, or rather impressions on the sides of the hills, which are not deep; each terminating toward the sea in a small cove, with a pebbly or sandy beach; behind which are small flats, where the natives generally build their huts, at the same time hauling their canoes upon the beaches. This situation is the more convenient, as in every cove a brook of very fine water (in which are some small trout) empties itself into the sea. The bases of these mountains, at least toward the shore, are constituted of a brittle yellowish sandstone, which acquires a bluish cast where the sea washes it. It runs, at some places, in horizontal, and at other places in oblique strata; being frequently divided, at small distances, by thin veins of coarse quartz, which commonly follow the direction of the other, though they sometimes intersect it. The mould, or soil, which covers this, is also of a yellowish cast, not unlike marl; and is commonly from a foot to two, or more in thickness.
The quality of this soil is best indicated by the luxuriant growth of its productions. For the hills (except a few towards the sea, which are covered with smaller bushes) are one continued forest of lofty trees, flourishing with a vigour almost superior to anything that imagination can conceive, and affording an august prospect to those who are delighted at the grand and beautiful works of nature. The agreeable temperatures of the climate, no doubt, contributes much to this uncommon strength in vegetation …3
Over a nine months' period from July 1872 to April 1873 the English contracting firm of John Brogden and Sons were to bring 2,172 English immigrants into New Zealand, among them 1,298 able-bodied men, who had each been offered two years' work on the firm's railway contracts in various parts of the colony.6 Brogdens thereby played a significant part at a crucial stage in the immigration drive which helped to practically double New Zealand's population in the 1870s. The New Zealand Government had begun mounting its immigration drive in Britain some six months before Brogdens entered the field. Through a failure to understand the predicament of the English rural labourer, whose talents were those most urgently needed in the colony, this drive met with little success. When Brogdens joined the campaign they offered much more realistic terms and thereby started a flow of emigration which served to prime the Government's effort when increasingly liberal terms were introduced during 1873. In various ways Brogdens' contribution was more significant than the limited number of immigrants they introduced might suggest. Fortuitous links between their recruitment campaign and their New Zealand contracts established connections between particular areas in England and particular New Zealand districts, and thus served as one influence channelling the immigration flow of the following years. Also, it was Brogdens' initiative which made the first New Zealand links with the Revolt of the Field, a great uprising of the English rural labourers whose consequences go far towards explaining why 1874 became the annus mirabilis of New Zealand immigration.page 6
Julius Vogel was a London-born Jew who as a youth had abandoned the merchant tradition of his family for the allurements of the Australian goldfields. First in Victoria and later in Otago, whither he followed the gold diggers, he had engaged in various commercial and journalistic ventures, but increasingly his interest had turned to politics, into which he carried much of the optimism and hustle of the goldfields. His negotiations with Brogdens were characteristic of his style. Acting within a mandate already provided by parliament, he concluded one agreement whereby the firm would construct railways and provide plant to the value of £500,000. But he also negotiated a much more ambitious alternative contract, which, subject to parliamentary sanction, would have given the colony £4,000,000 worth of railways and 10,000 immigrants in return for transferring some 3,000,000 acres of land to the contractors.9 The New Zealand Parliament rejected this ambitious scheme in October 1871, while resolving that the ministry should endeavour to negotiate an extension of the other contract. Brogdens continued to be sanguine that great things awaited them in the colony, and yielding to pressure from the New Zealand authorities, began in April 1872 to ship immigrants, of whom the Schiehallion party were the first. It was not till two months later that a legal agreement was completed to cover the matter. The New Zealand ministry had begun negotiations with James Brogden, a member of the firm visiting the colony, and when he declined to take the responsibility for an agreement, the negotiations were remitted to London, to be continued between the firm's other directors, and the newly appointed New Zealand Agent-General, Dr Isaac Featherston.10
The office of Agent-General had been created by the 1870 Immigration and Public Works act, so that the colony would have in London a representative of a suitable rank to direct a major immigration drive. Featherston was a pioneer Wellington settler who had emigrated in 1840 as surgeon-superintendent on one of the New Zealand Company ships. He had been Superintendent of Wellington Province for nearly twenty years, and had also played his part in colonial politics, having been a member of the cabinet which shaped the new immigration and public works policy. He took up his post in London in July 1871, and after a quick examination of the more promising areas of England and Scotland, decided that there was little prospect at that time of any large emigration from Britain under the terms New Zealand was offering. He therefore turned his attention to Scandinavia and Germany, whence he obtained a small flow of emigrants, page 8 mainly for new bush settlements in the North Island. With the return of better recruiting weather in the spring of 1872, he concentrated his attention on assisting Brogdens to find English navvies for the contract which he had persuaded them to enter into with the New Zealand Government. Featherston's reasons for wishing to work in conjunction with Brogdens can be made clear by outlining the results of two visits made to Cornwall by C. R. Carter, a member of Featherston's staff.
