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

9 Kent

page 183

9 Kent

KENT IS A county with a richly varied terrain, rolling downs and broad plains, rich marshlands and fertile valleys. Probably few parts of England had a more versatile rural labour force, as the Kentish labourers tended to range widely, tackling the various tasks created by this diverse countryside. There was much seasonal migration to meet the labour demands of the county's varied crops, and from the birthplaces recorded in the 1871 census schedules it can be inferred that Kentish village labourers readily moved to new homes in search of better conditions. Nearly 4,000 of New Zealand's assisted immigrants of the 1870s came from the county, and they proved to be particularly enterprising and adaptable settlers. As we have seen,1 the Kent and Sussex Labourers' Union made effective use of their readiness to migrate, in its policy of labour boycott as a response to employer intransigence. We must now supplement our earlier outline of the fortunes of the union, and its involvement in emigration, with a closer look at rural Kent and its emigrants, to deepen our understanding of the county's contribution to the making of rural New Zealand. We will keep all parts of the county in view, as all provided good numbers of emigrants.

It has been well said that within the million acres of the county there are six Kents: the Marshland from the Thames past the Swale to Thanet Minster; the Downland with its southern scarp and winding northward valleys; the wooded ragstone hills and Holmesdale; the Low Weald with its many ‘dens’; the High Weald with its ridge of ‘hurst’ villages; and Romney Marsh, fighting its long battle with the sea.2 Within these six Kents there is further rich variety. Thus Edward Hasted, surveying his native county in the late eighteenth century, could write that the soil of Kent ‘is so different in almost every parish that it is not possible to give any regular description of it’: the variety of ground ‘is so great that it may almost be called from thence an epitome of the whole kingdom.’3 This rich variety has helped to make Kent a world of little worlds. ‘Kent has always been a large county on a small scale; large in acreage, but possessed of small fields, farms, parishes, hundreds, and gentry.’4 Bearing this underlying diversity in mind, we will proceed with a broad general survey of the county.

Kent is a peninsula, with a hundred miles of sea coast. Its boundaries form an irregular parallelogram, extending some 64 miles from east to west, and with a breadth of 38 miles. Although it borders London to the west, until recent times Kent has been surprisingly insular in outlook, and not unduly influenced by the metropolis. It is well to remember that Canterbury is further from London than Cambridge, and Deal as far as Market arborough in Leicestershire. The North Downs, entering the page 184


page 185 county from Surrey, and extending to the chalk cliffs of Dover, form the backbone of Kent. The downs are broken by the deep valleys carved by the Darent, the Medway, and the Great Stour, as they flow northwards to the Thameestuary and the North Sea. The downs present a steep scarp face to the south, with a dip slope to the north. The dip slope descends to a narrow strip of coastal lowlands, broken by the river estuaries, and with several marshy islands, of which the largest is the Isle of Sheppey. At the foot of the North Downs scarp is the gault clay valley or Homesdale, which is bordere to the south by the hilly ridge of Lower Greensand that crosses the county from the Surrey border at Westerham to the Channel coast at Hythe. From here, south to the Sussex border, stretches the Weald, once a great forest, where much woodland is still mingled with the fields, pastures and orchards. For much of Kent's history the Wealden forest formed a boundaryto the south and west, contributing to the county's insularity.

From the physical geography of Kent we must turn to a brief survey of its equally varied human geography. In a survey of the four counties of Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, Lindsey, and Kent, as they were in the 1860s, Professor Everitt has found striking local and regional differences in the number and distribution of ‘freeholders’ parishes' (in which the land was divided amongst many small independent owners) and ‘estate parishes’ (in which virtually all the land was in the hands of a single magnate or a few wealthy squires). In Kent nearly two-thirds of the county consisted in the 1860s of freeholders' parishes, whereas in the three Midland counties the estate parish was the predominant form. But Everitt comments that within Kent the contrast between various regions was as striking as the contrast with the Midland area:

On the chalk Downlands as many as seventy per cent of all parishes were estate parishes, whereas in the Weald and the Forest of Blean they amounted to no more than nineteen per cent of the total. In other words the downland areas of Kent were, in general, even more dominated by the squirearchy than Northamptonshire or Lindsey: whereas the Weald was still in 1860, as it has always been, predominantly the preserve of the small freeholder.5

Until recent times, there were contrasts in the character of the people of the different regions not much less striking than the contrasts in landholding. The Weald, shut off in earlier times by its forests, and in later times comparatively inaccessible on account of atrocious roads, had developed a particularly marked local type. Thus Furley wrote in his History of the Weald of Kent published in 1874:

… until the formation of our iron roads and the consequent increase of intercourse, there was a marked difference between the inhabitants of the Weald and the rest of the county. In dress, habits, and religious opinions they appear a distinct and independent race. They were frugal, long lived, hard working and resolute, and I may say, a God fearing and God loving people.6

To enliven our account of the diversity of Kentish rural society, we cannot do better than turn to the pages of William Cobbett's Rural Rides. In the page 186 autumn of 1823 he well-nigh beat the bounds of Kent, and on account of the slow rate of change in the countryside, his pungent, opinionated comments are still relevant to the period of our study, half a century later. We will join him first on Sunday, 31 August, setting out on ‘a most delightful ride of 24 miles’ across the Weald from Tunbridge Wells to Tenterden.7 He had had to make a great stir at the inn, and leave behind him the name of ‘ad___d noisy troublesome fellow’ in order to ‘get clear of “the Wells”, and out of the contagion of its Wen-engendered inhabitants’ before sunrise. Cobbett described his journey towards a breakfast at Goudhurst, thus:

The country from Frant to Lamberhurst is very woody. I should think five-tenths wood and three grass. The corn what there is of it, is about the same as farther back. I saw a hop-garden just before I got to Lamberhurst, which will have about two or three hundred weight to the acre.

This Lamberhurst is a very pretty place. It lies in a valley with beautiful hills round it. The pastures about here are very fine; and the roads are as smooth and as handsome as those in Windsor Park.

From the last-mentioned place I had three miles to come to Goudhurst, the tower of the church of which is pretty lofty of itself, and the church stands upon the very summit of one of the steepest and highest hills in this part of the country. The church-yard has a view of about twenty-five miles in diameter; and the whole is over a very fine country, though the character of the country differs little from that which I have before described.8

Repeatedly, as he journeyed across the Weald on this Sunday, Cobbett came across gatherings of Methodists, and he leaves us in no doubt about his displeasure at their activities. In Goudhurst, after his breakfast there, he looked into a Methodist Sunday School, and reports that:

… the Schoolmaster was reading to the children out of a tract-book, and shaking the brimstone bag at them most furiously. This schoolmaster was a sleek-looking young fellow; his skin perfectly tight; well fed I'll warrant him: and he has discovered the way of living, without work, on the labour of those that do work. There were 36 little fellows in smock-frocks, and about as many girls listening to him; and I dare say he eats as much meat as any ten of them ….9

Jogging on his way, Cobbett came to the village of Benenden, and as he passed down the street he heard a man ‘talking, very loud about houses! houses! houses!

It was a Methodist parson, in a house, close by the roadside. I pulled up, and stood still, in the middle of the road, but looking in silent soberness, into the window (which was open) of the room in which the preacher was at work. I believe my stopping rather disconcerted him; for he got into shocking repetition …10

Cobbett soon left the preacher to his discourse on heavenly mansions for the saved, and an awful fate for the damned. A hundred yards further on he noticed the village stocks, which he decided the bawling fellow ought to have occupied. Ending his day's journey at Tenterden, Cobbett attended page 187 the evening service at the Methodist meeting-house there. He had been ‘fairly drawn all down the street, by the singing’, but from the preacher he suffered a long prayer of ‘whining cant and of foppish affectation’ and a sermon which was ‘as neat a dish of nonsense and of impertinences as one could wish to have served up’.11

Cobbett's day's journey had, in fact, taken him through a district with a long history of nonconformity. As early as 1661 it had been said that ‘the Wild of Kent is a receptacle for distressed running parsons, who vent abundance of sedition’.12 The Weald is noted for its large parishes; country folk had often to walk miles to reach a church, and this fact, together with the predominance of freeholders' parishes, goes far to explain the strength which the Old Dissent gained in the region. In due course the Methodists also made some headway, so that at the 1851 religious census, the census districts of Cranbrook and Tenterden, across which we have followed Cobbett's Sunday journey, possessed 34 nonconformist chapels, as compared with only 20 churches.13

On Monday, 1 September, Cobbett passed through Appledore, and entered Romney Marsh:

This was grass-land on both sides of me to a great distance. The flocks and herds immense. The sheep are of a breed that takes its name from the marsh … Very pretty and large. The wethers, when fat, weigh about twelve stone; or, one hundred pounds.

