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

6 — Relief and Reconstruction: Taranaki

page 75

Relief and Reconstruction: Taranaki

In contrast to Hawke's Bay, relief and reconstruction in Taranaki was considerably affected by regional disunity and rivalry. In Hawke's Bay the fires had moved steadily from the level of local crises to that of regional disaster, and the province's thinking had moved to keep pace with developments. Once it became a provincial issue, there was no questioning of control from Napier, the traditional local capital, the headquarters of the most vital relief tool—the local railway system—and the inevitable source of the main flow of relief. Things worked out differently in Taranaki. The Stratford-Midhirst blaze was a sudden disaster. The way news of it reached Taranaki's two main towns, New Plymouth and Hawera, was quite different in both timing and impact. As a result they responded differently, and this led on to something of a rift between two communities which had never been very much at ease with each other. Hawera at this time seemed to prefer to look to Wanganui as its local capital. The Taranaki railway was administered from Wanganui. Though New Plymouth finally emerged as the controlling centre for relief and reconstruction, this did not come about easily and smoothly.

For the first day or two New Plymouth lagged a good 24 hours behind Hawera in its awareness of the crisis, and hence in its response. By 2 a.m. on Thursday, 7 January, Hawera had had two trains down from Stratford—the scheduled evening train arriving at 8 p.m. on the 6th, with its harrowed fugitives from the height of the blaze, and the returning special with further refugees and more comprehensive news of the disaster, in the early hours of the 7th. Some Hawera residents had seen the disaster for themselves as members of the first relief party. The Hawera Star of the 7th featured the fires as major news, with full and circumstantial first-hand reports. Meanwhile the good folk of New Plymouth had slept peacefully in their beds while Hawera's citizens coped as best they could with the crisis on their doorstep. New Plymouth got its first solid news when the train from the south steamed in at 11 a.m. on the 7th. Even then the account in that afternoon's Herald was not very well informed. For first-hand information it had the sketchy impressions of J.H. Howell, the bridge contractors' labourer. Folk such as Thomas Skinner, who could have given a measured and detailed report, had stayed with the battle in Stratford. The Herald redeemed itself with very full page 76 and detailed reporting from the 8th onwards, but it is noteworthy that a week later it was casually taking Thursday, 7 January, as the day of the fire. Throughout the 7th, as Hawera coped with the refugees and planned other means of aiding Stratford, the New Plymouth public went about their business almost unaware of the crisis. Their mayor, however, had had a telegram from Stratford reporting 34 houses burnt and asking for aid against the fire. As we have seen, he spent much of the day vainly soliciting a special train to take the brigade to Stratford

Hawera's response to the challenge so suddenly thrust upon it was prompt and practical. While awaiting Wanganui's approval of the relief train, the civic leaders made provision for the first batch of refugees, mayor William Furlong, acting in his capacity as one of the two local members of the Taranaki Charitable Aid Board, taking the main initiative. The refugees were described as in ‘a state of excitement and sorrow’ with two of the mothers ‘in terrible distress' because some of their children had been left behind in the confusion.1 Helped by several borough councillors and others, Furlong got these families settled into Hawera's two main boarding houses, and then prepared for the next batch, expected by the returning special. The further ten families who arrived in the small hours of the morning were divided between Mrs Evans's now well crowded boarding house and the Borough Chambers. As the new day dawned Hawera's citizens set about other practical relief measures. A special meeting of the borough council appointed a committee to look after the homeless. Hawera's doctors and chemists provided free services to those with burns and other injuries. Aware that both refugees and many settlers still in Stratford had escaped only lightly clad, losing all their possessions, Hawera's women set up a working bee in the Friendly Societies' Hall. Sewing machines and workers were recruited in a quick canvass of the town, and supplies of materials flowed in from shops and homes. Once the refugees' immediate needs had been met, large parcels of clothing and a trunk of boots were sent by train to Stratford.

