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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 44

The English Agricultural Labourer in New Zealand

page 26

The English Agricultural Labourer in New Zealand.

A Correspondent writing from Otago, in New Zealand, says :—

Foremost of the British colonies to profit by the movement among the English agricultural labourers begun by Mr. Joseph Arch in 1872 was New Zealand. This colony no sooner saw the opportunity for replenishing its labour market which that agitation furnished, than it came forward with liberal offers of a free passage, worth some £15, to able-bodied men, to a labour field where, instead of twelve shillings a week, and from ten to twelve hours of work each day, the labourer would get four times as much for 25 per cent, less toil. The result has been that in less than two years from the commencement of the "Revolt of the Field," over fifty thousand labourers were on their way to New Zealand, at a cost of more than a million pounds sterling to the Colonial Government. Letters from pioneer emigrants soon began to appear in print, and, extraordinary as the inducements of the New Zealanders seemed, it soon became obvious that they had been rather under than over stated. Such were the labour exigencies of the southern colonies that experienced agriculturists, shepherds, ploughmen, herdsmen, and such like became masters of the position, and the work of Mr. Arch was practically at an end. Queensland, South Australia, and New South Wales were also in the market with full purses, and the English agricultural labourer had a wide choice of new fields of labour.

Having, however, as your correspondent, accompanied Mr. Arch in his journey through Canada in 1873, and having found myself compelled to report somewhat unfavourably of the position of that colony at that time as an emigration field for the agricultural labourer, I was desirous to see for myself what this new field really offered to the emigrant agriculturist. What are the facts as seen by an English eye? How do the labourers fare in their far-off homes? These are questions in which all are interested, whatever be the views they entertain as to the hopes which draw such multitudes towards the Southern Cross. In the autumn, I therefore left England for New Zealand, with a view to obtain satisfactory evidence on these points, and after a fine voyage of some eight weeks, including a several days' stoppage at Melbourne, I found myself in New Zealand. The Otago province had absorbed a large proportion of page 27 English immigrants, and thither I first directed my steps. At the extreme southern boundary of the South island is the new town of Invercargill, which is reached by a railroad from the Bluff, one of the Otago seaports. I found in this rising place a spacious building set apart for the use of immigrants, and on inquiring of the manager as to the ordinary success of the various shiploads of labourers who found their way to his refuge, I learned that nothing could be more complete. Every efficient labourer and every decent girl obtained employment at once, and the wages were invariably in excess of those stated by the Government prospectus. Such was the demand on every hand for labour that builders, farmers, and others were at their wit's end to know how to obtain the requisite help. And as I looked all round me and saw a fine town emerging from a whilom wilderness, and innumerable acres of fertile land awaiting the labour of the tiller, I had no difficulty in believing the report. It is difficult to realize the varied industries called into existence by a new township. Hunting up information I button-holed a decent man in charge of a horse and cart. It was his own, and he found his work in carrying parcels, luggage, &c., to and from the railway. "And what do you net by the process ?" I asked of the good-natured fellow. "Oh, about a pound a day, sir," was his reply. Another, with the appearance of a mechanic, I managed to lay hold of who had been out about five years, "Was he satisfied?" "Rather! "was his reply; and in conversation I elicited the fact that he was on his way to independence. "For instance," said he, with a pleasant frankness, unlike what one usually looks for from men of his class at home, "I have just completed a five weeks' job, and after paying all expenses, my clear profit amounts to £23, which I have put in the bank." His ambition was to get a quarter of an acre town lot of land to build himself a house upon; and in all probability in the course of a few years he will have his house and garden, and be to all intents and purposes a successful, well-to-do man. This young town of Invercargill is laid out somewhat ambitiously, and I have no doubt its manhood will fulfil the promise of its youth. With the view of meeting what appears to be the chief difficulty of the new comers—the want of house accommodation—a large amount of land in the immediate neighbourhood of the town is divided into quarter of an acre sections, and workmen are encouraged by the aid of building societies to erect houses of their own. Their high wages enable them to meet the monthly payments with ease, and as a matter of fact, as in the case of my artisan friend before referred to, many are availing themselves of the opportunity, and thus cultivating habits of thrift which will almost certainly result in social ease and prosperity. It is amusing to notice the strong Conservatism which is generated by success. The defunct Protectionism of England bids fair to be reproduced in the Colonies. The most repulsive form which it assumes is an intense antagonism to Chinese immigration. The Australian continent is just now in a state of violent excitement on the subject. English and Scotch settlers see page 28 in the patient and thrifty Chinese toilers formidable competitors, and are exerting every possible influence to drive the Chinese out of the labour market. Scarcely less lamentable is the growing desire to discourage English manufactures by high protective duties. Another significant fact is the outcry raised by men who were only yesterday penniless refugees on the Australian continent against the democratic tendencies of their Governments. Prosperous ignoramuses grow almost fierce in denouncing the monstrosity of giving a vote to a poor emigrant "without any stake in the country." I have conversed with scores of them, and their political discourse is worthy of an old-fashioned Tory. I hardly know of a better illustration of what the "English labourer in New Zealand" may become than what came under my eye en route. On board our steamer was an elderly New Zealand farmer. Some thirty years ago he was at work on a Yorkshire farm at 15s. per week. His employer wanted to reduce his wages to 12s. 6d. Being evidently a man of spirit and energy, he resisted the reduction, and elected to try his fortunes in New Zealand. His position to-day is that of a considerable landed proprietor, owning a fine and well-stocked farm, able to take his wife on a visit to England, and while there to make an offer of £7,000 for his old employer's farm. Had he accepted the 12s. 6d. his position to-day would probably have been that of a worn-out labourer in the parish workhouse, while his wife was in the women's ward. As I sit opposite to him in our fine saloon, and see him cheerfully accepted as the social equal of all around, I feel that Mr. Arch's eloquence would be nothing to the silent force of such a history could it be but laid bare before the working men of England.

On the whole I must say that my first impressions of New Zealand as an emigration field for Englishmen are highly favourable. The climate is so near akin to their own that no difficulty of acclimatisation is ever felt. Good wholesome food is cheap and abundant. School accommodation is second to none in the world. The demand for labour is such that nothing but their own folly can prevent any mechanics, field workers, or other industrious men from rising in the social scale. The craving for land ownership can be easily satisfied, and all fear of the workhouse may be for ever laid aside. In a word, New Zealand—and almost the same might be said of the whole Australian continent—offers so splendid an alternative to the hard-pressed toiler, trader, or mechanic of England, that all excuse for "capital and labour" conflicts is gone. If any further rural agitation is heard of, it will be of the masters' wrongs, and the "Arch" of such a movement could not do better than urge his followers to imitate their labourers, and start for this Land of Goshen. I am now on my way to Dunedin, of which I hear praises on every hand.

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Port Chalmers.

Port Chalmers.