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

2 — The Setting of the Pyre

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The Setting of the Pyre

In January 1886 James Hector, the government's scientific adviser, totalled the 1885 rainfall returns. Taking the previous thirty years' averages as his base, he found extraordinary deficiencies all over the colony. For Auckland it was 33 per cent, for Dunedin 30 per cent, for Wellington 28 per cent. December's deficiencies were enormous—Auckland 81 per cent, Wellington 72 per cent, Dunedin 71 per cent.1 By mid January 1886 the Wairau was reporting a six month drought,2 almost all the West Coast's mines had halted for lack of water,3 and on 11 January the mail coach dispensed with the ferry punt at the west end of the Manawatu gorge, and the water did not even reach the axles.4 Nor was New Zealand suffering alone. Reports in December told of an alarming drought in Fiji, and early in January ships off Victoria's coast met extraordinary smoke and ash coming from that colony. Off Cape Otway the German barque Malvina collected a quarter of an inch of ash on her decks, and lit her pinnacle lamps in broad daylight to enable her helmsman to see the compass. In New Caledonia rivers which had never run dry ‘in the recollection of the oldest Natives’ had ceased to flow, and cattle were dying in great numbers.5

Throughout New Zealand there was widespread apprehension as the long drought deepened and the countryside scorched tinder dry under the unrelenting summer sun. The settlers had a fund of experience of fire both as a tool and as a foe. From the late 1840s pastoralists, abandoning Wakefield's vision of an English style of countryside, had used fire widely on the grasslands as they rapidly built up flocks of sheep managed in the Australian squatter tradition. On much of the primitive landscape they found that the dominant species were tussock grasses—coarse, wiry bunch-grasses which were particularly flammable in dry periods because of their habit of shedding fibrous litter which remained raw rather than decaying to form humus. The tussock was often associated with rank growth of matagouri and speargrass. Damper districts were covered, not with tussock, but with bracken and manuka scrub. Whatever the cover, the going was often difficult for both man and beast, and the first settlers resorted ‘to the simple device of burning their way into and through the country’.6 Learning that after such a burn a succulent green herbage appeared, the pastoralists made seasonal burning page 23
A hot corner in a grassland fire

A hot corner in a grassland fire

part of their routine practice. Indeed, without these controlled regular burns they would have lost much stock in accidental burns. Even with the practice there were plenty of accidental fires in dry seasons. In January 1886 the case Studholme versus the Queen was approaching resolution in Christchurch. It arose from a serious fire on Studholme's run the previous winter, allegedly caused by a spark from a passing locomotive. A reporter approached Back, Canterbury's railway manager, for his comments.

‘The matter is, as it were, sub judice,’ says Mr Back, ‘we admit nothing.’ That somewhat disconcerting statement may be taken to signify: ‘Yes, it is possible that sparks from a locomotive may set fire to grass and crops; but, look you, there are smokers; and careless smokers who ride by rail and ride by road, and throw their matches about. There are swaggers, there are traction engines, and portable engines for threshing machines and they have fire-boxes and throw ashes about too. Finally there are accidents outside the railway department—there are even, they tell me, cases where vagabonds and derelict glass bottles have been set down as the cause of serious fire.7

Studholme was awarded £400 145 3d damages with costs.8 The Lyttelton Times carried plenty of reports of grass fires arising from various causes, known and unknown, over these summer months.

The worst of this summer's fires, however, were not in the grasslands, but in the more recent bush settlements. For the origins of the great mass of page 24 forest debris which fuelled these fires we must go back to the colonial government decisions in response to the crisis of the late 1860s. By 1868 the British government had withdrawn most of its troops from New Zealand, and made it clear that the rest must go, as it wanted no more part in the colonists' land wars. In the light of the heavy defeats suffered by the insurgent Maoris in the mid 1860s, the colonists had some confidence that they could cope through the ‘self-reliance’ that they had been talking about for years. In a few weeks over the spring of 1868 this confidence was rudely shattered, as two new Maori warrior-leaders, Titokowaru and Te Kooti, rose to meteoric fame. In the west Titokowaru's guerrilla thrusts sent the colonial forces reeling back upon Wanganui, abandoning a good 45 kilometres of coastal settlements to destruction. In the east Te Kooti's warrior band seemed to be able to roam and raid at will. The colonial government responded desperately, indeed ruthlessly, and after some months of hard campaigning its forces regained the initiative and re-established their ascendancy on both coasts.

