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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

1 — Moments of Crisis And Decision

page 15

Moments of Crisis And Decision

In the mid afternoon of Wednesday, 6 January 1886, the pioneer bush settlers in the primitive clearings a mile or two west of Stratford were suddenly faced with a life or death crisis. The fires which they had been using as settlement tools suddenly turned to foes. After months of drought even the green uncut forest was full of tinder dry moss and forest litter. Leaping across the countryside in ways that the settlers had not even imagined possible, the fires merged into a great conflagration that swept down upon Stratford in a surge of destruction. The Stratford clearing was in effect a great pyre of sun-dried logs and stumps, grass and litter, so that after sweeping through it in a first terrifying onslaught the fire found sufficient fuel to turn the whole township site into a furnace right through the night and into the following day.1 By this time it was moving north to threaten neighbouring Midhirst.

Among those caught by the initial rush of fire down the forest slopes towards Stratford were Laurence and Janet Woodruffe and their seven-week-old baby son Edmund. Laurence, a 31-year-old immigrant from Essex, had taken land on Pembroke Road, made a clearing and put up a house. On 31 January 1885 he had married 19-year-old Janet, daughter of Scots immigrant farmer William Harre, at the Harre home, also on Pembroke Road. When the fire swept down on them Laurence had time to hurry Janet, still not fully recovered from childbirth, and infant Edmund, to a safe refuge in a nearby creek bed. Despite Janet's earnest dissuasion he then disappeared into the smoke, having decided not to yield his house and dairy without a fight. But the case was hopeless; the fire engulfed his house and outbuildings, and even took hold of the very ground over which he had come. His favourite mare had followed him and both were trapped, completely surrounded by fire. Laurence then remembered his well, and rushed to it as a refuge of last resort. He lowered himself by the windlass out of the fire's reach, in enough air to sustain life. Even so the flames seemed to try to follow him, licking down the well. The windlass caught fire, and the rope fell down past him. Laurence could see the windlass supports burning fiercely, so he braced himself for when the heavy piece of log forming the windlass drum should break free and tumble in upon him. When it fell he escaped being struck by page 16
Fierce flames sweep across the forest

Fierce flames sweep across the forest

squeezing himself against the side of the well. He managed to extinguish the flaming drum in the water so that he would not be smothered.

Meanwhile Janet, waiting with her infant in a misery of apprehension, peered through the smoke of a conflagration in which it seemed impossible that Laurence could survive. When the flames at last subsided Laurence scrambled out of the well. At its mouth he found that his faithful mare, having refused to leave him, had lain down beside his place of refuge and been roasted to death. He returned to the creek bed where Janet was overjoyed to see him. Like many of their neighbours, they were left with only what they stood up in. Their home, all its contents, their small dairy and other outhouses, their weaner pig and its sty, even their little crop of grass, had all been consumed.2

The Woodruffes' story of the terror of fire was one of many in a summer of countrywide drought unprecedented in the experience of the settlers. Just two days later, on Friday, 8 January 1886, George Newman faced his moments of crisis and decision as he took the Nelson-Reefton Royal Mail coach of his brothers' fledgling coachline up the Motupiko valley, some forty miles inland, from Nelson. He knew that the settlers had been rapidly extending their clearings along this road, originally put through to give access to the gold fields, so he was not surprised on entering the valley to find an extensive fire raging to the right of the route. He sized up the situation and page 17
A four-horse coach

A four-horse coach

decided that he could keep ahead of the flames, for the Newmans took great pride in getting the mails through under difficulties. He soon found himself mistaken. A few miles on, in a section of the road where it was next to impossible to turn the coach, he found that the fires were right upon him. By now the country behind was ablaze so retreat was ruled out even if he could have turned his coach and team. Deciding that his only hope was to head the fire, he put his team at top speed and began a race for dear life. The dense smoke almost shut out the leading horses from his view. The heat grew more and more intense. A great column of fire rolled down the hillside towards the road. With the flames within a whips length the coach's paint began to blister. The paint's strong odour caused George to think the coach awning was on fire. He himself was almost suffocated with heat and smoke, and his whiskers and hair were badly singed. If a flaming tree fell across the way ahead there could be nothing but disaster. But George knew of a break in the forest ahead, with a stream where he might extinguish any flames gripping himself or his coach. At last the coach swept into this place of safety, and George halted his team. The foaming horses were fearfully singed. Paint was peeling off the coach, but miraculously the awning had not ignited. After a spell for his team, himself and his one passenger to recover, George pushed on, meeting more smoke and fire on the way, but none so dangerous as that in the Motupiko valley. Her Majesty's mails from Nelson page 18 reached Reefton on schedule on Sunday 10 January.3

