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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

Rivals for the hinterland

Rivals for the hinterland

The Vogel development drive of the 1870s had set in motion the rapid opening up of the interior of the southern North Island. By the 1880s this was leading to overt rivalry for control of reaches of the developing countryside, between Wellington, Wanganui and New Plymouth, with Napier also joining in as a minor player. Figure 13.1 summarises this contest.

As the main overseas port for central New Zealand, Wellington had a well established place in the southern North Island. Much of the work of Wellington's more than 4,000 coastal shipping movements of 1885 was concerned with imports and exports to and from Taranaki, the Wellington West Coast and Hawke's Bay. Having as yet no effective rail or road links with the capital these districts still depended on their coastal ‘capitals’ to administer and handle this coastal trade flow. But the steady advance north of the Wellington-Manawatu Railway would soon allow the Wellington merchants to bypass Wanganui, and take direct control of much of the west coast trade. Over the next few years considerable feeling developed in this rivalry. When in 1887 Wellington's merchants showed antagonism to a Wanganui Harbour Loan Bill, the Yeoman13 suggested that the Wanganui people should show their disapproval in a forthright manner by using their good coastal service to Auckland to divert their trade in that direction. By the late 1880s the page 185
Figure 13.1. Southern North Island rivals for the hinterland in the 1880s

Figure 13.1. Southern North Island rivals for the hinterland in the 1880s

threat to Wanganui commercial interests was becoming very real. Meat canning works set up in Wanganui in 1884 were under pressure from the rising Wellington freezing industry, which would force them to close in 1891. Many woolgrowers were beginning to rail their clip directly to overseas vessels in Wellington, rather than to Wanganui for the double handling involved in transshipping. In the early 1890s the Wanganui merchants moved to counter the Wellington threat by negotiating for direct shipments from Wanganui to London and by setting up their own freezing works.

Wanganui's tussle with Napier for control of the southern Volcanic Plateau had begun much earlier. In 1870 the strategic thinking of the Fox cabinet had included a link between Wanganui and the Plateau by a route through Upokongaro and the Mangawhero Valley, discovered by the surveyor Henry Field. Not till 1880 was serious work begun on ‘Field's Track’, with resources provided by both the Wanganui County Council and the colonial government. Field was put in charge, but despite his best efforts for years the Hawke's Bay County Council more than matched him with its steadily improving cart road through easier country with a less demanding climate. Year by year Wanganui interests watched with annoyance as the wool from the Upper page 186 Rangitikei rolled eastward to Napier. Not until 1888 did the first wool come down Field's Track to Wanganui—a Maori clip from Kariori.14 The building of the Main Trunk across this disputed countryside eventually put an end to the Wanganui-Napier rivalry.

Wanganui was able to establish a strong social and administrative grip on South Taranaki as its countryside was settled in the 1870s and 1880s. The movement of people and stock into this new area came far more from the south, through Wanganui, than from the north through New Plymouth. Many of the settlers came from Wanganui and its hinterland, and others came from South Island areas that already had strong links with Wanganui and its people. Wanganui newspapers dominated South Taranaki until it developed its own press. In 1877 Wanganui succeeded in capturing the whole of South Taranaki for its education district under the new national Education Act. The administration of the Foxton-New Plymouth railway was centred in Wanganui. The chagrin of New Plymouth's leaders at these developments forms the larger context of the Hawera-New Plymouth clash.