Over these long months of despair and desperation the colony's leaders did some hard thinking about the dilemmas that faced them. If these Maori guerrilla attacks were to become a persistent feature of North Island rural life, the situation indeed looked almost hopeless. Each of the threatened districts was an extensive pocket of thinly populated pastoral country, settled and serviced mainly from the sea, and hemmed in and cut off from other settlements by great stretches of mountain and forest. To succeed, these Wairarapa, Hawke's Bay, Rangitikei-Manawatu and Patea Coast pastoralists had needed good relations with the local Maori population, first to gain access to the land by lease or purchase, and then to obtain labour to develop their stations and shear their sheep. At first these sheep kings had discouraged closer settlement, for fear that a demand would grow for small farms to be carved out of their broad acres. But in the 1860s and 1870s, in the face of the Maori threat, some set up townships near their stations, so as to have a reservoir of settler manpower on hand. Tikokino, Otane and Takapau began in this way. But progress in such closer settlement was slow, for the squatters could find steady work for only a few men, and primitive roads meant that small farmers could not get a profitable access to markets. Yet what was needed was not only such a strengthening of the districts already occupied, but also a rapid advance into the great stretches of bush surrounding them, to link them together and break the isolation which made them so vulnerable. In the late 1860s such an advance looked hopeless. Coming from a land of open fields, most of the colonists feared and shunned the bush. In the whole colony there were only a few hundred of the class of man the Americans called a ‘backwoodsman’, and only a handful of colonists had thrown away their fear of the bush and mastered the art of bush warfare in page 25 the forest ranger units. It was the Maoris who, having learnt at bitter cost the settler superiority in set piece open country warfare, had turned to the bush which they knew so well. It gave them both the cover for surprise attacks and swift withdrawals, and also the advantage of controlling the central lines of communication. Over the summer and autumn of 1868–69 the squatters of Wellington and Hawke's Bay wrestled with the complexities of their situation. The Southern taxpayers were showing an increasing reluctance to foot the bill for a drawn-out conflict, and there were mutterings about withdrawing the colonists from the threatened settlements or making the South Island a separate colony. But even if continuing conflict could be funded, what was to happen if the Maori shearers withdrew their labour and the handfuls of settler labourers melted away, seeking safer homes in happier places? In their desperation the political leaders of Hawke's Bay and Wellington provinces spearheaded a move for a change of government and of policy.

On 24 June 1869, after a vigorous no-confidence debate, parliament voted by a convincing majority for a new team, consisting mainly of men from the threatened districts with William Fox as their leader. This new cabinet gambled on a policy involving demilitarising the North Island frontier, and getting under way a great new forward surge of colonial development. Their most hopeful dreams saw the Maoris won over to partnership in the development programme. If this should not eventuate, they hoped at least to succeed in greatly strengthening the threatened North Island settlements, and linking them with a great crescent-shaped, east-west military trunk road, stretching from New Plymouth down to Wanganui, and across the island by way of the Manawatu Gorge to Napier. Perhaps, too, money might be found for the colony's first substantial railway building programme, and a line built to parallel the military trunk road. This bold programme faced daunting difficulties. How could a strong surge of money and manpower be expected to flow into a struggling colony and especially to its recently threatened frontiers? The strategy required large stretches of forest country to be cleared and occupied, yet the aversion to forest land was strong even among seasoned colonials. The plan seemed to be asking for a series of miracles.

The colonists got their miracles, and the plan was substantially implemented. The Fox cabinet was in itself something of a political miracle in the striking adequacy of its experience and talents to the task. The combined skills of such men as Fox, McLean, Vogel, Featherston, Gisborne and Ormond successfully carried through the demilitarising of the frontier; the coaxing of a strong flow of money from the London money market, primed by an initial one million pound loan guaranteed by a reluctant Imperial government; the recruiting of the colony's largest flow of British and European immigration; and the carrying through of the extensive forest clearance, page 26 land settlement, and public works construction that the North Island strategy envisaged. All this owed much to something of a miracle of timing. Most notably the immigrant recruitment drive happened to coincide with the English farm labourers' great Revolt of the Field, and with a strong recession in North American immigration as the United States underwent its worst depression of the 19th century. Even the Franco-Prussian War played its part, sending British railway contractors looking for work further afield. So it was that by the mid 1870s the large-scale clearance of New Zealand's lowland forests had at last got under way, bush settlers had begun to multiply rapidly, and railways were carrying the products of sawmills and bush clearings away to market.

