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

Case study—The Stratford fire losses

Case study—The Stratford fire losses

George Marchant's survey of the Stratford fire losses provides a rare chance to examine in some detail the early days of a yeoman economy in a young bush settlement. The Stratford settlers had to concentrate on farming their clearings from the start as the virgin forest harvest had little to offer them. While there were sawmills at nearby Ngaere and Midhirst, Stratford and its surrounding rural sections apparently had nothing to tempt the millers. As regards other forest products, Stratford suffered from the province's domination by forest and from its position at the far reaches of the two small ‘town, country, bush’ patterns. New Plymouth and Hawera, the local capitals respectively of North and South Taranaki, drew their firewood from much nearer than Stratford. The farmers of Taranaki's coastal strip of‘country’ also drew their posts and other forest needs from much closer to hand. Marchant listed losses for 69 settlers; only three had lost any forest produce. Joseph Jones had lost 1,000 posts worth £70, Thomas Kennedy split timber worth £20, and carpenter Stephen Saville some new furniture ready for sale, worth perhaps £10. These were probably all for local Stratford use, and at about £100 the value is a trivial part of Marchant's total of £4,300.

Figure 11.5 gives a sample of how Marchant listed the losses. His report has the authority of experience behind it, for he had worked his own way up from labourer to successful bush yeoman and respected local leader. As we saw in Chapter 6, it was largely in agreement with T.K. Skinner's report and proved invaluable in the relief committee's deliberations. We will use it to establish the nature of the farm economy the Stratford settlers had been building.

Marchant's entries are brief. In some the losses are individually itemised, in others grouped together. Fortunately he provides a short discussion of how he went about his task. He valued pasture at £1 an acre, grass seed at £2 page 144
Figure 11.5. Sample extracts, George Marchant's report (Source: Hawera Star, 18 January 1886)

Figure 11.5. Sample extracts, George Marchant's report (Source: Hawera Star, 18 January 1886)

an acre. For ‘buildings and sundries’ he took ‘great care … to name low values'. He listed all significant losses of log fencing but placed no value on it ‘as its destruction is necessary sooner or later’. In a few cases he gives the settler's own valuation of his losses (as for Joseph Belcher in Figure 11.5); they are all much higher than Marchant's. It is not easy to assemble such material into a simple overview, and even if one does there is the question of how effectively it samples the different facets of the economy. Appendix 2 summarises the losses, categorising them to show the main areas of husbandry affected. Table 11.1 attempts an even more summary overview.
We will examine the rural economy first. The most universal rural loss was clearly pasture. If we put pasture and seed grass together, 41 of the 48 rural settlers had grass crop losses. For 16 of these settlers the grass crop can be separated out; Marchant puts it at £793 out of their total loss of £1,001. We can safely say that grass was the main feature in the husbandry of these settlers, that they had all had some grass at risk, and that it must have represented over half of their total losses as estimated by Marchant. This is not surprising, for this was a young bush settlement and grass was of necessity the first crop. What is surprising is that there had been 11 losses of crops and page 145
Table 11.1 Stratford fire losses and the settler economy
Number of settlers involved
TOTAL number with losses492271
Lost: Home10919
         Log Fencing13013
         Seed Grass21223
Evidence of:
         Milch cows7[+4?]*29 [or 13?]*
         Pig keeping9211
2 of orchards. It is not at all clear that these folk were as committed to grass as their loss figures might suggest. We must probe these lists to see what these folk had in mind for their emerging farms in January 1886, looking first at the outlook for grass.

Once his first grass got away the settler had to decide what he would do with it. The options were pasture and hay for stock or shutting it up for grass seed; many settlers were trying both. In either case some kind offence was needed, either to keep stock in or to keep it out. A short term solution, and one which helped with clearing the land, was the unsightly log fence. The figures show that a good proportion of the settlers had moved on to wire fences. In his report Marchant remarked that shutting up grass for a seed harvest was ‘always more or less a speculation’ at risk from fire and water. Some of the Stratford experience in handling this seed harvest had been brought from Banks Peninsula, the Mecca of the colonial cocksfoot page 146 seed industry. A group of Marchant's neighbours on the Cardiff and Waingongoro Roads had migrated there from Banks Peninsula. We have already noted the migration from Little River of the Walters brothers and James Belcher. Joseph Belcher must surely have been a brother of James's. Charles Burrell on Cardiff Road is indicated by entries in the Return of Freeholders, and correspondence from descendants held in the Turnbull Library,26 to have been the son of a Little River pioneer. Pilcher Ralfe's wife was from Banks Peninsula and a daughter was born at Wainui about 1868.27 Others of their neighbours may also have been from the Peninsula. William Johnson, who is reported to have come to the Cardiff district with Ralfe and to have been his kinsman, may be one. John Sharrock, first owner of 122 acres neighbouring Joseph Belcher on Waingongoro Road, is something of a puzzle. He must certainly be the John Sherrocks, settler, Little River, with 122 acres in Hawera County, of the 1882 freeholders' return. His neighbours all suffered severely in the fire but Marchant's list ignores the Sharrock property. Yet in the Taranaki Herald of 14 January 1886 a correspondent visiting the fire-damaged Cardiff district describes ‘a pretty little place belonging to Mr Sharrock on which a house and garden had been destroyed’. The answer to this conundrum probably lies in Marchant's entry showing a ‘Sherrock, wife & child’ losing a ponga whare on leasehold land in the township, along with a dairy and cowshed. Probably the Herald's man was wrong about the house, but Sharrock was developing his rural property while living in the whare in the township, where he could get labouring work to help with straitened finances. He had moved up to the farm by 1891 when John Sharrock, Waingongoro Road, farmer, took shares in the Cardiff Dairy Factory Company.28 Of the Cardiff settlers who can be definitely linked with Banks Peninsula, five lost seed grass in the fire, of a total value of £119.

