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The Farthest Promised Land — English Villagers, New Zealand Immigrants of the 1870s

15 The Quality of the Immigrants

page 345

15 The Quality of the Immigrants

THE OVERALL IMPRESSION which one has gained from probing the origins of New Zealand's English rural immigrants of the 1870s and examining their colonial careers, is that time and circumstances served the colony exceedingly well in providing her with the kinds of settlers she needed. At this stage of its development, the country could be best served by a peculiar mixture of primitivism and modernity among its settlers. For the pioneering of new country, particularly in the bush, the old traditional agrarian skills and village crafts were an invaluable heritage. But the hope for an increasingly prosperous future lay in the rapid building of a modern transport and communication system, and in the development of agricultural export industries using modern industrial technology. It was New ealand's good fortune that in the homeland of the 1870s the old skills and crafts still retained sufficient vitality to be readily transplanted and to meet the needs of primitive frontier settlements in the new land, and yet that at the same time many of the immigrants had acquired in their native villages the skills and attitudes needed for a transition to modern technology. An undue fascination with modernisation can easily blind the New Zealand historian to the importance and significance of the older traditional skills in the country's agrarian history. The New Zealand farmer's ability to draw on a wide range of techniques, from the ancient to the most modern, has been an important asset in the progress of the country's agriculture down to quite recent times. It is not the Old World only that has a vital interest in treasuring the memory of the age-old farming skills.

The reader who has been surprised to learn of New Zealand's long-term loss of all awareness of the link between the colony's greatest immigration drive and the Revolt of the Field, may experience something more than surprise when he learns what has been the traditional view of the nature and quality of the ‘Vogel’ immigrants. This view has been widely and repeatedly expressed, but we will present it in the words of J. B. Condliffe's New Zealand in the Making, first published in 1930.

… it is one of the chief criticisms of Vogel's immigration policy that immigrants were badly selected, … and remained in the towns to produce unemployment and sweated labour conditions …1

… the bulk of assisted immigration in this period of boom consisted of town-dwellers who were led to expect employment in urban industries. They brought with them the urban outlook. Their numbers included many trade unionists and radicals …2

… to find any parallel to the chosen bands of emigrants who laid the foundations of New Zealand it is necessary to go back to the Puritan page 346 fathers of the New England colonies. Britain sent of her best to the new land. Moreover, with rare exceptions, subsequent immigration has maintained a high level of quality. Standards were rather let down for a short time at the height of the boom in the seventies when assisted immigration was pushed to great lengths …3

Clearly, judgements such as these accord ill with the main drive of the evidence presented in this present study. We will need to give some account of the origins of this mistaken traditional view, and to see whether any significant evidence has ever been produced in its support. Our study has, of course, been concerned primarily with immigration from England, but if there is any validity in the common view that this immigration flow contained too many poorly-selected, urban-oriented labourers, the question must revolve mainly around these English immigrants. For England was by ar the most urbanised of the sending countries, and she provided a good half of the immigrants. Our choice of the village labourers as the main subject of this study is based on the contention that among the English immigrants they predominated both in numbers and significance. In criticising the traditional view, we will need to provide good support for this contention. We will turn first to the New Zealand House of Representatives for an important contemporary debate.