It was years of labour by these bush settlers which created the mass of debris which fuelled the greatest fires of 1885–86. We will therefore give an account of how the assault on the forest was carried through. Once access to the forests had been opened up by good roads and railways, and land settlement legislation appropriate to the bush put in place, the prejudice against bush land melted away. It even came to be considered a better proposition than open country for the man of limited means. It was cheaper, at perhaps a quarter to half the price of open country of a similar quality. One needed only an axe, a bill-hook and some grass seed to raise one's initial crop. The forest itself provided the materials for a home and much of its furnishings, and for farm buildings and fences. In contrast, the open country settler needed draught animals, plough and harrows to raise his first crop, and materials for his home, sheds and fences had usually to be purchased. He often had also to buy fuel; the bush settler had an embarrassing abundance. While bush felling created a strong winter demand for labour in forest districts, the struggling open country farmer had a long slack period each winter. Most bush settlers drew a steady supply of free meat from the surrounding virgin forest—wild cattle, wild pigs, native pigeons, and even imported game such as pheasants. Few open country farmers were so liberally supplied.

Bush clearing began with underscrubbing, the cutting of all undergrowth and creepers with bill-hooks and light axes, work with which women and children often helped. Properly done this formed the tinder for the burn; badly done, small growth and creepers flourished in the fallen timber, resisting rather than helping the burn. Next the standing bush was felled and left to dry. Underscrubbing and felling were done during winter and spring, stopping in time to allow the last timber felled to dry before the burn. Then, on a suitable day in late summer or early autumn, came the burn. When the fire had passed cocksfoot and clover seed were broadcast among the stumps and logs. Over the following years ‘stumping’ and ‘logging up’ steadily cleared the remaining debris.

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(Above) Primeval bush; (Below) Forest giants after the fire

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Within this general pattern there were regional and individual variations. There were differences of opinion over the felling of all the heavy timber. Some thought it false economy to leave anything standing, others left large trees to stand for a few years. In the high rainfall districts quite a good case could be made for the latter practice. If felled these large trees often became waterlogged and difficult to dispose of, whereas standing they dried out so that they burned easily. Central and North Taranaki had large numbers of huge, hard-wooded rata trees which were usually left in this way as great dead sentinels brooding over the bleak bush burn landscapes. There were differences in the starting time for felling. In drier districts felling could begin in March. In Taranaki it was delayed till about July because here mahoe was a common tree and it had a strong tendency to put out second growth in the heavy Taranaki rainfall.9

By the late 1870s contract bush felling gangs were becoming common, and skills and techniques were improving rapidly. A skilled bushman felled trees to lie evenly over the land, with no bare patches for the Scotch thistles' succulent growth to hamper the spread of the burn. He knew exactly where a tree would fall, and sped up his work with good ‘drives’—rows of partly cut trees brought down by cutting right through the last in the row. Where a trunk was large or badly twisted near the base, bushmen became adept at cutting further up, working from a stage of pieces of wood and ponga. In the later 1880s the stage gave way to the jigger-board, which fixed into a notch in the trunk.10

The timing of the burn was a fiercely debated issue. February was the most favoured month, but fearing a wet February many a settler was tempted by a dry spell in January. But January was grass-seed harvest, and a burn often put one's neighbour's crop at risk. A neighbour's felled bush might also be fired, and when a poor January burn was followed by a hot dry February, feelings could run high. The burn was lit once the dew had lifted on a day with a steady breeze in the right direction. One aimed for a good wide even face of fire across the section. A good burn was a dramatic occasion, with great flames leaping upward into dense masses of smoke, the roaring and crackling punctuated by the occasional crash of a falling branch or standing tree. But with an unexpected wind change everything could quickly go desperately wrong.11

