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

13 — Town

page 177


Our aim in this chapter is to portray the character of urban New Zealand of the mid 1880s, and to illustrate town relationships with country and bush, while avoiding involvement with complex details of commercial relations, communications networks and governmental administration. First we compare Nelson, Wanganui and New Plymouth, as diverse examples of local regional ‘capitals’. We use contemporary descriptions to help us envisage this diversity, and we look to their history, and especially the variations in the mix of feldon and bush settlement that formed their hinterlands, for some explanation of this diversity. We then extend our picture to examine elements of rivalry for hinterland control between New Plymouth, Wanganui, Wellington and Napier. This provides the context for discussing the 1886 New Plymouth/Hawera clash over Stratford fire relief. We see Hawera as an incipient new regional ‘capital’, and consider why New Plymouth felt threatened by this development. Finally we see what we can learn about Wellington from the Lambton Quay fire of 29 December 1885.

Nelson (1886 population 7,315)

E.W. Payton, founding Director of Auckland's Elam School of Art in 1890, visited Nelson several times in the mid 1880s, and described it for English readers. He tells of arriving in the port one sunrise, disagrees with the patronising labelling of Nelson as ‘Sleepy Hollow’, and proceeds:

… The landing-place is about a mile from Nelson…. A pleasant winding walk leads into Nelson, which is beautifully situated in a hollow in the hills which nearly surround it. If it were really a more ‘sleepy’ place than its rivals, I am sure there would be every justification for it, as a more perfect place for an idle man it would be difficult to find. The houses are nearly all built of wood, and the streets are broad—a typical colonial town in fact. At first sight it is difficult to realise that there is a population of 7315 in the town, so artfully are the many charming residences hidden away behind their tall bushy shelter trees.

One of the principal industries of Nelson is fruit growing, and there is page 178
Nelson, 1886

Nelson, 1886

scarcely a settlement in the colony into which Nelson fruits, either fresh or preserved, do not find their way…. It has long been the resort of men of means who have come from India, and other warmer climates, to settle down with the idea of doing nothing but enjoying themselves, and it is to this fact, I think, that the place owes its sobriquet ‘Sleepy Hollow’.1

English journalist and emigration agent Arthur Clayden lived in Nelson for four years from 1880. On returning to Britain in 1885 as a New Zealand immigration agent, he published A Popular Handbook to New Zealand, in which he described Nelson as the ‘Torquay of the “England of the Pacific”’.

The city is built on a broad belt of level land lying at the feet of a huge semicircular range of hills…. The chief business street is Trafalgar Street. Here are found some really handsome shops and bank buildings….

The charm of Nelson consists in its incomparable climate. Nothing approaching it is to be found anywhere else. For eleven months of the twelve a glorious sunshine floods the vast panorama, and a delicious breeze invariably tempers the summer's heat. Another charm of the place is its wealth of flowers and fruit. Every house—beyond the business streets—is detached, and has its garden. Here peaches, cherries, and apples are found in abundance. The geranium and other half-hardy flowers bloom all the year round. A third charm of Nelson is its admirable roads. No English turnpike roads page 179 can excel them. There is a railway of some twenty-six miles opening up a fertile valley known as the Waimea. Along this charming route lie the agricultural villages of Stoke, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wakefield and Fox Hill. Pleasant villas dot the surrounding hills, and a variety of fascinating picnic haunts are found in the neighbourhood. A tramway connects the city with the port, where steamers from all parts of the colony are daily coming and going.2