… The cattle appear to be all of Sussex breed. Red, loose-limbed, and, they say, a great deal better than the Devonshire. How curious is the natural economy of a country! The forests of Sussex; those miserable tracts of heath and fern and bushes and sand, called Ashdown Forest and Saint Leonard's Forest, to which latter Lord Erskine's estate belongs; these wretched tracts and the not much less wretched farms in their neighbourhood, breed the cattle, which we see fatting in Romney Marsh! They are calved in the spring; they are weaned in a little bit of grassland; they are then put into stubbles and about in the fallows for the first summer; they are brought into the yard to winter on rough hay, peas-haulm, or barley-straw; the next two summers they spend in the rough woods or in the forest; the two winters they live on straw; they then pass another summer on the forest or at work; and then they come here or go elsewhere to be fatted. With cattle of this kind and with sheep such as I have spoken of before, this Marsh abounds in every part of it; and the sight is most beautiful.14

Rider Haggard informs us that up to 1875 the lands of Romney Marsh were some of the most valuable in the country, selling readily for £100 an acre. Those were days of the ‘Romney Kings’ who accumulated large fortunes and were famous for their hospitality and high living. The years in which the labourers' union was at its height saw these men meeting the first of the hard times that were soon to bring them low.

From Romney Marsh, Cobbett rode over the downs, to reach Dover for the night. He found that the downs, too, were fertile:

From the hill, you keep descending all the way to Dover, a distance of about six miles, and it is absolutely six miles of down hill. On your page 188 right, you have the lofty land which forms a series of chalk cliffs, from the top of which you look into the sea: on your left, you have ground that goes rising up from you in the same sort of way. The turnpike-road goes down the middle of a valley, each side of which, as far as you can see, may be about a mile and a half. It is six miles long, you will remember; and here, therefore, with very little interruption, very few chasms, there are eighteeen square miles of corn. It is a patch such as you very seldom see, and especially of corn so good as it is here….15

From Dover, Cobbett journeyed on through Sandwich to the Isle of Thanet, formed of an outcrop of the chalk of the downs. Here he found fertile arable land similar to what he had observed in approaching Dover. He described it as ‘a garden indeed’, ‘a country of corn’. Yet to his discerning eyes all was not well in this rural world:

… All was corn around me. Barns, I should think, two hundred feet long; ricks of enormous size and most numerous; crops of wheat, five quarters to an acre, on the average; and a public-house without either bacon or corn! The labourers' houses, all along through this island, beggarly in the extreme. The people dirty, poor-looking; ragged, but particularly dirty. The men and boys with dirty faces, and dirty smock-frocks, and dirty shirts; and, good God! what a difference between the wife of a labouring man here, and the wife of a labouring man in the forest and woodlands of Hampshire and Sussex! Invariably have I observed, that the richer the soil, and the more destitute of woods; that is to say, the more purely a corn country, the more miserable the labourers. The cause is this, the great, the big bull frog grasps all. In this beautiful island every inch of land is appropriated by the rich. No hedges, no ditches, no commons, no grassy lanes; a country divided into great farms; a few trees surround the great farmhouse. All the rest is bare of trees; and the wretched labourer has not a stick of wood, and has no place for a pig or cow to graze, or even to lie down upon. The rabbit countries are the countries for labouring men. There the ground is not so valuable. There it is not so easily appropriated by the few. Here, in this island, the work is almost all done by the horses. The horses plough the ground; they sow the ground; they hoe the ground; they carry the corn home; they thresh it out; and they carry it to market; nay, in this island, they rake the ground! they rake up the straggling straws and ears; so that they do the whole, except the reaping and the mowing. It is impossible to have an idea of any thing more miserable than the state of the labourers in this part of the country.

After coming by Margate, I passed a village called Monckton, and another called Sarr. At Sarr there is a bridge, over which you come out of the island, as you go into it over the bridge at Sandwich. At Monckton they had seventeen men working on the roads, though the harvest was not quite in, and though, of course, it had all to be threshed out; but, at Monckton, they had four threshing machines; and they have three threshing machines at Sarr, though there, also, they have several men upon the roads! This is a shocking state of things …16

Cobbett travelled on to Canterbury, and then turned north, to reach Faversham for the night. From a vantage point on the way, he describes the northern borders of the downs, and the coastal marshland:

page 189

… In coming from Canterbury, you come to the top of a hill, called Baughton Hill, at four miles from Canterbury on the London road; and there look down into one of the finest flats in England. A piece of marsh comes up nearly to Faversham; and, at the edge of that marsh lies the farm where I now am. The land here is a deep loam upon chalk … The orchards grow well upon this soil.17

Next morning Cobbett struck west from Faversham, crossing the breadth of the North Downs. In our final description from his narrative he has reached the edge of the scarp above Hollingbourne:



… Upon the top of this hill, I saw the finest field of beans that I have seen this year, and by very far, indeed, the finest piece of hops. A beautiful piece of hops, surrounded by beautiful plantations of young ash, producing poles for hop-gardens. My road here pointed towards the West. It soon wheeled round towards the South; and, all of a sudden, I found myself upon the edge of a hill, as lofty and as steep as that at Folkestone, at Reigate, or at Ashmansworth. It was the same famous chalk-ridge that I was crossing again. When I got to the edge of the hill, and before I got off my horse to lead him down this more than a mile of hill, I sat and surveyed the prospect before me, and to the right and to the left. This is what the people of Kent called the Garden of Eden. It is a district of meadows, corn field, hop-gardens, and orchards of apples, pears, cherries and filberts, with very little if any land which cannot, with propriety, be called good. There are plantations of Chestnut and of Ash frequently occurring; and as these are cut when long enough to make poles for hops, they are at all times objects of great beauty.18

We must supplement our brief survey based on Cobbett's tour with reference to some developments of the following decades. The coming of the railways was of major importance. In the 1840s the Weald and much of East Kent were opened up. For centuries the marshlands and North Downs had benefited from their easy access by water to the London produce markets; now, by rail, the Weald began to share this growing page 190 metropolitan market. Although in general best suited to pastoral farming, the Weald produced a good deal of grain during the nineteenth century, and as with other parts of Kent, there was a marked expansion of the cultivation of hops and fruit. The latter had been of little importance in the county's rural economy prior to the coming of the railways. In 1872 the Ministry of Agriculture recorded roughly 11,000 acres of orchard in Kent, and the area was still rising sharply.19 Hop-farming had become an immensely lucrative business with the growing demand for beer created by England's rapidly increasing population. By the middle of the nineteenth century hops were being grown in more than 300 of the 400 rural parishes of Kent, and there had been widespread building of hop-kilns.20 Hop cultivation had a profound effect upon rural social and economic structures. The hop garden tended to dominate the farm as, owing to the hop's heavy manure requirements, the bulk of the farm was often treated as a fertiliser factory for this one demanding crop.21 It also required more labourers per acre than other forms of cultivation, and to recruit and hold them higher wages were paid. In hop districts the best labourers were invariably drawn into hop cultivation, but the general level of farm wages was also raised.22

It was generally accepted that in Kent the rural labourer tended to be better off than in the neighbouring counties. Not only were his wages usually a little higher, but field work was also more readily available for his wife and children.23 Cottages appear to have been rather better than the country's average standard.24 Schools were universal, and also tended to be above the general level in quality.25 Yet despite marginal advantages over many of his contemporaries, the Kentish labourer did not lack for grievances. All the grounds for resentment and complaint that we have noted elsewhere can be amply documented from Kent. At the commencement of the Revolt in Kent, Alfred Simmons maintained that the standard wage of the county's farm labourers was nominally thirteen shillings, but that time lost through inclement weather and other influences brought the year's average down to about ten shillings a week.26 For the full wage the labourer had to work a 63 hour week.27 A typical working day was from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. There was often a walk of several miles before the 6 a.m. start, with no break from then till noon. When these hours are related to the meagre diet which the labourers' wages afforded, their miserable level of living can be imagined. Simmons quoted as typical the case of a Shoreham labourer who wrote:

