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

5 — Relief and Reconstruction: Hawke's Bay

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Relief and Reconstruction: Hawke's Bay

The Seventy Mile Bush disaster developed from a local to a regional scale and the fight against the fires broadened in response. Relief and reconstruction moves broadened likewise as the scope of the problem became apparent and local and provincial leaders threshed out appropriate countermeasures. A good deal had to be clarified in the public mind over these weeks, but right from the start no one questioned that it was a bush settler problem. When fire hit outside the bush, as at Waipawa or the Sherwood homestead, it was no matter for public aid, for such property should have been insured. But in the bush it was different. Insurance offices were very shy even of the bush townships, and were certainly not interested in risks on bush settler clearings.1 It was as frontier pioneers, facing risks beyond the usual reach of social and commercial protection, that the bush settlers were treated as indubitably worthy of public sympathy and aid.2

The matter was first put before the Hawke's Bay public just before Christmas 1885, from Takapau. The homeless and destitute Tripp and Sullivan families received immediate on-the-spot neighbourly help in the form of shelter in Hobson's woolshed, and no doubt clothing and food. But to rehouse them and get them properly back on their feet was beyond the local community, especially in view of its other losses. Accordingly an appeal was launched in the Hawke's Bay Herald's correspondence columns of 23 December, with subscriptions to be sent to Woods, stationmaster, Lecocq, postmaster, or Harwood, storekeeper. The paper's Takapau correspondent wrote on 26 December that a generous response had met the need, but followed up almost immediately to say he had acted prematurely as other sufferers were coming to light and fires were still raging all around. The Herald's office was added to the addresses receiving subscriptions.

The limitations of leaving the direction of relief to individual or local initiatives became more evident as the need widened. On 31 December Anthony S. Webb, Vicar of Ormondville, wrote to the Herald that local subscription lists had been put out in his district on the 29th with the moneys to be entrusted to himself, the Lutheran minister George Sass, or sawmiller Lewis Parsons. Now, he reported, the calamity was clearly beyond local resources. He illustrated the need with the case of August Gruebner, a German page 68 settler on German Line. Helped by his neighbours he had successfully defended his house against constant threats right through Monday, 28 December. At length, with their own houses under threat, his neighbours had to leave him. Finally about noon on Tuesday, almost blinded and stupefied by the dense smoke, he lost the battle. His house with all its contents was consumed. His fences, hay and grass were all cinders and ashes. His cattle were left but there was no feed for them. His wife was a delicate woman and they had seven children aged from one to fourteen. His land was unencumbered, but he was heavily in debt from the needs of his young family. A somewhat sickly man, he had been unable to work much off his own place to improve his position. Having now to rehouse his family and refence his land there was no way he could earn anything for some time. Webb expressed his willingness to pass on any help his readers could send for this thoroughly estimable man now overtaken by ‘this terrible calamity’.3 But Webb also reported hearing of 25 homes and 6 sawmills totally destroyed in the Norsewood riding, and he can hardly have been able to satisfy himself that Gruebner's was the worst case. On 4 January the Herald's Ormondville correspondent wrote that there were many cases quite as bad, and those of Jens Larsen and James Harwood were if anything harder. The Waipawa Mail of 7 January reported Larsen's position. He was a widower with three children. His wife had recently died after a long illness, which had forced him into debt, and now the fire had burnt everything on his section. Harwood, a labourer with a wife and four children, had been left destitute, and did not even own the land on which his house was burnt. Clearly, while the public required information on the need, it would not do to have various advocates pushing their own special cases.

As the provincial leaders moved to meet the situation the Herald gave an editorial lead to public opinion. On 2 January it gave its analysis of the situation. After years of toil the bush families had just been attaining a little comfort when they had been struck down. The Charitable Aid Board was meeting their immediate needs of food and blankets, distributing them through W.C. Smith, the local member of parliament. A good flow of parcels of clothes from private donors was also reaching the bush. But much more was needed to give the burnt out settlers another start in life. Not only had they lost homes and household goods, but also the means of retrieving their positions. Their cattle had been scattered they knew not where, and when they recovered them they had no grass or hay to feed them. Their fences were gone, and months of labour in the form of posts, rails and sleepers stacked for sale had disappeared in the flames. All that many had left were resolute hearts and strong arms, but unaided these would not be enough. The Herald therefore commended its public appeal, and advised that it would hold the fund until it could be distributed according to the varying needs.