Nelson was an important node in the colony's coastal shipping network. In 1885 she averaged more than three sailings a day (1,198 for the year). In tonnage these represented nearly three and a half times Wanganui's sailings, and well over twice New Plymouth's. Nelson had her own Anchor Steam Shipping Company with four steamers, serviced by a foundry which also did much work for other owners. Nelson's fine climate and central position made it a popular tourist and retirement centre, and attracted colonial conferences.3 Nelson's cathedral city and watering-place image were assets for such institutions as Nelson College, which was developing something of an English public school reputation and attracting runholders' sons from the neighbouring provinces. To compensate for an unpromising hinterland, Nelson looked outwards. This was also encouraged by its outflow of migration, feldon yeoman produce and capital. Its fruit, jam, hops and barley were serving a wide colonial market, as also, as Figure 12.8 showed, were its mortgages. James Sclanders, pioneer Nelson merchant and part owner of the Anchor Shipping Co, provides a good example of this outlook. As New Zealand partner of the London firm of Sclanders and Co he became an intermediary between British lenders and New Zealand mortgagors, providing British funds to at least 333 New Zealand farmers between 1870 and 1902.4 Margaret Galt explains how and why he put out these funds and money from Nelson sources mainly outside the Nelson Province:

As he was known around New Zealand, Sclanders was usually approached by solicitors with potential borrowers. He did not have established sub-agencies, but did have some solicitors whom he felt he could trust. As time progressed he relied increasingly on J.H. Hankins, a Palmerston North solicitor, who proved a particularly reliable contact. This meant that his lending, which had initially been concentrated in Taranaki and Canterbury because the company had branches in Wanganui and Christchurch, gradually came to concentrate on the Manawatu. Sclanders seldom lent in Nelson despite the fact that he lived there…. it was difficult to find good investments in the area because the good agricultural land was generally held by people trying to pay off their mortgages, and the surrounding hills limited the scope for expanding settlement into new areas.5

page 180

Despite a predominantly yeoman hinterland, then, Nelson of the mid 1880s had a progressive, mature, cultured flavour about it. Elsewhere these qualities usually owed much to runholder influence. For Nelson they came largely from its spa town residents and its wide colonial contacts.

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?

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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.

Rivals for the hinterland

The Vogel development drive of the 1870s had set in motion the rapid opening up of the interior of the southern North Island. By the 1880s this was leading to overt rivalry for control of reaches of the developing countryside, between Wellington, Wanganui and New Plymouth, with Napier also joining in as a minor player. Figure 13.1 summarises this contest.

As the main overseas port for central New Zealand, Wellington had a well established place in the southern North Island. Much of the work of Wellington's more than 4,000 coastal shipping movements of 1885 was concerned with imports and exports to and from Taranaki, the Wellington West Coast and Hawke's Bay. Having as yet no effective rail or road links with the capital these districts still depended on their coastal ‘capitals’ to administer and handle this coastal trade flow. But the steady advance north of the Wellington-Manawatu Railway would soon allow the Wellington merchants to bypass Wanganui, and take direct control of much of the west coast trade. Over the next few years considerable feeling developed in this rivalry. When in 1887 Wellington's merchants showed antagonism to a Wanganui Harbour Loan Bill, the Yeoman13 suggested that the Wanganui people should show their disapproval in a forthright manner by using their good coastal service to Auckland to divert their trade in that direction. By the late 1880s the page 185
Figure 13.1. Southern North Island rivals for the hinterland in the 1880s

Figure 13.1. Southern North Island rivals for the hinterland in the 1880s

threat to Wanganui commercial interests was becoming very real. Meat canning works set up in Wanganui in 1884 were under pressure from the rising Wellington freezing industry, which would force them to close in 1891. Many woolgrowers were beginning to rail their clip directly to overseas vessels in Wellington, rather than to Wanganui for the double handling involved in transshipping. In the early 1890s the Wanganui merchants moved to counter the Wellington threat by negotiating for direct shipments from Wanganui to London and by setting up their own freezing works.

Wanganui's tussle with Napier for control of the southern Volcanic Plateau had begun much earlier. In 1870 the strategic thinking of the Fox cabinet had included a link between Wanganui and the Plateau by a route through Upokongaro and the Mangawhero Valley, discovered by the surveyor Henry Field. Not till 1880 was serious work begun on ‘Field's Track’, with resources provided by both the Wanganui County Council and the colonial government. Field was put in charge, but despite his best efforts for years the Hawke's Bay County Council more than matched him with its steadily improving cart road through easier country with a less demanding climate. Year by year Wanganui interests watched with annoyance as the wool from the Upper page 186 Rangitikei rolled eastward to Napier. Not until 1888 did the first wool come down Field's Track to Wanganui—a Maori clip from Kariori.14 The building of the Main Trunk across this disputed countryside eventually put an end to the Wanganui-Napier rivalry.