Those who decided to use their grass for grazing had to choose between dairying and beef, and face the expense of buying stock. Dairying at this stage meant home production of butter, and hence the building and equipping of a dairy. It also usually required pigs and a sty to handle the skim milk by-product. It was a long trail from the Stratford bush clearings to any substantial market for butter, beef and bacon. But when planning ahead during 1885 the settlers would have noted some encouraging signs. The Hawara Star of 22 july reported that 1,973 cattle had been shipped out from Waitara between 1 April and 17 July. In June a freezing works opened at Waitara, and by the spring it was in the market not only for beef but also for butter. In the past the storekeepers had handled the butter trade, buying both for the local market and for export to such places as Auckland and the Thames gold fields. But they gave no cash for butter; the value had to be ‘taken out’ in goods. Now the freezing company's buyer visited the various settlements regularly, with cash for all the good quality butter he could get page 147 at a fair price.29 This will have nudged the Stratford settlers towards extending their grazing pastures in the months before the fires. Others will have been sceptical and, in the short term, right, for the Waitara freezing venture collapsed before two years were up.

From Figure 11.6 it can be seen that dairying was a significant but not a predominant feature in the district's economy. Marchant was not particularly careful in his use of the terms ‘cow’ and ‘cattle’. Some of the cattle in his list were probably milch cows (e.g. William Harre's, John Kirkpatrick's and Matthew Moore's). Probably the best indication of a significant dairy herd is the presence of pigs. Cows were good at fending for themselves in a bush fire, and many of them escaped into the bush. The dairy is likely to have been near the house, and defended with only a little less rigour than the home itself. So the losses of cows and dairies probably understate the importance of dairying. But the pigsty is likely to have been at a distance from the home, and it and the helpless pigs inside were very much at risk. Of the 9 rural settlers who lost pigs 5 were definitely dairying, and another, Harre, lost 5 cattle. It is highly probable that all 9 had dairy herds. It is of interest that 6 of the 9 were on Pembroke Road. These were among the district's earliest settlers as the Pembroke Road sections were sold ahead of Stratford township. They had had the time to get the pasture, and find the money for stock and equipment, for sizable herds. It was to such folk that Marchant referred in discussing the implications of pasture loss, ‘a settler milking from 12 to 20 cows, and making from £2 to £4 a week from butter, besides rearing calves and pigs'. Marchant explained that such a man suddenly found himself with no income and a mass of problems.30

But the settlers had other things in mind besides grass. The fire losses probably understate their commitment to crops, orchards and gardens, which were not as flammable as pigsties and dry grass. Those that were lost must have been scorched from nearby log fences and burning bush. Unfortunately Marchant names the crop for only 3 of the 11 losses. One was green oats, the other two potatoes. We do have a little evidence apart from these fire losses. In the New Plymouth Budget of 30 January 1886 William Tisch of Stratford reported that he had two acres of barley and one of oats ready for the scythe. He is probably the Tisch whom the Hawera Star of 27 October 1882 reported having planted a crop of potatoes on land which had been standing bush four years earlier. Some crops may have been maize; the Hawera Star of 1 April 1884 reported large quantities of it in the clearings between Normanby and Inglewood that season. The mixed semi-subsistence economy of many clearings must have made it difficult for Marchant to decide whether to put down ‘crop’ or ‘garden’. Thus he lists the losses of Montgomery of Monmouth Road as ‘Seed, grass, pasture, cowshed, crop damaged, £60’, but R. Bayley, reporting to the Taranaki Herald(15 January 1886) on his visit page 148 to the property as assistant to Thomas Skinner's investigation, gives the fuller description of ‘25 acres of grass, a lot of fencing, gooseberry and fruit trees, and about 4 acres of garden and other green stuff. In two cases Marchant uses the phrase ‘garden crop’ and these have been put down as gardens in our listing. These and Mrs Kenny's ‘good garden’ must have been somewhere between a kitchen garden and a market garden. In fact many of the clearings must have looked as much like a market garden with subsidiary grass seed cropping and small dairying, as the other way around. A few may have looked more like orchards. The Stratford and Ngaere correspondent of the Hawera Star repeatedly comments on the large amount of fruit grown in his district. In the 23 October 1885 issue he reports ‘a magnificent show of apple and cherry blossoms all over the district’ and in the 12 November issue he suggests a jam factory as ‘currants, gooseberries and strawberries thrive splendidly here’. In 1954 Zilla Watkin had vivid memories of fruit from her early years on the Waingongoro Road clearing—buckets of big red strawberries going begging at school picnics, gooseberries, blackcurrants made into jam by the copperful, a billy of raspberries on for jam when the great fire struck.31 The Stratford settlers, it seems, were still keeping most of their options open in January 1886.

