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

Aid and relief in the Stratford-Midhirst crisis

Aid and relief in the Stratford-Midhirst crisis

As with Hawke's Bay, our account of the Stratford-Midhirst crisis has raised a number of questions. How was it that New Plymouth's mayor was so much more alert than Napier's, in that he offered his town's fire engine to Stratford before the crisis developed? Can we throw any further light on his undoubted failure in leadership in handling his relations with Hawera? What can we learn from the situation about contemporary attitudes to relief and relief appeals? We shall find as we probe these questions that each in its own way throws some light on the place of a region within the family of regions that made up the colony. One not inconsequential question on which we can speculate, though there do not appear to be any clear answers, is why Stratford failed to use the resources of the telegraph at the beginning of the crisis.

Stratford had a telegraph station that was open during normal business hours. It is obvious that neither the telegraphist himself nor any of the local leaders thought of sending off prompt messages to the neighbouring towns about the disaster that had struck them. The telegraph cannot have been affected by the fire, as it was used the following day to advise the mayor of New Plymouth of the disaster. One wonders about the source of the rumour that Stratford had been burned down that began circulating in Hawera towards evening on 6 January. Had the sudden silence of the Stratford telegraphist caused his colleagues at Inglewood and Hawera to share their apprehensions over the line? Technically, there seems to be no reason why New Plymouth should have been left to sleep out the night in ignorance, or why concerned citizens of Inglewood should have had to try to force their way through the smoke and flames in a vain effort to find out what was happening, or why Hawera should have had to wait until the arrival of the train at 8 p.m. to learn what was coming its way. A prompt, intelligent use of the telegraph would have changed the whole situation to Stratford's advantage. It might well have led to the neighbouring telegraph offices being kept open page 262 throughout the night to monitor the crisis.30 We have seen that the Hawera leaders used the telegraph effectively in the late evening of 6 January to negotiate with Wanganui for the special train. While Stratford's failure to use the telegraph does not appear to have elicited any contemporary comment, it cannot but be counted as a leadership lapse. Their excuse must be that the full possibilities of this new technology were not yet a part of the public consciousness.

Mayor James Paul's leadership in January 1886 makes a lot more sense if we presume that he was being strongly influenced by what he read in the press about Hawke's Bay's handling of its crisis. Paul's offer of the New Plymouth fire engine, to which Curtis replied on 5 January, must have been made after he read of the Napier brigade's expedition in the Taranaki Herald of 30 December. His expectation that a special train would be readily at his disposal in a crisis must have arisen from what he read about Hawke's Bay. His public meeting of 8 January, setting up a central relief committee, proceeded along much the same lines as Napier's of three days earlier. Paul had only been mayor for a couple of years and at the last election in August 1885 he had been returned on the casting vote of the returning officer. He may therefore have been a little unsure of himself as he faced the emergency, and so have been the more inclined to lean on Hawke's Bay's example. Hawke's Bay had been able to move at a much more leisurely pace, with wide consultation and public discussion, in setting up its central committee. Taranaki's crisis was more sudden and urgent, and the temptation to a rather unthinking following of an existing model must have been strong. It was unthinking at least insofar as it failed to notice the care the Napier leaders took to consider the feelings of earlier local committees. Hawera's committee should have received the same consideration.

We have already said a good deal about the origins of the north/south rift in Taranaki sentiment. There is, though, a little more to be said on how it was reflected in the province's leadership and their attitudes. The countryside that the fire raged across straddled regions under New Plymouth and under Hawera jurisdiction. Stratford was a town district within Taranaki County whose headquarters were New Plymouth, but the settlers who suffered on the Opunake, Nash, Climie, Cardiff and Waingongoro Roads were all in Hawera County. The 1885 Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act put together the Clifton, Taranaki and Hawera counties, with their boroughs, to make the District of Taranaki, but once set up in November 1885 the board promptly used a clause in the act allowing it to subdivide its district.31 The County and Borough of Hawera formed one of the four subdivisions, with relief powers delegated to board members Isaac Bayly and W.J. Furlong. Thus these two acted on the evening of 6 January 1886 in their joint capacities as chairman and mayor respectively of the two local bodies, page 263 and as members of the Taranaki Hospital and Charitable Aid Board with delegated powers to act in their Hawera subdivision.32 Fortuitously the Board was meeting in New Plymouth on the morning of the 7th, and Hawera's leaders telegraphed a report on the emergency situation. On behalf of his county, Bayly gave an undertaking that it would meet the cost of aid to the fire sufferers within its boundaries. The County and Borough of Hawera had already responded generously to the needs of refugees from outside the county boundaries. Subscription lists were opened in both Hawera and New Plymouth, and funds from outside the province were being directed towards both, to Hawera's in response to its direct appeal for outside help, and to New Plymouth's as a general result of Press Association reports on the fire.