Wanganui was able to establish a strong social and administrative grip on South Taranaki as its countryside was settled in the 1870s and 1880s. The movement of people and stock into this new area came far more from the south, through Wanganui, than from the north through New Plymouth. Many of the settlers came from Wanganui and its hinterland, and others came from South Island areas that already had strong links with Wanganui and its people. Wanganui newspapers dominated South Taranaki until it developed its own press. In 1877 Wanganui succeeded in capturing the whole of South Taranaki for its education district under the new national Education Act. The administration of the Foxton-New Plymouth railway was centred in Wanganui. The chagrin of New Plymouth's leaders at these developments forms the larger context of the Hawera-New Plymouth clash.

Hawera (1886 population 1,026)

In the spring of 1885 Hawera was visited by ‘The Innocent from Home’ of the Waikato Times.

The town of Hawera, or the City of the Plains is a well built and apparently thriving young town. There are, I believe, eight hotels, four banks, and as many churches. All the buildings seem substantial, and the town is very compact. They have good schools both government and private…. This place seems to be the camping ground for all the trains on the line and on Saturday there are nine trains through Hawera.15

Hawera, it seems, in strong contrast to New Plymouth, was compact and progressive, with a substantial look about it. This was despite a somewhat mushroom growth. The town had grown up around a blockhouse erected in 1870. To encourage the reoccupation of the district following the debacle imposed by Titokowaru, the Fox government established blockhouses at Hawera and Manutahi to form, with the earlier Waihi strongpoint, a string of three within signalling distance of each other, covering the northern fringe of settlement. The compactness of Hawera owed much to the fact that it had had to be fitted into a strip of Railway Reserve, because much of the surrounding countryside was tied up in the wreckage of Domett's military settlement scheme of the early 1860s. Hawera's emergence as the ‘capital’ of South Taranaki could not have been foreseen at the time of its founding. It had to compete with Patea, the region's port and military headquarters, and Normanby, which grew up around Waihi, and had the advantage of page 187
Hawera, 1880s. High Street/Princess Street corner, with the Fire Bell Tower on the right

Hawera, 1880s. High Street/Princess Street corner, with the Fire Bell Tower on the right

proximity to the forest frontier. Hawera surged to the lead in the early 1880s, as the junction between the coastal road through the newly occupied Waimate Plains and the railway through the bush to New Plymouth. Patea's relegation was rapid—it took three and a half years for the railway gap between Hawera and Patea to be filled. Over those years Hawera took control of the trade of the plains, directing it north by railway and road to the ports of Waitara and New Plymouth.

Despite this use of the northern ports, Hawera showed scant regard for North Taranaki in other respects. The official opening of the Hawera-New Plymouth line on 20 October 1881 is a good example. New Plymouth exuberantly marked this convincing breaking of its long isolation by proclaiming a public holiday. Some 600 North Taranaki folk crowded three excursion trains to Hawera. Many of them arrived begrimed after making the trip huddled in open trucks. But at Hawera there was no official reception, no bunting, no cheers. Hawera, in fact, looked almost desolate, for many of its citizens had gone to the Wanganui A & P Show, reported as the most successful ever held. The North Taranaki visitors wandered aimlessly around, enquiring for non-existent entertainments. They could not even go shopping, as most businesses were closed on account of the Wanganui Show. Yet Hawera wasn't on holiday either—banks were open and builders were at work.16

Before we look at another example of Hawera's flouting of New Plymouth page 188 feelings, it will be useful to look at Frank Lawry's account of his July 1883 visit to Hawera for the Auckland Weekly News. He was particularly impressed by what he saw when a leading settler took him out on a side road through the coastal strip south of the town:

This road presented a very busy scene, and I never before saw so many bullock teams in so short a time as we met on this road. Generally, there were six bullocks in each team, drawing their respective drays laden with wheat. The bullocks were all ‘rolling’ with fat, and we estimated that they would dress and weigh 10 cwtreach on an average. I daresay we met a dozen of these teams in the course of three miles drawing grain, while some others were shifting steam threshing machines. We were told that most of the grain belonged to Mr Caverhill, who has grown an area of grain in this district during the present season approaching in extent to 1000 acres. The average yield is nearly 30 bushels to the acre…. Mr Caverhill grew his grain mostly on leased land, some belonging to the Maoris, and in other cases on old grass belonging to settlers. The terms of the latter were generally 26s an acre rent, and to plough and relay the land in grass when the crop has been taken away….

