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

Wives and children

Wives and children

‘I want a wife who can bear a hand on the cross-cut saw, look after the house, milk the cows, and pick fungus' the Egmont Star's Kaupokonui correspondent was told by one of the local bush settler bachelors. The correspondent, writing in September 1886, comments on his district's startling number of bachelors with their ‘lonely looking little houses built by the roadside throughout the block, some with nice gardens'. Their problem was not that there were no young women in South Taranaki, but that too few met the specification.41 The following month John Finlay, the Hawera Star's correspondent at Manutahi in the open country, decided to visit an old acquaintance who had settled in the bush, to see what life was like there. His friend, John Bentley, had left a clerk's job in the office of his father's Yorkshire weaving business, and was now breaking in a section on Skeet Road with the help of the wife he had married sixteen months previously. Bentley seems to have found a wife in line with bush settler specifications. Arriving late Finlay found the Bentleys about to retire for the night.

The fire was raked, for in the bush the fire is never allowed to go out. Mrs B. soon had the ghreen shaugh (red embers) pulled to the front, and several large logs put on, of which there is an abundant supply close to the back door.42

Finlay found that Bentley was weaning calves from a number of young cows and breaking them to the bail. Timber for a dairy was stacked awaiting a carpenter. In the afternoon of the next day, Sunday, a number of the district's men and women settlers called on the Bentleys. ‘The gentlemen talked of bushfelling, grass, beef, and fungus; while the ladies were dead on butter, cheese and children.’ No doubt Mrs Bentley received plenty of experienced advice about the care of the third member of her household, the ‘little olive branch which was its mother's pride and father's joy’, and about churns and skimming pans, for the planned dairy would doubtless be given into her charge.

page 155

We have too few such glimpses into the life of the bush settler's wife. Those we do have are strongly reminiscent of small farm households in other times and places. Mrs Bentley's stirring up of the embers of ‘the fire that is never allowed to go out’ puts one in mind of the Irish peasant tradition found by Arensberg and Kimball in the laggard world of rural Ireland in 1932. There the day's first duty for a peasant woman was that ‘she must rake together such live ashes as remain in the slaked turf fire in the hearth, put on new sods for the fire, and rekindle the blaze’. She then attended to the farm breakfast and the care of the children, after which came the milking of the cows, the feeding of the farmyard animals and the work of the dairy.43 For some years Mrs Bentley's day must have followed a similar path, until the appearance of the dairy factory removed dairy work (though not the milking shed) from the realm of women to that of men.

By the late 18th-century the women of America's yeoman north were also following a way of life much like Mrs Bentley's bush experience of the mid 1880s. By activities such as poultry raising, and particularly butter making, these women made a significant contribution to family farm economy. As described by Joan M. Jensen, their contribution sounds remarkably like that of New Zealand's bush settler women:

Traditionally, there had been a rough division of labor on the farm by sex. Women did dairying; men raised grain and livestock. But women also had a wide range of other tasks. They serviced, trained, and raised their children. They also sold their surplus production on the market and seasonally and during emergencies helped the men with their tasks.44

Many farms had what might be called a dual household economy. The woman used the income from her sales to finance the purchase of household items. The man used the income from his sales to expand the capital investment in land and equipment.45

For North America the key role played by women in pioneering the dairy industry has now been written into the record. Half a century of similar endeavour in colonial New Zealand has yet to receive an adequate acknowledgement. The propaganda of the early factory stage, with its denigration of the earlier home based industry, has combined with the general male bias of our recorded history to write women almost out of a story in which they were in fact the central players. They are beginning to creep back, fortunately, in recently published pages such as those of The Book of New Zealand Women.46

We turn now to the bush children. They too were part of the family team, contributing to the farm economy from an early age. Thus one of the mothers whom Finlay met at Bentley's that Sunday afternoon in 1886 proudly page 156 told of how the previous season her boys had gathered fungus worth just on £30. In surveying New Zealand life at the end of the 1880s, Edward Wakefield described children as an asset to the small farmer.

Children swarm, and blessed are they who have their quiver full of them, for they all help on the farm, or go out to work for wages at an early age. Those farmers are the most comfortably off indeed, who have a stout wife and a growing family of boys and girls to look after the cattle and the dairy and take produce, whatever it may be, to market.47

Here again we have patterns that reflect those of the other side of the globe. In the yeoman households of the American northern states ‘the corporate farm economy bound its members seamlessly together in the process of working out their mutual subsistence’.48 In peasant Ireland of 1932 Arensberg and Kimball tell how at crucial points of the annual round, such as potato planting and haymaking, the whole family lent its labour. The children were early included in the family deliberations, and involved in chores about the farmyard, and by the time they were seven the boys began to be useful to their father on the farm.49 Letters from bush children printed in the ‘Children's Post Office’ of the New Zealand Farmer from late 1888 onwards provide ample further evidence that the colony's bush yeoman household was in the same tradition.

The actions of several Stratford boys in the emergency of the great fire demonstrate something of the maturity and involvement which this way of life created. One newspaper reporter learnt of a lad of about ten whose father was away at work. He first got his mother and the other children into a large potato pit out of reach of the flames, and then busied himself saving the home, being temporarily blinded in doing so.50 On the borders of Stratford, as he entered in quest of help for the refugees he had left on East Road, Thomas Skinner came upon a house that was just catching fire and set to work to help its only occupant, a young lad, to put out the fire with buckets of water. His mother and the younger children had fled to the station, but the boy insisted on staying behind and keeping watch over the house.51 We have already seen how Joseph Richardson's ten-year-old son fought a successful lone battle to save their home on Opunake Road.52 I have shown elsewhere that settler girls were equally mature and resourceful.53