The situation was very untidy, with two committees, two funds, and the sufferers scattered across county boundaries. Some coordination obviously needed to be negotiated. Then came New Plymouth's unilateral action and Hawera's deep resentment of it, creating a situation full of problems. Promoters of subscription lists outside the province were presented with the issue of which committee to send their funds to. There was little hope of central government aid unless local unity could be restored. Further down the track, the two relief committees would have great difficulty in making an equitable distribution of their aid. With good backing from the press, which played an important part in clarifying the issues, weighty figures from outside the quarrel now moved in with initiatives that soon broke the impasse. On Saturday, 16 January, the mayor of Wanganui, F.M. Spurdle, took the train to Taranaki. As the Wanganui public had contributed generously to the local newspaper appeal it would have been difficult to complain about his coming to see what was going on. After consultations in Hawera he proceeded to Stratford, accompanied by Hawera politician Felix McGuire. McGuire was acting on instructions from the new mayor of Hawera, Charles Major, and his tasks included providing Major with an estimate of the fire losses. From Stratford Spurdle and McGuire went on together to New Plymouth where they consulted with the mayor and relief committee. McGuire produced his figure for the losses, based on careful inquiry in Stratford. This was £3,600 plus another one to two thousand pounds if loss of pasture was taken into account. As the total subscriptions did not look likely to exceed £1,500 it was difficult for James Paul to defend his telegram of the 12th. McGuire telegraphed the Hawera Star reporting that the mayor of New Plymouth admitted to having acted hastily and without proper information. This must have been sent with Paul's consent. The Star reported that others of the New Plymouth committee also admitted that their action had been hasty and ill-advised. The fact that Skinner's assessment of the fire losses was so nearly in agreement with George Marchant's suggests that he and other New Plymouth government officials may have played a large part page 264 in the New Plymouth committee's back down. Oliver Samuel, as local member, also probably had an important input. The way was now open to heal the rift and make working arrangements for joint action. This was achieved through a piece of shuttle diplomacy undertaken by Harry Atkinson, by now established as Taranaki's leading colonial politician. As Stratford and Midhirst were in his Egmont electorate, Atkinson had visited the scene of the fires on the 8th to see the damage for himself.33 He met the New Plymouth committee on the morning of Monday, 18 January, and then took the afternoon train to Hawera. Atkinson had earlier made a shrewd move towards assuaging the hurt feelings in Hawera. Although he was from North Taranaki his generous £25 relief subscription had been paid to the Hawera appeal.34 His discussions with the Hawera committee on the evening of the 18th led to their passing a resolution that a committee of five be appointed to assess the settlers' losses, this committee to consist of two appointed by the Hawera committee, two by the New Plymouth committee, and a fifth to be nominated by these four. The place of meeting was to be Stratford and the committee's decisions were to be final. These resolutions were probably in line with Atkinson's earlier discussions in New Plymouth; in any case, when he took them there by next morning's early train, the New Plymouth committee promptly agreed to them.