… After having seen all the townships on this coast, I am disposed to think that Hawera will be the most important one between New Plymouth and Wanganui, because it is bound to be the centre of this large, fertile district, and seems to be the natural junction for any railway extension … in the direction of … Opunake.17

What Lawry saw on the country road was something of the rural drive that underlay the rapid rise of Hawera. John Scott Caverhill, the ‘Squire of Waiaui’, ‘the pride of the pioneer squatters’ of the Amuri district, had brought the fortune made in his South Island runholder career to try his hand at high farming on South Taranaki's new development frontier.18 He was typical of the group of leading settlers whose vision and energy saw nothing to defer to in the unimaginative conservative North Taranaki establishment. Hawera's industrialists and craftsmen were matching the thrust of their rural neighbours. Caverhill's wheat was probably heading for the Tawhiti flourmill, just west of Hawera. The town also had a thriving brewery and a sash and door factory.19 By 1885 Hawera's craftsmen were turning out saddles, cart harness and buggies that were claimed to be up to the best British standards.20

In January 1884 these thrusting South Taranaki settlers launched an enterprise which was resented by their neighbours. Despite the fact that the province's two existing A & P Shows, at New Plymouth and Patea, were both struggling, they launched their own Egmont A & P Show. The initiative came from the merchants and storekeepers,21 but was well supported by page 189 the farmers. The first show, which it had been decided to hold three days before the Wanganui Show,22 took place on 3 November 1884, and was a success.23 The following year the New Plymouth and Patea Associations entered negotiations with the Egmont Association, proposing amalgamation with a peripatetic annual show rotating around the the three centres. At Hawera the majority of supporters were against the proposal, believing that the Egmont venture would succeed through the advantage of their town's central position, and that there was nothing to be gained from joining with the other two ailing concerns.24 Over the following years there was bitterness among the Patea settlers as their show wilted away, to finally cease in 1898,25 while Hawera's prospered. New Plymouth's survived, but Hawera's flourished to outshine it.26

The Haweral New Plymouth rift, January 1886

We are now in a better position to understand the Hawera/New Plymouth rift. Underlying it was New Plymouth's resentment at the whittling away of its capital status as Hawera pressed for the leadership of South Taranaki, and Wanganui increased its dominance of the region. New Plymouth and Hawera were also competing for control of the hinterland opened up by the railway between them. The New Plymouth offer, a day or two before the disaster, of the loan of their fire engine to Stratford, may not have been entirely disinterested. At the first sale of Stratford township land in 1878 the main buyers had been leading New Plymouth citizens, including two members of the 1885–86 borough council and both of its two valuers.27 New Plymouth investors probably became heavily involved in the new bush townships over the following years. They were certainly steady contributors of mortgages on central Taranaki bush sections. In 1884 the New Plymouth Sash & Door Factory & Timber Co bought the Ngaere sawmill of Robson Brothers, pioneers of the South Taranaki timber industry. This meant that many members of the New Plymouth business community were directly involved in the fire threat to this mill. They included two of the current borough councillors, the town clerk, the council's solicitor and one of its valuers.28 But South Taranaki and the Wanganui district were also involved in central Taranaki. When entrepreneur A.C. Fookes put the Midhirst Special Settlement on the market in 1877 many of the buyers were from Wanganui. In July 1878 the settlement was launched by the drawing of lots for the rural sections in Hawera, indicating that most of the takers must have come from the south.29 (Fookes himself had moved to New Plymouth in 1876, after a career as a storekeeper and land speculator at Waverley.) It would seem that the Hawera Star and the New Plymouth press were tussling for the readership of these bush settlements—both covered their local affairs in some depth. page 190 These few examples are merely indicative of what was probably a wideranging commercial and social competition.

