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

South Taranaki 1881–86: farming for what?

South Taranaki 1881–86: farming for what?

Writing on 19 February 1886 the Hawera correspondent of the Auckland Weekly News told of discussions going on in the town as to the future use of the Tawhiti flourmill. Built in 1881, this fine building, with excellent water power (‘motive enough to turn the universe’), well situated half a mile from the town and a quarter of a mile from the railway station, was up for lease on very reasonable terms. There was some agitation for it to be used for a meat tinning works, to fill the gap left by the collapse of Patea's West Coast Meat Preserving Company, following the destruction by fire of its works the previous May. The other proposal being mooted was a woollen mill.46 Although the district as yet had no dairy factory, no mention was made of this as a possible use. In fact the building shortly reopened to continue as a flourmill under a new owner, George Ogle. He finally closed the business and dismantled the mill in 1910.47 Today the dominant farm processing concern in the district is the giant Kiwi dairy factory at Whareroa. Local residents must find it difficult to imagine a time when the farming options seemed wide open, and discussion on them could ignore dairying. As late as 1883 the storekeepers of Patea, Hawera and Normanby were complaining that dairying was being neglected in the district and they were having to import a large proportion of their butter.48

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Between the censuses of 1878 and 1886 the colony's population grew by 40 per cent, but Taranaki's by over 90 per cent, making it the fastest growing province of the period. Much of Taranaki's growth was on virgin land— especially the open country of the Waimate Plains and the neighbouring bush country. There had been a great rush for the fertile, well watered Waimate Plains when the government put them on the market in 1880, and some annoyance among pastoralists that the land was being marketed in small blocks. But the government had strategic reasons for wanting close settlement in the district. The sale of bush land followed quickly after the occupation of the plains, with considerable public help for the purchasers in the form of government expenditure on strategic roads and the railway. With the savings that they brought with them the newcomers created a strong demand for artisan skills, food, stock, grass seed and timber. For a time it must have seemed that there was a market for anything one could produce.

By the mid 1880s the flush of government expenditure and ample spending by new settlers was over and the long term viability of the various farming options was a matter of serious debate. As we have already seen, South Taranaki was becoming aware of the handicap of being at the far end of long communication lines to the main centres and the export ports. Her rural leaders now faced the challenge of determining which of the competing commodities provided the best option for a prosperous future, and of getting their fellow settlers to accept their conclusions and to cooperate in putting in place the necessary infrastructure for the chosen industries. It was no easy task, for the settlers came from various Old World and colonial backgrounds with various farming predilections; they moved at varying rates in accepting the realities of the possibilities and constraints of the new soils, climate and distance from markets; and they were responding in various ways to the metropolitan input in the form of international journalism and modernising ideas. There has been much debate on the relative importance of tradition, frontier environment, and metropolis in shaping settler communities. We would agree that in fact they ‘interacted in extremely complex ways to exert uneven pressure on various aspects of community life’.49 In our brief case study all we can hope to show is how some agricultural leaders went about their task under this complexity of influences.

To simplify our account we will suggest three models as covering the kinds of farming futures that a majority of the settlers had in mind: a ‘Lincolnshire’ model, a ‘Kent’ model, and a ‘West Country’ model. While South Taranaki had significant numbers of immigrants from each of these English regions, our labels are not meant to suggest these counties were the only sources of input into the South Taranaki versions of the models. They could just as well have been named from colonial New Zealand, with the grain and grazing ‘Lincolnshire’ as ‘Canterbury’, the orchard, hop and market page 270 gardening ‘Kent’ as ‘Nelson’, and the dairying ‘West Country’ as ‘New Plymouth’. And in fact immigrants from each of these colonial districts made some contribution to the South Taranaki development of the models.

We saw the Lincolnshire model in operation in John Scott Caverhill's farming programme near Hawera. He was the most prominent among a group of settlers who set about adapting the traditions of the older pastoral districts to South Taranaki. For a number of years these men vigorously followed the contemporary ‘Canterbury’ grazier approach with its extensive grain cropping to get the land into English grasses. The fertile soils and high rainfall gave flourishing pastures, to cope with which they stocked heavily with beef cattle as well as sheep. One or two of these men came as experienced pastoralists. The majority, including men such as John Finlay, A.A. Fantham and R.E. McRae, seem to have been ambitious yeomen seeing the opening of South Taranaki as a chance to move into the grazier gentry. In the heady days of the early 1880s these men were willing leaders in shaping the agricultural, political, social and sporting life of the region, determined that it should stand on its own and not be subservient to the Old Guard of North Taranaki.