The success of the 1870s colonial development strategy led to a massive shift in the timber industry.12 Earlier it had been water-based, feeding a coastal timber trade. Its main centres had been North Auckland, the Coromandel, Golden Bay, the Marlborough Sounds, Banks Peninsula, and the Catlins River area of South Otago. The South Island had the larger timber industry, for outside of North Auckland little of the North's forests were accessible by water. Wellington, Taranaki and Hawke's Bay imported much of their page 29 timber. But by the mid 1870s the new railways were tapping large areas of previously inaccessible forest, and railway-based mills rapidly overhauled the water-based mills in output. The North Island moved to the fore, with large timber exports to the South Island.

The success of both bush settlement and the new railways depended heavily on the growth of forest industries. Thus 33,658 tons of timber and 12,420 tons of firewood made up nearly 58 per cent of the goods traffic on the Hawke's Bay line in the year to 31 March 1886. For the colony as a whole, the timber and firewood tonnage was four times that of wool and over eight times that of livestock. Roads in and near the bush also carried wagon and dray loads of sawn timber, slabs, firewood, posts, rails, shingles, telegraph poles and railway sleepers to meet local demand. While clearing his land many a settler, using simple tools, turned much of the felled timber into marketable commodities. Many landless men also made comfortable livings cutting firewood, posts, rails, sleepers and shingles, while paying the landowners liberal royalties. But the timber mills were the bush settler's greatest boon, buying his labour and standing timber, helping clear his land, fostering the growth of local communications, and providing a local market for his first farm produce. From the bush clearings flowed fodder for the draught animals, and vegetables, fruit, dairy produce, meat and eggs for the timber workers.

The spread of population in the North Island bush districts of the 1885– 6 summer still owed much to the strategic thinking of 1870. To gain firm control of significant central positions in the North Island, the government had pushed communication lines inland from the main ports. Where feasible it had planted strong reservoirs of settler manpower around these central positions. Priority in this strategic thinking went to the Manawatu Gorge. In 1869 the Gorge was almost lost in the bush, with only rudimentary horse tracks leading to it from Napier, Wanganui and Foxton. In the dark days of Titokowaru's threat the handful of settlers scattered near the future Palmerston North had felt so defenseless that they had evacuated the district, falling back on the little townships nearer the coast where amateur blockhouses were being hastily thrown up. The thrust of the development plan soon changed this. When the first fruits of the immigration drive brought a small flow of forest-hardy Scandinavians they were located at Palmerston North. The strategic road being pushed in from Foxton to the Gorge was quickly paralleled by a wooden tramway to tap Palmerston North's fine totara forests. Soon the tramway was replaced by a railway. Early in its search for British immigrants the New Zealand government became aware of the Emigrant and Colonist's Aid Corporation, an English philanthropic movement with aristocratic sponsorship seeking to relieve distress in Britain by fostering emigration. Unerringly the Corporation was directed to the page 30 Manawatu bush, and was soon busily engaged in settling the Manchester Block of 106,000 acres stretching some twenty miles from the western end of the Manawatu Gorge to the Rangitikei River. As the Foxton-Wanganui railway advanced, looping inland through Palmerston North and Feilding to tap the forests, a vigorous sawmilling industry sprang up. From 3,271 at the 1871 census, the population of the Rangitikei-Manawatu district had grown to 26,666 by 1886. This solid reservoir of settler population was firmly linked to the west coast by the railway, and to Hawke's Bay by a fine strategic highway through the Manawatu Gorge.