The Hawera borough council's relief committee then turned their minds to longer term matters. They decided not to continue the expensive housing of the homeless in Hawera boarding houses. They knew that their subdivision of the Taranaki Charitable Aid Board was responsible only for the needs of the County and Borough of Hawera, whereas the sufferers were mainly from Taranaki County and the Stratford Town District. They were also aware of the copious emergency accommodation available in New Plymouth's Immigration Barracks developed in the 1870s from the Marsland Hill Blockhouse. They therefore decided to telegraph New Plymouth, where fortuitously the Charitable Aid Board was meeting that very day. The Board acted promptly. A quick exchange of telegrams with Wellington gained the use of the barracks. By Friday morning, 8 January, most of the homeless from page 77 Hawera and others who had found temporary shelter in Stratford were on the train to New Plymouth. With the relief of the refugees and the continuing battle against the fires transferred to those more amply equipped to deal with them, Hawera's leaders turned to the longer term concern of getting the burnt out settlers established back on their holdings. At a public meeting on the 8th, chaired by county council chairman Isaac Bayly, a relief committee was set up to solicit funds for reinstating the burnt out settlers in their homes and on their holdings. This committee sent telegrams to the chief newspapers along the coast asking that subscription lists be opened to assist in reinstating the ruined settlers. As this unilateral action by Hawera was to meet severe criticism in New Plymouth, the circumstances need a little closer attention. A better approach might have been a joint telegram from the mayors of Hawera, Stratford and New Plymouth asking their brother mayors to sponsor appeals in their districts. But Hawera effectively did not have a mayor when the crisis developed, as William Furlong had just completed his term and was not standing for re-election, and the election of a successor was in its closing stages. Probably underlying Hawera's unilateral move there was also a feeling that they were the ones best qualified to judge the needs of the situation, through having been first on the scene at the height of the crisis, and being more closely involved with frontier life than the ‘old guard’ up in New Plymouth.

But meanwhile on this very day New Plymouth's leaders were at last moving vigorously to take charge of the crisis, backed by a population now thoroughly stirred by the news that was flowing in. Telegrams were flying off to Wellington, emergency use of the railway was passing into New Plymouth hands, the fire brigade was now fully committed against the fires, the bellman was calling up recruits for successive relief parties being dispatched up the line, refugees were flowing into the barracks, and public meetings chaired by the mayor, James Paul, were setting up various committees to fight the fires, care for the homeless and raise relief funds. New Plymouth was acting as the capital of Taranaki and would brook no rivals. The Taranaki Herald's editorial of Monday, 11 January, no doubt reflecting New Plymouth civic opinion, maintained that a central committee should take charge of all relief funds. The Herald of the 12th called New Plymouth's relief committee ‘the Central Relief Committee’, and reported its wiring the Wellington, Auckland and Wanganui mayors that the fires were subsiding and that funds already subscribed were sufficient to meet the needs. It was also writing to tell Hawera's mayor that this telegram had been sent and that any further appeal to the colony was ‘earnestly deprecated’. Hawera was to be told that New Plymouth had sufficient clothing for all requirements, and it was suggested that its committee cooperate with the central committee in the division of subscriptions. The central committee had engaged Mr Skinner to page 78
Bush burn landscape below Mount Egmont

Bush burn landscape below Mount Egmont

New Plymouth, 1885

New Plymouth, 1885

page 79 ascertain the damage and probable amount of claims. New Plymouth had certainly acted forthrightly in asserting its supremacy. It was soon to have cause to consider whether it had acted fairly or wisely.

At Hawera's public meeting on the 8th there had been some dissatisfaction at Hawera's declining role in the crisis, especially through the removal of the refugees. Felix McGuire had offered his vacant old hotel to house them and was annoyed that this had been ignored. He thought Hawera's local bodies should have taken full responsibility for the refugees, as all expenses were sure to have been recouped in due course. Hawera's two doctors were angry at not being consulted on the removal of their refugee patients, and Dr Chilton had in fact prevented the removal of his. With the New Plymouth actions of the 12th this irritation deepened to anger and deep hurt. The Hawera Star's editorial of the 13th gave forceful expression to local feeling. Could rudeness go any further than the New Plymouth committee's countermanding of the Hawera committee's appeal to the wider community? Hawera had been left to learn of it first through the newspapers. Did the New Plymouth committee intend to advertise to the colony that the Hawera committee was too ignorant or incapable for its task, and by inference seeking to obtain money under false pretences? The New Plymouth committee had no claim to be the ‘Central’ authority and their interference was a piece of impertinence. And what evidence had they of the sufficiency of present subscriptions? The full extent of the damage had yet to be ascertained and even the Taranaki Herald's estimates were ten times the present subscriptions. The secretary of the Hawera committee, lawyer Elliot Barton, telegraphed the mayor of New Plymouth for an explanation of his unwarranted and insulting interference with their canvass, asserting that it was childish to say that the £500 collected in New Plymouth was sufficient.

