The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 2 (May 1, 1939)
Camellias and Nation Building
It has always been interesting to compare conditions in our present day with those of the past, especially in the matter of mechanical and scientific invention. It is with a feeling of satisfaction, too, that the twentieth century man looks down the vista of years and says, “In those days they did so and so. How our grandfathers would stare if they could see us now!” I wonder.
On reading old newspapers and letters of the year 1880, written in the city of Wellington by one of its most prominent citizens, John Plimmer, one cannot but see that the advancements of which one is so proud are merely the outcome of the forethought and diligence shown by the pioneers of the Dominion.
One of the most interesting comparisons, no doubt, is that of past and present means of travel. The old coach holds a fascinating place in our memories, romantic, certainly, but how inconvenient, precarious and uncomfortable they were! How thankfully the traveller arrived at his destination and with what apprehension he embarked on his next journey! Modern motor transport has placed the coach amongst the relics of “the good old days,” but how many of us, born to glide along our smooth highways on inflated tyres, could endure for one instant the rackety, swaying, jarring progress of the horse coach?
Then our railways! Viewing the magnificent Wellington Station, the memory comes back of Te Aro Station, of the train puffing busily through the city streets, and one hesitates to think of such a thing happening to-day.
It is difficult to believe that less than sixty years ago, the North Island Main Trunk line was merely a dream in the minds of a few citizens, and that the proposal for the construction of the railway was viewed with disfavour and doubts. Yet such was the case.
The following extract from a letter written to a Wellington paper at that time gives some idea of the conditions then existing in the city:—
“First, Wellington, after many drawbacks, has become a large commercial city of 22,000 inhabitants, with one of the best harbours in the world, and is the most central city in the Colony. The capital of New Zealand would thus be at the proposed end of the line. At the other end, on what is called the West Coast, are some millions of acres of the finest agricultural and pastoral land, not only in this Colony, but in the world, together with some 25,000 inhabitants; and yet the land will not pay for cultivation, for the simple reason there are no means of transport to the market.
“If this line of railway were made, the whole of this splendid country would be within five or six hours of Wellington city and harbour, and the country indicated would be able to find profitable employment for 50,000 more people. On the other hand, the merchants and tradespeople of Wellington, some of whom are making their acquaintance with the Bankruptcy Court, would experience a revival of commercial health and prosperity. Our tradesmen and labourers would be fully employed, the city authorities would be large gainers, the wharves would be fully occupied, the building trades would revive, and the new aspect of things would make the hearts of the people ring for joy.
“The city at the present time is almost as much a desert as the country. You scarcely hear the sound of a hammer, merchants and tradespeople are carrying on business at a loss, and the sales rooms are filled with the household chattels of the poor, seized for rent or debt of some sort, and we are at the same time driving thousands of our population away from our shores to seek the necessaries of life elsewhere. Our wheat, flour, oats, barley and even butter, cheese and bacon page 57 are mostly all imported, and yet, within a few hours’ journey of this city, all these articles might be grown to advantage if this railway were open to traffic.”
The scheme, however, was not as simple as it sounded. Money was scarce, or apparently was being used elsewhere on Public Works. Trades people and labourers left in shiploads to seek more lucrative employment than that offered by the despairing city. Finally, in desperation, a meeting of leading citizens was held to bring matters to a definite issue and the following five resolutions were the subjects under discussion.
1. That it was essential to the interests of the city and the districts lying between it and Wanganui, that a line of railway should be constructed without delay between Wellington and Manawatu.
2. That the Government being unable to undertake the work, steps should be taken to construct it by private capital, the Government being asked to guarantee a reasonable rate of interest.
3. That a provisional company be formed, and that £4,000 be raised to meet preliminary expenses.
4. That the title be The Wellington and West Coast Railway Company; the capital to be sufficient to complete the work and to provide rolling-stock; and that provisional directors be appointed to take the necessary steps for arranging preliminaries, and to issue certificates to all subscribers towards preliminary expenses, entitling them to £3 in shares for every £1 so subscribed.
5. That the co-operation of the outlying districts and the members representing them, and the city be invited.
The meeting, reported as having “a tone of vigorous and determined selfreliance auguring well for the future,” was a successful one, and a committee was set up to make necessary enquiries in regard to land and finance, and to form a company to be known as the North Island West Coast Railway Company.
Such a struggle for a railway which to-day we cannot imagine as anything but absolutely necessary!
It was an uphill fight for the company. Finally, however, success crowned their endeavours, and it was at a luncheon held at Palmerston North to celebrate the building of the railway that Mr. John Plimmer told of their struggles, and of a happy incident, trivial at the time, which had, he maintained “the most important and far-reaching results.” The extract is from John Young's book “The Life of John Plimmer”:—
“Mr. Plimmer, in a felicitous speech, related, in brief, the history of the company from its earliest conception. He related how the present of a bunch of camellias had unexpectedly led to most important and far-reaching results.
“Sir John Hall had, as his custom was, just taken up his residence in Wellington with his family, on the eve of the opening of Parliament, and Mr. Plimmer called at the house early one morning to hand in a bunch of camellias as a present to Lady Hall. He was just in the act of retiring when he encountered Sir John. Sir John exclaimed, ‘Oh! Mr. Plimmer, I want very much to see you. I read your speech at the meeting in the Chamber of Commerce about the proposed railway, and was very pleased with it. Come in and tell me all about it.’
“Mr. Plimmer then related how he then and there gave Sir John the facts of the case, so far as the movement then had gone; how he (Mr. Plimmer) was willing to give £200 to get an empowering Bill passed by the Legislature; and he was firmly convinced that the formation of a railway from Wellington to Palmerston North as an investment would yield a good return to shareholders, and that it would confer an immense benefit both upon the city of Wellington and the north western districts. Sir John then asked, ‘Well, Mr. Plimmer, what do you want me to do? I will assist you if I can.’ The reply was: ‘Give us 140,000 acres of land, that will be a subsidy equal to about one-third of the cost of the line, also grant us permission to reclaim thirty acres in Wellington for the southern terminus.’ Sir John replied, ‘You shall have it.’ …
“Sir John agreed to bring in a Bill to empower the company to get to work, and to make the company a present of a new bridge for Porirua harbour, imported by the Government. Thus you see, as remarked by Mr. Plimmer, what great results sometimes follow insignificant things.”
A bunch of camellias and the establishment of a railway! There is surely romance in the building of a nation.