I get 12s per week standard wages, and have been obliged to go out to work during the day with nothing but a bit of bread to eat. I have sometimes knocked down a rabbit, and I am sorry to say that I have sometimes been obliged to steal turnips in order to support myself and five children.28

It was not at all uncommon for a man to go out to do a hard day's work, taking nothing but a piece of dry bread and an onion to sustain him.29 A Maidstone man, the son of an agricultural labourer, writing to support the page 191 new union, remarked cogently on the labourers' diet that ‘if you want a horse to do a good day's work, you would not think of feeding him on chopped straw and water’. His letter went on to disabuse the farmers of the idea that their workmen went home from their labours to comfortable homes:

Many of the old fashioned houses are more like barns, and will scarcely keep out the wind and rain, whilst some of the new ones are so small that both sexes are huddled together indiscriminately…. As I write this the pictures of several country homes in this locality seem to rise before me. There is the brick floored kitchen, with a small piece of matting for a hearth rug; in one corner stands a crazy table, with a few old chairs, some of which are minus the bottoms. The walls are damp, and the kitchen reeks with the odour and soap suds, cabbage water, &c., from the washhouse adjoining. The wife, perhaps takes in a little washing, that is when she is not on the farm, and the youngest are left with a neighbour, or the eldest girls ‘minds them’.30

Their growing knowledge of better labouring conditions elsewhere was making the rural workers of Kent less willing to be humbly content with their lot. Other changes arousing their resentment were a steady loss of perquisites, and a growing extravagance in the style of living of many farmers. The change in the labourers' general position can be well illustrated by comparing descriptions supplied to the union by two workers. The first had a master who as late as 1879 persisted with the old ways, and he writes:

… I must tell you how my master uses me. He is not one of your black cloth gentlemen, but wears a smock frock and goes into the fields to work with us. He has not reduced the wages, as many others seem to have done; he is not a grumbler; he allows me straw for a pig, turnips and green peas in the summer, and a piece of field ground to grow potatoes. He also lets me have a sack of wheat at a reasonable price. So you see there are a few good masters left. He gave me 5s. for a Christmas box, and my mistress gave me a joint of pork.31

The other account, signed ‘A Poor Locked-Out Woman’, written in December 1878, gives the more typical situation:

… I read Mr Stunt's letter in the Standard, but he is quite wrong when he says that farmers allow straw for a pig. They used to do so, and let their men have a pig out of the yard at a reasonable price; but go and ask them now, and the answer you get is, ‘Oh, I can't sell one; Mr So-and-so takes all mine.’ Then you must buy of Mr So-and-so, and give his price. I have been on the same farm for 45 years, and have seen the death of lots of their privileges; they go off one by one. A man used to be allowed all his chips when sharpening old poles, and roots when grubbing; in fact, a man got half his firing. He may knock two or three shillings worth of tools out a week now; but let him dare to carry any wood home. At one time we could go out into the turnip field, and get a few turnips or turnip-greens, but that is dead … We could also buy windfall apples for about 1s a bushel, and gathered fruit for about 2s, but now they must all go to London; working men can't have them now … I can remember the times when the farmers used to have their page 192 hop-dryers, shepherds, and others, who had the care of valuable property, to dinner on Christmas-day, and sent them home with a sovereign in their pockets to help them through the winter, and a better heart to help their masters through the year; but that is dead too.32

When he appeared before the 1881 Royal Commission on Agricultural Depression, Alfred Simmons gave evidence on this loss of perquisites, and also complained that many allotments had disappeared, and that cottage gardens had become smaller than in the past.33

Yet the farmers persisted in the blind belief that the traditional ‘good feelings’ still continued between them and their men, while they thus whittled away customary privileges, and indulged in new luxuries themselves. ‘We can look any day from our work,’ complained one labourer in the first days of the Revolt, ‘and see them dash by with their carriage and pair and servants in livery’.34 Some years later, when the London popular press took the part of the Kentish rural workers in the 1878–9 lock-out, it made the same point. Reynolds' Newspaper wrote of the farmers of Kent as ‘men who say they cannot pay wages, and then appear in the hunting field mounted on the best horse in the meet’.35 The periodical Light remarked of Kent that ‘her lands are fat; her yeomen live in small palaces; her farmers are men with “fair round bellies” of content and comfort; her hop-growers drink port instead of beer for dinner’. But the poor devil of an agricultural labourer with a wife and six small children had four-and-twenty pence a day as his taste of Paradise.36 It is little wonder that some labourers began to ponder whether their promised land might not lie elsewhere.

In the first quarter of 1874 Kent despatched 897 assisted emigrants to New Zealand, an exodus quite unmatched for a three month period by any other rural county throughout the recruitment drive.37 We must examine the various influences which had been readying these villagers to move in such numbers. One was the attitude of their union leader. Unlike Arch, Simmons was sympathetic towards emigration right from the start of the Revolt. As early as 27 April 1872 he was writing that ‘if the employers unwisely resist the just requests of their servants for an increase of wages, emigration may be one of the means resorted to to enable the labourers to benefit themselves’.38 At a large union meeting at Otham on 5 June 1872 he spoke at some length on emigration. He told the men that while he would not advise any man to leave England so long as he could earn a fair livelihood, yet the offers by the governments of Australia, New Zealand, and other places were so exceptional, that any labourer whose master would not pay a fair wage would do well to proceed to a place where he would be able to bring up his family in plenty.39 Over the next few months the union had numerous enquiries regarding assistance to emigrate, to which it was compelled to turn a deaf ear through lack of the necessary funds. The offer of free passages by the Queensland government, and the receipt of a £30 donation from the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, enabled the union to announce on 28 September that it could begin page 193 sponsoring emigration.40 Simmons's experiences in gathering this party must have greatly strengthened his support for emigration, and the letters sent home by these emigrants, and the parties which followed them to Australia in the following year, must have fanned interest in emigration, to the benefit of New Zealand in 1874. For weeks before the departure of the first Queensland party of nearly a hundred, on the Light Brigade, at Christmas 1872, Kent had experienced continuous wet weather. As a result many labouring families, including most of the emigrants, endured extreme destitution. When Simmons questioned the departing emigrants about their recent experiences, he found that many of them had tasted meat only about twice since September. When he further pressed as to the quality of these rare meals of meat ‘the rejoinder was invariably one which would more than shock the most rigid economist’.41 From his enquiries, Simmons concluded that hundreds of labourers had worked only two or three days a week over the last quarter of 1872. On an income of five shillings to seven shillings and sixpence a week their families were reduced to starvation, and some men came to the officers of the union to beg bread for their wives and children.42

This background adds force to comments in the letters from these emigrants. ‘We have a good place, thank God,’ wrote one from a station in Queensland, ‘plenty of meat to eat, and can run to the place where it is kept when we like. The dogs get more, out here than we could get at home.’43 This was one of a number of letters from Australia printed in the union newspaper in July and August of 1873.44 They were sent by folk who had left various parts of Kent - Minster on the Isle of Thanet, Horsmonden in the Weald, Bearstead in the Homesdale just east of Maidstone, Dartford on the borders of London. The reports which the union newspaper published over the next year or two from the Australian immigrants must have had a real impact on working class opinion back in the home villages. ‘If a married man does not get a farm after he has been here two years they wonder what he is doing with his money. Farmers and labourers are like brothers out here’,45 wrote an emigrant from East Kent, early in 1874. ‘Father has taken 120 acres and is doing well’, reported a young man late of Bearstead, a few months later,46 ‘I get 18s. a week and my board’, reported a man who had left Perry Wood, on the downs. ‘We live well, and the family and servants all sit down to meals together…. We have the chance to shoot as we like.’47 ‘This is a remarkable place for getting married’, wrote a young woman emigrant. ‘… There are so few girls to the men, that every girl stands a chance of getting a husband. I can tell you that I never had any peace until I got married.’48

Kent had sent New Zealand a good number of immigrants over the years since the founding of the colony. The county was well represented among the Wakefield colonists of the 1840s.49 A study of immigration into Canterbury has shown a small but steady flow from Kent over the 1850s and 1860s,50 and other provinces must also have received their share. These earlier emigrants must have had some influence on the movement from page 194 Kent in the 1870s, but it would be easy to exaggerate it. An English clergyman who had assisted with recruiting emigrants for New Zealand in the 1850s, before settling in the colony himself, reported in 1872 that the labouring classes in New Zealand corresponded little with their friends at home, and that in many cases the correspondence often ceased entirely after a few years in the colony.51 The Kentish villagers, however, knew little enough geography, and in any case the distinction between New Zealand and the other Australasian colonies would have meant little to them. The letters from Australia, publicised by the union, will have helped New Zealand almost as directly as if they had come from her own shores. As we have already noted many of the Kent Union's first New Zealand party had sent in their names initially for South Australia, and when the South Australia Government's offer was withdrawn after the departure of the one shipload by the Forfarshire, they transferred their applications to New Zealand.52 This shift must have cut across various relationships and friendships, leading to some consequent later movements across the Tasman.