By the mid 1880s this Lincolnshire model leadership was faltering. The climate was sapping their faith in grain cropping. Their Patea Meat Preserving Company had come to grief. It had been an ambitious project, embracing canning, freezing, boiling down and fellmongery. The canning had suffered from faulty tin and the boiling down from a fall in the price of tallow. The freezing never got under way, the plant lying idle because no coaster adapted to carrying frozen meat could be found to take out the produce. The directors of the locally owned ship refused to spend money altering their vessel because they could not get insurance cover on it. So, on 3 December 1886, after receiving the liquidators' accounts

the Company's remains—mostly unpaid accounts—were left to moulder and decay while the shareholders turned and fled from the corpse for which they'd bled, each one feeling ‘a wiser, if not a better, man’, than when, in the fullness of his heart, he subscribed to the Company's capital but a three brief years ago.50

These kinds of happening tend to be muted in local histories,51 yet they often represent important turning points. For a vital four years between 1885 and 1889 South Taranaki had no meat works. Had the graziers' initial project succeeded, the Lincolnshire model might well have vied more vigorously with the West Country one over the next decade or so, winning the support of many a South Taranaki yeoman and giving quite a different complexion to the bush frontier. Instead the pastoralists lost face and came under criticism as standing in the way of the prosperity which closer page 271 settlement was thought to offer. Thus on 5 October 1886 the Hawera correspondent of the Yeoman complained of the neighbouring farmers that

the farming of the majority consists of riding around the cattle, and getting their hedges cut by contract; some not even growing winter feed. The good land and good climate formerly gave those with a few hundred acres so easy a method of making a good income that the present low prices ruling for stock cannot bestir them to try some more lucrative system than the present one of one man to 1000 acres. The large landholders near the borough form an insurmountable obstacle to the progress it should make, being the centre of so fertile a territory.52

Turning now to the Kent model, we will look first at fruit growing and then at hops. A small orchard was a natural feature of the subsistence stage on the pioneer frontier. However, in settler South Taranaki many orchards seem to have moved quickly beyond the claims of subsistence or the local market. Moving from south to north, we find that by 1886 the Manutahi district had numerous orchards, with one or two being quite extensive. A number had even tried grape growing, but with little success because of blight.53 Further north at Normanby in December 1885 large quantities of gooseberries were being sent to the Auckland market.54 From the nearby bush settlements the Egmont Star's Kaupokonui correspondent reported in September 1886 that ‘an enormous number of fruit trees have been planted throughout the district this season’.55 Moving to the bush settlements of central Taranaki, the Stratford and Ngaere correspondent of the Hawera Star commented as early as 1882 that ‘this district bids fair to be one vast orchard in a few years' time; hundreds and hundreds of trees are planted every year’.56 As we saw in Chapter 11, by 1885 he was suggesting the need for a jam factory in the district. But no leadership seems to have appeared to attempt to organise these individual initiatives into a viable industry. The growers received the assistance of Rowe's commercial nursery which flourished in Normanby from 1879, and from 1884 they had the encouragement of the annual Normanby Horticultural Show.57 But there was to be no jam factory or cider works, nor even any cooperation in packing and exporting the harvests.

Normanby was also to the fore with hops, and here there was some real cooperation. In April 1883 a number of the principal settlers met to consider commencing hop growing, and by May a meeting of about sixteen of them agreed on arrangements.58 The promoters each put in £10 to finance a trial garden in a leased sheltered bush clearing. Rowe the nurseryman was appointed manager, working with a committee of three. There were experienced Kentish settlers in the district so no difficulty was expected with labour. If a two-year trial was successful a company was to be formed. A number page 272 of Normanby settlers decided to proceed at once with their own plantings, and by the following spring two settlers at nearby Okaiawa59 and several in other neighbouring districts had also made plantings. By December the Normanby promoters were trying to find more investors to help them put up a kiln large enough for their own crops and those of other growers in the district.60 Settlers further away at Alton to the south and Ngaere to the north had also experimented with hops by 1883.61 But the movement was fated to be soon brought to a sudden halt. In December 1884 high winds broke hop poles in the Normanby gardens and in March 1885, just at the end of the two-year trial, most of the crop in the experimental garden was lost in a strong gale which caused widespread damage in the district. The settlers could now see how much their earlier farming had owed to the sheltering bush that they had been clearing away. With low prices for hops there was no incentive to go on.