On 8 October 1875, Harry Atkinson, as Minister for Immigration, presented to the House a statement on the achievements of the immigration drive, in answer to criticisms of the quality of the immigrants.4 His figures cover the period to 30 September 1875, by which date 61,322 of the decade's 101,096 assisted immigrants had arrived. These can be taken as a fair sample of the ‘Vogel’ immigrants, for if anything, the smaller and more regular stream of the latter half of the decade would seem to have been more carefully selected, and is therefore likely to have been of a rather higher average quality, and more nearly adapted to the colony's needs. We will examine first a summary prepared by Atkinson's department showing the trades of these immigrants.5 Of 20,189 adult males, 6,741 or just over one third, are shown as farm labourers. Other land workers included 360 shepherds, 451 gardeners, and 22 beetroot growers. These figures confirm that the immigration drive concentrated its main attention on the villages. In keeping with the large number of farm labourers, a good number of the artisans listed must have been drawn from rural districts. This would surely be true of most of the 749 blacksmiths and 79 wheelwrights, and is very likely to have been the case with a large proportion of the 1,324 carpenters, 145 sawyers, 98 brickmakers, 96 butchers and 73 saddlers. Many too of the 419 miners would have been Cornishmen possessing strong links with the soil. There were probably more urban workers among the 323 tailors, 309 painters, 266 bricklayers, 252 cabinetmakers, 104 plasterers and 66 tinsmiths, but all of these callings had their representatives in the villages. Indubitably mainly of urban origins would have been the 209 cabmen, 63 coachmakers, 86 printers and compositors, 12 watchmakers and 6 bookbinders — but when all such urban callings are taken together they page 347 represent only a small minority of the immigrants. The only large group which seem to offer some support for the contention that ‘the bulk of assisted immigration … consisted of towndwellers’ are the 5,598 labourers. If all of these were of urban origin, the village recruits would still seem to have been significantly in the majority. But in fact many of these labourers' will also have come from rural backgrounds. The 1871 English census schedules show that a small proportion of village workmen were returned simply as ‘labourer’. Much more important, a checking of these schedules against New Zealand immigrant passengers lists has shown that the latter do not represent a very careful record of occupations. The 1871 census schedules for the three villages of Milton-under-Wychwood (Oxon.), Marton (War.) and Stanford-in-the-Vale (Berks.) were carefully searched, and twenty-eight men who were there recorded as farm labourers were found to have emigrated to New Zealand in the 1870s. Yet in the immigrant passenger lists fourteen of these were listed merely as labourer. The census returns of occupation were the result of the application of a carefully drawn up code of instructions by a well organised and experienced administration, whereas the New Zealand immigration lists were drawn up by a new and hastily assembled team, not primarily concerned with serving the more refined purposes of the statistician. It is quite possible that a majority of the 5,598 labourers in Atkinson's list were also from the villages, and it is certain that a significant number of them were, in fact, agricultural labourers.

In his statement Atkinson referred to the ‘wonderful stories current as to the very bad characters that we were introducing into the colony, and their general unfitness to do anything except live on the charity of others’. In rebuttal, he maintained that the colony had ‘reason to be thoroughly satisfied with the immigrants both physically and morally’, and he gave the results of his own careful investigation of the facts. Of the 60,000 people introduced over a period of four years, only 489 had been committed to prison, and nearly 300 of these were ‘for merely trifling offences, and the offence of drunkenness’. Only 47 had been committed to lunatic asylums, and of these 20 had already been discharged. Considering the stresses involved in immigrating and adjusting to a new life, it would seem that older colonists had no grounds for pointing the finger at the new arrivals.

In the debate which followed his statement, Atkinson's assessment of the quality of the immigrants was well supported. George Hunter, member for Wellington City, a pioneer Wellington settler, shrewd and successful businessman, station-owner and stockbreeder, gave it as his judgement that ‘the immigrants as a whole have been of a very superior class’. He claimed to have seen large numbers of them on board ship on arrival, and making their way in the community, and considered that they were a credit to the selection carried out in the old country, and were proving good colonists.6 William Rolleston who, as Superintendent of Canterbury, could claim to have had a good deal to do with immigrants, spoke in similar terms

page 348

I am free to say that I do not think any country has ever got a better selection of immigrants than those sent out here during the last year. We have got a supply of good agricultural labourers, and I hope that we shall be able to keep up a constant supply of a really suitable class of immigrants.7

There were some, however, who were not so well pleased. Lauchlan McGillivray, representing Riverton in Southland, advanced a not uncommon contemporary criticism

I was never very favourable to the system of free passages to this country, for I conceived it exceedingly likely that an inferior class of persons would avail themselves of that arrangement. Why, the very fact of persons paying their own passage evidences at once a superior class, and presupposes also a serious intention of settling on the lands of the Crown; and it would be better to see a few hundred persons of that kind arriving in the country, … than to see a far larger number of an inferior class.8

