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

The bush yeoman

The bush yeoman

Was Stratford's diverse semi-subsistence farm economy a reflection of the general aims of the colony's bush yeomen? Or did it merely represent an early stage of bush settlement? Or perhaps the consequences of a lack of millable timber and remoteness from markets? By broadening our horizons we will show that Stratford's settlers were working to a pattern which the majority of bush yeomen had in mind in 1885–86. And we will then look for the sources from which they drew it. We turn first to a more fully developed farm in an older Taranaki bush settlement.

The Taranaki Herald of 14 January 1886 has a detailed description of H.J. Turner's Poplar Grove farm on Junction Road, two miles east of Inglewood. It is presented as a model of what could be achieved in 11 years' work on a heavily bushed section. Of its 180 acres, 110 had been cleared and 15 were ploughable. After spade work in the earliest years, the first ploughing was of two acres in the sixth year, for grain crops. In the 1885–86 season the cropping acreages were: wheat 2, oats I, potatoes 2, carrots I, field peas ½, horse beans ½, linseed ½, orchard and kitchen garden 2. Lesser crops included buckwheat and mangolds. Several acres of cultivated land were in hay and grass seed. There was a dairy herd of 23 cows. With the opening of the Moa Dairy Factory the previous season, the farm's dairy was at a standstill. The Turners milled their own wheat for household flour and bran to feed to calves. They also had an apiary. The oats were for the farm's horses. The farm's well laid out buildings, fences and ponga pathways are also described. It is a picture of variety and a large measure of self sufficiency, presented as an example of yeoman achievement.

page 151

The agricultural journalism of the time shows that what the Stratford settlers were setting out to create, and what Poplar Farm had in a large measure achieved, were in line with colonial expectations for bush yeoman farms. In Wellington's New Zealand Industrial Gazette of 20 September 1884 ‘Nomad’ has an article on ‘The Bush Settlements of New Zealand’ in which he sees the probable future of the bush as including grain, hops, tobacco, wool, and stock for the frozen meat trade. ‘Nomad’ overlooks dairying. An article on ‘Bush Farming’ in the New Zealand Farmer of September 1887 sees the bush settler's path as including ‘butter making, fungus gathering, beekeeping, potato and fruit growing and poultry raising’. Newspaper accounts of bush districts in the 1870s and 1880s almost invariably depict a similarly diverse farm economy. Of course differences in climate from district to district led to differing emphases. As a contrast to Stratford we will take Woodville, a bush settlement dating from 1875, in the drier climate of Hawke's Bay. The sheep returns for 31 May 1885 show no flocks at Stratford whereas drier Woodville had 25 flocks totalling over 10,000 sheep. Woodville's sheep owed something to the settlers' Old World origins, and probably a good deal also to the influence of the neighbouring squatter districts. However the number of flocks was down from 36 in the previous year, as a consequence of the opening of Woodville's first dairy factory in 1884. Earlier few had been interested in cows. But Woodville was not given over solely to grazing. It will have had its share of the more than 1,000 acres of grain recorded for Waipawa county in the 1885–86 season. At the local Horticultural and Industrial Society's show in March 1885 there were exhibits of tobacco, hops, fruit and honey as well as butter.33 A New Zealand Farmer correspondent passing through in 1890 noted small orchards ‘all along the road’.34 It seems that a monoculture of grass for dairying and frozen meat only really began to grip the bush settler mind in the last years of the century.

For the origins of the yeoman ideal which was being adapted to the New Zealand bush we have to go back to the long past of Europe's peasantry and the more recent history of the British family farm. The importance of the small-scale family-based farm in 19th-century England has been strongly stated in recent years by Mick Reed. He shows that rural historians have been too fascinated by the three-tier hierarchy of large landlord, well capitalised tenant farmer and rural proletariat, and have too readily written off the family farmer as numerically insignificant and unimportant. Briefly, Reed concludes that the cut-off point between family-based production and capitalist farming was around 100 acres. Though smallholdings occupied little more than a fifth of the land, 91.8 per cent of holdings in England in 1885 were smaller than 100 acres. The family farm is thus too important to be ignored. It is especially important to the historian of New Zealand where it established a predominance over much of the countryside. One senses in page 152 Reed's account that here are important roots of the colonial bush yeoman tradition. We will sketch in some of his main points by referring to his “The Peasantry of Nineteenth-Century England: a Neglected Class?’35

Reed shows that subsistence farming survived quite vigorously in various parts of 19th-century England (p. 55). The agricultural returns suggest that occupiers of agricultural land were probably twice as numerous as those calling themselves ‘farmers’ (p. 56). A large proportion of the holdings under 100 acres were not held by ‘farmers’. ‘Some … were doubtless held by wealthy businessmen, clergy and similar groups, but most were held by rural tradespeople’ (p. 56). Reed cites examples including carpenters, grocers and blacksmiths, with evidence that ‘most rural tradespeople probably relied mainly on family labour’ (pp. 567). At the lower end of the social scale it was not easy to distinguish between the labourer with land and the family farmer augmenting his income with wage labour (p. 57). Reed describes several ways in which small-scale agriculturalists gained access to land besides owning it (p. 58). Exchange arrangements among these folk were often handled after an older ‘credit and barter’ tradition rather than the capitalist market (p. 61). Reed might almost be writing a blueprint for the Stratford pioneer bush community and its economy.