A perusal of the colony's newspapers shows that the New Plymouth committee's telegrams had a widespread effect.2 Wanganui and Wellington newspapers had launched appeals promptly and had had worthwhile responses before the need was thus called into doubt. But both in Wellington and widely in the South Island moves by Taranaki sympathisers to get mayors to call public meetings to promote the cause were frustrated. Approaches were either rebuffed on account of the New Plymouth telegrams, or if a meeting had been advertised it became a platform for announcing that the need had already been met. For some days the colony's newspapers carried conflicting reports as Hawera and New Plymouth wrangled over the issue.

James Paul, the New Plymouth mayor, had been a successful brewer in the town for over twenty years. He probably lacked any real understanding of the realities of bush settlement, and it seems that even in New Plymouth it came to be widely accepted that he and his advisers had been unwise in page 80 their precipitate action. His reply to the Hawera committee's scolding tel- gram was that his committee did not think it advisable to sponge on the colony, but that they would continue to collect all possible aid from their own district. Hawera took this as a tacit admission that Paul had no real knowledge of the extent of the damage but now accepted that the funds so far collected were clearly insufficient. He had been confused by the generous over-supply of some immediate needs, such as the clothes which had flowed in to make his council chambers look like a clothes shop. As both the Hawera Star and Wanganui Yeoman pointed out, their appeals had been aimed at the reinstatement of penniless settlers onto sections from which all buildings, fences, grass and crops had been razed. Mayor Paul's mind had not initially moved beyond the question of relieving immediate destitution. Even in this Hawera seemed still to be up with the vanguard. On the 14th the Hawera ladies' working party took the train to Stratford with seven packages of clothes, bedding etc. which they distributed among 67 persons, most of whom had lost everything, and only one of whom had received any other aid. On the 15th Mrs Spurdle, mayoress of Wanganui, was on the scene with Wanganui's contribution to the reclothing of Stratford.

Once it was clear that the rain of 12 January had halted the fires, assessment of the losses began. For the New Plymouth committee, George Robinson, the Crown Lands Ranger, and Reginald Bayley, a draughtsman in the New Plymouth Land Transfer Office and prominent member of the fire brigade, set out from New Plymouth on 14 January to cover the devastated countryside on foot and ascertain clearly what area the fire had ravaged. The committee already had Thomas Skinner at work on the more onerous task of assessing individual losses. It took Robinson and Bayley three days to make their quick survey. Its results were published in the New Plymouth press. They gave the encouraging news that grass was quickly spcinging up after the rain, even where the fires had been fiercest, and that many settlers were already at work rebuilding their fences and homes. Meanwhile the Hawera Star had commissioned George Marchant to do a thorough survey of the ravaged districts and make estimates of the individual loses. Marchant at first teamed up with Skinner and reported that all day Friday the 16th he had ‘piloted Skinner around the by-roads, and all went merry as a marriage bell’.3 But next morning it was a different story. Skinner had discovered what Marchant thought he had known all along, that Marchant was acting for the Star and not specially for the Hawera committee. Skinner had engaged a man to replace Marchant in showing him round. Expressing the fervent wish that somebody would put a end to this miserable game of cross purposes, Marchant pressed on with his own survey. In his running report to the Star he explained the principles on which he was working. Log fencing he was placing no value on, buildings and sundries page 81 were being given only low values, cattle were only included where there was definite proof of their loss. Grass seed crops he considered to be ‘always more or less of a speculation, being at all times liable to serious damage from fire and water’, so he was allowing only £2 an acre. Pasture he was valuing at £1 an acre, and he took direct issue with the New Plymouth committee for making no allowance for pasture loss. He explained the situation of the typical bush settler with a small herd of cows from which he was making a pound or two a week from butter besides rearing pigs and calves. When his grass disappeared his living went with it. His land must be resown but he had no money for grass seed. Even if assisted with seed he would have no pasture worth speaking of till spring. Marchant's final figure for the losses, published in the Star of 21 January, was £4,300. He insisted that his approach had been very conservative, and took no account of many kinds of real loss, such as those sustained by cows going dry or by the forced sale of stock. He considered that a full estimate would amount to at least half as much again. He also pointed out that there had been heavy losses south of Ngaere and across the Waingongoro, outside of his district.

Something had to be done about the New Plymouth/Hawera rift if the relief funds were to be quickly and fairly applied to the needy settlers. The pros and cons of the dispute had been widely aired in the colonial press, and the verdict had gone heavily against New Plymouth. The monthly ‘West Coast Letter’ of the Auckland Weekly News's Hawera correspondent, written on 19 February, gives a good summing up of the debate. He considered the New Plymouth committee's action to be ‘one of the most foolhardy and unjustifiable things ever done by a public body’ in that it had served to abruptly halt ‘the pulse of generosity which was throbbing strongly throughout the colony’.