The first tensions in New Plymouth were concerned with the use of the railway. Hawera had only had to wait some hours for Wanganui's approval of a special train on the evening of 6 January; New Plymouth's bids for special trains on the 7th and 8th met with much more tardy responses. To understand the frustration which underlay mayor Paul's confrontation with stationmaster Bass on the 8th, one needs to realise that until the closing of the Hawera-Patea gap a few months earlier New Plymouth had been ‘Head Office’ to the Taranaki railway. No doubt the district manager had been accepted as a worthy member of the New Plymouth establishment, with whom one could conduct informal, gentlemanly negotiations. The demotion of the New Plymouth office to the control of a mere bureaucratic underling, answerable to Wanganui, must have seemed like just another blow in the debasement of New Plymouth.

Eventually New Plymouth's hurt feelings about the railway were mollified as emergency control of the trains passed into local hands. But then, in the midst of the town's somewhat belated but eventually vigorous and effective response to the crisis, came mayor Paul's ill-considered telegram, countermanding Hawera's colonial appeal for aid. This move suggests real resentment of Hawera's unilateral action, coming as it did on top of other recent hurts. Combined with New Plymouth's setting up of ‘the Central Relief Committee’ without consulting Hawera, it represented a tough-minded public rebuke to Hawera's leaders. Yet it was ill-considered, showing no understanding of the frightening circumstances in which Hawera had been moved to act, and also probably reflecting a townsman's lack of awareness of the scope and long term effects of the rural losses. With the New Plymouth immigration barracks to house the homeless, and the staff of the New Plymouth Crown Lands, Land Registry and Survey offices working with them, Paul and his committee would inevitably have edged their way into control of the reconstruction process. The deeply antagonised Hawera community was able to hit back by matching the relief investigations of government surveyor and Crown Lands ranger with the local knowledge of George Marchant, promoted and publicised by the Hawera Star. A good deal of behind the scenes negotiation seems to have gone into defusing the situation. Leadership from outside the two towns, and even from outside the province, came into play in the healing of the rift.30 To fully understand this colonial world we must appreciate its ability both to harness deep local loyalties and to control them.

page 191

The Lambton Quay fire, 29 December 1885

The Lambton Quay fire provides us with an opportunity for a brief look at the internal structure of one colonial town. Wellington (1886 population 25,945) had been shaped by the configurations of its site, and by its history, into several distinctive districts. The reports on the fire help us to see how the Quay's situation in the city shaped its character. Pioneer Wellington had consisted of two main residential areas, Thorndon and Te Aro, linked by the business and waterfront strip of Lambton Quay-Manners Street. Thorndon developed as the fashionable ‘establishment’ area while the Te Aro flat became a proletarian district of closely packed workers' cottages. As reclamation removed its waterfront role and created a new central business district across the street, old Lambton Quay continued as a jumble of primitive, low-rent wooden buildings, attracting small shopkeepers, tradesmen and craftsmen, and providers of accommodation and food. With a number of them living behind or above their premises, it retained an old-fashioned village flavour. Together with its Manners Street continuation it represented the city's main fire risk area—through the combination of close packed
Figure 13.2. Wellington, mid 1880s: Neighbourhoods adjoining Lambton Quay

Figure 13.2. Wellington, mid 1880s: Neighbourhoods adjoining Lambton Quay

page 192 wooden walls, a sprinkling of shingled roofs, and kitchen and craftsmen's fires. We have noted Lambton Quay's earlier fire in 1868; Manners Street was to have a notable fire in March 1879, destroying 30 buildings. It is not surprising that over the years the old west side of the Quay experienced more fires than the newer buildings on the reclamation, built to higher fire code standards.

