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

Aid and relief in the Seventy Mile Bush 1885–86

Aid and relief in the Seventy Mile Bush 1885–86

In Chapters 3 and 5 we told of the relief and reconstruction associated with the Hawke's Bay bush fires. Our purpose now is to focus on the leadership which emerged to initiate and direct the programme. Our earlier account raises several questions. Why did it take so long to recognise that the province was facing a major emergency? Why did the first effective signalizing of the situation follow such an unlikely route? How do we account for the eventual striking wisdom and effectiveness of the measures taken?

The delay in identifying the seriousness of the situation owed a good deal to the destruction of regional organisation which the abolition of provincial government had represented. The emergency was in the bush; the human, financial and physical resources needed to cope with it were in the neighbouring country and town. In removing the provincial rivalry of central government, the new regime had put the bush under the Waipawa County Council, the country under the Hawke's Bay County Council and the town under the Napier Borough Council, with no provision for them to be linked for mutual support. Even so, the old recognised provincial establishment had not faded so far from the public memory that it could not have emerged with some claim to legitimacy and provided the emergency leadership that was so urgently needed. The key figure here was J.D. Ormond.17 As the province's last superintendent it was he who had planned the opening up of the Seventy Mile Bush by road and railway, and initiated and directed the planting of the pioneer bush settlements. His own main landholding was at Wallingford, in close proximity to the bush, and in 1876 page 256 he had become personally involved in bush development through the purchase of a large block near Woodville. Following the abolition of the provinces he put his weight behind the new local government bodies, especially the Hawke's Bay Education Board and the Napier Harbour Board. In parliament he continued to press the concerns of the Hawke's Bay bush settlers, even although the Waipawa electorate rejected him in 1881 for the plebeian W.C. Smith.18 It would be naturally assumed that he was maintaining a watching brief over the bush settlements, and that if he was making no move, there was nothing to worry about. It was not until 13 January 1886, with the crisis now past and the relief organisation firmly in place, that the press advised the public that Ormond had been seriously ill for some time and had consequently ‘been unable to take an active part in the steps taken for the relief of the distressed bush settlers'. He was still confined to his house, but signalled his support for the relief programme by requesting Henry Tiffen to put his name down as a donor of £25. Apart from the old provincial establishment, one could perhaps envisage a move from the Waipawa County Council. But these councillors were just a scattered rural group, with no easy means of consultation between their regular monthly meetings, with few resources at their disposal to put on offer, and with no formal claim on the resources of the neighbouring local bodies. At the Napier public meeting of 5 January 1886, which set up the Central Relief Committee,
W.C. Smith 1843–1911

W.C. Smith 1843–1911

page 257 W.C. Smith M.H.R. made a strong case for this committee to limit itself to fund raising, leaving to the Waipawa County Council the task of distributing the relief. Neither in Hawke's Bay nor Taranaki does anyone else seem to have considered a county council a suitable institution for this task, nor is there any indication that these councils desired to take on the role. Significantly, it was not to the Waipawa County Council, but to W.C. Smith himself, that the chairman of the Hawke's Bay Charitable Aid Board had turned a few days earlier as his agent to distribute food to those left destitute by the fires.19

It was the Makotuku settlers, in desperate straits, who eventually effectively signalled the crisis by firing off a telegram to the Minister of Public Works, Edward Richardson. Richardson must have put some careful thought into how he should respond, and concluded that the county council, which was the only local body with a direct interest in the matter, would be powerless to help, while Napier and its borough council, which had the required resources, was under no obligation in the matter. His solution of the problem was shrewd. Bypassing the local bodies altogether, he telegraphed the Napier Resident Magistrate, G. A. Preece, requesting him to obtain and send up assistance to the extent of 50 men, with the government paying the expenses. With his distinguished record in the New Zealand Wars and his current association with the Napier establishment, Preece would have had all the contacts and influence needed to meet the ministerial request. If Richardson had envisaged his move as providing the catalyst to put the crisis on the Hawke's Bay public agenda, events were to prove him right. And if the government had to pay for the first relief expedition to the bush, it certainly had no obligation in the later expedition to Waipawa, or other provincial initiatives. It was a small price to pay to unleash the province's resources to meet the crisis.