The William Davie with the Kent Union's first New Zealand party, reached the colony's southernmost overseas port, Bluff Harbour, on 12 April 1874. In letters home during their first few months in the colony, the new arrivals made a good deal of direct and implied comment on the world they had left. On 27 April, James Miller, 49, brickmaker, had his daughter Mary, 14, write a letter for him from Invercargill to a ‘Dear Son and Daughter’ back in Kent. ‘Father says you are not to stay in England to be transported’, she writes, ‘but you are to come out here, he says he was transported all the time he was there, but now he is free again.’ James seems here to be replying to gibes he suffered in his home village, perhaps from his old employers. James was earning eight shillings a day for eight hours, his son George, 17 was also earning eight shillings, and young Mary had had offers of twenty shillings a week and keep, but could not go because her mother was ill. This latter misfortune, however, gave occasion for the comment that ‘people are not like they are in England; they are very kind to mother, and I have to go to a lady's house every day for beef-tea or cornflour for her (mother).’ Father, it seems, was itching to move the family ‘up in the bush’. He had been up there and met a young chap who had been in the colony about eighteen months and ‘he keeps a cow, and can lay his hand on a hundred pounds now.’53

On Sunday, 17 May 1874, Hodges Swain, 37, farm labourer, with a wife and five children, wrote home from Invercargill to his parents and friends to give his impressions of the new country. The evening before he had brought home three pounds to give to his wife. He had never lived so well in England, and he too was rejoicing in the eight hour day. As he contrasted the new life with the old, he seems to have felt some bitterness about the past:

I very often think of the slaves in England and the empty bellies A man is drove to be dishonest in England, but here there is no call for him to page 195 be if he will work…. Tell several of the farmers round about Eltham that I thank them for turning their backs upon me or else I should not have come.54

The following Sunday, 24 May 1874, a letter was penned by Thomas Goodsell, 39, farm labourer, who had come out with his wife and five children. They had left the ragstone hills of the parish of Plaxtol, for the Southland settlement of Winton. Again it is the good food and the reasonable hours of work that are emphasised: ‘The best of this place is there is plenty of good food … There is no sixteen hours a day out here for a man to work.’ Thomas himself was earning ten shillings a day and his three eldest children (aged 10 to 16) had found positions with good wages and ‘all found’. ‘I find it a great deal better than I did at old Borer's’, Thomas comments, and as an additional attraction he mentions that ‘there is only one class of people out here.’55

Some of the William Davie's party made strong and direct pleas for friends and relations to follow them. Thus George Woollett, 33, farm labourer, who had come out with his wife and five children, wrote from Invercargill on 5 July 1874:

George, I wish you were here as your trade is the best one out here, and it is a job to get a carpenter. You would get from 12s. to 14s. a day for eight hours, it is all eight hours here…. Get the horse whip at my brother Thomas's and drive him with you to Mr Simmons at once. This place would just suit him for there are thousands of rabbits here and wild ducks, and swamp turkeys, and the farmers are pleased to see anyone shoot them - any amount of rabbits. Tell all the single girls to come here, they'll get about £40 or £50 per year.56

George Woollett himself was making a living cutting cordwood in the bush, with the help of his 11-year-old son Lewis. Working from nine till five, they were averaging ten shillings a day. George mentions the abundance of wood as one of the attractions of New Zealand. ‘I go out the back door and cut down a tree when I want it’, he reports, ‘so we don't sit cold out here’. George sends greetings to all his friends, mentioning one, Johnny White, by name, and concludes with the appeal to ‘come at once to old Busser’. Whether George the carpenter responded to this appeal one cannot say, but Thomas Woollett, a 38-year-old labourer, who sailed for New Zealand with his wife Susan on 31 October 1874, could well be the brother referred to, and the friend Johnny White may well have been the 22-year-old labourer of that name who left for the colony in November 1874.

Throughout 1874 the Kent union's emigration movement throve on its own success. In a circular of March 1874, urging the labourers of Kent to rally to the union, Simmons told them that the union had already assisted nearly 1,600 men and their families to emigrate.57 On 20 May Simmons could tell the union's second annual demonstration that 1,700 persons had been assisted to emigrate in the preceding twelve months, bringing the total to 2,200,58 and by mid-October this figure had risen to 3,000.59 Yet at the page 196 May 1875 annual demonstration, Simmons had little to say about emigration when he addressed the ‘monster public meeting’, claimed to number about 18,000.60 He quoted no figures on emigration; a fact to which the unsympathetic Maidstone and Kentish Journal of 25 May 1874 drew pointed attention. The explanation would appear to be that the success of the emigration drive was improving the Kentish labourer's position; and this fact, together with the success of other union policies, was leading Simmons to believe that his movement might succeed in reshaping the Kentish rural social order, so making emigration unnecessary. Emigration might, indeed, work against this progress at home, by removing too many of the more gifted villagers, whose talents the union could ill spare.

The Kent union's wages movement, begun in April 1874, was continuing to prosper in the spring and summer of 1875. Simmons now initiated a number of new policies, resulting in a marked divergence in character between his movement and Arch's National Union. The striking contrast over the latter half of the decade between the continued growth of the Kent and Sussex Labourers' Union, and the decline of the National, would seem to owe a good deal to these differing policies. Perhaps because of his own more unfortunate childhood, Simmons seems to have grasped more clearly than Arch the significance of the employers' near-monopoly of control over the charitable and benefit institutions of the villages. In the early stages of his movement Simmons fostered voluntary ‘good feeling’ collections by union branches, so that mutual self-help would compensate for the loss of the philanthropic ‘good feeling’ of the masters, and by late 1873 he could report 700 voluntary collections for sick and needy members.61 While Arch opposed a Union friendly society, Simmons launched a Union Sick Fund towards the end of 1874. It grew steadily, to 2,500 by the May 1875 Demonstration, and a peak of around 10,000 towards the end of the decade. Many of the old Sick Benefit Clubs sponsored by farmers and squires in the villages must have collapsed as a result, although the union was also breaking new ground, and claimed that over half its fund's members had never belonged to a similar club before.62 The fund paid sickness benefits, funeral allowances for members and their wives, and confinement allowances for members' wives. The annual report to the Union Demonstration of 14 July 1879 showed the year's benefit payments to have totalled nearly £8,000.

The Union Sick Fund was responsible for a new approach to union-church relations which began to develop in mid 1875. Following a traditional benefit club custom, several union branches organised church parades to celebrate the formation of the fund. Simmons immediately discerned the possibilities of such parades, writing that ‘our Union required to make friends; and where we have had enemies, if we can win them over by our good example a great step will be taken in the right direction.’63 The Union paper thenceforward assiduously reported the parades, and from time to time printed special sermons that had been page 197 preached on these occasions. Further developments included chapel parades to cater for nonconformist members, and the grouping of branches for parades, to provide a display of union strength. On 11 July 1875 some thirty branches around Canterbury massed ‘about 5,000 members and friends’ and ‘astonished the good folk of the old cathedral city’, by marching in a half-mile long procession to pack the cathedral's afternoon service. Thus, while Arch was allowing himself to be goaded into an increasingly anti-clerical position, and so adding to the strength of his opponents, Simmons was carefully working for new support by appealing to the Christian conscience and the vanity of the clergy. The farmers, who had largely succeeded in having the use of church schoolrooms denied to the union for its meetings, now saw themselves outflanked, with church and chapel becoming important union venues and recruiting posts.

