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

The work of the railways

The work of the railways

We have already made use from time to time of the comprehensive statistics kept by the railways. These are so detailed that they both record what was being received and dispatched at each station and also, as Table 14.1 shows, enable us to get an overview of the work the whole system in terms of ton-mileage.1

The remaining six small sections of line carried 330,461 tons and I calculate their total ton-mileage at 3,946,448.2 Approximately three quarters both page 195
Table 14.1. New Zealand railway goods for the five chief sections, year to 31 March 1886
SectionTon-Mileage Yr. to 5.1.86Tonnage carried. Yr. to 31.3.86Av. haul (miles)* Ton-miles per 100 population
of this tonnage and ton-mileage was provided by the two short lines bringing coal from the mines to the ports of Greymouth and Westport. The inclusion of these short sections gives a total colonial tonnage of 1,856,728 and a ton-mileage for the system of 64,953,934, with a colonial average haul of 34.98 miles.

There are several things that stand out clearly in Table 14.1. The railways were much more significant in the economy of the South Island than of the North. Otago and Canterbury with a little under half of the colony's population had nearly two thirds of its railway ton-mileage. When related to the population, only in Hawke's Bay was railway traffic as important in the economy as in these two southern provinces. Of the main districts, it was the population of the Wellington district which was getting the least service from the railways. This situation was to change greatly with the completion of the private Wellington-Manawatu line in 1886, giving Wellington a railway connection right through to New Plymouth. This left the Auckland Province s the main district least well served by railways right through to the close of the century.

The figures for the average haul also call for comment. It would seem that the average haul in England at this time was somewhere between 30 and 35 miles.3 The longer hauls on most New Zealand lines reflect the thinner spread of population in the colony. The fact that the country's most page 196 extensive network, the Hurunui-Bluff section, had the shortest average haul of all the main sections, calls for comment. One factor will have been the separation between port and town in the cases of Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill. Many of the imports and exports through these ports will have had two railway journeys on their way from producers to wharf or from wharf to consumer, with the intermediate point being the warehouses and stores of the towns. Elsewhere in the country most towns were closely associated with their ports so that movement between wharf and warehouse was largely handled by horse-drawn traffic. Also, much more than most lines elsewhere, the main line through Otago and Canterbury paralleled the coast, and faced the direct competition of coastal shipping. Coasters using the conveniently spaced ports of Bluff, Port Chalmers, Oamaru, Timaru and Lyttelton offered a much cheaper service than the railway for much of the long haul traffic. The convenient spacing of the ports also gave short railway hauls from much of the countryside to the wharves.

Table 14.2 provides a breakdown of the main components of the railway goods traffic for the year. We have already discussed the timber and firewood traffic. In dealing with the other components we will concentrate mainly on the Hurunui-Bluff section and will consider the work of the railways within the context of the economy and the total transport network. We will begin with wool, the colony's premier export commodity. Table 14.3 raises some questions as to what was happening with the South Island clip.

The railway year and the export statistics are three months out of synchronism, but this should not have distorted the main patterns. Clearly, with the exception of Lyttelton, more than half the wool was being shipped coastwise, for export elsewhere. In all of these ports except Port Chalmers the railways controlled almost all the wharfage. It seems that wool shipped coastwise and landed on a railway wharf was included in the railway statistics as goods inwards at that point. Thus 5,408 tons of wool were received at Wellington's railway wharf in the year to 31 March 1886, yet the rural stations of the Wellington line dispatched only 2,003 tons of wool during the year. When railway figures are collated with export figures a strong pattern appears of wool being railed to South Island ports to travel northwards by coaster before export. Table 14.4 succinctly summarises this pattern.

The North Island with less than one third of the colony's sheep was handling over half the wool exports. Otago with over a quarter of the sheep was handling less than one sixth of the exports. The northwards flow was topping up Canterbury's exports to match its sheep numbers. The inflow to Wellington was making it New Zealand's second largest wool exporting port, only a little behind Lyttelton. Napier ranked third in wool exports, and a comparison with sheep numbers suggests that it was also drawing from the south. Even Auckland Province with less than 5 per cent of the country's page 197
Table 14.2. Goods transported by railway, year to 31 March 1886
WoolTimberFirewoodGrainMineralsHorses & CattleSheep & PigsMerchandise

Source: AJHR 1886, D-1, Appendix K, p. iv

Table 14.3. Wool movements, Otago and Canterbury, 1885
Delivered by railway in year to31.3.86Exports, 1885
DunedinPort Chalmers7,4892,695
Table 14.4. Sheep flocks and wool exports, 1885
OtagoCanterburyNorth Island
% NZ sheep flock 1886 census26.8529.9433.05
% NZ's 1885 wool exports16.1431.6852.90
sheep had 6.5 per cent of its wool exports.