What McGillivray wanted was to see tenant farmers being brought in, rather than common labourers. But the hard facts of the matter were that when British tenant farmers chose to emigrate, they preferred to go to North America, and New Zealand attempts to woo them in the late nineteenth century met with little success. For the years of 1876–1880, Board of Trade figures show North America as the destination of nearly three-quarters of the farmers and graziers leaving the United Kingdom, whereas nearly 87 per cent of the farm labourers leaving were going to Australasia.9 According to an experienced New Zealand colonist who wrote to The Times in 1874, it was the farm labourer who was the more likely to succeed in the colony. He maintained that men of small capital who were not accustomed to work, and who took up land before gaining colonial experience, often lost their money rather than made their fortunes. It was the hardworking labourer, taking up land after gaining colonial experience, who was the more likely to succeed.10

We have, then, competent contemporary testimony from experienced colonists such as Atkinson, Hunter and Rolleston in support of our evaluation of the general quality of the immigrants. Our study of the circumstances of the emigration from rural England provides a good rationale for this judgement. While it was in the interests of the farm labourers' unions to suggest that the farmers were losing their best workmen we have seen that the same conclusion was reached by onlookers. Subsequent investigators have confirmed their judgement.11 It stands to reason that it would have been the most spirited men, the more able and better educated, who would have most resented the labourer's position, and who would, in particular, have refused to bow when the farmers moved to crush the Revolt. There is no reason to doubt Joseph Arch's assesment of the emigrants ‘the bulk of them were picked men, the drones of course would not go’.12 For somewhat similar reasons, it was much the same story with the Cornish miner emigrants. In October 1874 the Lyttelton Times carried an account of 300 miners and their families leaving page 349 Cornwall for various destinations, including New Zealand. The report commented that ‘they are the best and most skilful men who are leaving the country, and their chief complaint is that by the system adopted in working Cornish mines they are prevented from earning more than the idle and unskilful’.13 Not only did plenty of good men offer in many parts of England, but the colony also made a selection from among them, and at all stages a considerable proportion were rejected. In many cases the selection was made by experienced agents such as Carter, Duncan and Burton, and in all cases applicants had to provide a satisfactory medical certificate and testimonials.

Using the 1871 English census schedules it is possible to provide some statistical support for the contention that those who were accepted for New Zealand were picked men. In his evidence to the 1867 Royal Commission on the Employment of Women and Children in Agriculture, the relieving officer for the Burford district made a statement implying that the best workmen in his area always lived in their home villages, while the less industrious migrated each summer in search of work.14 Let us therefore examine the birthplaces recorded for the Milton-under-Wychwood villagers, to see whether those selected for New Zealand had been well rooted in the village, or had followed a more migratory life. Fourteen Milton farm labouring families emigrated to New Zealand in the 1870s, and there were forty-two other households headed by farm labourers in the same age range (50 years and under). The following table summarises the information on the heads of these families:

Born in Milton 10 24
Born elswhere in Oxon 3 15
Born outside Oxon 1 3

This shows that New Zealand drew most heavily on those who were natives of the village. Let us now examine the birthplaces of the wives of the thirty-four Milton-born men:

Wives born in:
   Milton 7 7
   Elsewhere in Oxon 1 10
   Outside Oxon 2 6

These figures strongly suggest that as a group the New Zealand immigrants had been far less migratory than their fellow-villagers. This inference is strongly supported when we examine the birthplaces of the children in these families. There were children in thirty-two of the households that did not go to New Zealand, and their birthplaces indicate twelve family migrations. Thirteen of the New Zealand immigrant households had children, averaging almost 50 per cent more children per family than the others, yet the birthplaces indicate only one family migration. Taking the page 350 birthplaces of husbands, wives and children together, there is strong evidence for asserting that the New Zealand recruits from Milton tended to be ‘locals’ rather than ‘migrants’, and so are likely to have been among the more valued workmen.15