The union launched several other programmes to foster the welfare and independence of its members. In 1875 it began a Land and Cottage Fund, run on cooperative building society lines, with periodic appropriations by ballot, to cater for members desiring land or home ownership. In 1877 the union opened a Hospital Fund from which donations were distributed to the various hospitals to gain letters of recommendation for the benefit of union members. Also in 1877 the union opened cooperative stores, but these were closed in 1878 when opposition interests were able to get them denied credit.64 Meanwhile the union was also alert and active in all the usual functions of an industrial union. It protested effectively when its members were subjected to unfair competition, as happened when soldiers or coastguardsmen were placed at the disposal of the employers.65 It was continuously involved in providing legal protection for the rural labourer; Simmons informed the 1881 Royal Commission that this was one of the union's main objects.66 Through its newspaper, which attained a circulation of around 10,000, and by other means, it continued the labourer's education, and encouraged him in self-improvement. The branches responded with a great deal of local self-help, organising bands, anniversary dinners, and rural fetes. It is clear that through these various activities, the union succeeded in giving its members a new image of themselves. Some of the members explained the change to a London newspaper correspondent in November 1878. Before the coming of the union, they explained, the labourer had been worse off than the dogs that fed at the farmer's back door. He had been too afraid to open his mouth when he felt an injustice was being done to him, but now, backed by the union, he would dare to answer his employers, and civilly stand up for what he considered to be his rights.67 It is not surprising that Simmons and many of his followers began to feel that the Kentish rural labourer did not need to cross the oceans in order to enjoy a new day.

Yet though the emigration flow slackened markedly after the great year of 1874, it did not cease. Social and economic pressures persisting in the villages, and wooing letters arriving with every mail from the antipodes, saw to that. By the later 1870s there were villages in all parts of Kent in page 198 which the labourers had strong links with New Zealand, arising either from single large migrations, or from chains of friends and relatives following each other out. The drawing power of the new land seems to have been increased when emigrants from the same village settled in the same locality in the colony. Thus several of the sixteen families that left the brickfields of Burham, in the lower Medway valley, early in 1874, to emigrate on the Atrato, settled together in Christchurch, and in October 1878 one of them, Richard Savage, wrote home thus to a nephew who was planning to follow:

… You say your mind is made up to come here. If so, you had better come at once, but don't deceive yourself. You will have to work for your living in a fair way, but you will get paid for it. They are giving eight shillings a day for eight hours, that is a shilling an hour, but if you are as I have been told you will get something better. I have blessed the day that I came, for it is a good thing for my children, and it might be for yours. Some day, I dare say, you father and mother will blame me, but it will be wrong of them to do so, for they ought to have been here years ago. When you are brought to New Zealand you will be brought from the ship by train to Christchurch station, and that is within gunshot of our place, and we shall be looking out for you, so you will having nothing to fear for the men that left your place, W. Woodhem, W. Coulter, Martin, Jones, the two Swans, and the young Colliers; we are all near neighbours and friends….68

The hills of the western sweep of Kent's North Downs, in Wrotham and its neighbourhood, provided a somewhat similar grouping of immigrants in Dunedin. Eliza Bevin, who left Wrotham in March 1875 with her farm labourer husband and three young children, wrote to her parents on 31 July 1875, from Caversham, Dunedin, telling how some of the village's emigrants were faring:

James is getting 7s. a day … working for a man that came out from Westerham twelve months ago. He is a gardener. The two sisters who came out with us are living in the town, and the men are working there. Clark is working with the bricklayers and Crowson is living at a hotel, in the stables; he gets 7s. a day and picks up besides 5s. or 6s. a day. He has got the best place of the lot.69

Other parishes to which numbers of New Zealand immigrants can be traced include Kemsing, in the downlands west of Wrotham, Rainham on the northern marshlands, Willesborough, in the Homesdale near Ashford, and several villages in the Weald, including Marden, Brenchley and Lamberhurst. Again and again the human story of emigration was repeated with a range of individual variations. From a farm near Oamaru in Otago, Job Bond wrote back to Lamberhurst that ‘the dogs get ten times more meat and better, than I got in England.’70 In how many cases, one wonders, had the energy and initiative that led to emigration found earlier expression in poaching? Was Samuel Hinkley, 25, labourer, emigrating with his wife and two young children on the Atrato in February 1874, the same man as ‘Samuel Hinckley, jun.’ of Brenchley, who in December 1868 page 199 was fined 5s. and 14s. 6d. costs by the Tonbridge Petty Sessions, for trespassing in search of game?71 Joseph Reader, gamekeeper, had caught this Hinckley in a hop garden, hiding behind a hop-pole stack with a dog and a gun. Reader had been out with the gentleman who hired the shooting of the farm, and this gentleman corroborated his evidence, and stated that there were rabbits in the wood adjoining the hop-pole stack. This inevitable consequence of the juxtaposition of meat-hunger and game preserving must have provided many a tale for the New Zealand winter fireside - perhaps, in a different social world, placing some strain on the credulity of the colonial-born among the listeners. Brenchley may have been a particularly hungry place at this period, for Obed King, 35, farm labourer, who emigrated to Invercargill with his wife and daughter, in the union's initial party on the William Davie, wrote back to his sisters and brothers a few months later that ‘there are as many rabbits, ducks and turkey as we like to shoot’.72 Very few letters, though, are without some reference to the improved diet enjoyed in the colony. When Samuel Robins, an immigrant from Marden, a village neighbouring Brenchley, wrote home to his parents from Otago in August 1878, about half of his letter was directly or indirectly concerned with food. He told his parents that they would not know his brother George, who was with him, as he was looking so well. He reported that they had a good garden, rent free, alongside the railway line they were working on, which provided them with ‘plenty of garden stuff’. He quoted the prices of various foodstuffs in the colony. Even so, food was not everything, for he wrote ‘Jane wants to come home, she don't like this country’. For himself, though, Samuel asserted that ‘I shan't come home any more, I wish I had come out before, as this is a better country than England.’73

Of the many New Zealand immigrants whose letters were printed in the union's newspaper over these years, one especially merits our attention, for the cycle of letters he provided over several years, together with other information available about him, enable us to construct a much fuller account than is generally possible of the circumstances and emotions that led to emigration. He is John Piper, who was recorded in the 1871 census schedules as a 40-year-old agricultural labourer living at Sturry, a village on the River Stour, a mile or two north-east of Canterbury. The schedule shows him to have been born at Playden, a village near Rye in Sussex, but his 32-year-old wife, Charlotte, and his six children, aged 1 to 13, were all born in Sturry. From his account of his early years in New Zealand it appears that he was a versatile workman, skilled in the culture of the hop. Piper was present at Simmons's first meeting at Canterbury, on Saturday evening, 13 July 1872. The meeting was held in the open air in North Lane, on the banks of a branch of the River Stour, near the medieval towers of the city's famous Westgate. The union newspaper recorded an attendance of 1,200 to 1,500, with the forming of two branches in the adjoining countryside, one of them at Sturry; and reported that a number of farmers tried to upset the meeting leading to much uproar.74 Nearly six years later, page 200 in May 1878, the union held its annual demonstration in Canterbury, and when news of the great crowd of 30,000 persons assembled for the occasion reached Piper in far-away New Zealand, he recalled with pride his presence at the North Lane meeting:

I happened to be present on that first cold, rainy night that Mr Simmons held his first meeting in the old city of Canterbury. I should think that many of the people who were there on that first night of meeting can now see that the Union is a decided success. There were many farmers on the night of that meeting who did all they could to quash us. Old Daniel Brice said that he could live upon 8s. per week, and have plenty of meat to eat. ‘Put him in the river,’ says they. The said old Daniel Brice was at once taken to the river, and his feet put in, but the police rescued the said Daniel Brice. That was the affair that Lord Sondes alluded to so much when he spoke of a farmer being ducked in a pond. I say now, as I have said many times, ‘success to the Union and all in connection with the same.’75

Our next definite glimpse of John Piper is in 1875, when we find him chairman of the Oversland branch some eight miles to the west of his former home in Sturry. In April 1875 he wrote a letter of encouragement to Simmons, saying, ‘I hope my brother labourers will be up and doing, for depend upon it, the time is not far distant when we shall have more money for our labour and be thought of as men, and not as mere serfs.’76 A few weeks later the neighbouring Perry Wood branch had a dinner for union members at the Rose and Crown, and among those who addressed them was ‘Mr. John Piper, who, from his earnestness in the cause rejoiced in the cognomen of “Union Jack.”’ What had happened between 1872 and 1875, and why had Piper moved away from Sturry? There is evidence to suggest that this was caused by his being persecuted for his interest in the union. He may well have been the man referred to by Simmons in his union column on 12 October 1872:

