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

The ‘Our Own Correspondents’

The ‘Our Own Correspondents’

By the 1880s the press was already localised by the multiplying of small newspapers throughout the colony. A mushroom growth had seen a widespread founding of papers with many casualties but also a surprising number of survivors. The strength of local feeling which underlay this diffusion of
Figure 15.1. ‘Our Own Correspondent’ letters published in Otago Witness, February 1886

Figure 15.1. ‘Our Own Correspondent’ letters published in Otago Witness, February 1886

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Figure 15.2. Taranaki ‘Our Own Correspondent’ letters published February 1886

Figure 15.2. Taranaki ‘Our Own Correspondent’ letters published February 1886

the press found a further expression at an even more localised level with the ‘Our Own Correspondent’ tradition. Every week hundreds of letters from these voices of localism appeared in print. In the larger centres many letters were published twice, first in the daily press and then in the associated weekly. Figure 15.1 shows the spread of ‘Our Own Correspondents’ whose letters appeared in the four issues for February 1886 of the weekly Otago Witness.

Larger centres did not have correspondents as their news was covered by reporters and Press Association telegrams. Some county council, education, sporting, and other news about the smaller localities also came in through other channels. The local correspondents therefore supplemented the general news gathering of the paper. Appointing and maintaining the number of correspondents indicated by Figure 15.1 would have been no inconsiderable exercise. It must have paid off in terms of circulation, and there must have been a strong demand for these columns at the local level.

Where several newspapers competed in a region they might each have a local correspondent in many of its districts. Their presence helps to indicate the area of a paper's circulation. Figure 15.2 shows the overlapping of circulations in Taranaki. Even on this pioneer frontier most settlers had a choice of newspaper. Taranaki's North/South rift is clearly in evidence, with New page 223 Plymouth dominating the north, the other three centres competing for the south, and Rahotu, Opunake and Stratford being contested by both. Wanganui, lying well outside the province, comes into the picture because the Wanganui Herald (and especially its weekly edition, later renamed the Yeoman) covered South Taranaki until the appearance of the local press. The Wanganui Chronicle had ‘Our Owns’ in Patea and Manaia at this period, but no letters from them appeared in February 1886. The Auckland Weekly News had an ‘Our Own’ in Hawera, supplying a column-length monthly ‘Our West Coast Letter’ that covered the whole of Taranaki. Such was the strength of localism in Taranaki that before the end of the century newspapers had been established in Inglewood,3 Stratford, Eltham, Opunake, Manaia, and Waitara.4 There was also a parallel multiplication of ‘Our Own Correspondents'.

Local correspondents covered all aspects of settler life—the progress of settlement, local immigration and emigration, crops, sales, school, church, sport, hunting, roads, rumours, quarrels, accidents, industries, fires and much else. For many small rural districts in the later 19th century they make possible local histories with a depth and personalised richness quite beyond what can be done for most larger centres. Who, then, were these correspondents, what motivated them, and how did they relate to the local community? Most of the letters are unsigned and written with a studied anonymity. Some are ‘chatty’ but the usual surface tone is of an impartial, ‘professional’ detachment, though always with an implicit strong concern for the district's good name and progress. A careful local historian can usually uncover the identity of any long-term contributor. A correspondent needed close community involvement in order to gather news, so it is not surprising that many were storekeepers and school teachers. Others were farming settlers active in local affairs. We will give a couple of examples.