Why then, did an adverse judgement on the ‘Vogel’ immigrants become so firmly established in New Zealand? Part of the answer would seem to lie on the social psychology of the New Zealand community of the 1870s. The earlier immigrants had been drawn largely from the lower rungs of British society, but in the colony most had made their way up in the world. For many of them the new arrivals must have served as a reminder of the humiliations of their own past. It seems probable that the ‘Vogel’ immigrants were more solidly lower working class than any earlier major immigration flow had been, and that this gave rise to fears among the established colonists that the standards of community respectability for which they had striven would be undermined. A good deal of jealousy was aroused by government policies which gave more favoured treatment to the new arrivals than to old colonists. Foundation settlers found that it was more difficult for their children to acquire land in the government's new settlements than for immigrants newly arrived on free tickets.16 Various emotions were therefore interwoven in the quite widespread denigration of the ‘Vogel’ immigrants. The new arrivals on their part, were concerned primarily with finding acceptance in the new community, and so were not inclined to make their own status obvious by leaping to the defence of their class. Most of them would have shaped their conduct so that, as soon as possible, they could pass as ‘old colonials’ themselves. The contemporary denigration was therefore allowed to pass almost unchallenged. In later years the ‘Vogel’ development policy provided a convenient scapegoat for various economic and social ills, and any less happy social development was likely to be blamed on the reputed poor quality of the assisted immigrants of the 1870s. Yet, while it has been repeatedly asserted that the ‘Vogel’ immigrants were the main cause of the appearance, for example, of unemployment, urban slums, and sweated labour conditions, it is most unusual to find any evidence produced to support the position. I have, however, found one example, and this we will examine in detail.

In October 1884 the Christchurch Immigration Officer handed over to the Public Works Department the handling of applications by the unemployed for relief work. In doing so, he provided statistics on the 558 unemployed who had applied to him over the period 9 May to 7 October 1884. From this return R. J. Campbell has constructed the following table17 for his article on unemployment in New Zealand in the 1880s

In colony over 25 years 46
In colony over 20 years 47
In colony over 15 years 51
In colony over 10 years 185
In colony over 5 years 140
In colony over 2 years 37page 351
In colony over 1 year 25
In colony under 1 year 27

In briefly interpreting this breakdown of the winter unemployed of Christchurch in 1884, Campbell writes

The greatest concentration in the table above had been in the colony between five and fifteen years, making their time of arrival somewhere between 1869 and 1879. They were then, ‘Vogel immigrants’ and therefore would tend to have less ‘means’ than those either before or after them. Certainly the assisted immigrants of the 1870s carried an unfortunate stigma with them.18

When carefully considered in context, I do not believe that these statistics give any support to Campbell's comments. Indeed, it would be surprising if they did, for the parliamentary paper from which they are derived is a product of the Stout-Vogel ministry19, which one would not expect to find producing evidence of the poor quality of the ‘Vogel’ immigrants. That the largest group of unemployed should come from those who had been in the colony between five and fifteen years is what we should expect, for this group must have provided the larger part of the work force. Canterbury's population at the 19 December 1867 Census was 38,333, by the 3 March 1878 Census it had grown to 91,922. After allowing for natural increase, it is clear that over 34,000 of these must be accounted for by immigration. By 1884 this section of the population would have suffered much less attrition by death than the 38,333 of the 1867 census, and so by then must have been the predominant element in the work force. If anything is surprising in the table, it is that over a quarter of the unemployed had been in the colony for over fifteen years — but this is doubtless mainly due to the large number of elderly workers among them.

The figures for the unemployed who had arrived in the colony in the 1870s deserve closer scrutiny. We will consider first those who had arrived between ten and fifteen years earlier (1869–1874). Were these necessarily mainly ‘Vogel’ immigrants? An analysis of population growth between the censuses of 1867, 1871 and 1874 indicates that in the five years preceding the 1 March 1874 census, Canterbury had gained about 8,900 by excess of immigration over emigration. But by this date Canterbury had received only 4,195 ‘Vogel’ immigrants. Who were the well over 4,000 others? Doubtless they were a varied group, but a steady growth in numbers of Australian-born in Canterbury's population over these years, indicates that the Vogel boom attracted a significant inflow from that quarter.20 Also, in the five years 1870–74, New Zealand received 12,299 non-Government immigrants from the United Kingdom. Clearly, this section of Christchurch's winter unemployed of 1884 cannot be confidently assigned to ‘Vogel’ immigration.

However, it is when we consider this group in conjunction with the next, those who had arrived between five and ten years earlier (1874–79), page 352 that the most striking facts emerge. This five year span saw a considerably larger immigration flow than the preceding one, and the newcomers were predominantly ‘Vogel’ immigrants, yet the number of 1884 Christchurch winter unemployed from this group is considerably less than from those of the preceding period.

