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

Wanganui (1886 population 4,901)

Wanganui (1886 population 4,901)

In July 1883 Auckland farmer Frank Lawry visited Wanganui as a travelling correspondent of the Auckland Weekly News. Coming in on the day of the weekly livestock sale, he began his description of town and district with an account of this event:

the town was … full of farmers and country settlers, many of whom came from north and south by the trains, whilst buggies, containing the same class, and a very large number of horsemen came in from every quarter. Added to this, no fewer than seven coasting steamers were discharging and reloading at the wharf, so that altogether the town presented a busy appearance…. The yards at which the sale alluded to was held are situated in the very centre of the town. Cattle, sheep, horses, poultry, potatoes, and sundry other articles make up the commodities submitted to the ‘hammer’. The cattle … sold really well, especially aged fat cows, which realised £5 15s, or 25s more than they would make in Auckland at the present time, whilst old ‘crocks’ of cows, which the Pakuranga hounds would get in our district at a cost of 15s, sold freely at double the price in the Wanganui sale, and in less than one-half the time which would be occupied in disposing of similar lots in any of the Auckland markets.6

From the prices Lawry quotes, Wanganui must have been supplying more lucrative livestock markets than Auckland could offer in this 1883 winter. Probably the stock sales were benefiting from a strong demand from the local market, from the South Island West Coast, and from the beginnings of the freezing industry in Wellington. The Yeoman of 26 October 1883 reported that the previous Wednesday over 1,100 sheep had been dispatched by steamer from Wanganui, the greater number to Wellington ‘for meat preserving purposes'. Lawry's picture suggests a lively town supported by flourishing rural districts and a vigorous coastal export trade. The ‘cattle, sheep, horses' suggest a grazier hinterland, and the ‘poultry, potatoes, and sundry other articles' indicate a significant feldon yeoman presence. Agricultural statistics confirm this picture. When the 1885 figures are related to the combined Wanganui county and borough population the district is found to have had 20 per cent more than its share of the colony's horses and orchards and nearly 70 per cent more than its share of cattle. It was substantially meeting its own needs in poultry and dairy products. There are page 181
Wanganui, 1886

Wanganui, 1886

various indications of a strong feldon yeoman presence in the rural districts near the town or with easy rail access to it. But yeoman produce provided only a minor part of the tonnage carried by the railway. It was also bringing in the output of both bush frontier and runholder districts from as far north as Patea and as far south as Foxton. In the year to 31 March 1886 nearly 6,000 tons of timber, over 3,000 tons of firewood, nearly 1,500 tons of grain and nearly 1,000 tons of wool were railed into Wanganui. Wanganui was the main outlet for the more than twenty sawmills served by the Wanganui-Foxton line, and for most of the wool of the Wellington west coast's 750,000 sheep. In contrast, Nelson was dealing with the produce of not much more than 100,000 sheep and of a much smaller timber industry. Runholders and sawmillers played a much larger part in Wanganui's life than they did in Nelson's. With a vigorously expanding settlement frontier, to which migrants and money were being channelled through the town, it was natural for Wanganui to be more inward looking than Nelson. This difference was strongly reflected in the local press. No Nelson newspaper had anything like the strong local rural outlook of John Ballance's Herald and its significantly named weekly edition the Yeoman. But Wanganui's lively river port helped to keep it well aware of the rest of the colony—though its 432 sailings (50,053 tons) of 1885 were far surpassed by Nelson's 1,198 sailings (172,113 tons).

Let us glance at three further contemporary accounts of Wanganui. What impressed an 1882 writer in the Otago Witness was the popularity of pony- page 182 carriages. Nowhere else had he seen so many of these ‘slowly crawling baskets’, most of them driven by ladies out ‘calling, shopping &c’. In accounting for their popularity he explained that ‘a great many of the better class of people prefer to live out of town’, and that in Wanganui grass grew so luxuriously that ‘a small half-acre paddock, even in town, will suffice to feed a pony all the year round’.7

Our next glimpse is from the pen of ‘A Tramp’ who on behalf of the Auckland Weekly News spent Christmas 1885 in this ‘snug and sheltered city by the river’.

Wanganui is too small for a city, and too big for a town, but as a matter of courtesy may be called a city…. She has the river at her feet, and above her are two lakes whence she derives an inexhaustible supply for all city purposes. … When Wanganui closes for the Christmas holidays, there is no ‘flam’ about it. She goes the whole piggie, and holidays all the time. We had sports on the racecourse, picnics up the river, and railway excursions every half-hour to the Heads…. there is a strangeness about the place and its people—an indescribable something you don't meet with in other cities and among other people. You see in it such fantastic pieces of architecture as Newbattle Abbey, the residence of the manager of the WANGANUI HERALD. I have seen the original, but failed to recognise any trace of it in the cross between a sentry box and a Chinese joss-house that stands in Wanganui…. Then there is the strange obtrusiveness of the Wanganui churches, which occupy acres of the best frontages, and give a death-in-the-midst-of-life tone to the main street.8

The citizens of Wanganui, it seems, were doing well. Many of them were moving out to more ample suburban homes. Others had the means for some flamboyant self expression in architecture. When holidays came round they had no inhibitions about enjoying themselves. But lest we become too impressed with Wanganui's sophistication, let us remind ourselves that the stockyards for the weekly stock sales were still in the middle of town, and livestock were regularly driven through the main street. The Yeoman of 7 January 1893 fulminated against the practice and described how the previous day

a beast broke away from a mob and careered madly down the Avenue with a horseman after it, raining blows on its hide from a stockwhip, whilst a pack of yelping curs gave their aid to still further infuriate the unfortunate animal. As the Avenue at the time was crowded with women and children the stampede was great, many timid women almost fainting as they reached the friendly shelter of an open shop door…. When will this dangerous practice be put a stop to? Must we wait until an infuriated Bullock … gores His Worship the Mayor or some of the City Fathers to death?