As in Hawke's Bay, the press played a worthy role as the ‘Fourth Estate’ in the Taranaki crisis. In New Plymouth the Taranaki Herald office served as a community information centre for the town's response, with the contents of each telegram being made available as it arrived.35 In Hawera the Star, through its use of Marchant, became a major player in that town's initiatives. The press outside Taranaki was brought quickly into the picture by the Hawera Relief Committee telegraphing ‘to the chief newspapers on the coast’ asking for ‘subscription lists to be opened to raise funds to assist in reinstating the ruined settlers'.36 How the matter moved out from the newspaper office to become a civic matter can be illustrated from developments in Wellington. The Evening Post of 8 January, which carried full reports on the devastation at Stratford and the continuing threat to Midhirst, had a strong editorial on the plight of ‘The Burned-out Settlers’ which concluded with an expression of hope that the government would give them aid. In its next issue the Post reported the request it had received from the Hawera committee, with which it ‘most gladly complied’, commenting that ‘no more legitimate appeal has ever been made to the sympathies of New Zealand settlers'. Its acknowledgement of the first subscriptions received was headed by £10 from Wellington's mayor and substantial donations from a number of leading merchants. Obviously the Post was moving with the informal support of the leaders of the local establishment. The Post's appeal met with a good response and on the 12th £100 was sent off to the Hawera committee. page 265 While the New Zealand Times did not formally launch an appeal, it acknowledged subscriptions received from its readers and sent its first remittance of £17 on the 13th. The editors of both papers were probably directly involved in the next development reported thus in the New Zealand Times of 12 January 1886:

A few gentlemen who are intimately connected with the condition of the bush settlers in Taranaki met on Sunday evening for the purpose of devising some scheme which would be likely to enlist general sympathy in aid of the sufferers by the late bush fires. They waited yesterday on the Mayor, who expressed his thorough sympathy with their objects, and promised to assist them in every possible way.

Had it not been for the sabotaging move of the New Plymouth committee this would have led on naturally to a public meeting, chaired by the mayor, giving strong civic backing to the appeal. Edward Tregear's moving appeal letter in the Evening Post of 14 January 1886 may have been commissioned by this group of gentlemen. It seems likely that each major district in the colony had similar groups of friends in the main centres who could be rallied by press reports and other initiatives to come forward to speak and act on their behalf. In some instances these informal networks would be reinforced by shared commercial interests. The published subscription lists suggest that this was markedly so in this Taranaki/Wellington case. The shaping of public opinion and initiating of action by this interaction of the press, these informal networks, and civic and central government leaders, would seem to be a significant feature of public life in settler New Zealand.

The contretemps of the New Plymouth committee's rebuff to the Hawera initiative drew a strong response from Wellington. The Evening Post promptly telegraphed the Hawera committee and in reply received a copy of Elliott Barton's telegram of protest to the mayor of New Plymouth. The Post's decision, published on the 13th, was that:

Under these circumstances we shall of course continue to receive subscriptions, and we believe that every penny that can be raised will be wanted to enable the sufferers to tide over and recover from their misfortune. We may mention that His Worship the Mayor has received a telegram from the Mayor of New Plymouth stating that the sum collected there is sufficient. His Worship, however, does not consider that the efforts to raise further funds should be relaxed.

Clearly the civic authorities and the press are continuing their informal cooperation in the matter. This response had just gone to press when the Post was placed in a predicament by news from Wanganui, in the form of the text of a letter from the Hawera committee to Wanganui's mayor asking page 266 him not to remit to them any moneys collected there, as although they believed a grave mistake had been made by New Plymouth ‘it would be very embarrassing to receive any subscriptions now’.37 With the status of its continuing appeal thus thrown into doubt the Post took positive action to change the course of events in Taranaki. Strongly hinting that it was speaking on behalf of the Wellington establishment, and with the clear aim of turning Hawera from thus losing its nerve under New Plymouth pressure, it telegraphed Hawera thus:

We have money in hand and subscriptions still offering. Action Taranaki Committee generally condemned, and strong feeling that burned out settlers should not suffer through it. If we continue to receive subscriptions will your committee take the money and use it for their benefit, irrespective Taranaki Committee. Reply urgent.38

To this Hawera replied agreeing to ‘adopt suggestion as to independent action’. A strong editorial in the New Zealand Times of the 14th likewise condemned the New Plymouth Committee and called for a redoubled subscription effort to show ‘the unfeeling little clique in New Plymouth’ how much their heartlessness was despised. One can envisage a similar interaction of the press, informal networks, and civic leaders behind the Taranaki visit of Spurdle, Wanganui's mayor.

