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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World

Major Sports and Social Activities, 1898–1899

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Major Sports and Social Activities, 1898–1899

As we have seen, New Year's Day 1898 saw the opening of considerable extensions to the Mountain House. With its major contribution to management, fundraising and labour, we can be sure that Kaponga was well represented among the ‘considerable number of visitors’ at Dawson Falls. Kaponga's two conservator members were among the speakers, with board chairman Richard Dingle paying special tribute to the ‘great amount of work’ done by F.W. Wilkie. Wilkie in turn paid special tribute to ‘the assistance rendered by the ladies … especially in the matter of raising additional funds’. The Law family are likely to have been well represented on this occasion. The following April, Robert Law attended a much less pleasant mountain occasion: the inquests of two Hawera men who died from injuries and exposure while descending from the summit. Law and his friend Alfred Bulmer had climbed the mountain the same day and lunched with the men at the top. The recovery of the bodies was organised from Kaponga. The mountain and the tourists flowing to it had a constant input into Kaponga's public life.

One surprise of the 1898–99 summers is that the Star had no news of Kaponga cricket. Yet on 22 November 1893 it described a lively club led by prominent citizens such as F.S. Canning, John Robertson* and J.L. Harwood opening the season:

There was a good turnout, not only of gentlemen, but ladies also. There were players from the bush camps, and most of Mr C. Melville's sawmill hands who now make extra time each day to get off on Saturday afternoon. Mr C. Melville was not the first to start cricket here, but he soon joined in, and on Saturday he was well to the front with his cricket regalia which clearly denoted he had handled the willow before.

The club flourished over the next two seasons, playing local Saturday afternoon games on Craddock's paddock. Meanwhile the Taranaki Cricket Association had been founded in March 1894, some nine months before the forming of the New Zealand Cricket Council.2 In the 1896–97 season Kaponga began playing in the association's championships with home and away games against Eltham and Hawera. Why, then, had the club disappeared by the following season? The causes, it would seem, lay both at home and abroad. After its first two seasons the association became moribund. South Taranaki teams made their own ad hoc arrangements for 1897–98. At the beginning of the next season the Star (5/12/98) urged local players, ‘now that the question of the Cricket Association has been taken up and seems likely once more to be put on satisfactory footing’, to support their clubs in every possible way. But why, when the association faded, did the Kaponga club not survive by returning to its old style of local games? The answer lies in the composition of its teams. Sawmill hands formed their solid core, as they could arrange to put in a long Saturday afternoon of play.

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Rural settlers, on the other hand, had to leave early for the cowsheds. Between seasons, in the winter of 1897, the club suffered the double blow of the closure of Charles Melville's sawmill and the loss of his leadership with his departure to Dannevirke.

The 1898 calendar's next major event was a horticultural show in the town hall on Thursday, 3 February, ‘held in connection with the Caledonia Society's Baby Show’. The Star advertising invited entries in a wide range of farm and garden produce, dairy produce, bachelor's bread, and paintings, and was over the name of ‘Fred. Gapper, Hon Sec.’. Gapper* was just emerging as an invaluable local facilitator who was to serve as secretary of a wide range of local clubs and committees. ‘Our Own’ (5/2/98) reported that ‘the results both as regards exhibits and attendance far exceeded the most sanguine anticipations of the Committee’. Both of our case study families exhibited. Isabella Law won prizes for carnations and dahlias, Mrs Hastie for roses, dahlias and stocks and Mr Hastie for turnips, carrots, cucumbers and parsnips. Their daughter received special mention:

Miss R. Hastie's exhibits of painting, sketching in black and white, and crayon work were really excellent. Miss Hastie is only 16 years of age and is at present studying at St. Mary's Convent, Ponsonby, Auckland.