We have already met William F. Howlett, the Makaretu school teacher who took a lead in his district's relief efforts following the fires. He first appears in New Zealand as Third Master at Nelson College, 1876–77. In 1881–82 he was in Patea editing the short-lived Evening News, set up in competition to the morning Patea County Press. At Makaretu he won high praise from school inspector Henry Hill for his innovative curriculum, in which the children ‘learnt by doing’. The majority of his pupils were Scandinavians, wrestling with the English language. Inspector Hill reported that:

The pupils are made familiar with all forms of business—of buying and selling, of exchange, of keeping accounts, of tendering for work, and making topographical plans of the Makaretu settlement…. [These], when mounted and varnished, readily sell to the settlers at prices varying from 2s. to 10s. each…. The method adopted … in teaching … buying and selling, and page 224 keeping accounts, is exceedingly interesting. Each senior pupil is required to open a business account with the master. The latter is supposed to purchase from the parents, but only through the children, articles such as bread, milk, butter, eggs, cream, and directly from the children eels, wood-hens, and many other things. Then, the children purchase from the master various kinds of articles which they or their parents may require …5

Howlett ran a lively school, and was also a lively local correspondent for Makaretu in the Hawke's Bay Herald and its weekly counterpart, the Courier. But, being opinionated and somewhat eccentric, not surprisingly he in due course fell foul of some of the settlers, including the chairman of his school committee, the runholder Colonel J.L. Herrick. In protest against the committee's mismanagement of its affairs, Howlett resigned from the school in a blaze of publicity which he himself engineered, both anonymously as the local correspondent and over his own name in the Herald's correspondence columns. His final shot was an offer through the Herald's correspondence column that ‘If Colonel Herrick will resign the chairmanship which for four years he has so unsatisfactorily filled, I am perfectly willing to assume the position and carry out the measures necessary to restore some kind of order’. Soon thereafter the Herald's readers were hearing from ‘an occasional correspondent’ in the rising northern Wairarapa bush township of Pahiatua. In a style which most of them must have found very familiar, he reported on Pahiatua that

the most noticeable feature of the place is the number of new buildings going up. I think there can hardly be less than a dozen of the latter. At all events there are at least two bakers' shops, a couple of stores, and a number of dwelling houses, while I saw a man carrying along the road two boards—one marked Makaretu Cash Store and the other Will open here by 1st May. So I suppose Mr Howlett intends to keep himself before the public.6

Howlett continued to enliven the colonial press down the years while making worthwhile contributions in other areas including New Zealand botany and mountaineering.7

Our second example of a local correspondent is John Finlay whom we have also already met in Chapter 11. Immigrating from Ireland in 1871, Finlay spent his first colonial decade as a feldon yeoman farmer near Timaru. He then took a trip back to Britain, and on his return in 1882 was engaged as agricultural correspondent of the Timaru Herald, visiting farms throughout Canterbury and Otago. In 1885 he moved north to South Taranaki where his career included farming, contracting and dealing in produce. In his ‘A Trip to the Bush’, written as Manutahi correspondent of the Hawera Star, we are given a lively picture of bush yeoman life as seen by a feldon yeoman page 225 viewing it for the first time. Being at Okaiawa, on the edge of the bush, on a spring Saturday afternoon in 1886, he decided to seek out ‘an old acquaintance whose address I knew to be Skeet road, but the location of the aforesaid road was to me a mystery’. Fortunately he met a bush settler, W.A. Arnold, who offered to take him home, and then see him conducted to his friend's place after moonrise. We quote briefly from the beginning of Finlay's report, to give a sample of his relaxed, somewhat jovial style.

Leaving Okaiawa and heading towards the standing timber, we soon found ourselves ‘in the bush’. We were on the Ahipipi road. I hope I have spelled it right. [No, you haven't, but never mind.—ED.] The first time I saw it in print I nearly screwed my mouth out of shape, trying to pronounce it. The nearest approach to the sound is hi pipi. Night coming on fast, it being about seven o'clock in the evening, we pushed on. A smart canter over a level and partially metalled road, and we were at the residence of Mr. Arnold. On the verandah Mrs A, stood, anxiously expecting her lord and master, who had been detained longer than he expected, breaking in a young horse. Our ablutions being hastily performed, we soon found ourselves in the kitchen, where the half-burned rata logs on the fire-place threw out a strong but to us pleasant heat; while the table was covered with steaming and appetising viands, to which were done ample justice. From the ceiling and around the walis hung, to settlers, the most profitable pictures—huge sides of bacon and ham.8