Under J.D. Ormond's experienced leadership the Hawke's Bay portion of the east-west military highway was pushed forward with equal vigour. In 1870 settler Hawke's Bay was a pocket of thinly populated pastoral runs stretching inland, far away from the sea, which in other districts offered a quick means of escape or reinforcement. With hills and swamps hampering access to the coast on the east, forest-covered mountain ranges to the west, and the Seventy Mile Bush to the south, the settlers had had reason to feel isolated and vulnerable. Ormond secured a large portion of the valued Scandinavian immigration of 1872–73 for the Seventy Mile Bush. These pioneers reached Napier on 15 September 1871 and within a week or two were establishing themselves in the two settlements of Norsewood, a mile or two from the northern edge of the bush, and Dannevirke, some twelve miles further in. They made clearings and quickly housed themselves in primitive huts of timber slabs and pongas, and began breaking up a little land and planting vegetable gardens. With compatriots arriving on later ships, they made rapid work of the Great South Road. By the end of their second summer it was through to the Gorge, and a regular coach service between Napier and Foxton began in May 1874. In 1873 Ormond had also pushed settlement in another direction, establishing a third Scandinavian settlement in the eastern foothills of the Ruahine Range at Makaretu. This was well to the north of Norsewood and quite away from the route of the South Road, but well located to provide forest products and labour to the neighbouring squatter stations.

While the majority of the Seventy Mile Bush pioneers were Scandinavians, it was not long before settlers of British origin outnumbered them. In 1875, using British stock, including many recent immigrants, Ormond directed the founding of Woodville, near the eastern end of the Manawatu Gorge. It was boomed as the future great inland town of Hawke's Bay. In 1876, to speed up Woodville's development, Ormond fostered the formation of the Woodville Small Farm Association, whose regulations were tailored to suit the needs of the settler of small means. In 1876 and 1877 four further small farm associations were planted in the bush. One of these led to the formation of Ormondville, a few miles into the bush, about four miles south-east page 31
On the road through the Seventy Mile Bush

On the road through the Seventy Mile Bush

of Norsewood. The other three were between Dannevirke and Woodville. By the time these sections had been taken up, practically the whole of the land along the main road through the bush had been occupied.

In the later 1870s and early 1880s the Seventy Mile Bush settlers fared less well than those west of the ranges. The Rangitikei-Manawatu railway had quickly tapped the forest, but the Hawke's Bay railway had 60 miles to cover before it reached the bush. Just as it neared the better timber stands, construction slackened with the coming of depression. These hard times and the longer, more costly haul to the port, led to a much slower development of milling. Much of the timber industry remained centred in Napier, to which logs were railed from the bush, and this meant less work for the bush settlers. With the main roading programme completed, and railway works slackened by the depression, there were some years of considerable distress among Hawke's Bay's bush settlers. But in the mid 1880s things were looking up. The Stout-Vogel ministry which took office in 1884 speeded up development. In John Ballance it had an active Minister of Lands who pushed land settlement ahead in the Seventy Mile Bush, as elsewhere. The railway reached Tahoraite, south of Dannevirke, where it tapped some fine totara forest. As the more accessible totara stands elsewhere in the colony began to cut out, a growing export of totara timber developed through Napier.

An interesting account of these Seventy Mile Bush settlements in the autumn of 1885 is given by James Inglis, revisiting New Zealand after twelve years as an indigo planter in India. He travelled south from Napier by train, page 32 and describes leaving the undulating grassy ridges of the sheepruns to enter the bush. They passed sidings with great logs ready for the trucks, and noticed numerous wooden tramways leading off into the dense forest. He commented on magnificent wild wooded valleys and forest-clay gorges. Approaching Ormondville the train sped across a high spidery wooden bridge on fragile-looking trestles, spanning a deep ravine. He described Ormondville as a township of blackened prostrate logs and giant stumps, of rough backwoodsmen and lumbering bullock teams, with the distant peep of wooded hills over the ever-widening circle of seemingly impervious bush. It reminded him of the stories of Fenimore Cooper or the Indian wilds of Canada. Dannevirke provided similar prospects. Here the sky was shrouded in gloom from smoke. Inglis was told that it was a good burning autumn and the fires had been blazing for weeks, whereas the previous autumn had been wet. With his knowledge of the careful harvesting of India's forests, and the elaborate care given to plantations in Britain, he was appalled at the wholesale destruction of these forests, though acknowledging himself poorly qualified to judge the economics of the matter. From the Tahoraiti terminus he travelled on by coach to Woodville. He was impressed with the beauty of the vistas of countless leagues of forest country, stretching from the plains right up to the topmost peaks of the mountain ranges.13

If the strategic thinking of the 1869 Fox cabinet had been followed, the next stage would have been to push communication lines in to gain a firm grip on the Taupo district, at the very heart of the North Island. For some years much time and effort went into finding and developing routes for roads converging on Taupo. But as the Te Kooti threat melted away, and a new ‘threat’ materialised at Parihaka on the Taranaki coast, the government transferred its ‘central place’ thinking to the smaller field of Taranaki. Stratford duly became the hub of a triple spoked Taranaki wheel.

