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

Wellington as ‘head’ port of the ‘Cook Strait Lake’

Wellington as ‘head’ port of the ‘Cook Strait Lake’

We will group the vessels described by ‘Touchstone’ into three categories. There were his Overseas ships, ‘the gigantic Royal mail steamer Kaikoura’ from Britain, and the Wakatipu and Hauroto maintaining a direct service to Sydney. There were the Interprovincials, dominated by ‘Touchstone's' ‘dark green painted, red funnelled boats of the Union Company’. These linked the main centres of the chief provinces. And there were the ‘Cook Strait Lakers', linking Wellington with her neighbouring ports, some along her own coast, others on the coasts of the three lesser provinces at the north of the South Island. Most of these were small, often of what ‘Touchstone’ described as ‘the “fast and favourite Huia” stamp’. He had probably come down on this little steamer, which shuttled regularly between Wanganui and Wellington. We will look first at the ‘Cook Strait Lakers’.

In the New Zealand of 1885 the coasts of the lower North Island, from Patea round to Castlepoint, and of the upper South Island, from Greymouth round to Cape Campbell, were knit together by an interplay of coastal shipping that can be likened to that on a large lake. Vessels of various kinds, sizes and shapes coasted round the shores or cut across directly to destinations on the opposite coast. With land links hampered by rugged mountains, the settlers had turned to the sea to build up an interdependent regional economy. In the more sheltered waters of Tasman Bay, Golden Bay and the Marlborough Sounds a mosquito fleet of locally built cutters and schooners, known as ‘Blind Bay hookers’,5 coasted around between Nelson, Takaka, Motueka and Havelock, and also found business in such obscure destinations as Croixelles, Wanganui Inlet, Awaroa and Totaranui. Only some of these movements found their way into the official coastal shipping statistics. With less sheltered waters and few nearby havens, ports such as Wanganui, Patea, Westport and Greymouth dispatched mainly steamers on longer voyages to various destinations across the ‘Cook Strait Lake’. These voyages all contributed to the official statistics. As they passed through Wellington, the ships' officers could pick up a copy of the Wellington Almanack which year page 202

Figure 14.1 ‘Cook Strait Lake’: 40 day sample saillings, 1885 (Note: There will have sailings on other minor routes not recorded by the press. ‘Tonnage’ refers to ‘registered tonnage’.)

page 203 by year carried an extensive section of ‘Sailing Directions For New Zealand’, unmatched in the almanacs of the other centres. In 1885 it was 54 pages in length, with an insert of a further six pages on red paper giving the latest notifications of the Marine Department. It descends to such details as reporting a temporary anchorage within a line of reefs north and south of the Flaxbourne River, ten miles SSW of Cape Campbell, and remarks that ‘there is a snug little boat harbor at the mouth of the creek, very convenient for shipping cargo’.

Figure 14.1 gives an overview of this traffic by sampling the 1885 newspaper shipping columns. It will not have captured the sailings between centres with no newspapers, such as Takaka, Motueka, Havelock and Otaki, or the servicing of the many isolated homesteads around these shores, but even so it reflects the impact of the colony's localism on its shipping patterns. But what cargoes were all these ‘Lakers’ carrying? Newspaper shipping columns give a little detailed information, but not enough for an overview. The best way ahead would seem to be to look at the production statistics of these districts to find what they needed to import and what they had for export. We will begin with Wellington, the dominant player in this regional communication network.

The urban population of Wellington was not only much larger than was needed to service its hinterland, bur, as Table 14.6 shows, it was also larger than its hinterland could feed.

Table 14.6. Production and consumption, Wellington and its hinterland, 1885
Region's production Consumption (at NZ average)
Potatoes (tons) 3,669 8,608
Peas & beans (acres) 93 908
Barley (bushels) 988 57,804
Oats (bushels) 84,255 498,912
Poultry (birds) 107,232 144,760
Orchard (acres) 517 1,075

Notes (1) Hinterland taken as Hurt, Wairarapa West & Wairarapa East Counties (1886 census population 49,875).

(2) Average consumption calculated as 1885 colonial production, less exports, plus imports, divided by 1886 census population.

page 204

Wheat has not been included in Table 14.6 because the complexity of its movement as both grain and flour does not allow of an easy adjustment for imports and exports. The raw figures indicate that most of Wellington's wheat was imported. The Wellington-Masterton railway grain outward figures for 1885–86 show 2,711 tons dispatched from the city but only 259 tons dispatched from all the rural stations. Clearly, rather than drawing grain from its hinterland, Wellington was forwarding coastal imports of grain up country. Much will have been wheat for Chamberlain Brothers' large flour mill at Masterton. The overall message of Table 14.6 is that Wellington City depended heavily on coastal imports to feed itself. Our contention that every New Zealand urban centre of the 1880s was closely associated with a thriving yeoman district is sustained by looking across Cook Strait to Waimea County. Our treatment of this county as a thriving feldon yeoman district contained an implicit conundrum, for production was obviously far beyond the needs of little Nelson City. The full answer is a little more complex, for Waimea farmers were supplying the West Coast as well as Wellington.