We have received a letter from a man, known personally to us, and who is as honest-hearted a fellow as ever breathed. He is an industrious agricultural labourer and having taken some interest in the labourers' movement in Kent, he was appointed local secretary to a branch of the Union a mile or two from the wealthy city of Canterbury. He himself was very inadequately paid, and has now been discharged from employment, and turned from house and home upon no other pretext than that he took an active part in advocating the Labourers' Union. With him also are several others, who have been discharged for the same reason, and are in the same plight…. In the letter to us, their spokesman states:- ‘As regards the **** Branch of the Union I fear it will fall through. You see, sir, the men are all actually afraid to come to our meetings for fear of being discharged from work.’77

Simmons reported that the discharged secretary had been working for the same employer for some years, and keeping a wife and family on a wage of two shillings and sixpence a day, with stoppages for slackness of work and rainy and frosty weather. That the branch referred to was Sturry seems likely from a news item of the following year, reporting a meeting which page 201 Simmons had held at Sturry on the evening of 14 July 1873, at which the branch had been ‘unanimously reformed’, earlier attempts having ‘tended to fail’.78

Whatever Piper may have suffered in the persecution of union members at Sturry, it did not dampen his enthusiasm for the movement. In his new position he actively canvassed for the union, putting himself increasingly at odds with his new employer. Some of the stratagems and polemics of the contest between this determined labourer and his affronted employer can be gathered from a letter Piper wrote home to a friend on 26 May 1878:

Little did Mr Birch think, when he sent me one side of a 16 acre field and you the other, that old ‘Union Jack’, as they called me, would be in New Zealand in so short a time, and be the means of starting so grand a speculation as hop growing will be here in a few years … I think it was a good thing for Mr Birch when he gave us notice to leave, or we should have got all the men into the Union. Mr Birch told me that labourers were all too dainty to eat the odds and ends of the butcher's meat; but now I can congratulate myself that I can have good butcher's meat three times a week, being able to purchase beef or mutton at 4d. per pound. So you see the more the employers of labour persecute their men the more likely the Union is to prosper…. I often wonder what Mr Birch thinks now of the Union, and the time when he used to say, ‘Your leaders will run away with all your funds’. I think Mr Birch used to talk as he wished; he was in hopes they would run away with all the funds, but he was afraid they would not. I say now as I said when he gave me the half-pint of beer to drink up, ‘Success to the Labourers' Union and all in connection with the same.’79

Piper's dismissal by Mr Birch thus led directly to his emigration to New Zealand. In the Kent and Sussex Times of 29 October 1875 he expressed his thanks to members and friends of the Perry Wood and Oversland branches of the union for the £1 11s. collected to assist him in emigrating. With his wife and family, he sailed from London on the Hudson on 23 October 1875. A little over a year later he wrote to Simmons from Wairoa, a coastal settlement 80 miles north-east of Napier, where he had a good position establishing a hop and fruit plantation for a settler.80 He arranged with Simmons for a subscription to the Kent and Sussex Times, and the letters from him which the newspaper printed over the next few years must have helped considerably to stimulate interest in New Zealand. When news reached him of the opening stages of the union's great battle of the winter of 1878–9, he promptly wrote a letter of encouragement, dated 10 February 1879, in which he again reminisced about his own personal duel with Mr Birch:

I often wonder what Mr Birch thinks now about the men's twopences that he used to blow about so much. I always thought the Union would surprise him and a great many more of his class. This lock-out will pick the skin off some of their eyes, I am thinking.81

We must now turn to Birch, and the other farmers of Kent, to see how it came about that so many of them had decided on a show-down with the union over this winter.

page 202

Over the years groups of farmers had made a number of local challenges to the union, but had always been bested by the men. The most ambitious efforts were probably those in the High Weald in 1873, and on the Isle of Sheppey in 1875. The Wealden campaign was organised by the Tunbridge Wells Farmers' Club, at a meeting on 13 June 1873 which set up a committee comprising six Lamberhurst farmers, two each from Goudhurst and Tunbridge Wells, and one each from Pembury, Ashurst and Mereworth.82Lamberhurst was the main centre of this challenge, and the union had already held an indignation meeting of some 1,000 men there on 7 June, to make payments to thirty dismissed men. This effort of the farmers seems to have wilted rapidly in the face of the union's determined response. The conflict on the Isle of Sheppey in 1875 was longer and more bitter. In began in March, and for a time over half of the island's 150 unionists were on the funds, probably absorbing the greater part of the £1,014 spent in aid to locked-out men in the six months to 26 May 1875. The union newspaper asked members elsewhere to look out for work for these men, and by 18 June thirty of them had been placed.83 When on 10 July one of the Sheppey farmers savagely assaulted a locked-out labourer and his wife, the union successfully prosecuted him at the Sittingbourne Petty Sessions, though it maintained that the penalty of a small fine and 14 days' imprisonment was so inadequate as to amount to a flagrant injustice.84 In August the union assisted a party of nineteen to emigrate from the island to Canada,85 and the lock-out faded away thereafter. A feature of all these farmers' defence efforts was that they were local affairs which the union successfully countered through its county-wide organisation. The local nature of farmer action arose from the fact that they had no effective institution operating on a larger scale than the agricultural district. As we have already seen,86 each agricultural district functioned as a little kingdom whose affairs were guided by an informal farmers' parliament, meeting in an inn in the district's market town. When Farmers' Defence Associations appeared, they had strong links with these local ‘farmers’ parliaments'.87 The failure of the various ‘Parliaments’ of the county to achieve any concerted action prior to 1878 is probably to be accounted for by the economic and social diversity which, as we have already noted, characterised the many little worlds of rural Kent. Yet the fact that widespread, sporadic action was taken shows that the farmers were not happy to accept that their county should be the only one in England in which rural unionism was threatening to take deep and permanent root. We must endeavour to understand their outlook.

One reason why the farmers found it difficult to accede to a new independence for their men, was that their own relationship to their landlords remained unchanged. As one unionist put it, ‘Here a landlord don't feel happy without he's got his farmers under his thumb’.88 In a social system where the farmers owed deference to their ‘betters’, it meant a great deal to their self-esteem that they should in turn receive deference from their men. But steadily throughout the 1870s they had seen the labourers page 203 transferring to their union and its leaders the loyalty and respect formerly given to their masters. That a sense of loss of prestige should give rise to anger which often found expression in petty spite, and sometimes in irrational aggression, is not surprising. The men retaliated by publicising unseemly behaviour by farmers; any farmers who countered this by dismissals could expect further scathing publicity. The farmers also came to fear the union's power of labour boycott, which might come into play if they fell foul of their men. To heighten their fears, there seemed to be no end to the union's growth. In January 1878 it claimed some 14,000 members; in April it began forming juvenile branches for those under 18; in May it held its Annual Demonstration away from Maidstone for the first time, to let East Kent view its strength. After watching its massed ranks march through Canterbury beneath a wealth of banners to the music of sixteen bands, even a farmers' newspaper acknowledged that, ‘We never saw such a procession before in our life for length.’89 Meanwhile the farmers had other worries beside the unrest of their labourers. They had been experiencing a succession of bad seasons, but these had not, as in the past, led to a rise in prices. As a result of ever-growing foreign competition, agricultural prices were steadily drifting downwards. Yet many of the farmers faced still rising rents, for their landlords had not yet read the economic signs of the times. Of the various sources of their troubles, only the union offered the farmers a ready target for retaliation.