Over the summer of 1885–86 the worst fires with the greatest dangers were in the bush districts. But there were many fires outside the bush, including peat fires in the Waikato and grass fires throughout the country. On 7 January 1886 a fire got away in tussock land on the flat low-lying plains on the south bank of the Rakaia River, east of Ashburton, towards the sea. Apparently a settler, Morrow, started to burn tussock then changed his mind, deciding the wind was too strong. Unfortunately he did not thoroughly extinguish his burn. The fire swept the feed and fences from his farm, but his house was protected by ploughed furrows. He and a neighbour also shepherded a thousand sheep out of the path of the flames. Wilson's homestead was next at risk. Mrs Wilson emptied the house of its contents, which were then destroyed, though the house was saved. Water races halted the fire in several directions, as did fields of wheat too young to burn, but the way lay open to the farm at Dorie owned in partnership by the brothers Henry and William Harrison. Henry managed the farm while William, who was widely in demand for his mechanical skills, concentrated on farm contracting. William's pride was their traction engine and he had steam up in this machine when he saw the fire sweeping towards the farm, putting immediately at risk a large field of ripening barley. Sizing up the situation William mounted the traction engine and rushed it through and over fences to reach the barley ahead of the fire. He then drove it across the edge of the fire, using its large steel wheels as beaters, while the workers on the farm backed him up, beating the flames in the searing heat. In this way all but about 15 acres of the crop were saved. All hands then worked until they were exhausted to save the homestead, the farm buildings, and the large stock of agricultural machinery.4

Early in the afternoon of Sunday, 17 January 1886, the Rev E.H. Granger, vicar of Waipukurau, was riding from Waipukurau to conduct a service in the schoolroom at the sawmilling settlement of Takapau, on the northern edge of the Seventy Mile Bush. He knew that his Takapau flock had shared the township's privations in bush fires over Christmas, but that the danger now seemed to be past. After a few miles his journey gave him good views across Alexander Grant's sheep station, Burnside, which ran in a long narrow strip along the edge of the bush across the Makaretu River from Takapau. Soon he noticed that a large fire had broken out on Burnside, and that although Grant had got some scores of men promptly to work beating at the flames, the task was beyond them, and the fire was spreading in all directions. Granger quickly decided to change his plans for the afternoon. Setring his horse to a gallop, he soon burst in upon his Takapau congregation. He dismissed them, calling all the able-bodied men among them to follow him to join the fire battle. By the end of the afternoon the reinforced page 19 firefighters had brought the flames under control. More than 2,000 acres of Burnside had been burnt over and also portions of the neighbouring Fairfield and Lambertsford runs, but no buildings had been lost. Things might well have been much worse but for the muscular Christianity of the Rev E.H. Granger.5

On the morning of Tuesday, 29 December 1885, Oyster Saloon proprietor George Smart and his shopman William Duffy slept on in their rooms above the saloon on the west side of Wellington's Lambton Quay, a little south of Woodward Street, while the city stirred and launched itself into another day. They were tired from long hours of evening work, for trade had been brisk over the holiday period beginning on Christmas Eve. Their regular customers from the growing city and the seamen from the colony's busiest port would have been augmemed by stationhands in town from the Wairarapa runs, and railway navvies and bushmen down from the virgin country being opened by the new line into the Horowhenua bush. George and William had not shut up shop till half an hour after midnight, and their sleep may have been restless due to their failure to track down the source of a worrying smell of burning paper about the place shortly before they retired to bed. The saloon was one of a jumble of close-packed wooden shops whose construction had taken little account of fire risk, and which were now sunbaked by the persistent drought. About 8 a.m. George was awakened by the sound of knocking and opened his eyes to find his bedroom filling with smoke. He called out to William while dressing as quickly as he could. He tried to get down by the stairs but the smoke drove him back, so he climbed out the front window and down over the signboard to drop into the street. William escaped by the back window, with his clothes in his hands. George had furnished his saloon lavishly and equipped it with a piano. He saved only the clothes he wore and a violin. Half a dozen of his small shopkeeper neighbours were similarly ravaged.6

We shall find many similar incidents as we unfold the story of this summer of fires. But fires out of control were not special to the summer of 1885– 86; this season was unusual only in their colony-wide spread, and in their reaching the level of regional disaster in two provinces. This study will endeavour to advance our understanding of the role of fire, both as a tool and a danger, in settler New Zealand. Especially in forest districts, fire was a major too! of land clearance, but a tool by no means easy to control. Fire was therefore an endemic danger on the settlement frontiers in any dry period. But fire was also a recurrent threat throughout the settlers' world, for it was a world built largely of wood. Brick, stone, tiles, cement and plaster had been important traditional building materials in the world from which they came, but their use in New Zealand was discouraged by the fine indigenous timber resources and the earthquake risk. Buildings were mainly of page 20 wood, often roofed with wooden shingles. Bridges, culverts and fences were of wood. The handiwork of the cooper, wheelwright, cartwright, and cabinetmaker filled many needs that in the Old World were often met by other materials such as ceramics and metals. This world of wood was ill protected, for in their new, scattered, labour-hungry communities the settlers had made only limited progress in organising and equipping themselves for firefighting. A long drought made the 1885–86 summer particularly disastrous, but on a smaller, localised scale such happenings were perennial in colonial New Zealand.

