New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s
The virgin forest harvest, 1885
The virgin forest harvest, 1885
We are fortunate in our sources for the 1885 colonial timber industry. Thomas Kirk, appointed Chief Conservator of State Forests under the State Forest Act of 1885, immediately inspected the main forests and reported on ‘Native Forests and the State of the Timber Trade’.2 There are valuable official statistics, particularly the 1886 census return of sawmills which gives 1885 provincial production figures, and the annual railway returns with timber and firewood figures for each station for the year to 31 March 1886. There are also firm timber export figures. The big gap is the lack of any statistics for coastal shipping cargoes.
Kirk repeatedly comments on the ongoing restructuring of the industry from water-based to rail-based mills. Figure 11.1 gives valuable background to our study of the bush settlements of the mid 1880s.
In Figure 11.2 export totals have been deducted from each province's output, to give a general view of timber production for the colonial market in 1885. The graph scales are designed to give balanced bars if a province's production equalled consumption at the colonial average. Obvious are market dominance by Auckland and large production deficits in the two main southern provinces, particularly Canterbury. Auckland and Canterbury have each just over one fifth of the colony's population, but Auckland is supplying 37.7 per cent of the market's input, Canterbury only 4.1 per cent. Hawke's Bay and Marlborough are also producing significantly in excess of their own needs. From these provincial imbalances arose a vigorous inter-provincial trade, relying heavily on coastal shipping.
Figure 11.3 is an overview of this interprovincial timber trade. Overseas exports for the three provinces significantly involved are also shown. Figures preceded by a query are estimates only.3 We now survey the milling industry, moving from south to north, roughly following the course of Kirk's investigation, and drawing on his comments.
In Southland Kirk found an efficient industry of 36 mills. There had been recent remarkable expansion, the result of branch railways opening up bush districts, and low freight rates on the main trunk link to Otago and Canterbury. The impact on the South Island's older water-based industry had been immense. Kirk writes, ‘The rapid development of the Southland trade has closed the mills in Catlin's River, annihilated the coastal timber export of Westland, and greatly restricted that of Marlborough and Nelson’.4 As Otago's output was only about a quarter of Southland's, he found that ‘Southland practically supplies the markets of the southern portion of the colony, from Invercargill to Ashburton’. Southland's coastal cargoes to ‘Lyttelton and other ports farther north’ competed with the Marlborough and Wellington mills. This vigorous Southland industry worked flat lowland bush with horses and cheap wooden tramways, clearing 2,000 acres a year. Bushmen's wages averaged eight shillings for an eight-hour day, benchmen averaged nine shillings. However, most mills contracted out the felling, logging and haulage. These conditions would have facilitated the transition from bush work to yeoman farming, with good earnings from the timber industry, both before and after taking up land. Besides clearing land for settlement the mills provided a local market for food and fodder from the new farms.
With large supplies of the valued totara, and railway access to Wellington, the Wairarapa timber industry was flourishing. In 1885–86, 20,704 tons of timber were dispatched from Wairarapa stations and 3,901 from Hutt Valley stations. Kirk found that Hawke's Bay had drawn most of its timber from Auckland until 1876, when the railway tapped the Seventy Mile Bush with its good supplies of totara. Now a flourishing industry supplied most of Auckland's totara and even sent some to Otago. Besides being a prime building timber, totara was sought after for wharves, bridges, railway sleepers and telegraph poles. Several Hawke's Bay mills were greatly helping bush settlers with royalties for their logs, giving threepence to ninepence per 100 superficial feet for ordinary timber and one to two shillings for totara. In the Wairarapa, Hawke's Bay and Rangitikei-Manawatu, sawmilling was fostering bush yeoman settlement in much the same way as in Southland. In the 1885–86 year 16,063 tons of timber were dispatched on the Rangitikei-Manawatu line; probably a decline from a peak a year or two earlier.
Sawmilling did not flourish in Taranaki, the most forest-clad of the provinces, mainly because, as Kirk put it ‘the forest is of very indifferent quality’.5 Since good timber was scattered and sparse, labour costs were high. Wages were low at six to seven shillings per day, as also were royalties at twopence or threepence per 100 feet. Kirk noted one new and expanding feature of the Taranaki industry, the conversion of tawa into staves for butter kegs. New Plymouth coopers were making 8,000 butter kegs a year, large numbers were also being made in Inglewood and elsewhere, and there was a considerable export of these kegs to Auckland.
Auckland's kauri timber industry retained a unique place in New Zealand sawmilling throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. Due to the physical geography of North Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula, it remained water-based throughout. The scope of the forest resources involved, the superb qualities of kauri timber, and the resultant considerable export overseas, gave Auckland timber milling a stature not matched elsewhere, and a different rhythm of industrial development. An extensive popular account of the industry is given in A.H. Reed's The Story of the Kauri, its business side is surveyed in R.C.J. Stone's Makers of Fortune, and we now have an excellent essay on the work force in Duncan Mackay's ‘The Orderly Frontier: The World of the Kauri Bushmen 1860–1925’.6 While the kauri industry land only a limited interaction with yeoman farming in its immediate vicinity, the timber ships returned with foodstuffs for both the men and beasts of the workforce, to the benefit of farming in many parts of the colony.