Charles Rooking Carter (1822–1896) had returned to England from a successful career as a contractor in Wellington Province when Featherston persuaded him to join his staff. Before emigrating to New Zealand in 1850 Carter had been a strong sympathiser with the Chartist movement, and an active propagandist for improved working class conditions. In New Zealand he had interested himself in the cause of small farm settlements. Featherston could hardly have found a better man to send on tour recruiting labouring men, nor could he have sent him to a more promising county than Cornwall. Cornwall had begun sending out emigrants in considerable numbers immediately after the Napoleonic Wars, and recurrent hard times in the county had sent wave after wave of Cornish rural labourers, miners and fishermen to the new lands during the following decades. Cornish miners had been prominent in the Australian and New Zealand goldrushes, and Canterbury Province, which did a good deal of recruiting in Britain during the 1860s, found that more than a tenth of its English assisted immigrants came from Cornwall.11 In 1866 the collapse of the Cornish copper mining industry increased the county's flood of emigrants. The versatility of the Cornish labourers, who often combined farm skills with those of the mine or the sea, made them particularly attractive as New Zealand immigrants.
Carter went to Cornwall in mid-September 1871, and having enlisted the expert local knowledge of Captain A. Anthony of Hayle, a mining broker and inspector of mines, embarked on a six weeks recruiting campaign. He advertised in five local papers, distributed large posters extensively, and addressed public meetings wherever he found sufficient interest. Although there were many inquiries, he succeeded in getting only two firm applications. In accounting for this in his report to Featherston,12 he mentioned a general revival of trade throughout England, and a great rise in the price of tin, as contributing causes. There was also the competition of unceasing emigration to the United States and Canada. But the greatest difficulty was that the regulations to which Carter was working took no account of the poverty of the people. Each adult emigrant had to pay down five pounds in cash and sign a promissory note for two pounds ten shillings - and children of 12 years and upwards counted as adults. Emigrants also had to meet the expense of mess utensils, bedding, and travel to the port of embarkation. Carter estimated that if a family of four adults were to accept the New Zealand offer, they would require at least thirty pounds in cash, yet this was an amount that ‘nine out of ten agricultural labourers in Cornwall, and other parts of England and Scotland as well never expected page 9 to be possessed of.’13 Not surprisingly, after consulting his senior staff early in December 1871, Featherston adopted much more liberal regulations even though this meant exceeding his powers. Fortunately the ministry in New Zealand had already reached a similar conclusion. Featherston's new scheme made a charge of five pounds per adult, but emigrants who could not meet this in cash might be allowed to meet the difference by giving a promissory note for double the amount unpaid.14
Featherston, however, was of a frugal mind, the result, probably, of years of experience in administering Wellington Province with a deficient exchequer. The arrangement with Brogdens offered a way of meeting the poverty of the English labouring class, at little cost to the government, and might well start a flow of emigration which the revised government terms would prove liberal enough to continue. The agreement15 empowered the Agent-General to require Brogdens to despatch up to 2,000 able-bodied men, besides wives and children to make up a total number of not more than 6,000 statute adults. Brogdens were to pay the government ten pounds passage money per adult, and were to recoup themselves for this by taking promissory notes not exceeding sixteen pounds per adult. All emigrants were to be subject to inspection and approval by a New Zealand agent. Featherston appointed Carter to the task and it was in this capacity that he returned to Cornwall on 1 April 1872. At Falmouth, assisted by a competent surgeon, he examined a group of men enlisted by Brogdens from the surrounding towns and villages, and selected sixty adults to sail by the Schiehallion. Brogdens had guaranteed the men two years employment at the wages current in New Zealand, but with the stipulation that at no time would they receive less than five shillings for a day of ten hours. As this was about twice the amount the local farm labourers were receiving for uncertain employment, it is no wonder that Brogdens found plenty of takers, especially when they made it known that they were also prepared to advance the money to cover the various expenses of emigrating. The majority of the recruits informed Carter that their wages had been so low that they had been utterly unable to save any money. They gladly gave Brogdens their promissory notes to cover their ship's ‘kit’, outfit of clothing, and fare to London. Without this help, most of them would not have been able to move.16
A day or two earlier, on Good Friday, 29 March 1872, Carter had accompanied Alexander Brogden M.P., the head of the firm, on an even more significant journey. They had attended at the Town Hall in Leamington, Warwickshire, where Joseph Arch had assembled a great gathering of farm labourers. The purpose of this meeting was to weld the union movement, which Arch had launched barely two months earlier, into a county-wide organisation. Carter reported that neither he, nor a Canadian lecturer offering free grants of land, were able to make any headway that day against the excitement about the union. However, before the weekend was over, Carter had succeeded in selecting twelve adults for the Schiehallion17 — the first of a multitude which New Zealand agents page 10 recruited by courting the agricultural labourers' unions. To complete the Schiehallion party a few were selected at Plymouth, about a dozen from Staffordshire, and a small number from London.18 The majority were single men, a few took wives and children with them, and others left wives and families behind. The Schiehallion sailed from London on 13 April 1872.