There were other reasons besides Taranaki's winds why the Kent model was unsuited to settler South Taranaki. The original New Plymouth settlement had laid claim to being ‘the Garden of New Zealand’.62 It was meeting the local market for orchard and garden crops and with its two ports was better placed than the south for supplying any openings in the northern markets. South Taranaki could not hope to emulate Nelson's ‘Kentish’ success for it did not have Nelson's nearby urban and miners' markets.

In the mid 1880s yeoman South Taranaki was at a real turning point. The four bush burn seasons of 1880–83 had been very discouraging, but then came the marvellous burns of the 1884–85 and 1885–86 seasons.63 The 1885 crown rangers' reports on the deferred payment settlers showed almost universal good progress.64 But what were these great stretches of new grassland to produce? There were poor prospects for profits from the easy options of either shutting up for grass seed or grazing for meat and wool and hides. And there were plenty of risks. Bush fires could take your seed harvest, wild dogs were ravaging the little bush sheep flocks65 and the settlers' cattle had a bad habit of disappearing to join the wild mobs in the bush.66 If your livestock survived all the hazards, transport to market ate up most of the cheque. As we have seen, similar disappointments had met those considering the market possibilities of expanding their subsistence gardens and orchards. It was due to these circumstances that the extremely daring West Country model was able to get a hearing. And this model was indeed daring. The colony's own dairy market was already fully supplied. If Taranaki was to become a dairy farm its main market would have to be Britain whose growing population and rising living standards were giving an expanding market for quality foodstuffs. But could quality perishable products like butter and cheese be produced and manufactured on the South Taranaki frontier, transported halfway round the world, and successfully marketed in competition page 273 with British and European producers? Fortunately for these settlers there were bold leaders telling them they could do it.

The most notable of these leaders was William King Hulke (1819–1908). Immigrating to Wellington in 1840, he went in 1841 to Sydney and bought a herd of dairy cows with which he established a dairy at Evan's Bay, Wellington. By the early 1850s he was on Bell Block, North Taranaki. Here he developed a dairy farm on Corbett Road and for many years ran his own model dairy factory for the benefit of neighbouring farmers.67 In 1876 he introduced Taranaki's first Jersey cow, buying ‘Jenny’ from Mrs Halcombe, putting a halter round her neck, and leading her the 130 miles from Marton to his farm at Bell Block.68 Keeping a close eye on overseas developments, Hulke experimented with all aspects of dairying, and must have had a considerable influence on the primitive home dairy stage of the industry in the New Plymouth settlement. He summed up the position of the industry there at the beginning of the 1880s in a letter in the Taranaki Herald of 29 December 1880:

from enquiries I have made I find that there is about three tons of fresh butter offered weekly for sale in town—not in an open market, but under the barter or truck system, to the storekeepers, who re-wash, pack, and export it. About the same quantity is salted and kegged by farmers, who hold it over the summer, and then sell. The price offered at present is 6d per lb.: and considering the manner in which it is got up, and the great risk of loss by the butter turning bad, I fail to see how a higher price can be obtained under the present system of manufacture and sale.

Even so, Hulke reported that the returns from dairying were higher than those of any other industry in the district. But he contended that what Taranaki needed was for its dairy industry to undergo revolutionary changes in line with overseas developments.

In his campaign for a dairying revolution Hulke had enlisted the help of another leader, W.H.J. Seffern (1829–1900), editor of the Taranaki Herald from 1868 to 1895. His enthusiasm for the cause is reflected in comments by J.D. Wickham when he rambled through Taranaki for the Auckland Weekly News in 1886:

[Mr Seffern's] special weakness just now is ‘the markets’. The fluctuations of the Taranaki staple is a matter of great moment to the Butterdomites. Seffern, with his finger on the pulse of the market, butters ‘em up, and butters ‘em down, with the latest quotations. He literally ‘fetches’ his readers on butter.69

A Herald editorial of 26 April 1886 gives a good summary of Seffern's case. The colony faced ruin unless it could build up its agricultural exports to page 274 service its loans. Taranaki was ideally suited to dairying. The Americans had shown the way; their cooperative factories had enabled their dairy farmers to compete in price and quality on the British market.