The lock-out, which was set in motion as soon as the 1878 harvest was in, was a well-planned effort, apparently aimed at ‘smashing up’ the union by sustained and concerted action throughout the winter. Through the union's intelligence network Simmons got wind of the discussions, and his information led him to conclude that the movement was spearheaded by a group of wealthy and titled men. In an editorial of 9 November 1878 he reported that:

Facts which have come to light during this week show very clearly that the movement to press down the agricultural labourers' wages emanated from one or two aristocratic and wealthy sources; and if the farmers through following the hot-headed advice of these few gentlemen, now find themselves embroiled with their labouring men, they have no-one but themselves and their advisers to thank for it. When such men as the Russells and Lord Darnley, and Sir W. Hart-Dyke, in West Kent; or such men as Mr Plumptree, and the Neames, and the Lakes, of East Kent; when such men as these, many of them rolling in wealth, call the smaller farmers around them, tell them they are foolish fellows, advise them to cut down their labourers' wages, and begin by doing the same; why who can wonder if these smaller farmers, feeling the screw thus put down upon them, turn round and timidly follow in their leaders' footsteps like a flock of sheep?90

Simmons's story seems a likely one, for while the farmers were not in a position to initiate concerted county action, the landowners, through their involvement in the traditional county institutions, could readily do so. After a period of planning, the final signal for the lock-out was given at a page 204 well-attended meeting of the Canterbury Fleece Farmers' Club on Saturday, 19 October 1878, which unanimously resolved that the depressed state of agriculture required an immediate reduction of one shilling and sixpence per week in labourers' wages, with a minimum rate of fifteen shillings per week. Many farmers, aware of what was in the wind, had already taken action before this signal. As the movement developed it became clear that the farmers had taken some care to analyse where the strength of the union lay. For example, they appear to have made widespread attempts to revive the old style village sick benefit clubs, to provide men leaving the union with an alternative to its highly successful benefit scheme.91

Forewarned by union intelligence that a crucial trial of strength was upon him, Simmons called a meeting of union representatives to Maidstone on 19 October, the same day as the Fleece Farmers' Club meeting. Counter-tactics were planned, aimed at winning public support, maintaining members' morale, and convincing the farmers that the lock-out could not succeed, and would only bring them financial loss and public disapproval. The wisdom of the sound principles upon which Simmons had built the union now began to pay off, as did his responsible approach to union leadership. He maintained that he would advise labourers to accept a reasonable wage reduction, if the farmers could make a convincing case, and some weeks later it was revealed that he had already advised branches to accept reductions of up to a shilling a week, provided a proper approach was made.92 But no self-respecting trade union could accept an arbitrary reduction, imposed without discussion, and often even without the due week's notice. The union had no option but to call out its men, which no doubt was what the farmers had intended to bring about.

The number of unionists ‘locked out’ for refusing to accept wages reductions rose steadily to about 900 by mid-December, and remained around this figure to the end of January.93 As Simmons had anticipated supporting up to 3,000 on union funds,94 the farmers had not been very successful in rallying their forces. Apparently much of the support they had expected, did not eventuate in the face of the obvious spirit of the union, and widespread public sympathy for the locked-out men. Union tactics included mass indignation meetings, such as one in Canterbury on 28 October, as a retort to the farmers' meeting there. Over 2,000 persons packed the Canterbury Theatre, crowding the stage and every corridor and staircase, while a further 2,000 failed to get inside.95 On Monday, 18 November, the locked-out men assembled in Maidstone for a great meeting in the Skating Rink, and the following morning over 500 of them began a march to London, with meetings en route, culminating in a procession to a mass rally in Exeter Hall on 20 November, well supported by the city trade unions.96 Public sympathy was further stimulated when in mid-December several farmers began eviction proceedings in the Canterbury and Faversham county courts, against labourers in tied cottages. Engaging expert counsel, the union successfully played for time, the judge page 205 showing considerable sympathy for families threatened with homelessness in bitter winter weather.97 However, the prospect of wholesale evictions added urgency to Simmons's efforts to organise an emigration drive, in accordance with a union decision made at the beginning of the fight. We have already followed his negotiations with the New Zealand authorities, culminating in the offer of free passeges for 700 farm labourers and their families, which Simmons announced to a mass meeting in Canterbury on 16 December.98 We will here consider the recruitment and despatch of this party from the viewpoint of the emigrants, paying particular attention to the human experience it involved.

The depths of winter were, of course, an unpopular season for emigration, and after several years of better times brought about by the union, recruits did not come forward as readily as Simmons had hoped. The best response came naturally from those districts where the farmers were most determined, and where the villagers were under threat of being hunted from their homes. One such area was the High Weald, where the farmers had expressed their resentment of the union so strongly in the summer of 1873. At Brenchley in 1878 many farmers apparently anticipated the wage reduction movement launched on 19 October, and finding that their labourers accepted this first reduction quietly, gave notice to reduce their wages for a second time within the month. Some farmers were said to have brought their wages down as low as two shillings per day.99 Simmons held a great meeting of 1,200 men at Matfield Green, a hamlet in this parish, on 6 November, and in due course several members of the branch joined the New Zealand party.100 A Daily News correspondent who visited Maidstone in mid-November to report on the lock-out found that ‘Brenchley and Lamberhurst and other villages down in the Weald’ were among the names that had attained a distinct prominence. When at the turn of the year Holloway held an emigration meeting in Lamberhurst, fifteen persons gave in their names. About ninety were said to have already emigrated from the parish over the previous few years, including many of its best farm labourers.101

But it was in East Kent that the lock-out was most determinedly pressed. ‘You must get further away’, the Daily News correspondent reported, ‘towards Canterbury, Chilham, Wingham and Faversham to find yourself in the heart of the lock-out districts’.102 Early in November Simmons visited some of the hardest hit villages, holding meetings at Wingham, Chilham, and Oversland, at each of which places, and the districts surrounding them, he found large numbers of farm labourers locked-out and under notice of eviction from their cottages. The spirit of John Piper seems to have lived on in the Oversland - Perry Wood area. At Oversland a large number of the wives of the locked-out men met Simmons in the afternoon preceding his public meeting there, and expressed their strong solidarity with their menfolk.103 Perry Wood must also have been right in the battle, for when the emigrants organised a procession while filling in time waiting for their ship at Plymouth, it was headed by the Perry Wood page 206 branch banner.104 In neighbouring Selling, the union gave a demonstration of its strength and determination. Union members employed by Edward Neame of Selling Court had accepted wage reductions and continued working. According to the Canterbury Journal and Farmers' Gazette, on 9 December the central executive gave them notice that unless they joined the strike forthwith they would be suspended from all benefits of the union.105

Perhaps nowhere was the struggle more bitter than in the two downland parishes of Chilham and Chartham, just to the south of Selling and Oversland. Thirteen labourers in these parishes received summonses for eviction from their cottages from three farmers, all surnamed Marten, and nine of these were in due course taken before the Canterbury County Court. One of these farmers, John Marten, was interviewed late in November by a correspondent of the London Standard. The correspondent found that he farmed about a thousand acres, most of it his own freehold. On one of his farms 15 men had struck out of 17, on another 30 out of 50. Nevertheless he anticipated no difficulty in getting his hop gardens dug over the winter, as the closing of the brick fields at this season created an excess of labour.106 Chilham provided a strong contingent for the Stad Haarlem. The branch farewelled its departing members at a meeting at the White Horse, and somehow scraped together seventeen shillings and sixpence to help them on their way.107 Among them, if they had not moved elsewhere since the 1871 census, must have been Thomas Ansley, 30, farm labourer, with his wife and four children; John Epps who appeared in the census schedules as a 12-year-old rook boy; Bennett Smith, also 12 in 1871, but still at school; and Thomas Waters, who emigrated as a 45-year-old farm labourer, a widower with eight children. Another emigrant, Edward Tappenden, 25, farm labourer may have been the man of the same name who received an eviction summons from farmer Stephen W. Marten, or possibly the summonsed man was his father.108 As a result of the compassion of the judge in delaying the enforcement of the eviction orders, most of those affected had either emigrated or found alternative accommodation before the orders came into force. However two large families at Chilham, under notice from John Marten, had to be rescued by the union and accommodated in the Sun Inn, Maidstone, until cottages could be found for them.109