The 1885–86 fires make a dramatic story which is well worth telling for itself, and this will be part of our concern in Part One ‘Fire Storm Summer’. But throughout, and especially in Part Two ‘Anatomy of a Settler Society’, we will be using the fires to uncover the nature and dynamics of this settler world, especially the new rural world which it was creating. Social historians are well aware of the difficulty of uncovering the life of the common people. In the ephemeral, rapidly changing world of the settlement frontiers it becomes especially difficult. Our pioneer bush settlers are a particularly difficult group to get to grips with. In 1956 George Jobberns pointed to the making over of the accessible parts of the North Island into grassland as ‘the outstanding achievement of our people’, and observed that although ‘the achievements of all these struggling people make the really significant history of the North Island’ he knew of ‘no adequate historical account of what was involved in the doing’.7 Other writers have commented on the ‘anonymous’ character of bush settlements, on a notable lack of records left by the settlers, and on the difficulties of giving an adequate account of the 19th century virgin forest sawmilling industry.8 Our aim is to use this summer of fires to make progress in filling such gaps in our historical understanding.

As this chapter's examples illustrate, the fires served to strip away the hidden, anonymous character of frontier life, and expose it to the world. For a few weeks public attention focused on the widespread struggle to protect home, life and living that was proceeding in the hinterlands. The press, that prolific and ubiquitous reporter and commentator on colonial life, briefly turned from its more common urban bias to record and explain the rural crises suddenly thrust into its attention. The great masses of smoke darkening the day over large parts of the country, and the lurid flickerings on many a distant skyline each night, could not be ignored. As trainloads of urban fire brigadesmen and volunteers were thrown into the battles up the line, and carriagefuls of scorched, destitute, bleary-eyed refugees were unloaded to the care of local townsmen, the presses and telegraph lines quickly enlisted the colony's concern. Refugees were interviewed and the relief trains carried reporters to get first-hand news from the front. The towns rallied to raise relief funds, and local and regional leaders grappled with the problems page 21 of relief and reconstruction. Both on the fire frontiers and back in the relieving centres, the crisis elicited and tested local leadership, and put the workings of local government and other community institutions to the test.

The summer of 1885–86 is also a useful point at which to tackle another blind spot in our settlement story. We have comparatively good studies of the founding years of the main settlements in the 18405 and 18505, of the gold rushes of the 18605 and of the Vogel immigration drive of the 1870s. The 18905 and the early 20th century have also attracted considerable attention, so that the Liberal government's reforms, the rise of trade unionism, and the growth of the refrigerated export industries are fairly well understood. For rural life, the rise of the sheep stations and the wool trade was well documented at the time, and has received copious attention since. What we do not have is adequate treatment of the rise of the yeoman farmer in the later decades of the 19th century, and particularly we have little account of what he was thinking and doing in the years before it became obvious that his long term fortunes would be built around the new refrigerated exports. By looking closely at the 1885–86 summer, we shall gain much understanding of the creation of the landscape, the rural society, and the economic infrastructure that undergirded the rise of the dairy and meat industries, and from the 18905 began sending strong echelons of farmer politicians to give a unique flavour to our national politics.9

The 18805 also saw the maturing of the political and administrative structures which from the mid 18705 replaced the Provincial System. The fires tested the comparatively new local bodies and the local branches of the fledgling central government departments, and we shall be able to see how they responded to the challenge. The fires also raise questions about the essential nature of the new society which was emerging from the colonising process. Our introductory examples have an enigmatic flavour when related back to our images of Old World traditions. There is something primeval about the Woodruffe story-the well and the windlass, and the faithful horse dying beside her master's refuge. George Newman and his coach team, braving highway dangers to get the mail through, have a late 18th or early 19th century flavour, as also does the forthright activist vicar of Waipukurau. But William Harrison charging the grass fire on his traction engine is surely a later 19th century figure-a product of the mature industrial revolution. George Smart's Lambton Quay Oyster Saloon, too, with its suggestion of proletarian affluence, has a more modern flavour. Were there, in fact, significant ways in which this new world was re-enacting the history of the old? Or was it predominantly adapting the old's contemporary forms to a new environment? And were there any important aspects of the settlers' world that were sui generis?. Part One will suggest many such questions for consideration in Part Two.