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

Travelling correspondents

Travelling correspondents

In his diatribe of April 1874 against the ‘Our Own Correspondents’, the editor of the Manawatu Times compared them unfavourably with ‘the “Special Correspondent” who is selected on account of his especial adaptability for the office, and who receives liberal recompense in return for his services'. Particularly useful for the historian, and obviously popular with contemporary readers, were the writers described variously as ‘Our Travelling Reporter’, ‘Our Rambling Reporter’, ‘Our Travelling Commissioner’, &c, who moved around the farming districts and country towns of New Zealand, mainly on horseback, in the latter part of the 19th century. We have already met John Finlay who spent some time in the early 1880s travelling around much of the South Island as ‘Agricultural Correspondent’ of the Timaru Herald. Another such was John James Palmer, a North Countryman and experienced journalist who moved from paper to paper working as a travelling reporter, specialising in ‘Chats with the Farmers’. In the late 1870s and early 1880s he spent periods on the staffs of the Wellington New Zealander, the North Otago Times, the Ashburton Mail, the Wanganui Herald and the Waikato Times, and was making his first reporting tour for the Bay of Plenty Times when he page 231
Masthead of the Wanganui Yeoman, 1885

Masthead of the Wanganui Yeoman, 1885

met his death by drowning in April 1882. A sample of Palmer's writing from his ‘Chats with the Farmers’ as ‘Our Roving Reporter’ for the Wanganui Yeoman will indicate how such travellers were able to give a different perspective from that of the ‘Our Owns’.

What a pity it is that the fine old rustic rejoicings and out-of-door merrymakings, like the May-day, the Harvest home, and the shearing are things of the past in most parts of the Old Country and completely in the colonies, where working men pride themselves more on the rudeness they can show to their employers or the women from the neighbours' houses, than on their powers of keeping up the jollification in company with a dance or a song, or a few sports. In the old days folk lived more together, and rejoiced or mourned with one another far more in common than in these so-called liberal days, when a man's idea of pleasure is to go and get sulkily drunk, and either knock a woman about or fight another man, and end in the police cell.12

John Ballance renamed his Weekly Herald the Yeoman in July 1880, and set out to make it the leading farmers' paper of the southern North Island. His strategy included the repeated use of travelling reporters. By September 1882 he claimed that ‘the YEOMAN is penetrating into every nook and corner from Manawatu to Taranaki. In Hawke's Bay, also, its circulation is steadily increasing.’ In 1883 the Yeoman had two roving reporters, ‘Our Travelling Reporter’ and ‘Our Agricultural Reporter’, crisscrossing the west coast from Taranaki to Manawatu. In the 23 March 1883 issue (p. 8) the ‘Travelling Reporter’ gives us some idea of the place of books and newspapers in the life of a maturing bush settlement:

Inglewood has a free reading room, in which the local and leading news- page 232 papers are placed at the disposal of the residents, while the library consists of about 1000 volumes of popular works. This reading room and library is located in a building formerly used as a Government store, but which has now been taken over as a town hall, and is being extended and improved. In this hall the already renowned Moa Farmers' Club holds its meetings, and a great deal of useful work it does in the course of the year.

The road by road and farm by farm descriptions given by the 1883 agricultural reporter were doubtless followed eagerly by the settlers in each district, but cannot have made gripping reading for the general reader. In 1891 the Yeoman was fortunate to find a lively ‘Our Travelling Commissioner’ whose columns sometimes read like a cross between Cobbett's Rural Rides and Cowper's The Diverting History of John Gilpin. From time to time we are allowed to see the world through the eyes of his steed, ‘the Bronco’, who plays a significant part in the narrative.

Leaving Turakina, I took the branch road to Marton, and proceeding along it for about four miles, came to such a succulent and tempting piece of clover by the wayside, that I found myself unable to resist the touching and vigorous appeal of the Bronco to be allowed to stop and regale himself upon it. I therefore dismounted, and having tethered my steed to a stout cabbage tree, threw myself under its shade, and gave myself up to meditations upon the best means to be adopted to present a dignified and imposing appearance, worthy of my exalted position, on making my first entry into Marton. My reveries were however suddenly interrupted by the plunging of the Bronco, who had got the rope entangled in his hind legs, and before I could rise to his assistance I heard a crashing sound over my head, the cabbage tree bent down, and then snapped off close to the ground, and before I could scarcely realise what had happened my steed was off like a flash down the road, with a large three headed cabbage tree trailing at his heels, raising a cloud of dust, and emitting a rattling noise that added wings to his fear, and caused him to vanish in the distanc like a meteor-flash.13

The picaresque flavour of this rambler's pursuit of, and eventual reunion with, his errant Bronco, and their continuing rovings together must have been appealing to a wide range of readers. A travelling reporter who wrote in a similar vein to this was I.D. Wickham who with his horse Musket toured through Taranaki for the Auckland Weekly News in 1886–87.14 The Weekly News was obviously competing with the Yeoman for the Taranaki weekly market, and sent a succession of competent travelling reporters to the province during the 1880s.15 Together, these ramblers and the network of Our Owns' provide an ample chronicle of the unfolding rural world of later Victorian Taranaki.