Chairing a meeting of the Caledonian Society later in the month, F.W. Wilkie reported that though got up on the spur of the moment the show had been a success. An after meeting was held to form the Kaponga Horticultural Society with Wilkie as president, Fred Gapper as secretary-treasurer and A.J. Hastie as one of two vice-presidents. The 1899 annual show on 16 February was a much better prepared affair, with a catalogue (printed by the Star office) issued in mid-January. The 411 exhibits overwhelmed the town hall's capacity and the attendance was large, with many visitors coming long distances. Felix McGuire, MHR, opened proceedings. The judges included William Rowe of Normanby and folk from Manaia, Stratford, Rongotea and Wellington. Mr and Mrs Hastie took nearly 20 prizes, branching out beyond garden produce into wine, cakes and sewing. Miss Law took prizes for homemade loaf and darned sock. At the society's AGM in April a handsome credit balance was reported. A.J. Hastie was among those thanked for donating prizes and Mrs Hastie was one of five women given special mention for running the refreshment booth. The society was obviously meeting a need. This community was getting on its feet through self-help in fields such as gardening, baking, preserving and sewing. Linking these activities to a major social occasion enhanced both the fun and the standards of domestic industry.3

The early weeks of 1898 also saw Star advertisements for the second annual meeting of the Kaponga Racing Club, ‘To be held on the Racecourse, Manaia road, on Thursday, February 17, 1898’. The meeting's careful list of explicit conditions included: ‘All races to be run under the rules as adopted by the District Racing Association.’ There were eight events, two being page 162
Member's Annual Ticket, Kaponga Racing Club, 1898

Member's Annual Ticket, Kaponga Racing Club, 1898

district races reserved for horses that had for three clear months been in the district bounded by the Skeet, Hastings and Auroa roads and the mountain reserve. The meeting was the continuation of an ambitious attempt, begun in 1897, to carve a place for Kaponga in the Taranaki racing calendar. It had to compete for attention in a February calendar that included Hawera's Egmont Club's meeting on the 9th and 10th, New Plymouth's Taranaki Club on the 16th and 17th, the ‘Te Namu Hack Meeting’ (near Opunake) on the 23rd and the Stratford Club on the 24th and 25th. A small centre might be expected to opt, like Opunake, for a ‘hacks only’ meeting—Patea was advertising such for its 11 April Easter Monday meeting. A hack was defined as a horse that had never won an advertised race. But, while making some concession to local bush interests with its two ‘district’ races, Kaponga was really trying for something more ambitious, even though the advertised ‘Racecourse, Manaia road’ was only Charles Tait's paddock. To further attract visitors it was advised that a ‘Social and Dance will be held in the Town Hall in the Evening’.

The campaign for Kaponga races had begun with a ‘large and enthusiastic’ meeting, chaired by A.J. Hastie, in the town hall on 13 March 1897. With Robert Palmer as president and the ubiquitous Fred Gapper as secretary the first meeting was run in Tait's paddock on 23 April 1897. No doubt, as with the Horticultural Society, the success of the second annual event would be crucial in deciding the project's viability. ‘Our Own’ (19/2/ 98) gave an optimistic report, telling of 600 to 700 people on the ground even though ‘the weather was not altogether favourable in the morning’.

The arrangements were well attended to, and the meeting must be considered a success…. The Manaia Brass Band enlivened the day with very good music. The bookies and the holders of the several games were well patronised. With regard to the day's racing, the fields were large and the starts were very good.

The social and dance in the evening, with A.J. Hastie as one of the MCs, page 163 was also judged ‘very successful’, with about 50 couples on the floor.

But the promoters saw things differently. The Star of 31 March carried an ‘obituary’ to the Kaponga Racing Club, provided by ‘a correspondent’. The committee had met at the Commercial Hotel on 24 March. With a loss of about £25 to add to a loss made in 1897 they could see no future for the venture.