Most of the West Coast's imports of food and fodder came on ships coming to fetch coal, and many of these coal cargoes were for Wellington, whose port ‘Touchstone’ found so alive with steamers. The ‘Cook Strait Lakers' also brought in much of the cargo which left Wellington on the overseas vessels. The most important export was wool, of which Wellington handled 8,915 tons in 1885. Only 2,003 tons were dispatched from the region's rural railway stations in the year to 31 March 1886, and very little would have come in by road. About three quarters of the wool exported from Wellington must have reached the port by coaster. The shipping columns and other evidence show that it came from Patea, Wanganui, Castlepoint, Nelson, Picton, often beginning its journey on little hookers from remote inlets or estuaries, or was picked up from surf boats by steamers lying off beaches. The rising new export of frozen meat was also beginning to make its mark, with 3,628 tons leaving Wellington in 1885. Newspaper shipping columns show a steady flow of stock for the Wellington freezing works being dispatched from Wanganui and Patea. And the coasters which thus worked to fill, provision and bunker the big overseas ships, took back to the outports and inlets cargoes of imports brought by the big ships: wire and watches, sugar and sewing machines, glass and ginger, pianos and ploughs. The warehouses of reclamation Wellington were the sorting place channelling the exchanges between industrial Britain and frontier central New Zealand.

There were of course significant elements of this ‘Laker’ coastal traffic which did not pass through Wellington. A shuttle service from Wanganui brought cattle and sheep for the West Coast meat market and took back coal, much of it no doubt for the Foxton-New Plymouth railway. In Nelson page 205 S. Kirkpatrick and Co were developing a large jam industry, importing fruit from the southern North Island to supplement the local crops,6 and exporting the finished product to all parts of the colony. It was Nelson's position on the busy coastal network that made this industry feasible. Nelsons orchards were also sending fresh fruit further abroad than Wellington. Even in North Taranaki, which claimed to be ‘The Garden of New Zealand’, there was a market for Nelson apples.7 For all the districts around the Cook Strait Lake, local history for this period does not make full sense without the work of the coasters.

Can we quantify the work of these ‘Lakers’, so as to make comparisons with our railway statistics? By relating the sailings summarised in Figure 14.6 to the sizes of the vessels and distances between harbours it is calculated that 8,551,625 ‘registered’ ton-miles were sailed in these 40 days giving a figure of over 78,000,000 ‘registered’ ton-miles for the year. But a registered ton is only a measure of cubic carrying capacity available, not of the weight of goods actually carried, as with the railways. Can we move from ‘registered’ ton-miles to ‘goods carried’ ton-miles? With the limited information available it will not be easy. Let us take a few examples from our Figure 14.6 sample. The Union S.S. Co's steamer Maori, of 118 tons register, occurs five times sailing from Wellington for Greymouth, and six times sailing from Greymouth for Wellington. Several times during the year the Grey River Argus mentions her tonnage of cargo. Inward tonnages were 100 (2 Aug.); 80 (16 Sept.), 30–40 (10 Oct.); outward tonnages were 178 (28 May) and 180 (16 Sept.). Her inward cargoes of produce and overseas imports were obviously less weighty than her outward cargoes of coal, but if we average out these reported cargoes we get around 125 tons—considerably greater than her registered tonnage. The 101-ton S.S. Wallabi occurs twice sailing from Wanganui to Greymouth and twice making the return journey. The Argus of 1885 mentions her outward cargo once at 100 tons (19 May); and the Wanganui Yeoman gives her south-bound cargo twice: 40 cattle, 200 sheep and 26 pigs (6 Jan.), 500 sheep (2 July). Using the railways ‘equivalent livestock tonnage’ ratios these both work out at 15–16 tons. If these cargoes are a fair sample her average load was less than 60 per cent of her registered tonnage. Built in 1863, she is typical of a number of older steamers bringing livestock and other farm produce cargoes into Greymouth. Not designed or fitted out especially for coal, they could only take out coal cargoes roughly equivalent to their registered tonnages. On the other hand the tonnage of timber cargoes leaving the Marlborough Sounds and Golden Bay on little schooners and ketches almost certainly considerably exceeded the registered tonnage involved. We have no information on their cargoes, but we can make this inference from similar cargoes arriving in Lyttelton. Thus the 150-ton Annie Wilson which we noted taking out a cargo of produce had brought page 206 in 220 tons of timber from Kaipara, and the 81-ton Clio had brought 100 tons of timber from Waitapu. As with the Greymouth coal trade, however, the tonnage of their return cargoes of produce and overseas imports would have been smaller. Our few examples suggest that the ton-mileage carried was somewhere between 60 per cent and 100 per cent of the registered ton-mileage involved. This would put the Cook Strait Lake traffic at from somewhat above the total South Island railway ton-mileage to considerably above the colony's total railway ton-mileage. Yet this traffic was only a minor part of the total coastal movement.