Of the grain railed during the year, over 94 per cent was on the Hurunui-Bluff section. The efficiencies of rail and coastal shipping were combining to augment another northwards flow, that of flour. In the early decades of settlement each small district followed the preindustrial pattern of growing its own wheat and milling its own flour. This was now steadily being replaced by a modern pattern of fewer and larger mills associated with the most favoured grain-growing districts, with efficient modern transport page 198 distributing the flour to a colonial market. In essence, this meant a growing Otago and Canterbury output and a declining North Island one. In the 1880s colonial consumption per thousand of population was about 120 tons. Census returns show that North Island production of flour had dropped from 89 tons per thousand in 1880 to 61.8 tons in 1885, while the output of Canterbury and Otago had increased from 175.5 tons to 179.2 tons per thousand. The flour moving from the mills to the ports to be shipped north would have appeared in the conglomerate ‘merchandise’ columns of the railway statistics. We must now look at these columns for one unusual feature of the Hurunui-Bluff statistics.

The railway's merchandise tonnage consisted of all types of manufactured goods and all farm produce except that listed separately as wool, grain, fodder and livestock. The 1886 census report shows the population of Christchurch borough and suburbs as 44,688 and Dunedin borough and suburbs as 45,518. One might therefore expect the traffic in merchandise of the two cities and their ports to have been roughly equal. However this was not so. The merchandise tonnage which the railway delivered to Lyttelton was 62,610; that delivered to Port Chalmers was 22,715. Merchandise dispatched from Lyttelton was 58,008 tons; from Port Chalmers 49,532. In merchandise inwards Christchurch received just over 50,000 tons, Dunedin a little under 39,000 tons. There were also striking contrasts with other commodities. At Lyttelton 93,651 tons of minerals and 24,086 tons of timber were put on the railway; at Port Chalmers only 5,246 tons and 188 tons respectively. One can see why the year's tonnage of shipping movements at Lyttelton was more than twice that at Port Chalmers. But why were there these striking differences in quantities?

The simple explanation is that Otago had a much more self-sufficient economy than Canterbury. Otago drew timber by rail from her own forests, Canterbury had to import a large part of hers by sea. The fires of Dunedin were largely fuelled by coal from Otago's own Kaitangata mines. Christchurch used some of the poor brown coal from her Malvern Hills mines, but drew heavily on coastal imports of superior coal (these make up a large part of the Lyttelton ‘minerals outward’ figure). Christchurch also railed in nearly three times as much firewood as Dunedin did, and about two thirds of it had come to Lyttelton by coaster. To fill the ships bringing in her coal and timber for their return journeys, Canterbury railed large quantities of farm products to Lyttelton. This was possible because, as Table 14.5 shows, her feldon yeomen were producing beyond local needs to a far greater extent than were those of Otago.

The shipping columns of the Christchurch Press for 1885 show timber cargoes arriving in Lyttelton on little ketches and schooners from Kaipara, Thames, Waitara, Collingwood, Havelock, and Pelorus Sound. Reported page 199
Table 14.5. 1885 harvest—selected farm products related to population, New Zealand, Canterbury and Otago
Per 1,000 population
New ZealandCanterburyOtago
Potatoes (tons)197331204
Butter (cwt)188169154
Cheese (cwt)7114362
Orchards (acres)21.5716.329.32
return cargoes include the 150-ton schooner Annie Wilson sailing for Kaipara on 13 February with ‘27 tons flour, 5 sacks carrots, 53 do. oats, 30 do. wheat, 3 do. oatmeal, 72 do. potatoes, 15 bales chaff, 4 do. hay, 5 cases bacon, 7 do. cheese’; and the schooner Clio sailing for Waitapu on 7 March with ‘50 bags flour, 10 do. oats, 1000 bricks, 68 sacks seeds, ½ ton cheese, 2 sacks rape, 2 do. peas, I do. wheat’.

In turning our attention to coastal shipping we will first focus on the colony's busiest port.

* Auckland and Napier related to their province's population; Wanganui related to Taranaki and Wellington West Coast, except Horowhenua; Wellington related to the rest of the province; Hurunui-Bluff related to combined population of Canterbury and Otago.

Source: AJHR 1886, D-1, Appendix K, p. xiv