Even before they reached Picton, the newcomers were made well aware that the new country offered them a social and economic status markedly higher than that which they had left in England. No sooner had the ship reached Wellington than it was boarded by people enquiring for female servants. A few of the families had girls of about 14 or 15, and these were engaged on the spot at good wages.19 In the four days before they sailed for Picton the men were enlightened by Wellington working men as to local wages and conditions. They came ashore to discuss their engagement with James Brogden, whom they found in Wellington. He wanted them to accept the minimum terms stated in their contracts, but they disputed the fairness of this, pointing out that their agreement was for not less than current colonial wages and conditions. After considerable discussion a wage of six shillings for a nine hour day was agreed upon.20 The men's pleasure at this excellent wage was soon heightened by Picton's easy social climate and plentitude of good cheap food. Before long enthusiastic letters were on their way to family and friends in the old country.
‘I am getting as fat as a pig’, one man told his wife in a letter dated 21 July 1872.21 He reported beef at two and a half pence a pound and mutton at one and a half pence, and this ‘not like old starvey pork at home.’ He told his wife not to be frightened of the sea, and hoped that she and the children would join him by Christmas. The same entreaty to ‘come out and enjoy the good living’ was repeated in letter after letter, along with other persuasive information. ‘Any man is an enemy to himself to stay at home to work,’ John Reynolds wrote to his wife Mary on 1 August 1872, urging her ‘to come out, not for my sake, but for the dear children's sake… Mary Ann and Bessie would do well here. If your two boys were here they would get 15s a week each. They could have horses to ride wherever they went, so it is not like home.’ Reynolds was going to write to his brother Thomas to help her get away, but apparently he was not too sanguine that she would be persuaded, for he told her that ‘if you won't come I shan't serve you as others are going to do, but I hope if you have any love for me you won't stay away.’ Reynolds was one of the men Carter had selected at Falmouth. The enumerators' schedules of the 1871 census show him as a 30-year-old labourer living with his wife and four children in Shute Lane, Penryn,22 a little market town on a creek of Falmouth Harbour. As a Cornishman, Reynolds would be well aware of the large number of deserted wives and children who had become a major social problem in his home county since the collapse of the copper mining industry;23 hence his reassurances to his wife. Mary Reynolds yielded to his urging, and in March 1873 arrived with the children by the Forfarshire, to join him.24page 11
The Forfarshire also brought the wife and four children of James Randall, an experienced workman who became first a ganger, and later a subcontractor, on the line. His first persuasive letter was dated from Picton on 29 July 1872, and emphasised both the economic and social advantages of the colony. ‘I am feeling double the man I was when I left England…,’ he wrote, ‘dear wife, this is just the place for families like ours.’ He wished he had his boy Walter (aged 16) with him, as he could be earning twenty-three shillings a week. Randall described his own position thus:
… I am very comfortable here; like all colonials, we make a hut and live in it, but have got to cook our own food… We can go out and catch a pig any time we like two or three miles out in the bush. My brother was talking about coming; I wish he would, he could not do a better thing. ‘Tis better to be living here like a gentleman than to be in England starving. A working man here can spend more in comforts than he can earn in England. A working man is thought as much of here as a gentleman is in England. There is not the comfort here as regards feather beds; we have got to carry our beds with us where we go, but that is nothing after we get used to it.