In Chapters 3 and 5 we saw the appearance of a regional crisis leadership, centred on Napier, and its effective handling of the situation. Central government had a second initiating input through John Ballance's fortuitous presence in the district. His advice, and the tagging of the government aid grant which he negotiated, were the final central government interventions in the matter. Thereafter all decisions and funding were provincial. In effect, Hawke's Bay had been nudged back into an ad hoc provincial mode. Thus given the go-ahead, the Napier establishment proved remarkably adequate in recruiting political and communication skills, and physical and financial resources, and addressing them to the problems. The press, the leaders of local bodies, government department branch offices, and voluntary groups, together with those with established influence in town and country, pooled their skills and understandings to effectively diagnose the needs of the situation. They then thrashed out plans of action and gained public acceptance page 258 for them. They were able to mobilise a good range of resources and channel them to meet the needs by means of a number of working parties under well chosen leaders. They could work together well because they knew each other well. For example, almost all whom we name in this account were members of the Hawke's Bay Philosophical Institute, and there must have been many other social links between them.

Dispatching the relief party to Makotuku was the first task tackled. The contingent was recruited by the leaders of the volunteers and the fire brigade.20 The fire brigade superintendent was in charge, with the captains of the volunteers assisting him. Also on the train were the railway district manager and newspaper reporters.21 The varying needs of transport, firefighting and publicity were being coordinated in face-to-face fashion within the expedition itself, no doubt reflecting mutual trust among Napier's leaders as they negotiated the composition of the train's party. From the start they committed resources beyond those requested by the Minister, sending ten extra men and a truckload of firefighting equipment. Central government does not seem to have contributed to the relief party's return down the line to meet the threats to Norsewood and Ormondville, or to have had anything to do with Hastings' fledgling town board's committal of its recently acquired manual fire engine.

The press played an important part in promptly signalizing subsidiary problems as they arose, so that they could be attended to. A case in point is the funding of the expedition to Waipawa. As this intervention almost certainly saved the town from a massive second round of damage, the Waipawa Town Board voted £10 to the Napier fire brigade, but this did not even cover the damage to the brigade's plant, and left nothing to reimburse the brigadesmen's wages, amounting to about £12. Unfounded rumours also circulated implying meanness in Waipawa's provision of refreshments for the brigade and alleging the sending of a bill for some coal which the brigade had had to requisition in Waipawa. The press duly reported how the residents of Waipawa responded by collecting £20 for the brigade's expenses, and published their refutations of the rumours. But the press's most important contribution was its comprehensive coverage of the fires, its publicising of the relief measures, and its assistance in raising the relief funds.

The smooth integration of the resources of the railway into the relief effort was a feature of the Hawke's Bay crisis. The leadership provided by McDonald, the railway manager for the district, was singled out for praise in a Woodville Examiner editorial of 12 January:

The manager, Mr McDonald, seems to recognise the true position of the railway system—that it belongs to the people, and as such should be used for their convenience. In aiding the suffering families by removing their page 259 furniture, and in conveying the Napier Fire Brigade and volunteers to and fro, the railway provided a valuable aid, and the kindness of Mr McDonald and his officials will not soon be forgotten….

The provision of railway trucks as a haven for threatened furniture was certainly an imaginative stroke. There are various indications of a railway work force with high morale inspired by competent forward-looking leadership. One such is the preemptive burning of the grass within the railway fences, giving the ‘jagged and broken carbon streak across the face of the country’ noted by a reporter on the Makotuku relief expedition.22 Another is the alacrity of the special train's dash to the Waipawa fire, cutting across the regular traffic, and attaining almost record speeds.