Both colonial bush yeoman and English peasant farmer would probably have seen something of themselves in a contemporary English writer's nostalgic description of his impression of the 15th-century yeoman:

The necessaries of life were cheap and plentiful, the habits of life were simple; all the members of a yeoman's family were labourers on the farm; the women milked the cows, span the wool, and made up the garments; almost every article consumed was of home manufacture.35

But the experience of the founding years of a New Zealand bush settlement would have been more medieval in flavour than that of contemporary English family farms. Like the medieval peasant, the bush yeoman depended mainly on his own muscles, with minimal assistance from draught animals, the wheel, or technology more advanced than the spade, axe or sickle. Among the logs, roots and stumps of a new bush clearing, draught animals were of little use. In any case, as with the medieval peasant, it was a question of affording them. For draught animals competed with the struggling settler for the clearing's limited food and cash crop resources. So it was back to hand labour, with pick, adze and hoe; spade rather than plough, sickle rather than the more advanced scythe. The first home was commonly a ponga whare, followed shortly by a split timber one, both ‘home made’, furnished and fuelled from materials hacked from the section. The first working animals were likely to be riding horses; the Stratford fire losses seem to indicate these rather than draught horses. But draught animals must have been about page 153 to put in an appearance for, as was so common in Taranaki, much of the bush had been mahoe which decayed quickly, often making it possible to plough as early as six years after felling. Inglewood's Poplar Farm would have had some draught animal for its ploughable 15 acres, but the crops would have been reaped by sickle or scythe, and beyond the 15 acres the axe, grubber and spade would have been in constant use.

Of course this ‘medievalism’ in bush life and work derived largely from settler poverty and the particular conditions of a new bush clearing. It would become much less marked as the farm matured and prospered. But even those, and there were some, who took considerable capital to a bush section, had to start with primitive technology. Since contract bush felling was becoming very competitive by the mid 1880s, they had the choice of speeding up the felling, logging up and stumping, to achieve an earlier breakthrough to a more modern farm technology. For several decades from the early 1870s, when extensive bush settlement began, widespread primitive, semi-subsistence hand-tool, peasant farming coexisted beside modern bureaucratic railway and telegraph systems and modern capitalistic sawmills and newspapers. Many who settled the bush may have set out with rustic dreams owing much to the peasant past. But they did so in the context of draught animal technology on the bush tramways, of steam technology on rail and in mill, of modern communication systems to bring them ample information about the promises of the coming of refrigeration. By the mid 1880s more modern visions were beginning to undermine the traditional rustic dreams

In 19th-century England it was the yeoman's ‘medieval’ aspects that accounted for his low esteem. When compared with the tenant farmer he was given a bad name by contemporaries who believed that ‘with his ignorance, traditional outlook and lack of capital’ he was ‘always a bad farmer’.37 How justified this criticism was is not our concern, but we can say that it has little relevance to the New Zealand yeoman. Partly this was because the benefits which the English drew from the improving landlord/innovative tenant relationship were mediated by a variety of different relationships in the colony. We have already seen how the gentry served as midwives in the rise of the yeomen, but there were also other important providers of agricultural leadership in the bush districts, several of which we can illustrate from our Stratford and Inglewood examples. The Crown Land ranger often became a friend and mentor of the settlers. Such a man was G.F. Robinson, who watched over Inglewood and Stratford from their foundations and was described in 1891 as ‘a gentleman having a thorough knowledge of our back country’.38 The stock and station agent was another important source of farming advice and information, and an introducer of agricultural innovations. Newton King, who sent his stockman to help round up the Stratford cattle who had ‘gone bush’ in the great fire, was certainly such a man. On his death in page 154 1927 he was described as ‘the “man of the hour” in the early ‘eighties in Taranaki’, because ‘above all others he appreciated what assistance, great and small, would mean to the farmers'.39 Mentors just beginning to appear in the mid 1880s were the dairy factory managers and government advisers on dairying. There was self help too. In Inglewood of the 1880s there were regular meetings of the Moa Farmers Club.40 If they knew what they were about, the yeoman and his family team had one great advantage over other labour arrangements. This was the constant personal supervision which they commonly gave to their crops and their stock.