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Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World


page 343


On 29 September 1993 we were privileged to interview Mrs Rona Chapman22 about her years in Edwardian Kaponga. She went there in April 1907 as the infant daughter of the Rev Bramwell Scott and his wife Alice and left in April 1912 as a five-year-old with several months of schooling behind her. The well-cherished early memories that she shared with us showed clearly that their Kaponga years had been a high point in her parents' experience—years of fulfilment and a deep ‘belonging’. They went there in their early thirties, to Bramwell's first placement as a Methodist circuit minister after six years as a home missionary. As the gifted first minister of a new circuit he built strong bonds both with his congregation and the wider community. Indeed our conversation with Rona showed that the experience of these years gave all three members of this little family friendships that they nurtured down the years, and a feeling that they would always belong to the Kaponga story.

This study has convinced me that such life-long attachment resulting from deep community involvement was the common experience of folk who spent any length of time in settler Kaponga. We will conclude this study by exploring some aspects of this deep sense of belonging. As an historian seeking to get thoroughly to grips with the sources it soon became clear to me that to ‘read’ what was going on one needed an awareness of the depth of the intermingling of lives in this settler world. This meant cultivating one's own ‘belonging’ as an observer of this vanished world. In this I was greatly helped by my wife Betty's sense of belonging to Kaponga. This is where she was born,23 grew up and was schooled, and now, too, where for her ‘the Auld Folk lie’. We have taken our children there down the years to the family farm on lower Palmer Road and watched them spend many happy summer hours in the favourite spots of her childhood along the Kapuni River, which her grandparents24 first saw when they took the farm in 1913. With her Kaponga People as a resource tool and her constant input as a consultant I have been able to become in some measure an ‘insider’ of settler Kaponga.

In looking for some way of expressing the feel of this close-knit world I came across Ken Dempsey's Smalltown.25 Dempsey, a sociologist at La Trobe University in Australia, made a 15-year study, beginning in the early 1970s, of a fairly prosperous farming district in north-west Victoria. His methods, using a small team of assistants, included participant observation with much systematic interviewing and a series of sociological surveys. Although he was dealing with a different time period, and a community in a different country with about three times the population of Edwardian Kaponga, the following quotations from his description of ‘belonging’ aptly describe my understanding of settler Kaponga:

… most social ties and day-to-day activities of most members are bounded by the immediate locality: work, play, shopping religious, kinship and page 344 friendship activity are all conducted in the one small physical setting. (p. 7)

… walking or driving [folk] take their time moving around the town. Drivers raise their hands in friendly gestures of recognition as they pass one another. Walkers exchange greetings and … often stop to swap news or gossip. (p. 17)

[Locals] reason that in their community people's lives are public; their position and worth are known. Pretence and masquerade cannot be sustained. These characteristics promote honesty, fair play and personal integrity…. a majority believe that they do not count the cost when fellow community members are in difficulties. (pp. 3233)

… many people who are neighbours also belong to the same organizations, purchase their goods at the same shops, send their children to the same schools, attend the same church to worship, play sport together and so forth. So the same people keep coming across one another in a variety of institutional contexts. (p. 95)

… there [are] many parts to play and few players to perform them … Living [here] is in some senses, akin to being a member of an amateur theatrical group. Because of a shortage of performers the man selling tickets also works the spotlights and sells drinks at interval… (p. 98)

One can say of these descriptions, ‘Yes, that is true of settler Kaponga from the 1890s on, only more so.’ In their smaller and more primitive world Kaponga folk were even more closely bonded. They, for example, had but one pub, Smalltown had six; Kaponga had only one school system, Smalltown had both a government and a Catholic one, and so on. Also, neither the automobile nor the audio-visual media had as yet seriously ‘diluted’ Kaponga's local provisions and initiatives.

Much of the outworking of this closely bonded ‘belonging’ has been evident as our story unfolded, but several aspects call for comment before we conclude. For instance the historian senses that some individuals had an influence in this small world far beyond their appearance in the public record. An example would be Robert Gibson who, from increasing deaf ness, appears less and less in public discussions, but whom one senses to have had considerable influence on many decisions. One senses, too, antip athies that were perennially present but usually controlled by the overruling spirit of mutual belonging. One such, affecting two of the community's most prominent leaders, was between F.W. Wilkie with his liberal, modernising outlook and the markedly conservative William Swadling. As we have
given a number of examples of Wilkie's outlook but little that shows Swadling's romantic conservatism, we will illustrate it from the remin iscences of Winifred Davies. When she was a girl of nine her family took over Swadling's farm following his death. She writes of him:

He was a traditional English farmer and had planted cowslips and primroses, buttercups and daisies and bluebells through the little stand of native bush on the farm. There was a cottage just behind the homestead most likely built to page 345
Nurse Mary Ann Gullery with the first male baby born at her Kaponga nursing home, c. 1908

Nurse Mary Ann Gullery with the first male baby born at her Kaponga nursing home, c. 1908

accommodate a typical farm worker (English of course)…. There were a number of things that were different about that farm. One was the cowshed which had been built after the style of the English sheds where they have to house their stock in winter. Bails along both sides well back from the walls, with room in front for feed boxes and water tubs. Upstairs was a large airy attie with space at the sides so that hay or meal or whatever could be forked or fed into the feed boxes below. There was room to house about forty cows I think. It was definitely not a mod. cowshed by New Zealand standards, even in those days.26

We have seen the bitter clash between Swadling and Wilkie in 1905 during the typhoid crisis. It is obvious that the community valued both men and was able to use their diverse visions and leadership talents. This would have required some tact and skill from all involved.

That Swadling was not averse to all modern developments is shown by his adopting the new gramophone. Kaponga will have been prompted to consider the gramophone by its popularity in another world of belonging beginning to flourish in the Old World, that of suburbia. Kaponga belonging will have taken some of its style and colour from this developing world of the English middle class, described thus by Ronald Pearsall in his Edwardian Life and Leisure:

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Suburban cultural life was replete with operatic and dramatic societies, madrigal singing, and folk song; suburban sports were golf, cricket and tennis. The suburbanites adored the gramophone and phonograph … The more class-conscious changed for dinner … The houses were too small to boast a billiards room, and apart from card games the favourite indoor sport was ping-pong, yet to be christened table-tennis.27

One's insider's feeling for settler Kaponga is, of course, not without its blind spots. We have seen how deficient our sources are in enlightening us about women's lives. So I have not been able to meet a strong wish of my Betty's that we should have a good treatment of midwives and childbirth. We know the names of eight women who acted as midwives, but little about their work.28 We know that around the turn of the century Nurse Mary Ann Gullery opened a nursing home in Kaponga and that many of the births over the following years took place there. Nurse Gullery did not register as a midwife when this became a requirement in 1904, but she continued her home in association with the local doctors. We know that the Gullery clan's New Zealand story began in Picton, from where there were migrations to Wanganui and south Taranaki. We do not know how Mary Ann fits into this migration story, nor anything of of her earlier and later career. With this confession of ignorance we will let her strong caring face speak for itself as the close to this book.