The party which finally assembled in Maidstone to join the emigrant train to Plymouth numbered about 400, of whom some 90 were single younger men, the rest were married men with their wives and families. The married men included some union veterans, who had probably been convinced by the renewed rural conflict that their prospects as marked men in Kent were not good. One such was Reuben Baldwin, a 42-year-old farm labourer, emigrating as a widower with six children. In April 1873 he assisted Simmons at a meeting to form a union branch at Crouch, near Plaxtol, and was described as ‘a very energetic worker in and about this district’. A year later the Sevenoaks branch reported that the farmers had set themselves against Baldwin, for his active part in the union, and would page 207 give him no work, telling him to apply to Mr Simmons. Possibly Simmons found him work in Maidstone, as when he emigrated he was a member of the Maidstone No. 1 branch.110 Another union leader was James Pratt who had for some years been a member of the union's executive committee. As chairman of the Otham branch, he had presided at a meeting there on 2 January 1879 addressed by the New Zealand agents Holloway and Berry, at which a good number decided to emigrate.111 He appears on the Stad Haarlem's passenger list as a 35-year-old farm labourer, accompanied by his wife and their one-year-old daughter. He was almost certainly the man from Otham described by a Daily News correspondent who accompanied the emigrants when their train left Maidstone - ‘a smart, not over-sized, dapper man, who in some counties would be called a “hard-bitten chap”, clad in moleskin jacket and waistcoat, and heavy rough overcoat.’ The correspondent was able to get him to tell something of his life:

‘I have been round the world and seen, and served my time as a short-service man. I was on her Majesty's Basilisk, under Sir William Hewitt; and fine times we had; for the harbours of Japan were not known then as they are now.’ I asked him what could possess him to leave the service and take to digging in Kentish hop gardens. ‘Comes of getting married, sir. You see I was brought up as a hop worker before ever I went to sea, and when my time was up I went home to the old place at Otham and got married, of course did not want to go to sea then, so I went back to work.’ This man, who was nursing a baby, the only child living out of six, was going to New Zealand, ‘Because I have seen the world, sir, and know its no use staying in Kent to work on and on till I drop into the workhouse and leave my child to live a life like mine …’112

James Pratt was appointed one of the constables among the Stad Haarlem emigrants, and Reuben Baldwin became assistant to the ship's surgeon. With their leadership talents they no doubt made their contribution to the community life of rural New Zealand.

The emigrants began arriving in Maidstone by the various trains on Tuesday afternoon, 29 January 1879. They delivered their baggage to the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Station, where a train of thirteen carriages and two goods waggons was being prepared for the morrow's journey, and then made their way to the Assembly Rooms Skating Rink for a farewell tea meeting. The Daily News correspondent watched them assemble, and described them thus:

It seems that the same law which I have remarked in other parts of the country obtains in Kent; the best men, the best instructed, the most muscular, in every sense the most valid men, emigrate, leaving the old decrepit, and inferior behind … So far as I have seen, the emigrants from Kent of tomorrow are composed of powerful men, great square-shouldered fellows, some of whom were trying their hands, or at least their feet, at skating, as if trying to be out of their troubles … With them rejoiced their wives and neatly-dressed children … There was no lack of flags in the handsome Skating Rink, especially of the tricolour - the Union Jack occurring far more rarely; and there was music enough to celebrate any march out.113

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The emigrants had tea at the Rink, then their friends joined them for a farewell evening of band music and speeches. The men of the party then dispersed to various lodgings, and the women and children bedded down at the Rink. All reassembled at the Rink for breakfast, and then marched through crowded streets to the station, carrying banners, such as ‘Kentish Peasants, Evicted and Destitute’. They were joined by those who had spent their last night in their old homes. The Daily News reported fifty cottages left vacant between Ashford and Faversham. Skilled hop workers in the party were taking cases of hop sets with them.

The Daily News correspondent travelled with the party to Plymouth, and was thus able to give a vivid description of the train's departure and the day's journey. He described the emigrants as neatly and warmly dressed, as they streamed through the ticket office on to the platform, ‘carrying with them those mysterious bundles, tied up in spotted hankerchiefs, without which no emigrant is complete’. There was much cheering and well wishing, but the emigrants had to contend against

the depressing influence of the many who came to see them off - aged parents left on the parish, at least until their children should have made some progress in the new home of their adoption; brothers and sisters, themselves ineligible for emigration by reason of their enormous families; old friends, left behind to sink into poverty …114

The train at last moved off, to the tune of ‘The girl I left behind me’, played on the handbells by local artists. Even then the union's farewell to its departing members was not complete. As the train steamed westward that morning, below the snow-streaked scarp face of the downs, and the emigrants looked for the last time on the bare winter woods, fields and hop gardens of their native county, again and again they were cheered on their way by groups of labourers who had gathered to see them pass. The strong branch at Wrotham staged a particularly lively demonstration. Many who stood to cheer that day would have been temporarily unemployed, as the state of the ground was unfavourable to farm operations.

During the journey the Daily News reporter learnt a good deal about the backgrounds and outlook of the emigrants. He concluded that

They wanted to ‘get on’, these gentle, civil-spoken southern agriculturists. There is no blatant mob-oratory ring about their modest aspirations. ‘We should like to see our children better off than we have been.’115

He heard talk from the men of the good chances of owning land in the colony, and found that the single young women had heard of excellent marriage prospects there. He spent some time with members of the Sparks family who illustrated both these ambitions, which in due course they were to see fulfilled. George Sparks, 39, was a shepherd from the North Downs, emigrating with his wife, and six children, including Ann, 19, Louisa, 16, and Emma, 12. His employer had tried to reduce his wages, saying that corn had fallen, but Sparks contested this argument as the farmer was growing no corn, but rather buying maize as stock food. Having won his page 209 argument but lost his job, Sparks found accommodation for his family at the seaside town of Whitstable, where the union supported them until they emigrated. Sparks told the reporter that his daughters' prospects in Kent were service on a meagre wage, slaving for people no better than themselves, and marriage to ‘some fellow no better off than their father’, but he had better hopes for them in New Zealand. Sparks was not altogether impoverished, though, for he must have been the stalwart shepherd with three buxom daughters who was pointed out as having a £70 draft to start with when the party was boarding the Stad Haarlem.116

As he mixed with the emigrants on the 59 day voyage to New Zealand, Simmons learnt a great deal about the petty persecution of unionists in the Kentish villages. He found that union families were commonly excluded from local charities, and from the distribution of school prizes. He heard a great deal about the difficulties put in the way of departing emigrants, such as refusals to give character references, and failure to pay wages due to those leaving. He reported that he could furnish a list of a hundred farmers who had damned his name, and expressed fervent hopes that the ship would take him to the bottom of the sea. However, while she was making a safe and uneventful voyage to the colony, the farmers' lock out was collapsing back in Kent. The departure of the Stad Haarlem party took the heart out of it. The number on union funds dropped to 750 by 15 February, and to 300 by 8 March. Endeavours by the farmers to recruit labour from outside the county met with little success, and they eventually began taking union men back at the old rates. By early April the lock-out was confined to East Sussex.117

The Stad Haarlem's immigrants were described by the Immigration Officers in New Zealand as ‘of a very desirable class’ and were praised because all were ‘anxious to get into the country and find work’.118 Harder times had returned in the colony by the time the ship arrived, and some members of the party had a considerable wait before they found positions. It was not long, however, before many of them, like the earlier comers, were sending enthusiastic reports back to the homeland. George Morgan, who had left Littlebourne with his wife and three children, reported that he had a better job on the Otago railway works ‘than digging Mr Collard's hop-garden’. ‘You would not think we were starving if you were to look in our kitchen now,’ he wrote on 10 August 1879. ‘There are two or three big rabbits hanging up, besides a joint of mutton.’ He had a little land for a kitchen garden, and with his wife earning extra money at nursing jobs, they were hoping to put aside a sovereign a week towards buying land.119 In a letter dated a month earlier Morgan reported that ‘Mr Collard would not sign my papers for me, but that did not stop me from coming here.’120 On 5 June 1879 Sarah Tucker wrote from Dunedin to tell of her family's good fortune. Her husband, William, a 33-year-old farm labourer, was getting eight shillings per day, her eldest daughter Ellen, 14, was in service at eight shillings per week, and for four and sixpence they were getting enough meat to last all the week, three times a day. To help them get their house page 210 furnished, their kind landlady had told them they could delay paying the rent until the summer.121 George Goodwin, a late member of the union's Cuxton Road branch, with his wife and two children, was also living at Dunedin. What pleased him was that ‘the policemen [don't] stop you when coming into town if your pockets are a bit bulky or you have a bag on your back’, and that ‘you may shoot plenty of rabbits here.’122 With the onset of harder times back in the homeland, these letters must have led many a Kentish villager to enquire about emigrating, only to find that the New Zealand government was no longer offering free passages