The advantages of cheese and butter-making on a co-operative dairy system, over those of private farming, are very great. In the first place, by the cooperative system, a uniform product of a superior character is secured. Every appliance that science or skill, or close attention, is able to obtain is brought to bear upon the manufacture, and prime quality necessarily follows as a result.70

Between June and September 1880 the Herald ran a series of thirteen articles ‘On Dairy Farming’ by Hulke. In the first article Hulke pointed out that England alone was now importing £10,000,000 worth of dairy produce yearly. Most came from the Continent, but America was winning an increasing share. Hulke knew of no reason why New Zealand could not move in on this profitable trade. Although the first refrigerated cargo had yet to leave the colony's shore, he wrote:

Modern science has already made discoveries sufficient to warrant us to commence the undertaking, and with a cold air chamber fitted up in one of the large wheat-ships sailing from Lyttelton—a new life would be given to trade, and no class would feel its benefit more than our bush settlers. I unhesitatingly say that the future prosperity of that hardworking class depends on the sale of their dairy produce, and to effect this, a better system both as regards dairy management and mode of packing must be introduced.71

Drawing on wide reading on British, European and American developments, Hulke's articles gave a full recipe for the ‘better system’ he was advocating— a thoroughly modernised, professional approach to dairying. He dealt with dairy breeds, herd management, and the details of quality milking shed and dairy equipment and its use. He looked forward to a shift to the factory system and the introduction of the centrifugal separator. In 1882 he followed up these articles with his 16-page booklet, Golden Rules for Butter Making. Readers were advised that they could see all the modern methods demonstrated at Hulke's experimental dairy on Corbett Road and that he had pure-bred Ayrshire and Jersey bulls at stud at low prices.72

Hulke had effectively worked through the first two phases of leadership's directive function, authoritatively defining the problem situation and formulating a plan designed to resolve it. He stood ready to assist any who were willing to set about implementing the policy. When he noted moves for factory dairying in South Taranaki in 1883 he quickly expressed his encouragement and offered to make available all the information at his page 275 disposal.73 Though these moves fell through, he made a trip to South Taranaki anyway, in 1884, to see the private cheese factory which the Iredale brothers had been running at Whareroa since 1882, and he wrote again to the Hawera Star to say that the land around Hawera could be good dairy country. At the Normanby Horticultural Show in March 1885 he mounted a ‘handsome exhibit’ of herd testing and dairy apparatus.74

This South Taranaki move was initiated by the convening of a public meeting on the subject by the mayor of Hawera on 14 April 1883. In his opening remarks the mayor, G.V. Bate, described his own recent visit to the Ashburton factory and told of cooperative dairying in Switzerland and the USA. Charles Laishley of the Union Bank told of his visits to the factories at Te Awamutu and Hamilton and of meeting Mr Runciman whom the Waikato farmers had sent to the USA for information.75 Lawrence Milmoe reported on a letter he had had from a Southland settler telling of the Edendale factory. Obviously some local leaders had put a good deal of work into gathering information, and no doubt most of those present already knew of New Zealand and overseas developments from such sources as Hulke's writings, or the New Zealand Farmer and the Auckland Weekly News. Yet Frank Lawrie, who attended the meeting while on his visit to the district for the Auckland Weekly News, noted that ‘the important matter was discussed in a calm, dispassionate manner, but there was no spark of enthusiasm manifested’.76 This would seem to have been because all who spoke were large landholders thinking in terms of the difficulty of finding proficient milkers to look after the herds if they went into dairying. It was a very wet night and probably few yeomen were present. Their small-holdings lay further out beyond the large farms adjoining the town. In any case they would have left the talking to the ‘big men’.

The meeting appointed a committee to look into the matter, and this committee decided to employ a paid canvasser ‘for the double purpose of securing capital and milk’, with the promise that the first factory would be erected wherever the most milk was promised within a radius of three miles.77 The canvasser reported back to the committee on 25 June. He had promises of 300 cows, with the largest number being in the Okaiawa district. He had not carried his enquiries into the bush, but further produce might be found from there. His share list was very small. The committee decided to draw up an Egmont Dairy Company prospectus, setting out that the first factory would be built at Okaiawa as soon as sufficient shares had been taken up.78 Nothing came of this, because the big men, who had some money for shares, were not interested in a factory out at Okaiawa, while the Okaiawa yeomen, who unlike the big men had actually given firm promises of cows, had no money for shares.79 However the episode had at least put factory dairying squarely on the Hawera district agenda, and the nature of the problem was page 276 starkly clarified as one of tying commitments of milch cows and capital together in one locality.