The Hawera appeal for outside aid and the New Plymouth countermanding of the move brought into public debate questions about the justification needed for such appeals, and about the relationship between charitable aid provided through regular channels and special types of aid provided through sponsored appeals. While this discussion brought into the open a range of contradictory attitudes, it made little progress towards any consensus. Nevertheless the markedly different form in which the Taranaki aid funds were distributed was probably a direct result of this debate. The nature of the issues may be put succinctly by quoting extreme positions. Edward Tregear saw the burnt out settlers as worthy recipients because ‘the earnings of years, the result of heroic self denial, the fruit of their patient courage lies in ashes'.39 On the other hand ‘Help’, an anonymous writer to the Taranaki Herald, contended that ‘many of the farmers are comparatively well off, yet they have apparently no compunction in sharing amongst them the charity of tender-hearted washerwomen or 5s a day laborers'.40 Replying to the Hawera committee's telegram protesting at their ‘unwarranted and insulting interference with our canvass', the mayor of New Plymouth wired, ‘Committee do not think it advisable to sponge on the colony for more than is actually required’.41 On the other hand an anonymous Stratford correspondent writing to the Taranaki Herald made the important point that ‘the settlers in this district have been recruited from all parts of the colony’.

page 267

He had had his outbuildings and crops swept away by the fire but affirmed ‘I shall accept no help in any shape, otherwise I could not write on this subject’. He expressed a pride of independence that was common among the settlers:

the ugly words ‘charity’ and ‘pauper’ have found admittance on this subject. Allow me to remark that the average settler is about as far removed from all connection with such matters as it is possible to be. He is a man of, usually, small capital, who braves hardships and discomforts, of which many of your residents who have undergone them have a vivid remembrance, and this is an honourable desire to win a home for himself and his family. If this help which has been tendered has any connection with ‘charity’ then I say that an intolerable insult has been offered to a community on whose manly efforts many material interests largely depend, and the sooner all offers made in such a spirit are withdrawn the better for all concerned.42

This correspondent's letter highlighted a problem that faced the relief committee, the fact that the majority of real sufferers in the Stratford fire were not the poorer cottagers who had lost their homes, but the settlers with larger holdings who had in most cases saved their homes but lost all means of subsistence for many months to come. This situation was well described by the Auckland Weekly News's Hawera correspondent who felt that the worst affected were the bush farmers who had lost heavily in fences and grass.

To the settler who has lost in this way the injury in many cases is greater than to the settlers with smaller sections who have lost only their homes. The latter belonged, for the most part, to the poorer class of settlers, who divided their time in road-contracting or working for their neighbours and improving their own places. Their holdings are not, as a rule, as large as the others, and when their houses are re-instated (which generally can be done at a comparatively small cost) their great difficulty is overcome. To the farmer, however, who has lost all his fences and the grass seed on which he had been depending, the loss is even more severe, as he will not probably receive the same consideration in the distribution of the funds subscribed.43

Whether the majority of the subscribers were clear as to what they were giving to is not evident, but the bush settlers and most of the Hawera community probably agreed with the contention of the editor of the Hawera Star that ‘the Charitable Aid Board should relieve destitution and that voluntary subscriptions should be employed for the purpose of reinstatement.’44

The five delegates who formed the relief committee therefore had a delicate task on their hands. Many of those in most urgent need of assistance were likely to go on, once they mastered this crisis, to become quite well-to-do page 268 farmers. In their present situation they were particularly sensitive to any suggestion that they were recipients of charity, and a widespread reluctance to accept help had to be overcome. Onlookers, particularly in New Plymouth, would be eagle-eyed for any ‘luxury’ use of aid funds. The committee's solution to this tricky situation was to dispense most of the aid in kind. Outside critics could hardly find much misuse of aid in the packages of roofing iron, wire and grass seed going out to the ravaged holdings. Aid could be matched to needs without giving easy grounds for invidious comparisons. And these allocations were less likely to be seen by sensitive recipients as charity than cash grants would have been. Implementing their decision gave the committee a great deal of onerous work, but they must have felt rewarded by seeing the success of their strategy. Harry Atkinson joined the committee briefly in their deliberations, to consult them on whether to apply to the government for a grant in money or for work for the settlers on completing the Opunake Road. The latter was considered the best course, probably mainly for the same reasons as the distributing of the aid funds in kind. On the joint approach by Atkinson, Trimble and Samuel, the government gave a road work grant of £1,000.45 Thus the province's leadership steered their way through some fairly stormy waters, and brought the relief effort to a satisfying conclusion.