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

Leadership in relief and welfare

Leadership in relief and welfare

Just before the 1885–86 fire crises parliament had passed the landmark 1885 Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act, which established a national system of hospital and charitable relief under the jurisdiction of specially constituted local boards. It was a complex act, providing a pound for pound government subsidy on voluntary and local body contributions while taking account of the colony's strong spirit of localism, and not unduly disturbing existing institutions and arrangements.10 We will need to look more closely at its workings when we deal with the response to the Stratford crisis. But we must note here that the Act did not include any formal entitlement to relief and made no mention of any principle on which claims might be decided. Further, it was crafted to meet ongoing persistent health and relief needs, and made no provision for meeting sudden unexpected crises. Not only were principles of entitlement left for local management, but also any response to local or regional crises was left entirely to local leadership. The colonists had initially hoped that in their new land of plenty there would be page 254 no need for a poor law and workhouses. Rather, they envisaged that any particular passing need or temporary reverse would be met through a widespread Good Samaritan spirit.11 The 1885 Act was an admission that leaving aid solely to altruism had proved inadequate, while at the same time giving as much encouragement as possible to its continuance. The Act set up a national charitable aid bureaucracy, funded largely from rates and taxes, but alongside it another tradition continued to flourish, that of the subscription list, drawing mainly on individual philanthropy. As the bureaucracy was not programmed and funded to meet large scale crises, the subscription list was a vital element of colonial life.

The launching of a subscription list was an act of leadership. Its sponsor(s) had first to diagnose a situation as requiring urgent action. There followed important initial decisions as to how the need should be defined, who the sponsors of the list should be, and how widely it should be circulated. The sponsors had to define how the fund would be used to meet the situation, arrange for publicising the list, and oversee the expenditure of the contributions. Before we examine how these matters were handled in our case studies, let us look at how the system had been working in a number of lesser situations. In 1875 a Mr Dixon, teacher at the Fern Flat school in Rangitikei, was rendered helpless by a paralytic stroke. The appeal launched in his aid was apparently sponsored by the local Presbyterian minister and a local runholder. Concerts in support were held in neighbouring Bulls and Palmerston North, and help also came from his professional colleagues in the form of ‘the handsome sum of £125’ raised by the Wellington Teachers' Association ‘to purchase a house for the Dixons’.12 But the following year things did not work out so well for a Marton family whose need did not come promptly to the ears of willing sponsors. This family were hovering on the brink of death from starvation because the husband had become an invalid and unable to work. Fortunately neighbours became aware of the situation in time. To the local newspaper this was an illustration of Marton's need of a benevolent society.13 It must have been the stigma attached to soliciting charity that led this family to hide their situation. A newspaper report of 1878 told of a Scandinavian who was apparently unaware of this British attitude. Having lost his cottage in a bush fire at Carterton, he had ‘about recouped his loss by carrying a subscription list round Carterton, Greytown, &c’.14 Probably the largely unspoken convention was that such needy and deserving citizens should discreetly signalize their situation so that suitable sponsors could take it up and bring it before the public. This may have been what a Hawera woman was doing in midwinter 1885. Suffering from a severe fit of rheumatism she had been unable to work and had become destitute. One of the borough councillors had met her

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carrying a number of pots etc. into the town, and he asked her what she was going to do with them, she replied she had no firewood nor the money to get any, and as her children's clothes were all wet, she was selling those few things to get some. He also learnt she had no food either. He gave her a few shillings, and with other gentlemen represented the matter to the Mayor….15

The mayor reported to the next council meeting that he had ordered a cord of firewood for her and given her £1. The newspaper report concluded, ‘Probably some of our charitable citizens will take the matter in hand.’ There was no doubt a range of understandings involved in the subscription list approach, and help from a properly sponsored subscription was probably not looked upon as demeaning charity, but as partaking in a system of mutual support, in which one was sometimes a giver, sometimes a receiver. Social history is making some progress in uncovering the complex fabric of understandings that underlay such arrangements.16 We will need to be alert for the nuances of these conventions as we proceed to our case studies.