It was Normanby that finally got the district's first public dairy factory. Swiss settler Felix Hunger put his neighbours in touch with his fellow countryman Albert Fischer, who was prepared to settle in Normanby and start a cheese factory at his own expense if the settlers on their part would guarantee to supply sufficient milk. At a meeting late in September 1885, Fischer, ith Hunger as his interpreter, put his proposals to the settlers. The meeting appointed a committee of four canvassers to go out and look for the guarantees totalling at least the 300 gallons a day that Fischer was asking for. The canvassers reported back to a meeting at Brett's Hotel on 3 October. Further offers made at the meeting brought guarantees to 341 gallons, so Fischer agreed to proceed. Fischer got his equipment down from Auckland, a boiler from Lyttelton, and installed them in the old brewery building which was already equipped with a water wheel. The first milk was received on 14 December. As the industry became established, milk came in from as far as six miles away. Fischer brought in several skilled Swiss assistants, exhibits from the factory adorned the Normanby Horticultural Show, and land prices in the district reputedly rose by £2 an acre.80

While factory dairying was thus established at Normanby, the leadership of neighbouring districts had also been wrestling with the issue. The first success, preceding Normanby by two months, was at Opunake. Here, in an exception to the general pattern, one of the big farmers, Samuel Augustus Breach,81 had taken the lead. He teamed up with J.J. Elwin, a New Plymouth schoolmaster who was also a dairy farmer with a valuable knowledge of dairying. By 1886 Breach employed five milkers for about 150 cows.82 With Breach's input of both finance and cows as a foundation, the Opunake Dairy Company had an easy launch. Things did not go so well at Manaia. Preliminary canvassing began in February 1885 and by early March 400 cows had been promised and a good number of shares applied for.83 A prospectus with an impressive list of provisional directors was published in the Hawera Star of 1 July 1885, but on 29 August a meeting of interested settlers was told that only £1040 of the needed £1600 had been subscribed, so the project was deferred for a period.84 The promoters battled on and their factory finally opened in December 1886, while nearby Otakeho, which seems to have been included in the Manaia canvassing, also successfully launched a factory in 1886.85 This district was fortunate that enough of both milk and finance came forward for the two factories. In the district between Hawera and Patea canvassing in the winter of 1886 established that there were enough cows for a factory. Unfortunately the movement collapsed because the settlements of Manutahi, Kakaramea and Alton could not agree which one page 277 should have the factory and none of them had the strength to go ahead alone.86

By the end of the 1886–87 season factory dairying was firmly established in South Taranaki. Ahead lay many problems of transport and marketing, of factory finance and management, of quality control in both the sheds and the factories. An interplay of leadership at local, regional and national level handled these problems with sufficient skill for the industry to continue both to prosper and to grow. Much of the leadership talent of the province became involved with the industry, among them several already named in our narrative, including Oliver Samuel, G.A. Marchant, B.C. Robbins and Newton King.

Our three case studies have well illustrated the points we made at the beginning of this chapter. We cannot tell our colonial story convincingly if we concentrate most of our attention on the centre, on the capital city and on national leaders and politics. Significant decision making was diffused to regional and local level in all areas of life, and the fortunes of causes and the status of leaders depended as much on what happened at the periphery as at the centre. Of course the centre, with its Hansards, its parliamentary papers, its full coverage by the press, and its political memoirs and manuscript collections, is much easier to handle. But the formal and informal ways in which localities related to one another and to their regions, and in which regions related to one another and to the centre, are a crucial part of settler history. History which leaves these dimensions out is very thin gruel. History can put them in by delving deeply in the provincial press, which, as we have seen, played a crucial role in regional and local affairs. Fortunately for the historian this press also provides a multi-voiced, multi-dimensional record and commentary on these affairs, through its local correspondents, editorials, correspondence columns, advertisers, travelling correspondents, &c, &c.