Marchant's report also tells us a little about the rural settlers' homes. Of the 10 homes lost 4 are listed as ‘whares’; these were probably simple one- or two-roomed structures of split timber. At the other end of the scale was Matthew Moore's ‘Four-roomed house, with passage’ insured for £100. This insurance is unusual for a bush district, but probably the insurance company had decided that an iron-roofed house in Stratford's wet climate was an acceptable risk. One other house was insured, that of Clement Saunders, reported by Marchant as ‘House burnt, insured £30’, but more fully described by a visiting correspondent of the Taranaki Herald (14) January 1886) as ‘a neat 4 roomed iron-roofed house’. The special mention of the passage in Moore's house, the iron roof on Saunders', and the four rooms in both cases, leads to the inference that most of these homes were of two or three rooms, shingle-roofed and without passages. Stanford's is described as ‘3-roomed’, Lehmann's and Woodruffe's merely as ‘house’ and J. & W. Moore's as ‘New house, nearly finished, £80’. The average rural home around Stratford in January 1886 was probably very similar to the ‘No I Cottage For Settlers' of Brett's Colonists' Guide of 1883, described as ‘suitable for a small family and limited means'.32 This began as a two-roomed, shingle-roofed cottage costed at £61 is 4d, with two back rooms to be added as a lean-to as required, at a cost of £21 14s 7d. It could be further improved with a verandah costing £9 19s 3d.

Finally we must see what Marchant's report tells about Stratford township. The losses have a very rural look, which is not surprising for this large, page 149
Figure 11.6. Brett's No. 1 Cottage for Settlers (Source: Brett's Colonists' Guide and Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, Auckland, 1883, pp. 723–4)

Figure 11.6. Brett's No. 1 Cottage for Settlers (Source: Brett's Colonists' Guide and Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, Auckland, 1883, pp. 723–4)

thinly peopled bush clearing. The original township clearing had been of 300 acres and, with the occupation of suburban sections, it may by 1886 have been half as large again. The March 1886 census records 229 persons in the Stratford Town District, about one person per two acres. There would have been a concentration around the railway station, with a few substantial buildings, such as Mehaffy's two-storey hotel. Most of the clearing will have been thinly populated, with a mix of homes very like that of the rural settlers. It is not surprising that the township losses include seed grass, pasture and hay; three crops; and the cows, dairies, pigs and sties that show that six of the losers were dairying. A few losers were clearly transient itinerant labourers: the party of four grass seed harvesters who lost their swags; the labourer Howell, working with Standing and Turner on their Brookes Road bridge contract, who lost a horse borrowed in New Plymouth and his swag; possibly Beavans who lost a box of clothes. Another group appear to be labourers or artisans with a semi-subsistence outlook, but probably not planning to go farming. An example is Peter Hunter who lost a garden and fencing. He appears in the Return of Freeholders 1882 as a labourer at Inglewood with £13 worth of land at Stratford, and in the 1890 Egmont electoral roll as page 150 a labourer at Stratford. Northcott, who lost his house and 3 ½ chains of fencing, was a bootmaker, probably not a full-time occupation. Robert Stanley who lost a garden and fencing also lost money, watches and jewellry. He was apparently running a part-time jewellry business from his home.

A rather larger group seem to have been folk who saw their township life as a preliminary to going farming. William Baird, who lost beehives, crop, pigs and sty, appears in the 1882 freeholders' return as a labourer with £10 of township land. The 1890 Egmont electoral roll lists him as ‘farmer Stratford’. The same sources show Murty Collins, who lost fencing, hay and potatoes, as a labourer in Stratford with £10 of township land in 1882, and as a ‘settler’ with a more substantial land holding in 1890. George Capper the contractor, who lost four cattle, and whose wife and children became fugitives down East Road, began a long farming career about 1889. Others who may have been in this category were Boorman, Cooley, Hayes, Pitt and Weir.

* If keeping pigs is taken as evidence of milch cows