The feeling is so strong … throughout the rest of the district that I feel bound to record the fact that the action of the committee is universally condemned. I cannot see the sense or reason of their action, and it is equally inexplicable to anyone else. I cannot, in common fairness, ascribe it to local jealousy, to which it is generally attributed, but think that overcome ‘With the exuberance of their own generosity’—to metamorphose a well-known phrase—they saw blindly, and imagined that they could meet the losses out of their own pockets. The resolution of the committee appears to have been ill-considered and passed on the spur of the moment, as neither of the local papers support it, and they are now promulgating the lamest excuses for their action.4

This correspondent is unusual in not seeing any local jealousy in the matter. He implies some praise for the generosity of New Plymouth and its leaders, and also found some excuse for the misunderstanding in a mistake page 82 in a Press Association telegram sent from New Plymouth which had the committee reporting the sufficiency of funds ‘locally subscribed’ in error for ‘already subscribed’. The Taranaki Herald contributed to smoothing things over by explaining that the differences had come about because ‘all the information—perhaps not exaggerating but intensifying the distress—seems to have gone to Hawera, and the information belittling the casualties came to New Plymouth, and the consequence was that the two towns had different impressions …’5 Under pressure from public opinion the New Plymouth leaders responded to diplomacy undertaken by Taranaki politicians Harry Atkinson and Felix McGuire, the mayor of Wanganui, and others. Finally general agreement was reached that a committee of five delegates 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.

The committee of delegates met in Stratford on 20 January. Hawera had sent lawyer Elliot Barton and Robert Nolan, a prominent local businessman; New Plymouth sent two respected city fathers, Thomas King, who was appointed chairman, and Robert Bauchope, who became secretary. Stratford settler T. Malone was elected as the fifth member. The delegates arranged a claims form requiring information on the settler's losses, dependents, and the kind of relief required. Forms were distributed to about a hundred householders. The delegates met again in Stratford on 26 January to consider the claims, and assisted by Marchant they interviewed the claimants. On the 27th they worked until 9 p.m., assisted now by both Skinner and Marchant, to complete their assessments. Skinner's and Marchant's independent estimates were largely in agreement, and enabled the committee to work harmoniously in reaching their decisions. They recommended that the New Plymouth and Hawera relief committees act jointly at Stratford to distribute the assistance from a common fund, and they offered to undertake the task if this was desired. Their offer was accepted.

On 9 February the five commissioners reconvened in Stratford. Harry Atkinson joined them for a discussion on whether to ask the government for a money grant or for work for the settlers completing Opunake Road. The latter course was adopted and, on the application of local members of parliament Atkinson, Trimble and Samuel, the government granted £1000. The commissioners next turned to the distribution of the relief funds. They divided the sufferers into three classes: first, those deemed best able to bear their losses, to receive 4s to 5s in the £; second, those who, while not destitute, would have difficulty in getting through the winter, to receive 6s 8d to 7s 6d in the £; and third, those absolutely destitute, to receive in full. Most applicants had expressed a preference for aid in cash, but it was decided that page 83 as far as possible it would be in kind. Tenders were called for galvanised iron and fencing wire, and arrangements made for the supply of timber, grass seed and other goods. Marchant was to revisit the affected farms and report on how the pastures had responded to the rain. Final apportioning and distribution of the fund was delegated to Robert Bauchope and Elliot Barton.

Bauchope and Barton made the final decisions in Stratford on 15 and 16 February. The claims totalled £7,102. After receiving Marchant's report on the reviving pastures, the two commissioners whittled their estimates of the losses down to £3,881. £1,789 5s 6d had been subscribed to the relief fund. Having apportioned this among the sufferers, the commissioners met them individually to give their decisions, and to arrange how it was to be taken out in terms of wire, iron, timber, grass seed etc. Schedules were then sent to the successful contractors. The Wanganui firm which had won the iron and wire contract was to rail supplies to Stratford station, where Marchant would oversee its distribution. A large quantity of clothing had arrived, the biggest contribution coming from Wellington. A clothing depot was therefore set up in Stratford, with Mrs Bauchope and two other women in charge. Plentiful supplies were issued to 121 persons of all ages, and the surplus handed over to the Hospital and Charitable Aid Board. All these works of relief were completed by early March.