In his entry in the Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Vol. 6, p. 250] Finlay proudly reported that he had been ‘correspondent for the Egmont Settler, Patea County Press, Hawera Star, and occasionally the Auckland Weekly News'. On his death in 1928 his obituary recorded that he had been a newspaper correspondent for about 45 years.9

We must now consider the local correspondents from the viewpoints of the newspapers, the local communities, and the correspondents themselves. For the newspapers the correspondents represented an economical way of gathering news from their strongly localised circulation areas. Only the larger urban papers would have afforded the luxury of full-time paid reporters and these would have been largely committed to covering major institutions and events around town. Whether by train or by horse, visiting the country districts was a slow business, and telephoning in one's report still lay in the future. The local correspondent was there already, with his store of local knowledge and wide contacts. His deep personal involvement enabled him to enliven the day to day story; for the unexpected crisis his letter would be off in the next post. Here was a reasonably reliable source of current, relevant, personalised local material for an office unable to produce such copy by its own resources.

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For the local community a good correspondent was both a convenience and an economic asset. In the Old World of the settlers' past, field workers returned each night to close packed villages and kept abreast of local news with little difficulty. It was different in the colony, with its scattered farms and clearings, its muddy roads, and its long days of pioneer labour. Yet in this rapidly developing world, with the future's shape being continually decided in current debate, there was an urgent need to know what was going on. ‘Our Own’ not only told the world about ‘us’, he also kept ‘us’ informed about ourselves. And for our settlement to thrive, we also needed him as our constant advocate to the outside world. With many voices clamouring for the hard pressed resources of county council, education board and central government, we needed to be heard too. Furthermore, new setters, with their skills, capital and labour, would naturally flow to those districts projecting a positive picture of their achievements and prospects. Most settlers knew die value of a competent correspondent. If he was incompetent they knew how to complain. ‘I am led to believe that you are mistaken in the gentleman who sends statements for publication’, B. Silverman of Norsewood wrote to the Hawke's Bay Weekly Courier early in 1886. ‘If your correspondent would be able to mind his own business half so well as he is inclined to meddle with that of others, we would be rid of a great nuisance’.10

From the lifelong involvement of such men as John Finlay and William Howlett it is clear that the role of local correspondent brought real personal satisfaction. In the days when newspapers ruled supreme without the rivalry of radio and television, they had an influence and prestige that rubbed off even onto their lesser contributors. Despite the pretence of anonymity, the community knew its correspondent's identity and admired his achievements. It fed him news, and no doubt debated his published views with him. If he had ambitions in public life, his newspaper role would have helped him advance them. We know little directly about the motivation and conditions of appointment of these correspondents, but some light was thrown on the subject when on 24 April 1878 the Manawatu Times had cause to attack the Wanganui Herald's Palmerston North correspondent, under the heading ‘“OUR OWN” CORRESPONDENTS'.

With the growth of newspaper literature, and the consequent desire on the part of the proprietors of journals to obtain the widest and latest intelligence, a kind of nondescript or hybrid animal has been tacked on to the tails of the Fourth Estate, known by the name of ‘Our Own’, who is to the profession neither fish, fowl, nor good red herring. These gentry crop up like mushrooms in every conceivable place; and as, in most instances, they perform their duties free, gratis, and for nothing, their only honorarium being a free paper and the ‘honor of the rhing’, in country towns their name is legion.11

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The occasion of this outburst was an animus against the Manawatu Times on the part of the Herald's correspondent and plagiarism by him from the columns of the Times. Both the Herald and the New Zealand Times became involved in the discussion. It emerged that the correspondent was the local Palmerston North School headmaster who had been disappointed in applying for employment by the Manawatu Times. In the course of the dispute he claimed to be ‘duly paid for his services as per agreement’ and that he had been ‘for some time connected with the London Press, as Parliamentary reporter, &c.’11 Interestingly the Manawatu Times had its own ‘Our Own’ in Foxton. The episode throws a little light on local correspondents' honorariums and motivation, and also on provincial press rivalry.