Taranaki was slow to take advantage of the 1870s development programme. The small, isolated New Plymouth settlement seemed over-awed by the great reaches of forest which dominated their province. They were not represented in the new cabinet, and their Patea coast to the south was still under military control. For several years they gained little from the new immigration flow, though for strategic reasons the government pushed ahead with the New Plymouth to Waitara railway. Their only usable land link to the rest of the colony was the primitive coastal coach route south, which between the Stoney and Waingongoro Rivers ran through disputed lands still in Maori hands. Things began to move in May 1874, when Harry Atkinson, recently returned from a prolonged visit to England, was asked by Carrington, Superintendent of Taranaki, to lead the provincial government. Atkinson immediately took steps to develop the Mountain Road, to the east of Mount Egmont—which represented Taranaki's section of the page 33 planned great sickle-shaped military highway. To counter the ‘grabbing’ of the immigrant flow by the larger centres, he arranged for Taranaki to send Home its own immigration agent, and for immigrant ships to sail direct to New Plymouth. He was able to persuade the government to divert a few immigrants to New Plymouth almost immediately. With these he started the move south along the Mountain Road, sending them to clear the site for Inglewood, the first new township. In September 1874 Atkinson resigned his Taranaki post to join Vogel's cabinet. He soon became a dominant figure in national politics, and saw that Taranaki's interests were well attended to.

Nevertheless the Mountain Road proved no easy proposition. With Taranaki's high rainfall it deteriorated each winter into an impassible quagmire. Still, to the south the fertile open country of the Patea coast was again filling up with settlers, who used the Mountain Road as a summer stock route, to get their fat cattle to Waitara for shipment to the Auckland market. To meet their growing demand for timber, the sawmilling settlement of Normanby developed at the southern end of the Mountain Road. Inglewood also became a sawmilling centre once the railway reached it in August 1877. But the main stretches of the road remained unsettled, as the colony slid towards depression, and the immigration drive stumbled to a halt. Much of the Mountain Road might have remained for years a narrow strip of mud through untouched virgin forest, had it not been for the Maori challenge at Parihaka. In the late 1870s the government decided to meet this challenge, and occupy the disputed Waimate Plains. While other districts were now starved of funds, resources were poured into the strategic route behind the mountain. The railway was pushed ahead with all speed, and new settlements were put on the market along the Road.

The first of these new settlements were Midhirst and Stratford, which were to see some of the most dramatic fires of 1885–86. With the passing of the provincial system a new Land Act came into force in 1877. For a year or two it severely hampered bush settlement in Taranaki. Because of the widespread ignorance of the realities of the bush, the act required all suburban land, defined as land in the vicinity of any town or village, to be priced at not less than £3 per acre. But the only practicable way of tackling the Mountain Road bush was to plant a village in a bush clearing, as a base for the attack on the surrounding forest. To ask £3 an acre for the first farms in such a settlement was to impose an impossible condition. Nevertheless the Taranaki Waste Lands Board pushed on with planning the Stratford settlement. Having no funds to clear the site, it persuaded the government to authorise the clearing of 300 acres, an action questioned in the House by a Canterbury member. This bush was felled over the 1877 winter, but getting the land ready for sale proved a slow process. Wet weather delayed the burn, which in turn delayed the survey of town sections. The government refused funds page 34 for grassing the site, and only relented after urgent representations pointing out the realities of Taranaki bush settlement. The new town of Stratford was widely advertised, with emphasis on its being the planned junction of the Wellington, Auckland and New Plymouth railways. When 455 town sections were at last offered at a sale in New Plymouth on 31 August 1878, only 19 buyers appeared, to take up 40 sections. All were local people, and from the spirited competition for sections near the planned railway station many must have been speculators. The Board did not bother to offer any suburban land at the ridiculous £3 an acre. In October 1879 the railway reached Stratford. That month the Board put up for sale 141 suburban and rural farm sections around Stratford, 70 of them on deferred payment terms. There were only 17 buyers for 25 sections. A new day came when the amendment of the Land Act in December 1879 reduced the minimum price for deferred-payment land to £1 an acre. In 1880 the Stratford settlement at last began to surge ahead.