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There must, it affirmed, be a common fund, not spasmodic assistance to individual families. Providentially the Hon Mr Ballance was visiting the province and had come through the devastated districts, and if wise local arrangements were made he might well be willing to put the case for a government subsidy.

The Herald's next issue advertised a public meeting, called by the mayor of Napier at the request of leading citizens, to organise relief for the bush settlers. An editorial showed that the Herald had been privy to the discussions behind this move, and set out to inform the bush settlers of the strategy emerging from the town discussions. A central committee was certain to be set up by the Napier meeting and it was important that local committees forming in the bush accept its leadership. By far the greater part of the relief would come from townsmen and settlers outside the bush, who would undoubtedly give more liberally to an impartial distributing authority. The local committees would be invaluable as auxiliaries, collecting information on the distressed settlers, but they should pay all their subscriptions into the general fund. If this course was followed the Herald knew of many townsmen who would give liberally. The Hon Mr Ballance had been approached and had promised to do his best to get a substantial government grant-in-aid.

At the large and representative public meeting on 5 January the mayor opened proceedings with a telegram from Ballance announcing the government's contribution of £500 to the relief fund, conditional on the distribution being by a strong central committee. The meeting agreed to this approach, and the bush local committees seem to have accepted the arrangement without demur. The meeting was advised that Major Scully, assisted if necessary by Henry Tiffen, would go through the distressed districts to assess the losses. Tiffen had already collected information to show the meeting the necessity for careful enquiry. A man claiming for twenty cows was proved to have had only four cows and two calves. Another claiming the loss of a comfortable furnished cottage had only had a rudely constructed whare with logs of wood for chairs and a bunk for a bed. There would also be cases where insurance had to be taken into account. It would be difficult to fault the arrangements for which the provincial leaders gained approval from the public meeting. The prestigious central committee based in Napier could be expected to gain maximum public support for the fund. The local committees would give the necessary input of local knowledge, and the two experienced and respected commissioners provided the necessary link between the local scene and Napier. The final apportioning of relief could be expected to be judicious and impartial.

The complexities of apportioning relief were well explained in a letter of 6 January to the Herald from W.F. Howlett, teacher at the Makaretu School. page 70 Howlett, the well-educated son of an English clergyman, was a perceptive observer of colonial society, and drew on a richly varied experience of New Zealand rural life. He believed that settlers seeking relief should have to state their losses in detail, and that those checking the losses should annotate the applications rigorously. A man losing a slab whare which was his only residence should get its full value, while one on a more developed section losing a sawn timber home worth £300 should get nothing because he should have insured it. A man who lost six cattle but had ten left might be refused relief. So also might a man who was left with all his stock, feed and grass seed even if he had a heavy loss of fencing. On the other hand a man who had lost nothing, but had been unable to leave home to earn wages for a month for fear of fire loss, and was thereby impoverished, might be allowed a month's wages at five shillings a day. Howlett's brief letter seems to be the only Hawke's Bay discussion of how bush realities affected relief needs. The Relief Committee certainly worked on the principle of need rather than of loss, but there is no information on how they assessed need.

To arouse strong public sympathy in support of the relief fund, a graphic presentation of what the disaster meant in human terms was needed. Napier's newspapers and the Waipawa Mail did a competent job both in reporting the fires and in following up with stories of individual experience. Two such stories, in addition to those already cited, are those of Makotuku settlers Cox and Popowski. Cox, a very poor settler with a wife and a large family, had struggled on bravely until he had recently succeeded in getting a two-roomed cottage built on a deferred payment section. This uninsured home with all its contents had been completely destroyed. Ludwig Popowski had immigrated from Germany in 1875. He lost his just completed four-roomed house. Married with a large family, he was described as ‘Very poor’ and is unlikely to have had any insurance. The public had a variety of opportunities to respond to the needs thus publicised. Various entertainments were arranged to assist the fund. Thus in Napier both the Wesleyan and Free Church Methodists held concerts, the former raising nearly £22. A concert and dance in the Woodville schoolroom raised about £20. At Nelson Brothers’ Tomoana meatworks the employees unanimously decided to give a day's pay each to the fund. William Nelson gave £10 himself and promised that the firm would match the giving of its employees. This brought over £100 from Tomoana. But most donations went directly to subscription lists held at the newspaper offices or circulated by public-spirited individuals.

