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

Classes and interests

Classes and interests

There has been a good deal of discussion among New Zealand historians as to the significance of class consciousness in the shaping of settler society, and we will not retrace the matter here.20 Class feelings and traditions were strong in the British hearthland and some carry-over in customs and attitudes was inevitable. However my own reading of the colonial situation in the mid 1880s is that class had a limited significance as a shaping force in colonial society, which is not to say that the settlers were not grouped into a range of different roles in relationship to the means of production. Rather, it seems that contemporaries felt more at home with the 18th-century way of analysing society into vertical divisions by source of livelihood than with a horizontal division by class. Once organised settlement had begun, the landed interest had quickly elbowed aside the earlier missionary and whaling and sealing interests, ridden out the brief day of glory of the mining interest and gained a dominance in New Zealand life which it held till well page 127 into the 20th century. As we have seen, the landed interest was divided between die squatter and the yeoman ideals. What they had in common and their areas of conflict will become more clear in the chapters that follow. The colony's heavy dependence on overseas trade gave the merchant interest a dominant place in urban New Zealand. The mining and timber interests were also of major importance.

To my mind, our colonial landed interest falls into five main groups. The squatter ‘gentry’ and the family farm ‘yeomen’ we have already seen. My third group is the cottagers and petty landholders who supplemented wage labour with some subsistence husbandry. Well in tune with the yeoman ideal, they streamed steadily into yeoman farming. I call them peasant labourers or, if they had a craft, peasant tradesmen. My fourth group is the rural service proprietors—carriers, contractors, millers, brewers, innkeepers, storekeepers, blacksmiths and suchlike. They, too, moved readily into yeoman farming. Finally there were station hands and farm labourers, working for wages without aspiring to own home or land.

Most of the colony's urban settlers belonged to what might be termed the service interest. In the many small towns they worked together in a fairly egalitarian way, recognising that their centre's success in competition with its rivals depended on their cooperating for the common good. In the main centres class groupings, roughly paralleling those of the landed interest, were more in evidence, though even here the lines were blurred by the various facets of what Claire Toynbee has labelled ‘frontierism’.21 There was, however, something of an urban gentry, which in Victorian Wellington was made up of

wealthy landowners, professionals, politicians, managers or proprietors of substantial businesses, often merchants, senior government officials, ship's captains, top clergymen and regular army officers.22

As Roberta Nicholls points out, the dividing line for this gentry came just above shopkeepers.23 Shopkeepers and tradesmen formed a group comparable to the yeomen, with a strong tradition of the small scale family business. White collar workers were quite numerous in urban New Zealand with its large export/import and distribution functions. As in Britain they had a firm belief in some identity of interest with their employers, an identity often expressed in emulation of the latter's dress and manners.24 In Wellington the largest groups at the lower end of the social scale were the wharf labourers of the colony's largest port, and the domestic servants.