Establishment Wellington with its parliament buildings, Government House, Premier's residence, cathedrals, and homes of leading merchants and civil servants, will have provided most of the Quay's more affluent customers. Thomas Myers's picture dealing and framing business will have depended heavily on the custom of fashionable Thorndon. Just before the fire he was able to advertise as ‘under the special patronage of His Excellency the Governor’.31 Other businesses for which a strategic proximity to Thorndon must have been important were Alexander Farmer's furniture workshop, William Spiller's music shop, Mrs Paul's dressmaking concern, and Fred Radford's photographer's rooms. One imagines that the Wellington Meat Preserving Co would have had a Thorndon round, for which its stables would have had a vehicle of appropriate smartness. In fact all of these concerns must have been given at least a little uplift by the influence of the good taste and more ample purses of Thorndon.

But the character of the west side of the Quay would also have been partly shaped by the rougher, sometimes roisterous, influence of its proletarian neighbours to the south. The bulk of the manual labour for the city and the busy waterfront came from close packed workers' cottages on the Te Aro flat. Tempering Te Aro's proletarian flavour were some middle class and upper working class folk—shopkeepers and smaller merchants, lesser public servants, tradesmen such as Archibald Whiteford, builder and fire brigade captain. Their homes were most numerous on the higher ground to the east, west and south of the flat. In keeping with its plebeian character, Te Aro had the city's gaol, its gasworks, its tramway sheds, its Salvation Army Barracks, and its most thriving ‘nonconformist’ congregations. From its earlier days in Manners Street, George Smart's Oyster Saloon may have been a popular Te Aro rendezvous on the Quay; it may indeed have been a place where folk of all classes would meet. Under landlord Thomas Urwin, the old British navy man-o’-warsman, the Branch Hotel would have been popular with seamen coming ashore at the nearby wharves, as well as with those with homes in Te Aro. The police support of Urwin at the Lambton Licensing Committee hearings suggests that they valued this old salt's influence on the seafarers attracted to his hostelry.

On the other side of the Quay, with a very different flavour, was the Occidental Hotel, whose barman had called the brigade to the fire. The Occidental was a stronghold of commercial travellers, whose wants, the page 193 Cyclopedia of New Zealand informs us, ‘are met by the eight fine sample-rooms which are attached to this popular house’.32 The old beachfront side of Lambton Quay will have been stimulated in many ways by the new reclamation Wellington which began across the street. Besides having the town's larger and more modern hotels it had the main offices of the chief banks and insurance offices, the offices and warehouses of the foremost merchants, the leading drapers, the Theatre Royal, and the new Supreme Court building. Leading merchants and retailers, warehousemen and insurers, shipping, railway and post and telegraph executives, judges and prima donnas, bankers and financiers, and their clerks, labourers and sales folk, mingled there in their daily work. They will frequently have come across to ‘the Beach’, the old western side of the Quay, on business or personal errands.

A lively contemporary description of Lambton Quay entitled ‘Down the Beach’ is given in one of a series of articles about Wellington by ‘Touchstone’ in the Wanganui Chronicle of 8 September 1885.

Much in the same manner as that learned dictionary maker, Dr. Samuel Johnson was wont to say to his friend Boswell, ‘come let us take a walk down Fleet-street’, does the average Wellingtonian recommend to the visitor … a stroll ‘down the beach’, in other words a walk along Wellington's longest, most important street, Lambton Quay.

‘Touchstone’ proceeds to describe Lambton Quay at various times of the day. Around 9 a.m. there is ‘a crowd of smart well-dressed men, young and old’ hurrying along to the government offices. Towards midday the Quay is populated by ‘ladies bent on shopping excursions, idlers “doing the block”, and the inevitable new chum gaping about in his usual helpless manner’. In the late afternoon ‘fashionable loungers’ appear in large numbers, to be joined about 5 by ‘a mighty exodus from the big buildings’. But

Saturday night is perhaps the time to see the Beach at its best and busiest. Then all Wellington seems to devote itself to the task of promenading up and down from Willis-street to Thorndon, and vice versa. To see the crowd on a fine Saturday night would make a stranger imagine he were in a city of ten times the size of Wellington, and it is not till long after 10 o'clock that the busy throng melts away into Te Aro and the suburbs.