As the money flowed in the local committees got down to the task of assessing the losses. There were two main local committees, one based on Ormondville and the other on Makaretu. The committees were elected at specially called public meetings. Each committee then subdivided its district and broke itself into a corresponding number of subcommittees. These page 71 set about visiting and systematically valuing the fire damage. In due course they distributed printed claim forms provided by the central committee. They also conducted one of the two commissioners around their district. Finally they received the completed claim forms, annotated them, and forwarded them to the central committee. This process may be illustrated from the Makaretu district. The initial meeting, attended by 36 settlers, was held in the schoolroom on 12 January, with schoolmaster Howlett in the chair. The meeting had difficulty defining its district. Howlett told them he believed the central committee wished them to cover Ashley Clinton and Blackburn as well as Makaretu, but as only Makaretu settlers were present the meeting decided that its district should be Makaretu only. A committee of six was elected, and met following the public meeting to choose H.H. Bridge of Fairfield station as its chairman and W.F. Howlett as its secretary. Reflecting the composition of the settlement, at least three of the other four members were Scandinavian. It was decided that nothing further could be done until the fires were out, whereupon the chairman was to call the committee together. This second meeting was held late in January. It divided the area into four subdistricts, which in fact brought in Blackburn and Ashley Clinton. H.H. Bridge was to deal with the Blackburn area, which was in the hills behind his station, and an Ashley Clinton resident, Morton, was to be asked to deal with that district's applications. The Waipawa Mail's Makaretu correspondent wrote on 4 February that among the claims coming in were some from half mythical regions in the hills north of Blackburn, whose inhabitants had no reporters to sing their fame. The committee met on 15 February to go carefully into each claim and make annotations for the central committee's guidance. Some claims came from so far off that the committee had been unable to visit or get independent testimony on them, and these were annotated accordingly.

Commissioners Tiffen and Scully set out on a flying visit through the burnt out districts on 6 January. They first met the strong local committee at Ormondville, which had undertaken supervision of claims from Norsewood, Ormondville and Makotuku. Seeing the large area swept by the fires they decided to divide their forces, with Scully working with the Ormondville committee and Tiffen with the Makaretu one. Tiffen was conducted around Makaretu and Ashley Clinton by H.H. Bridge. On his return to Napier on 8 January he reported a most pleasing spirit of independence among the settlers he had visited. Almost universally they seemed more concerned with their neighbours' losses than their own. To illustrate how varied were the cases he had seen, Tiffen told of a father and son living on adjoining holdings. Seeing his son's house threatened the father went to his aid, and they were able to save all the furniture although the house was burnt down. As it was insured for £200 the son had practically lost nothing. page 72 But while assisting his son the father's own house caught and was destroyed with all its contents. He was uninsured and so left in a position little short of absolute ruin. In other cases the settlers' houses were safe, but they had lost all their grass, grass seed and fences, and their cattle had gone they knew not where. There were several widows with large families who had lost everything. Scully returned from his reconnaissance a day later with an account similar to Tiffen's. He too had found a strong spirit of independence and neighbourly feeling. The settlers were studiously moderate in stating their own losses, and many heavy losers were more solicitous for neighbours who had suffered severely than for themselves.

Despite some criticism of its ‘inactivity’ the Bush Fires Relief Committee refused to dispense its funds until the fire season was clearly over, for only then could all the losses be seen in perspective. Once the fires were extinguished by the heavy rain at the end of January, Tiffen asked the local committees to forward all claims with their comments as early as possible, and the public were asked to complete their contributions by 8 February. However the process took time, and the Relief Committee did not meet to make its distribution until 24 February. It found that it had just over £1500 to share out. It divided the claims into ‘urgent’, to which in most instances it gave half the estimated loss, and ‘less urgent’, to which a quarter of the estimated loss was allotted. It distributed £1354, keeping the balance for any special cases, and for some for which full details were still awaited. Committee expenses were only £38, so a good deal must have been absorbed by the members themselves. In order to ensure that the money went to the distressed settlers and not to their creditors the Relief Committee resolved: ‘That relief be not granted to sufferers who are in debt unless creditors give twelve months' credit for outstanding debts at 7 per cent interest’.4 The only published details of the distribution were a broad breakdown by district, as shown in Table 5.1.