If his wife would not be persuaded, he promised to endeavour to return in two or three years, with some money in his pockets.
The immediate future of these men did not, however, prove to be quite as idyllic as their letters would lead one to expect. Their employers became involved in misunderstandings and disputes with the New Zealand authorities, with repercussions for the navvies they were introducing into various parts of the colony. The details of the involved and prolonged differences between Brogdens and the New Zealand government do not concern us here. The underlying cause was inexperience on both sides — with the New Zealand General Government feeling its way for the first time into railway construction and immigration, and Brogdens miscalculating important aspects of the colonial situation. Distance and slow communications aggravated the difficulties which arose. Briefly, Brogdens got less work than they had hoped for, and it became available much more slowly than they had envisaged. The navvies arrived more rapidly than the firm could find work for them, and its immigration agreement proved something of a disaster, as once the men learnt that much more liberal terms had been introduced for government immigrants they, for the most part, refused to meet their promissory notes to Brogdens. In England impoverished villagers were attracted by Brogdens' credit terms, but having reached New Zealand and found that they were expected to pay two or three times as much for their passages as the Government's recruits, their attitude quickly changed. The extent of the firm's problems was by no means apparent by August 1872, when they began to renege on their agreement with the men, but their difficulties provide some excuse for their conduct. Behind the rift between Brogdens and their navvies may also be seen the influence of colonial working men, determined to maintain the custom of the eight hour day which dated almost from the founding of the colony. A letter from ‘Colonist’ in the Picton Marlborough Press of 14 page 12 August 1872 explained to the newcomers the importance of the eight hour day to New Zealanders. In the colony working men saved their money, so that they could get on in the world. Single men tended to forgo the comfort of board and lodgings, which in any case were at least twice as expensive as in the mother country. They did their own cooking, washing, fetching of firewood and water, and so on, and therefore needed the time which the eight hour system provided.
Brogdens' representatives at Picton at first began to go back on arrangements about the finishing time on Saturdays; and followed this by refusing to honour their agreement to pay wages for time lost when it was too wet to work. Eventually the men were provoked to down tools and march to the firm's local headquarters to air their grievances. While they were away a dray was sent round for the tools, and the men were bluntly informed that all future work would be let by contract, for which they would be required to provide their own tools. Most of the men inspected the contract work offered, but could not agree with the engineer as to specifications and prices, whereupon Brogdens withheld wages due and refused supplies from their store. Apparently aware that public opinion was on their side a deputation of the navvies waited upon the local Anglican vicar, the Revd W. Ronaldson, who agreed to take the initiative in calling a public meeting. Nine other prominent citizens were associated with Ronaldson in the handbills calling the meeting. Brogdens' agent declined an invitation to be present. The well-attended meeting was chaired by a local lawyer, E. T. Conolly, later to become Minister of Justice and to serve as a Supreme Court Judge. The navvies' spokesmen put their case clearly and forcefully, and the meeting passed resolutions supporting the men, and appointed a strong committee to act in their interests. This committee arranged supplies for all the labourers who were in need, while carrying on vigorous negotiations with the firm and authorities. Within a week the navvies were all back at work.25
The pattern of events which developed over the spring and summer of 1872–3 at Picton, was repeated with minor variations on Brogdens' other five contracts of this period — at or near Wellington, Napier, Auckland, Oamaru and Invercargill. The firm enforced contract terms in place of the day labour promised in England. The men disputed the change, and left in large numbers for other employment, and Brogdens endeavoured to enforce the promissory notes through the courts. In some cases, where they did not have sufficient work ready, Brogdens actively encouraged the men to take other employment, with the proviso that they continued to pay off their notes. In other cases, Brogdens complained of local employers enticing their immigrants away. In Wellington local employers joined with the men in defence of the eight hour system, and served on the committee of an association formed to assist navvies striking for this principle.31 Brogdens complained that of the 1299 men they had brought out, only 287 were working for their firm by August 1873.32 Although Brogdens held nearly £40,000 in promissory notes from their immigrants, they found it impossible to recover most of these advances despite getting 133 cases tried by the courts. So strong were the men's feelings in the matter that many disappeared ‘up country’ to escape prosecution, some changed their names, others filed bankruptcy, and yet others went to gaol for debt, at the firm's expense.33 By November 1872 Brogdens had decided that the immigration agreement was a mistake and were suspending recruitment. Their last party sailed on the Lutterworth from London on 23 December 1872, reaching New Zealand on 5 April 1873.
