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

Case study—Canterbury and Little River

Case study—Canterbury and Little River

This case study firs the history of the Little River bush settlement into the larger ‘forest product’ history of the province. Canterbury is the only province with reasonably good figures for 1885 timber consumption. Local production was only 14,660 tons. The case made to the government for the Midland Railway gives the year's imports as 14,000 tons through Lyttelton, 3,540 tons through Timaru and 4,000 tons by rail from Southland.14 Kirk's page 138 1886 report noted that Canterbury was the province least well endowed in forests, with production declining as districts cut out. The nine mills at Oxford, the chief sawmilling centre, and the six on Banks Peninsula, between them produced two thirds of the provinces output. Milling had ceased at Alford Forest, and was nearing its end on Banks Peninsula.15 All told, Canterbury used 46,200 tons of timber in 1885. At 190 superficial feet per head this was considerably less than the colonial average of around 300. The cost of importing timber had led to some substitution of other building materials but more important will have been Canterbury's substantial population loss on interprovincial migration. At the 1886 census Canterbury, with 21 per cent of the colony's population, had only 6.8 per cent of the houses under construction.

Canterbury's forest resources, then, will have been under particular pressure to meet the local demand for firewood and fencing materials. Campbell-Walker's 1877 report notes the thoroughness of the reaping of the Oxford Forest. The land was let three times, first for logs for the mills, then for fencing timber, and finally for firewood, with royalties for each harvest. In the 1885–86 year the Oxford branch line carried 4,000 tons of firewood but only 1,000 tons of timber. A South Canterbury migrant to Taranaki in the early 1880s told of paying £4 a cord in the south for firewood carted from over 40 miles away.16 Banks Peninsula's hillsides continued to provide firewood long after the sawmillers had finished with them. The Akaroa Mail's shipping columns of December 1885 give evidence of continuing exports from Akaroa's milled-over hill slopes. On 4 December they report ‘The E.U. Cameron dropped down to the Kaik yesterday to load 8 cords of firewood’. The E. U. Cameron was a 40-ton ketch that had just unloaded 20,000 feet of timber from Foxton. On 9 December the Mail shows the 20-ton ketch Blackwall sailing for Lyttelton with a load of firewood. The year's railway statistics show Lyttelton dispatching 2,920 tons of firewood. This will have come in on the little ketches and cutters from the bays of Banks Peninsula and they will also have been feeding the local Lyttelton market. Railway statistics show Canterbury importing 2,655 tons of firewood from south of the Waitaki and local producers dispatching 10,240 tons. There is of course no way of estimating the total supply. One would expect it to be well short of the province's fuel requirements with coal making up the difference, but the available coal statistics put Canterbury's usage per head at about the colonial average.

Despite the deficiency in forest resources, then, access to any available timber was sought with vigour. The harvesting of Little River's bush illustrates this well. Banks Peninsula's many bays and inlets gave easy sea access to most of its forests, but not to those of Little River, which thus remained almost untapped until the 1860s. Then an entrepreneur appeared who saw page 139 how modern technology could link Little River with the Christchurch market in a scheme foreshadowing Hawke's Bay's ‘town, country, bush’ archetype of a decade later. This was William White, a self-taught engineer ‘regarded in early Canterbury as a near genius in the contracting and bridge building business'.17 In 1873 he successfully completed what was then New Zealand's longest bridge over the treacherous Rakaia River, using timber from his mill at Little River. He has several claims on our attention as his varied career also had links with the sufferers in both the Little River and the Rakaia fires of 1885–86, and with some of the settlers in our next case study of Stratford, Taranaki. With a background in silk manufacturing, he immigrated in 1852, living first at Kaiapoi as a brickmaker, shopkeeper and sawyer. Moving into road and bridge contracting, he made his name as a bridge designer and builder with the main Waimakariri bridge, completed in 1863. While professionally trained engineers were recommending solid elaborate iron bridges, White showed that much cheaper, simple, wooden bridges, with high, light wooden piles to carry the deck above floodwater level, were more suited to the Canterbury rivers. While building the Waimakariri bridge, White negotiated with the provincial government the right to lay a tramway from Christchurch to tap the forests at Little River. The first stage, built early in 1863, linked Christchurch with the Halswell quarry; later that year a short line was built linking the mill he was acquiring at Little River with Lake Forsyth. From there the timber was rafted or punted across the lake to Birdlings Flat, where a tramway took it over the flat to Lake Ellesmere. White put shallow draft paddle steamers on Ellesmere to carry the timber across to Timberyard point.18 As the projected tramway from Christchurch was never carried through to the lake, the timber was dispersed from there by wagon according to market demand. In this way White provided much of the timber for building Southbridge and Leeston. Sleepers for the Main South railway and the timbers for White's masterpiece, the Rakaia bridge, were hauled over the country which the grass fire of 24 December 1885 swept across. Most of the buildings destroyed or threatened by that fire will have been built of timber supplied by White. The timber for Hurst's Oakleigh homestead is reported to have been brought by the wagons carrying the bridge timber.19 White's interest in the Rakaia extended beyond bridging it. He designed and carried through various river control works for the North Rakaia River Board of Conservators, for which he was paid with land grants. He thus became a considerable land owner in the area with property on both sides of the river. Mrs White was an enthusiast for trees, and thousands of them were planted for shelter and ornament on their Langley estate, three miles south of Rakaia.20 They must also have planted along the north bank of the Rakaia. In the fight for the plantations along the riverbank west of Southbridge on the evening of 24 December 1885 the main loss was ‘nearly page 140 half of White's gums'.21

Gordon Ogilvie's account of Little River in his Banks Peninsula: Cradle of Canterbury lists a number of White's workmen who later settled on the land there.22 Among them were several who suffered in the fires of 1885–86, including John Foley, John and Michael Keenan and James Clark. Another was James Belcher who migrated north to Stratford to suffer in the fire there. Other Stratford settlers with links with both Little River and William White were Noah Walters and his family. Noah was a Little River builder who with a partner built a bridge over the Okana River for White in 1865. Noah also built Little Rivers Anglican Church and Maori church. In the Return of Freeholders 1882 he appears as owning £30 worth of land in Akaroa County and 157 acres in Hawera County. This latter must be the 157 acres on Waingongoro Road for which Francis W. Walters received the crown grant in 1892; he will have been the W. Walters hit there by the great fire. The ‘Mr Walter’ who built the first ponga whate for John Watkin and his family on their arrival in Cardiff in 1880 was probably A.J. Walters who later built Cardiff's first school and first cheese factory.23 He was the first owner of a block of 250 acres across the Waingongoro River from Francis Walters. Noah may have followed these sons north after his Little River building business was burnt down in 1881. In 1883 Noah designed Mehaffy's new Stratford hotel and his son built it.24

Little River's timber and firewood must have provided a strong part of the case for the Lincoln-Little River branch line, opened in March 1886. It had, in fact, begun tapping the forests a year or two earlier. Timber (2,287 tons) and firewood (2,435 tons) suddenly appear in the outward goods from Lincoln in the year to 31 March 1885. In the 1886 year Lincoln and Birdlings Flat between them dispatched 2,031 tons of timber and 1,795 tons of firewood. Little River dispatched 2,080 tons of timber and 2,445 tons of firewood in the 1887 year. Little River thus joined Oxford in a Canterbury version of the ‘town, country, bush, and linking railway’ pattern.