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

The village and the globe

The village and the globe

I explained the importance of this pattern for Victorian New Zealand in a 1976 article and my subsequent researches have only reinforced my conviction of its significance.5 This settler community was essentially a village world, but a village world that was responding to ideas and influences that were global in the scope of their origins. ‘New Zealand’ was of relatively less importance as a frame of reference. New Zealand's founding stock was drawn predominantly from village life in the Old World, and the village outlook which they brought with them was sustained and reinforced by the colony's geography. New Zealand-born New South Wales parliamentarian Arthur Rae neatly summed up the situation when revisiting his native colony in 1892. He wrote of ‘this long, loosely-built, jumbled-up mass of lofty, snow-clad mountain ranges, dark narrow valleys, filled with almost impenetrable bush jungles, and open plains crossed by cold, deep and treacherous rivers'. He concluded that ‘New Zealand is by nature the home of localism’.6 Here again there is a significant parallel with the United States, where Daniel J. page 119 Boorstin has shown at length that communities existed before either governments or nationalism.7 In New Zealand this localism found political expression in a multitude of local bodies. Thus the Hawera Star of 3 August 1885 drew attention to the fact that Taranaki (whose population was then under 18,000) had a total of about 100 local bodies, made up of the education, hospital waste lands and public reserves boards, 4 county councils, 3 borough councils, 3 harbour boards, 20 licensing committees, 4 domain boards, 6 cemetery boards, 26 road boards and about 20 school committees. We will look briefly at road boards and school committees as expressions of localism.

The Counties Act of 1876, in setting up 63 counties to carry on certain of the functions of the abolished provinces, allowed existing road boards to continue to function, and also made provision for the residents of any locality to petition for the setting up of a road board to serve their district. It is clear that many rural settlers agreed with the sentiments of a Stratford correspondent of the New Plymouth Budget, that in his district ‘the whole science of politics … may be summed up as roads, roads, ROADS'.8 The strength of the desire for this matter to be in local hands is shown by the fact that by 1883 the colony had 320 road boards. The framers of the 1877 Education Act had clearly envisaged that the main administrative decisions would be in the hands of the regional education boards, but in fact, due to the strength of localism, they often gravitated to the local school committees. In Otago the committees tussled successfully with the board to retain the virtual control over teacher appointments that they had enjoyed in provincial times. In effect ‘grassroots’ democracy frustrated repeated attempts by the board to construct a viable promotion system for its teachers. The weapons so successfully used by the committees were the Act's requirement that they be consulted in all appointment, and its provision that the committees elected the boards.9 The situation as regards appointments varied from board to board, but even the Wellington board, which in general managed to maintain a strong control of appointments, had to advise a good teacher whose committee had decided that it wanted her replaced that ‘teachers cannot work against a committee’.10

Each significant New Zealand locality thus became an arena for continuous debate, lobbying, decision and action on important public matters. While much of the necessary discussion and exchange of information took place in public meetings and neighbourly conversation, the colonial press also reflected and gave voice to this localism. Not only was the press widely present in small town New Zealand, but it reached down to give a remarkably extensive coverage of village affairs. The elections and proceedings of the many local committees and boards were well reported. Correspondence columns carried much ‘parish pump’ material. A network of ‘Our Own page 120 Correspondents' covered the newspaper's circulation district, giving a continual commentary on each local scene, often laced with the boosterism of inter-village rivalry. Where two or three papers were competing for a locality's patronage, often each would have a correspondent reporting on its affairs. What makes it possible to follow the cat and mouse game between the fires and the scatter of little Seventy Mile Bush settlements is the reporting by local correspondents of rival newspapers in Napier, Waipawa and Woodville.

From these local correspondents one can learn of a rich range of grassroots social and cultural life. I will comment here on one aspect only. J.C Dakin has recently shown that the typical adult education institution of later colonial New Zealand, following the decline of the mechanics' institutes which the early settlers brought with them, was the strongly localised mutual improvement society.11 This was in sharp contrast to Britain and Australia where the mechanics' institutes maintained their vitality and where university extension and technical education made major contributions. Dakin comments on ‘the widespread diffusion and general popularity of the mutual improvement societies' and he judges that the movement ‘constituted the most significant development in adult education in the period 1870–1915’. The societies were very much creations of the local communities; there was very little networking or outside input into their activities.

So much for the village, now for the globe. The most powerful of the global influences impinging on the settler villages were those originating in the Old World homelands, mediated by both memory and continuing strong contacts. Typically a New Zealand settler locality was invigorated by the mixing of blood, ideas and customs drawn from all parts of Britain, with not uncommonly a Continental element as well. In addition the New Zealand colonial community was very aware of developments in Australia and North America, and receptive to influences from these sources. New Zealand's wool and gold industries were both in effect extensions of earlier developments in Australia. Thus many settlers had a period of Australian experience behind them, and an intricate network of interrelationships gave a significant Australasian dimension to colonial New Zealand. The New World of North America was also too prominent and too relevant to be ignored. It was, of course, the major destination of the British emigration flow and many New Zealand settlers had friends and relatives there. The New Zealand press responded to the strong global awareness of our founding stock by reprinting a wide range of material drawn from the experience of the other English-speaking settler communities. Politicians, administrators and business leaders also combed the globe for relevant ideas, innovations and precedents.