Midhirst had a different story. It was a special settlement sponsored by New Plymouth land agent Albert Cracroft Fookes, who negotiated the scheme with the government. He took up 5,000 acres at £1 an acre on condition that for every 200 acres he settle one male on the block within two years, and that he spend £2,000 on a road across the block to open up further adjoining land for settlement by the Land Board. Late in 1877 Fookes advertised the 46 country sections in the block on deferred payment at £1 10s an acre. All were applied for within a few weeks. They were surveyed by mid 1878 and the successful applicants braved the Mountain Road's winter mud to inspect the block. Then on 26 July 1878 Fookes met them at a Hawera hotel to draw lots and select their sections. Several set out immediately to begin the attack on the bush. The town site was already cleared and sown down in grass to provide feed for their horses. This flying start is in strong contrast to the slow beginnings of Stratford, and also of Waipuku, two miles north of Midhirst, where the village site, cleared by the Provincial government in 1875, had only one family in residence in January 1878.

In 1879 the government began to move to break the impasse in South Taranaki. Throughout the colony there was intense interest in the fertile Waimate Plains. Since surveying and selling the plains must lead to a showdown with Te Whiti, the government turned its attention to strategy. The Hawera-Stratford railway was hastened forward, and extra funds were voted for ‘roads and bridges in unsettled districts’. When the first Waimate Plains land was sold in Hawera in October 1880, purchasers came from as far away as Auckland and Southland. Further sales quickly followed and the open country between Hawera and Opunake was rapidly occupied. This opened a broad new front of attack on the Taranaki bush, extending from Normanby to Opunake.

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Early in 1880, anticipating a showdown with Te Whiti at Parihaka, the government gave a new impetus to the development of strategic roads. Vigorous work was put into upgrading the coastal road constructed between the Waingongoro and Stoney Rivers in the early 1870s. An ambitious new work was also begun, a direct 24-mile road line between Opunake and Stratford. Such a line, almost all of it through bush, and much of it quite high up on the slopes of Mount Egmont, was not needed at the time for land settlement. It was clearly being constructed for strategic reasons. By February 1881 it had been completed to pack-track standards. It crossed 95 watercourses, some by fords, others by rough bridges and culverts of round timbers and pongas. About two and a half miles of boggy ground had been corduroyed. Upgrading of the road continued over the winter of 1881, under a piecework plan so as not to lose time in advertising tenders. From these works and the subsequent military operation against Parihaka in November 1881 one can deduce the government's view of the Maori threat and the strategy planned to counter it. Remembering the support given by the Waikato tribes to the Taranaki insurgents in the 1860s, the government was determined to cut Parihaka off from all possible outside help. It was also important that Te Whiti should not escape with his followers into the interior to become a guerrilla leader of the Te Kooti type. The railway from New Plymouth to Hawera was opened in October 1881. With its string of settlements it was calculated to effectively isolate Te Whiti in western Taranaki. Sufficient arms for all the Taranaki settlers were shipped in. Volunteers were enrolled at all the Mountain Road settlements. When it was found that many German and Polish settlers could not be sworn in as they had not taken out naturalisation papers owing to the expense, the government agreed to pay the fees and hurried in the application forms. Stratford, near the hump of the line, and now connected with the port of Opunake by the new horse track, was doubtless to be the main centre of concentration from which any moves either of escape from, or of reinforcement to, Parihaka, would be countered. On 5 October 1881 Major Stapp, the military commander of North Taranaki, told the Stratford settlers that the government considered their settlement of particular strategic importance, and would establish a strong depot there in the event of hostilities. There are reports that the railway goods shed at Stratford was fortified, with loopholes cut into the walls. That master of irony Te Whiti made a mockery of all these earnest preparations with his welcome to ‘honest John’ Bryce and his army on 5 November 1881. But as we shall see, the government's strategy shaped the Stratford landscape in ways which markedly influenced the fires which swept through the settlement in January 1886.