The way in which the subscription appeal and its management were repeatedly adjusted to the steadily shifting and growing scope of the need was another test for Hawke's Bay's leadership. This problem too was commendably handled. At each level, local leadership came forward as a need became apparent, but then handed over smoothly to leadership at a higher level as the range of the crisis broadened. The first appeals were locally sponsored to meet limited local needs. One such, publicised in the Hawke's Bay Herald of 23 December 1885, was that sponsored by Takapau's stationmaster, postmaster, and leading storekeeper, in aid of the burnt out Tripp and Sullivan families. Before the month was out the need for something wider than one or two local appeals had become apparent. On 29 December an appeal was therefore launched over the names of the Reverends Webb (Anglican) and Sass (Lutheran), both of whom had parochial responsibilities covering the affected districts, and sawmiller Lewis Parsons, whose business would have given him wide contacts. These three put themselves forward as interim sponsors until a committee could be appointed. Writing about their initiative to the Hawke's Bay Herald on 31 December, Webb remarked that he had learnt from that day's Herald that a public subscription had been opened for the sufferers, and acknowledged that the calamity was now too great for the locals to handle. The bulk of Webb's letter consisted of a moving description of the plight of the Gruebner family, for whom Webb solicited personal help from the paper's readers. This particular clerical initiative raised two important issues—the acceptability of churchmen as relief leaders in the colonial context, and how the relative claims of sufferers should be adjudicated. Webb and Sass were both relatively recent immigrants from Old World settings where State Church parish institutions were part of the public order, and where church relief leadership would have been natural and acceptable. But in the New Zealand setting of denominational rivalry, church leadership in the administering of public matters was being seen as unacceptable. This is the only example in the 1885–86 fires of churchmen offering page 260 themselves as public sponsors. Webb's endeavour at impartiality in making his special appeal for the Lutheran Gruebner family aroused the immediate response from the Herald's Ormondville correspondent that he knew of worse cases. Probably Webb and his co-sponsor were much relieved to be able to hand over their subscriptions, and the responsibility for distributing them, to the Central Committee.

The Central Relief Committee needed a high level of credibility. It had to be seen at once as an appropriate recipient of the anticipated major central government grant; as the legitimate assignee of the earlier local collections; as a source of strong appeal to the province's beneficence; and as the guarantor of a fair and efficient distribution of relief. It got off to an auspicious start. It had cabinet minister Ballance's blessing, and the meeting at which it was set up had been called by the mayor of Napier at the request of legislative councillor the Hon J.N. Wilson, and prominent community leaders and public benefactors Henry Tiffen and J.H. Coleman. The Herald gave a strong editorial blessing to the meeting and its cause, and indeed claimed to have played a significant part in steering matters in this direction:

While we would not say a word in depreciation of the committees now being formed in the bush districts, we suggest they should not act independently, but as auxiliaries to the committee which will certainly be formed tomorrow night…. If this course is adopted we know of many townsmen who will give liberally—indeed, we commit no breach of confidence in stating that the views we have expressed instigated those gentlemen who applied to the Mayor to call tomorrow night's meeting…. Mr W.C. Smith and other settlers have already interviewed the Hon. Mr Ballance, who is now in the district, and who has had personal opportunity of seeing the widespread distress, and as anticipated, Mr Ballance has promised to do his best to ensure a substantial grant-in-aid…. we shall hold all money received by us until a properly constituted central committee is formed, when it will be handed over to them.25

Reading between the lines we can sense that the Herald has been fulfilling an important role as an element in the Fourth Estate, no doubt consulting widely to facilitate the development of a well supported diagnosis of the situation and prescription of a course of group action to meet it.

A strong central committee was duly set up. The committees in the bush were persuaded to coalesce into two strong committees, thus providing a wide pooling of local knowledge from which necessary comparisons about the relative neediness of the various sufferers could be made. Two commissioners, Henry Tiffen and Thomas Scully, provided the main link between these bush committees and the central committee. Both were likely to page 261 inspire confidence among both donors and sufferers. Tiffen had been a surveyor, pastoralist, promoter of yeoman farming, philanthropist, and a leader in a wide range of public bodies and social institutions. Few can have been better known in the province or have known it better.26 Thomas Scully was just nearing the end of a distinguished career at the head of the district's police force.27 Together they provided a good guarantee of competence and probity. The community leaders took the lead in getting the appeal off to a good start. W.C. Smith gave £25, Henry Williams £2028 and Thomas Tanner £50 ‘in addition to the sums already given by him’.29 The committee's conduct of its work was throughout in keeping with this auspicious start.