Canterbury ‘Vogel’ Immigrants 21 Christchurch Unemployed Winter 1884
Arrived in Colony Oct. 1869-Oct. 1874 11,541 185
Arrived in Colony Oct. 1874-Oct. 1879 15,790 140

From these figures it can be calculated that for the 1869–74 arrivals there was one person unemployed for every 62 ‘Vogel’ immigrants, whereas the ratio, for the 1874–79 arrivals is one to every 113 ‘Vogel’ immigrants. As the ‘Vogel’ component rises, the unemployment problem declines. These figures favour the ‘Vogel’ immigrants, rather than tell against them.

But even if these Christchurch unemployed statistics had come out to the detriment of the ‘Vogel’ immigrants, the case would have been far from proven. Census statistics for the 1880s indicate that throughout the decade there was a strong migration out of Canterbury, principally to the North Island Bush Provinces. Furthermore, birthplace statistics indicate that this flow consisted largely of the more recent arrivals. Between the 1881 and 1886 censuses, Canterbury's English-born population declined by 9.23 per cent, while the New Zealand figure rose by 5.40 per cent.22 A considerable proportion of the province's ‘Vogel’ immigrants were moving North, to take advantage of the opportunities offering there. Those who remained to join the Christchurch unemployed cannot be considered to be a representative sample, on which generalisations about the quality of the ‘Vogel’ immigrants can be based.

Up to this point our discussion on the quality of the immigrants has been mainly concerned with examining evidence bearing on their contribution to the labour needs of a pioneer, largely agrarian, community. From the various kinds of statistics which the colony collected, it would be possible to develop discussions relating to various other desirable economic, social and cultural attitudes and habits. We will content ourselves with examining only one further aspect — the question of literacy. If, in the selection of the ‘Vogel’ immigrants, standards were indeed ‘rather let down’ we might expect to find some faltering in the literacy figures of the colony for the later 1870s. Fortunately for our purposes. New Zealand statistics of those signing with the mark at marriage are available from 1873 onwards. These show that 5.40 per cent of marriage partners signed with the mark in 1873, the figure rises to 6.64 per cent in 1875, and then steadily drops for the rest of the decade, to 4.07 per cent in 1880. As the figure for England was 23.54 per cent in 1870, dropping to 16.29 per cent in 1880, it would seem extremely likely that New Zealand's English immigrants were on average page 353 considerably more literate than the population they left. This is confirmed when figures giving the breakdown of religious denominations performing the marriages are examined. We will take the statistics for 1873, just before the main ‘Vogel’ flow, and for 1878, after the main flow. In both these years almost 40 per cent of New Zealand marriages were conducted by clergy of the Church of England, and of the three main Methodist churches, and must therefore have involved marriage partners who were mainly English. In 1873, 4.39 per cent of these signed with the mark, in 1878 the figure had dropped to 2.87 per cent. There are other indications that the ‘Vogel’ immigration had no detrimental effect on the colony's level of literacy. Official statistics show that letters, money orders and newspapers flowed freely between New Zealand and the Old World. Despite the predominantly working class nature of the immigration of the 1870s, the number of letters despatched from New Zealand to the United Kingdom rose almost in step with the population, from 278,998 in 1871 to 521,207 in 1880. Newspapers despatched rose from 215,411 to 449,727 during the decade. Money orders payable in the United Kingdom rose considerably faster than the colony's population, from 10,407 worth £44,198 in 1871, to 27,587 worth £104,149 in 1880.23 Much of this must have represented aid to aged parents in the homeland. All the indications are that the newcomers possessed a high level of literacy, which they used to the benefit of both their old, and their new, communities.

The evidence, then, is surely consistent, clear and unambiguous. The main thrust of this study is well supported by the facts and figures examined in this chapter. It would seem more in line with the evidence to credit the ‘Vogel’ immigrants with a major contribution to the advance of New Zealand farming, than to blame them for the appearance of urban problems. We give it as our considered opinion that the New Zealand countryside has never received a more valuable infusion of rural skills. And we would point to England as the most weighty contributor to that infusion, due to her contingent having been drawn predominantly from her village world.