In the early 1880s new settlers flowed steadily into the Mountain Road townships and bush sections. With the completion of the railway sawmilling page 36 moved inland. Early in the decade mills were established at Mangawhero, Ngaere and Manganui, near Midhirst. Ngaere quickly emerged as a significant new sawmilling centre. Mangawhero was soon overshadowed by the adjacent successful new township of Eltham, opened for settlement in 1883. The completion of the railway to Wanganui and the Manawatu, in March 1885, helped maintain the impetus of development. By the census of March 1886 there was a population of about 2,500 in the country opened up since 1875 between Egmont Village and Normanby. The biggest concentration was in and around the older Inglewood settlement, but Stratford, with 229 in the township and some 400 on the surrounding bush farms, took second place. At Midhirst there were 42 in the village and about 200 on the surrounding farms.

Let us look a little more closely at the Stratford settlement as it approached the summer of 1885–86. The township, with its two-storey hotel, its three stores, railway station, school, and recently completed town hall, was very like many another small centre throughout the country. A Hawera Star reporter describing a horse ride round Mount Egmont in October 1885 could find little to say about the place and decided that it had no peculiar interest for the traveller.14 Yet it was a little unusual in some ways. At over 300 metres above sea level it was, together with its neighbours Midhirst and Waipuku, the most elevated of the new bush settlements. And it was certainly a little peculiar that starting from this height, much of the first thrust of settlement had been up the slopes of Mount Egmont, along the Opunake, Pembroke and Waingongoro Roads, to over 400 metres above sea level. This, of course, was a result of the government's military concentration on Opunake Road. It put a good number of Stratford's first rural settlers up into more broken country, with heavier winter frosts, more frequent snowfalls, and a shorter growing season, than the land along the Mountain Road, or to the east of the township. Another somewhat peculiar feature of the Stratford settlement was its very limited timber industry, probably another consequence of its elevation and climate. An 1886 government report on ‘Native Forests and the State of the Timber Trade’, describes the Taranaki forests as generally ‘of very indifferent quality’ with ‘the proportion of convertible timber less than in any other forest district in the colony’. Many of the trees were small, so that often there was not a single convertible tree to a square mile. The forest around Stratford, and especially to the west, probably well fitted this description, the mass of mainly soft-wooded broadleaves being broken here and there by a large, even enormous, hard-wooded rata. For the settlers this meant no timber royalties, no milling employment, no nearby timber mill market for their produce, and no mill tramways snaking across their countryside, helping to remove the debris of forest clearance. From newspaper reports it seems that in the early years of bush clearance around Stratford page 37 the burns were usually very unsatisfactory. Following the example of the province's early settlers, the Stratford pioneers waited until March, so as not to allow a crop of thistles to get away before winter. After suffering severely from this practice for several years, many had decided to burn much earlier if a suitable dry spell occurred. With this change the 1885 burns were much more successful. But meanwhile the accumulated aftermath of several years of bad burns lay across many of the clearings, boding ill for the future. Writing on 29 January 1885, the Stratford correspondent of the Egmont Star might almost have been prophesying the happenings of the following January:

When the timber has been down four or five years, it gets very inflammable in a dry summer, the merest spark being enough to set logs and stumps going. If a good breeze springs up when the timber is in that state, the fire rapidly spreads all over the clearings, and will often burn most of the grass. It is a bad look-out then for shingle roofs and punga whares, for the smoke is so thick that one cannot see the fire at all. Post and rail fences generally get swept away, and individuals suffer severely.15

Finally we must note that it was not only the tussock, grass and scrub of the sheep runs and the forest litter of the bush clearings that were being baked into tinder by this summer's drought. The colony's towns and cities too were being scorched into highly combustible pyres. The 1886 census showed that over 90 per cent of their dwellings were wooden. Photographs show that wood also predominated in their main business districts and that a scatter of shingle roofs persisted even in the centres of the main cities. Particularly in the rural towns, rank growth on the waste land of unoccupied sections and generously broad streets added greatly to the fire risk. So whether they were rural or urban, whether they belonged to the open grasslands or to the bush clearings, to the provincial towns or the heart of the capital, there were few colonists without good cause for misgivings as the drought deepened.