With autumn the main season of balls and dances got under way. Towards the ends of the months of April and May 1898, as the moon waxed towards its full, there were two special occasions. The first, a plain and fancy dress ball in aid of the town hall funds, with A.J. Hastie again as MC, was so well attended that the organising committee decided on the spot to announce a masquerade ball in a month's time, with masks supplied by the committee. Despite bad weather this too was a great success. A.J. Hastie and Robert Law were members of the organising committee of six and their wives were on the ladies' committee. Miss B. Law was costumed as a schoolgirl and Miss J. Law as a Bulgarian peasant. On both occasions ‘Our Own’ made special mention of the quantity and quality of the refreshments and commented that dancing was kept up till about 4 o'clock. About 10 days after the masquerade ball, on 8 June, ‘Our Own’ reported the Kaponga Assembly holding ‘their usual fortnightly meeting’ with about 50 couples on the floor. This is his only 1898 reference to the assembly, but fortunately he covered its 1897 meetings better. A fortnightly ‘quadrille assembly’ had been established in 1895 when the town hall opened. The 1897 season ran from 19 May to 15 September. It consisted of a Wednesday night event, with the music provided by a pianist and a violinist. On several occasions particularly successful evenings were reported; a poor evening in bad weather would see ‘only 20 couples grace the floor’.4 With further dances for various special occasions, and others to raise funds for specific purposes, this activity was clearly a major element in Kaponga's social life.

Rugby football, beginning to emerge as Taranaki's premier sport, first got established in Kaponga over the 1898 winter. ‘Our Own’ (28 May) reported that the week before ‘our newly formed football team made their maiden effort against the Kapuni team’, the game ending in a draw. Presumably the match was played on Hayes's paddock, Manaia Road, where Kaponga won the return match on 4 June. Those interested then formed a football club with a committee showing a nice balance of town and country. Richard Mellow (president) Daniel Hughes* (captain) and Harry Wilkie (vice-captain) were farmers, but all four vice-presidents (storekeepers Harwood and Tindle, hotelkeeper Farquhar and coach-builder Childs) were townsmen. The further matches reported during the season were another against Kapuni, two against Cardiff and one against Eltham. The season ended with a very successful football social in the town hall on 31 August, opened appropriately with ‘On the Ball’ sung by builder C.S. Walker. ‘Our Own’ (20/4/99) reported the club's first AGM. A.J. Hastie, Robert Law and F.W. Wilkie were added to the list of vice- page 164 presidents. Twenty new members were enrolled, and as the ground was ‘in a very rough state’ a working bee ‘of all members’ was called to get it in order. Presumably this was still Hayes's paddock. The 1899 programme began with a social on 28 April and concluded with a ball on 21 September, both occasions being great successes socially and financially. Of a dozen games played only one was lost. Opunake and Matapu had been added to the list of opponents. Rugby was getting established in south Taranaki by way of village selfhelp, with matches a matter of local arrangement.

For Kaponga, as for all rural south Taranaki, the great spring social event was Hawera's two-day Egmont Show. The lead article in the November 1898 New Zealand Country Journal explained the place of such shows in colonial life:

There are about thirty of them held in the Colony altogether, and the wonder is how there can be found time for them all…. The central show of a district … is recognised as the great outing of the year for the country people, and on no other occasion do they turn out in such numbers. Those who wish to learn something pay an early visit to the show, but these form a small proportion of the total number that are on the grounds on the ‘people's day’.

Kaponga was not prominent in the Hawera showring in these early decades—its settlers had not yet made much progress in fine breeding and grooming, and the long trek to the showgrounds also discouraged them from bringing their animals. Nevertheless, Kaponga did have some presence at the show of 3 and 4 November 1898. Gilbert Wilson won first prize in the section for a ‘sheep and cattle dog or slut [short haired]’ and E.R. Hastie served as a cattle steward. Ellen Frethey won the prize for her ‘collection of home-made jam’. But Kaponga's most notable achievement was that of J. Crockett of Rowan Road. Against stiff competition he won the Egmont A & P Association's trophy prize for butter. This was for ‘not less than one cwt butter suitable for export’. The judge who awarded the prize to the little Rowan dairy factory was Kowin of the English firm of Lovell and Christmas. Atrocious weather on ‘people's day’ held attendance at about 3000, but there must have been quite a sprinkling of Kaponga folk in the crowd. They would have been better represented on the ‘people's day’ of 2 November 1899 when glorious weather brought a record attendance of over 5000. Possibly some or all of Kaponga's shops closed on ‘people's day’. Certainly in 1899 its Bank of New South Wales branch observed the special bank holiday appointed in south Taranaki for the occasion.5

