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

New Plymouth (1886 population, 3,093)

page 183

New Plymouth (1886 population, 3,093)

New Plymouth was the least progressive of our regional ‘capitals’. Indeed, despite the coming of the railway, and the accelerating settlement of its wide reaches of bush hinterland, it was at the 1886 census the smallest of the old provincial capitals, with even little Blenheim passing it by a margin of one. The contemporary image of the town was of a sleepy, rustic little place. An Auckland journalist visiting in November 1885 reported that ‘It is old-fashioned in many respects, but has a homely look about it which takes the fancy of a man who would like to settle down and end his days without anything to bother him.’9 The previous month a South Taranaki visitor had described it in similar terms:

… The town wears much the same aspect as usual—dull and dreamy-looking—and it seemed impossible for anyone to be in a hurry. Poor, much debased New Plymouth is always the same—a pleasant, homely, hospitable town, but no life. My previous visits to the metropolis of New Plymouth had generally been on Saturdays, when, being the market days, there is usually a large number of country visitors; but on this occasion I saw the town in its every-day clothes and it did not change its character. Even the breakwater does not seem to stir people into enthusiasm now, as it used to, and a settled calm pervades everywhere.10

In other words, on Saturdays the town's rural look might be ascribed to the market day influx of country folk if one did not know that it looked just as rural on all other days. Despite the railway cutting across the heart of the province, and the new breakwater replacing its former dependence on an open roadstead, New Plymouth was still little more than the straggling village capital of a coastal strip of small farms that it had been since its founding. The colonists seem to have so successfully recreated the Old World atmosphere of the West of England from which they came that neither the upheavals of the land wars of the 1860s nor the influx of Vogel immigrants in the 1870s had been able to break it. In 1874 a correspondent of the Dunedin Evening Star had described the place as a parish with ‘vestry men’ politicians, and wrote that

the province seems to have been preserved as an antipodean ‘in-and-in’ west-country breeding ground. It is a province where still life, clotted cream, wooden ploughshares, meat, and honey abound; where ties of relationship do not count for nought.11

Twelve years later the view from Dunedin did not look much different. Writing on the Taranaki Harbour Bill, then before parliament, a Dunedin paper commented:

page 184

New Plymouth is the capital of Taranaki. It stands on the margin of the sea, and is a charming demi-formed, semi-built, demi-semi-settled little town, where it seems always afternoon—where to-day is very much the same as yesterday, and to-morrow nearly certain to be the same as to-day—but very pleasant to those who regard their geese as better than other folk's swans, and who, doing little for themselves, expect the State to do a great deal.12

New Plymouth owed its undeveloped character to its small population occupying a large site, so that the farming of vacant sections reached right into its heart. It had no runholder class to enlarge its vision and keep it in touch with the outside world. Unlike many of their fellows elsewhere, New Plymouth's feldon yeomen were not being stimulated by a lively town to one side of them and runholders to the other. Long isolated by poor communications, Taranaki was also slow to benefit from the improvements of the 1870s and 1880s. Owing to the nature of its bush, the railway did not bring a flourishing timber industry. Beef and dairy produce seem to have been the main exports of the mid 1880s, going mainly to the Auckland province. Prosperity was to come as the opening of wider markets for this produce by refrigeration coincided with the continuing extension of the yeoman domain into the bush.