New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s
The day, the week, the month, the year
The day, the week, the month, the year
Settler New Zealand was in the process of transition from a traditional to a modern understanding of time. In 1885 New Zealand imported 24,887 clocks valued at £9,385 and an unspecified number of watches valued at £1,553. Life in the larger towns was by now largely regulated by these timepieces, though they knew nothing of the complex web of timetabling that we experience with our radio, television, transport networks, etc. In the countryside and rural towns life was still much more regulated by the recurring rhythms of natural phenomena, the movement of the sun, the phases of the moon, the procession of the seasons.1 We will briefly survey these rhythms and then apply our findings to the Stratford firestorm of 6 January 1886. With a six day working week and sabbatarian restrictions on the use of Sunday, evenings were at a premium for community events, but their effective use depended on the phases of the moon. The difference between full moon and a moonless night was a crucial one to settlers travelling by horse or on foot over ill-formed roads and streets with only primitive means of lighting their way. Those arranging local and regional events jockeyed for die favoured nights, and a perusal of general election dates suggests that even the colonial government took this factor into account. Commonly polling day came several days after full moon—giving politicians and audiences the best evenings of the month for the electioneering.
While community life tended towards a monthly rhythm, home life was largely shaped by the week. The linchpin of the colonial week was provided by its inheritance of the strong British tradition of ‘Sunday Observance’. Whether one was a church attender or not, Sunday was commonly observed as a special ‘at home’ day, with leisure for family and friends to visit. Sunday preparations usually began in earnest with Friday as the weekly baking day. page 116 Saturday saw much cleaning of cutlery, lamps and candlesticks, stoves and fireplaces, and Saturday night was commonly family bath night. Saturday was also payday for weekly wage earners, and for rural New Zealand Saturday was the usual weekly market day. The new work week began with a clean set of work or school clothes on Monday. For the home this was washing day with Tuesday as ironing day. For the housewife, the mid week was the least committed to regular tasks, though there were always plenty of others awaiting her attention.2 For rural men work was less shaped by the day of the week than by the weather and the procession of the seasons, which brought an ever changing succession of tasks such as sowing and harvesting, bush felling and burning off, shearing, mustering, droving and road contracting.
Let us see how the Stratford firestorm fits into these patterns. Mid afternoon on this summer Wednesday probably found the families at their most dispersed. With two long holiday weekends behind them (for Christmas day and New Year's day had fallen on Fridays), many men will have dispersed to distant work on contracts or wage labour. For the children it was summer school holidays. Older children will have been left responsible for various chores by absent fathers. But whether set by father or mother, house, farmyard and farm chores will generally have been morning and evening tasks. The terror of the fire seems to have been deepened by the dispersal of many of the families in the free time of a holiday summer afternoon. The drama of the following night was heightened by its darkness; the previous evening had been new moon. There was no moonlight for the Hawera relief train, and this will have slowed its progress by hampering the lookout for obstructions on the line. The darkness will have thrown the continuing flames and embers into stark relief. The Lehmann family's failure to make their way to the railway station must also be accounted for by the darkness. In every respect, including its just missing the train north-bound to New Plymouth, the fire seems to have struck at the time which would give the greatest emotional impact.