The year's end saw a series of occasions that had the community's children particularly in mind, both to mark the end of the school year and to celebrate Christmas. On 25 November the town hall was crowded when William Philip, the Manaia Presbyterian minister, came ‘over a very bad road’ to show his fine magic lantern views of London to raise funds for the school library. On 22 December the hall was still more crowded (‘standing room even was hard to obtain’) for the annual concert in aid of the school page 165 prizes. This was a varied programme by both children and adult performers, in two parts, with the school prizegiving sandwiched between. The opening piece was ‘The Bohemian Girl’ by the Kaponga orchestra. The little girls followed with the ‘Spanish Fan Dance’. Eleven adult vocalists (six of them women) provided the main body of the programme. R. McKay, conductor of the orchestra, played a violin solo. A few children's items were interspersed, including the duet ‘Where are You Going to My Pretty Maid?’ by Miss Bella Law and Master C. Wilson. The programme was not all musical; the second part opened with a lively debate by 18 schoolboys on ‘Is it wrong to educate our girls?’. A dance followed the concert.

The community further demonstrated its ability to entertain itself on Christmas Eve. Folk could take time out from their shopping to join a highly successful Christmas tree event in aid of the town hall funds. Under F.W. Wilkie's direction a whole series of ‘labour and mental competitions’ were held—wood sawing, nail driving, guessing a sheep's weight and the numbers of collections of peas and nails. There was also singing, entertainment by a hornpipe dancer, and a refreshment stall. The Christmas tree had to be reloaded several times with gifts for the large number of children who attended. The town itself was elaborately decorated and brilliantly illuminated for the occasion. Harwood's store was so well lit that it ‘looked like a city establishment’. The community was relishing its prosperity and business was brisk. ‘It seemed as if the population of New Zealand

Wood-sawing contest, Kaponga Caledonian Society sports 1896. One of the contestants is
David Briggs (of Manaia and later Kaponga), Taranaki axeman champion, 1895–97. Note the
‘Sunday best’ attire for this Boxing Day occasion

page 166 had gathered in Kaponga and intended to make the money fly.’

Boxing Day was to have seen the concluding Christmas occasion, advertised for weeks in the Star as ‘Kaponga Caledonian Society's Sports, To be held in the Domain’, but the day was so wet it was postponed to Friday, 30 December. The Caledonian Society, founded in October 1894 with F.S. Canning as president, had run a very successful first meeting on A.J. Craddock's paddock on New Year's Day 1895, with 600 present. With Canning's departure the society languished and its second sports were not held till Boxing Day 1896, this time on the domain, a 14-acre public reserve on the township's southern boundary. The society had taken the Domain track in hand only a few months earlier. Raising funds to improve the domain became a continuing concern of the society. With A.J. Hastie as president and Fred Gapper as secretary, it was in a healthy condition in 1898. With proceeds from socials and dances, and from its annual sports, it had stumped, cleared and ploughed several acres of the domain and progressively improved the track. The postponed fourth annual sports meeting of the society, held in splendid weather, was a great success. The programme included both boys' and girls' races for under 14-year-olds, the usual range of adult athletic events, and several axemen's events. Music was provided by a visiting company, The Blind Musicians. Robert Law took third place in the ‘Old Men's Race’ for those over 40. At the successful and profitable dance that followed A.J. Hastie was MC and Miss Bella Law's highland lassie costume was among those noted. Dancing continued till daylight.