The relief distribution can have covered only a fraction of the total losses. There seems not to have been any estimate of this total, but there are some indications of its scale. Early in January, in a first flush of enthusiasm after its initial reconnaissance, the Ormondville committee estimated the total losses in its area as between £8000 and £9000. Of this £2000 was at Norsewood, £1215 on Danish Line and £1126 on German Line. They were however to suffer considerable further losses before the fires were over. Late in January the Woodville Examiner's Makaretu correspondent explained that the biggest loss at that settlement was the wiping out of the unreaped grass seed harvest which he estimated would have sold for £2000, though it could only be valued at £1000 in the field. To this must be added a further considerable sum for losses of buildings, fences and stock. The Hawke's Bay Herald's Makaretu correspondent reported the total claims forwarded by the page 73
Table 5.1. Hawke's Bay Bush Fires Relief Committee distribution, February 1886
UrgentLess UrgentTotal
Makaretu & Ashley-Clinton£311£252£563
Makotuku, Ormondville & Norsewood£493£298£791
Source: HBWC, 26/2/1886, p. 10
Makaretu committee to the central committee as £2200. He also pointed out that there were other losses of a kind not likely to appear in any statistics, such as the weeks of earning time lost watching the fires. Some losses were covered by insurance and so do not appear in the relief statistics. For the Waipawa blaze the ‘List of Fires’ published in the Australasian Insurance and Banking Record5 shows £5,670 in insured losses (mainly total losses) to eight commercial premises. It lists six other commercial premises as uninsured total losses. These include a hotel, a boarding house, and the Post and Telegraph Office. As it is most likely that even the properties covered were under-insured, the Waipawa community must have been heavily hit. The insurance companies' payouts may have covered only something like half the actual losses, and there was no relief help for these town sufferers. In the Bush the sawmillers probably received nothing from the relief fund, yet in most cases they would have found it impossible to get adequate insurance cover. One heavy loser was Walter Gundrie. Newspaper reports give the uninsured losses at his Makotuku planing mill as £150, and his totally destroyed mill on the Makotuku to Norsewood road is said to have been worth £1300, but only insured for £400. And although the magnificent defence of Lewis Parsons's mill proved successful, he estimated that it would cost £150 to put his tramway back into a workable state. Obviously it is not possible to gain more than an impression of the scale of the uninsured losses in Waipawa and the Bush, but it may well have been in the order of £10,000. How this 1886 figure should be expressed in 1994 terms is again a conundrum, but one might venture something in the order of $1,250,000.

There are no details of individual payments from the relief fund, with one exception. In March James Harwood wrote urgently to the Waste Lands Board asking that sections in the Matamau village settlement be thrown page 74 open for selection. The Relief Committee would not pay out the £38 allocated to him to rebuild his house until he owned some land to build it on. This was no great sum with which to provide a home for a destitute family of six. However, in addition to relief in money, one must take account of relief in kind. The generous public response to the appeal for clothing would have seen the Harwood wardrobe well restocked Even outlying Makaretu received such copious supplies that the local committee seems to have been embarrassed. They made generous provision in blankets and clothes for all urgent cases by allowing them in to select what they required. To dispense the remaining miscellaneous assortment a list of 28 persons who seemed to have lost a good deal was made. At first it was suggested that they select from a clothesline across a paddock, but the weather was against this. Finally 28 bundles were made up, and distributed by lot, with the suggestion that the recipients get themselves suited by mutual exchange.

After the fires the bush industries seem to have made a rapid recovery, which owed as much to mutual self help as to outside relief assistance. Harry Combs, who was a beginner pupil at the Makotuku School when the fires raged through, has no doubt drawn on his father's yarns to describe how the ‘what's-the-use’ atmosphere at the burnt out sawmill gave place to ‘give-it-another-go’ as one or two of the hardier souls began to sort out what was still usable from the ashes.6 Newspaper reports show two mills back at work in Makotuku by early February. On their bush clearings the settlers also took heart as the fresh green grass sprang up after the downpour, and they calculated that the drought had broken in time for the winter's feed to be assured.