The general impression given by contemporary reports is that Brogdens' immigrants provided a useful, well-behaved addition to the colony's labour force. The Picton community was not the only one to discover that navvies could be quite tame and ordinary mortals. When Oamaru's first batch of Brogden men arrived, the local newspaper found them young and healthy, but for the most part undersized, and remarked that they scarcely realised ‘the usual idea of the genus “navvy”’.34 A correspondent who passed through Hampden a week or two later found that the three gangs of these men at work there were ‘well spoken of as a steady well-conducted lot of men’, and concluded that they were ‘not navvies in the proper sense of the word’, being entirely new to the work.35 When a shipload of Brogdens' page 15 immigrants reached Napier at the end of 1872, the men were described as intelligent and respectable, with a good proportion of them ‘accustomed to farming work’.36 No doubt there was a minority of ‘roughs’ among these men, but probably the proportion who periodically set out to ‘liven up the town’ was no greater than the colony was accustomed to. When a surgeon-superintendent whose own character seems to have been open to question, reported harshly on a large party of Brogdens' immigrants that he had accompanied to Otago, C. R. Carter prepared a minute in their defence:
There were in the Christian McAusland about 40 real navvies and I am quite ready to admit that, as a class, they are rough in their manners, at times unruly and require tact mingled with kindness to manage them: but I never felt it my business to refuse to accept men of this stamp — which were the most suitable for the requirements of Messrs. Brogden in New Zealand. I believed them as a body to be hard working and honest and freely accepted them. It must be borne in mind that the gigantic public works of Great Britain have been reared up by this useful class of men; and that it is not the nice sort of emigrants who will be able or willing to make the heavy portions of the Railways in New Zealand.37
Throughout Brogdens' recruitment drive, Featherston gave it priority over his own immigration effort, and placed the services of his whole staff at the firm's disposal.40 He considered that it would have been absurd for the government to have imagined it could compete on the immigration market against Brogdens' liberal terms. To get the men they wanted, Brogdens found that in almost every case they had ‘to pay nearly everything’,41 and in some cases they apparently even advanced pocket money.42 They also arranged with married men whose wives remained behind, that they would be paid a weekly subsistence. The men were promised that their wages would commence the day they landed in New Zealand. With the guarantee of two years' steady work at good wages, the total package amounted to a most attractive offer. Carter's only complaint was that having not paid a shilling by way of deposit, the men had nothing to lose by breaking their engagements. In many cases, once the men were selected, their employers raised their wages and they decided to stay. About a quarter of those selected finally declined to go, creating some difficulties with the shipping arrangements. There can be little doubt, though, that Brogdens' liberal terms enabled New Zealand immigration to break new ground in the English country-side. In the latter part of 1872 Arthur Clayden, a middle class supporter of the Revolt of the Field, cooperated with Brogdens in recruiting rural labourers from the countryside around Faringdon in Berkshire. He later reported that he had had infinite difficulty in disabusing their minds of anti-emigration prejudices. However, at length, ‘a tolerable number screwed up their courage to the requisite pitch.’ By the following year the glowing accounts they were sending home of their welfare were creating a different climate for emigration in west Berkshire.43 Without Brogdens' attractive offer, it is probable that the initial party of reluctant starters would never have left home.
These rural labourers were particularly sought after by the New Zealand authorities, and even while selecting navvies for Brogdens, Carter gave preference to men who had been brought up to farming work.44 His final figures show that 444 of those he selected were farm labourers and 339 page 17 ‘labourers mostly brought up to farm work,’ while only 284 were navvies.45 Even the strong contingent from Cornwall must have been drawn largely from farm workers as only 49 miners are listed. Carter considered that the most suitable class of labouring men were those he recruited from the agricultural districts of the midland counties of Berkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and Warwickshire. Although barely a quarter of Brogdens' navvies came from these counties, they were to prove a particularly significant group, once the rural unions with which many of them had been linked, turned to emigration. Despite their difficulties with the firm, most of Brogdens' navvies appear to have written home in very positive terms. Thus a private correspondent writing from London on 18 April 1873, was quoted in the Wellington Evening Post of 19 June 1873 as ascribing a greatly increased interest in New Zealand emigration to ‘the letters received from Messrs. Brogdens' emigrants, which are now scattered throughout this country month by month.’