What we do know is that most of the colony's cooking, heating, and laundering was fuelled by firewood. Bush settlers were prodigal in the size of their fireplaces and of the logs they fed them. This economised on labour, and speeded up the clearing of their land. Colonial industry also used much firewood. It was a major input for the nearly four thousand tons of wool scoured in 1885, and for the boiling down of the year's 6,930 tons of tallow exports. Bakeries and breweries, candle and soap works, jam and biscuit factories, were other users. So were various industries using woodburning steam boilers, including flaxmills, timber mills, the new dairy factories, and even printeries. Thus on 10 March 1885 the Manawatu Standard advertised for five cords of good sound matai for its steam engine. Our bush fire story shows that cutting firewood was one way for a poor settler to get on. Thus the fires that swept Seaward Bush, Southland, in mid December 1885 destroyed several stacks of firewood ‘to the serious loss of a hard working and not over paid class of men’. In early January 1886 other firewood harvesters in many districts were under threat. Giles Chamberlain and John Yates, two bush settlers near Masterton, each had stacks of about 200 cords threatened by the fires, but saved by the wind dropping. At Waimauku, north of Auckland, the settlers were not so fortunate, losing about 200 tons of firewood. W. Meads of Wakapuaka suffered a different kind of loss. A piece of bush which he owned, and from which he made a living by carting firewood into Nelson, was destroyed by fire. Two months later the Banks Peninsula fires took firewood at Little River and Le Bons Bay.8 Many humble workers must have had similar losses that went unrecorded.
Lacking local firewood statistics, we can turn to international comparisons for inspiration. Late 18th-century France and early 19th-century United States were similar to 1885 New Zealand in being still dependent on forest rather than mine for fuel. Fernand Braudel tells us that Paris of 1789, on the eve of the Revolution, was using two tons of firewood per head. Wood was becoming scarce in France so prices were high and consumption restricted.9 Michael Williams tells of the prodigious use of firewood in 19th-century United States.10 Through the century's first three decades the volume of wood fuel cut was at least sixfold that of lumber and ‘it was not until after 1890 that the amount of lumber cut exceeded the amount of fuel cut, in gross volume’.11 If New Zealand of 1885 was consuming at the fate of 1789 Paris it would have used about 1,250,000 tons. If it was consuming in the early 19th-century American proportions of six times the timber production, it would have used about 2,500,000 tons or roughly four tons per head. But compared with these Americans, the 1885 New Zealanders were making widespread use of wood-fueled steampower, and had railways both to speed up page 137 settlement of the forests and to help move firewood to urban markets. Five tons per head would not be a rash estimate for the colony in 1885, giving an output of over 3,000,000 tons. The Taranaki land commissioners 1877 estimate might embolden us to plump for an even higher figure. For all their fascination with development statistics, the settlers have provided us with no reliable data on their main fuel.
The bush fires also wrote into the record the humble cutting of posts, rails, sleepers and telegraph poles, as other ways for poor men to get on. Both farm improvement and the extension of settlement were leading to much fencing. Turning 1885′s fencing wire imports of over 5,000 tons into fences would have taken a great number of posts. The 1885–86 fire losses included several large stacks of posts lying by the roadside at Taueru, east of Masterton, ‘dry totara burning like matchwood’; the saving of a large heap at Dannevirke; and the loss of posts, rails and sleepers stacked ready for sale at Makaretu.12 In the 1885–86 year the railways used 137,887 sleepers for new lines and 137,993 in maintenance. Some were Australian hardwood imports, but 82 per cent of sleepers relaid during the year were of New Zealand timber. Among small producers with losses this summer were Rush of Taonui, Manawatu. He lost 200 sleepers, produced with the help of one workman who lost his swag with all he owned except the clothes he had on.13 However, the season's fires were not an unmitigated disaster to the colony's labourers and bush settlers, for the widespread destruction of fencing augmented the demand for posts. In the Hawke's Bay Weekly Courier of 16 April 1886 a correspondent noted that ‘an immense quantity of posts’ were being floated down the Waipawa River by residents of upper Onga Onga and Makaretu; many of these may have been going to repair fire damage.
The forests also provided a non-wood product that proved a boon to many a struggling settler. This was the fungus Auriculria polytricha, popularly known as ‘Taranaki wool’, which grew on bush logs, and which had been recognised by Taranaki Chinese immigrant Chew Chong as a plant prized as a delicacy in China. In 1870 he began buying it from Maoris and settlers for export to China. Thomas Kirk's 1886 report on the forests noted that 1885 fungus exports amounted to just over 300 tons, valued at £10,992.