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

Hawera (1886 population 1,026)

Hawera (1886 population 1,026)

In the spring of 1885 Hawera was visited by ‘The Innocent from Home’ of the Waikato Times.

The town of Hawera, or the City of the Plains is a well built and apparently thriving young town. There are, I believe, eight hotels, four banks, and as many churches. All the buildings seem substantial, and the town is very compact. They have good schools both government and private…. This place seems to be the camping ground for all the trains on the line and on Saturday there are nine trains through Hawera.15

Hawera, it seems, in strong contrast to New Plymouth, was compact and progressive, with a substantial look about it. This was despite a somewhat mushroom growth. The town had grown up around a blockhouse erected in 1870. To encourage the reoccupation of the district following the debacle imposed by Titokowaru, the Fox government established blockhouses at Hawera and Manutahi to form, with the earlier Waihi strongpoint, a string of three within signalling distance of each other, covering the northern fringe of settlement. The compactness of Hawera owed much to the fact that it had had to be fitted into a strip of Railway Reserve, because much of the surrounding countryside was tied up in the wreckage of Domett's military settlement scheme of the early 1860s. Hawera's emergence as the ‘capital’ of South Taranaki could not have been foreseen at the time of its founding. It had to compete with Patea, the region's port and military headquarters, and Normanby, which grew up around Waihi, and had the advantage of page 187
Hawera, 1880s. High Street/Princess Street corner, with the Fire Bell Tower on the right

Hawera, 1880s. High Street/Princess Street corner, with the Fire Bell Tower on the right

proximity to the forest frontier. Hawera surged to the lead in the early 1880s, as the junction between the coastal road through the newly occupied Waimate Plains and the railway through the bush to New Plymouth. Patea's relegation was rapid—it took three and a half years for the railway gap between Hawera and Patea to be filled. Over those years Hawera took control of the trade of the plains, directing it north by railway and road to the ports of Waitara and New Plymouth.

Despite this use of the northern ports, Hawera showed scant regard for North Taranaki in other respects. The official opening of the Hawera-New Plymouth line on 20 October 1881 is a good example. New Plymouth exuberantly marked this convincing breaking of its long isolation by proclaiming a public holiday. Some 600 North Taranaki folk crowded three excursion trains to Hawera. Many of them arrived begrimed after making the trip huddled in open trucks. But at Hawera there was no official reception, no bunting, no cheers. Hawera, in fact, looked almost desolate, for many of its citizens had gone to the Wanganui A & P Show, reported as the most successful ever held. The North Taranaki visitors wandered aimlessly around, enquiring for non-existent entertainments. They could not even go shopping, as most businesses were closed on account of the Wanganui Show. Yet Hawera wasn't on holiday either—banks were open and builders were at work.16

Before we look at another example of Hawera's flouting of New Plymouth page 188 feelings, it will be useful to look at Frank Lawry's account of his July 1883 visit to Hawera for the Auckland Weekly News. He was particularly impressed by what he saw when a leading settler took him out on a side road through the coastal strip south of the town:

This road presented a very busy scene, and I never before saw so many bullock teams in so short a time as we met on this road. Generally, there were six bullocks in each team, drawing their respective drays laden with wheat. The bullocks were all ‘rolling’ with fat, and we estimated that they would dress and weigh 10 cwtreach on an average. I daresay we met a dozen of these teams in the course of three miles drawing grain, while some others were shifting steam threshing machines. We were told that most of the grain belonged to Mr Caverhill, who has grown an area of grain in this district during the present season approaching in extent to 1000 acres. The average yield is nearly 30 bushels to the acre…. Mr Caverhill grew his grain mostly on leased land, some belonging to the Maoris, and in other cases on old grass belonging to settlers. The terms of the latter were generally 26s an acre rent, and to plough and relay the land in grass when the crop has been taken away….

… After having seen all the townships on this coast, I am disposed to think that Hawera will be the most important one between New Plymouth and Wanganui, because it is bound to be the centre of this large, fertile district, and seems to be the natural junction for any railway extension … in the direction of … Opunake.17

What Lawry saw on the country road was something of the rural drive that underlay the rapid rise of Hawera. John Scott Caverhill, the ‘Squire of Waiaui’, ‘the pride of the pioneer squatters’ of the Amuri district, had brought the fortune made in his South Island runholder career to try his hand at high farming on South Taranaki's new development frontier.18 He was typical of the group of leading settlers whose vision and energy saw nothing to defer to in the unimaginative conservative North Taranaki establishment. Hawera's industrialists and craftsmen were matching the thrust of their rural neighbours. Caverhill's wheat was probably heading for the Tawhiti flourmill, just west of Hawera. The town also had a thriving brewery and a sash and door factory.19 By 1885 Hawera's craftsmen were turning out saddles, cart harness and buggies that were claimed to be up to the best British standards.20

In January 1884 these thrusting South Taranaki settlers launched an enterprise which was resented by their neighbours. Despite the fact that the province's two existing A & P Shows, at New Plymouth and Patea, were both struggling, they launched their own Egmont A & P Show. The initiative came from the merchants and storekeepers,21 but was well supported by page 189 the farmers. The first show, which it had been decided to hold three days before the Wanganui Show,22 took place on 3 November 1884, and was a success.23 The following year the New Plymouth and Patea Associations entered negotiations with the Egmont Association, proposing amalgamation with a peripatetic annual show rotating around the the three centres. At Hawera the majority of supporters were against the proposal, believing that the Egmont venture would succeed through the advantage of their town's central position, and that there was nothing to be gained from joining with the other two ailing concerns.24 Over the following years there was bitterness among the Patea settlers as their show wilted away, to finally cease in 1898,25 while Hawera's prospered. New Plymouth's survived, but Hawera's flourished to outshine it.26