Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
Had we taken a bird's eye view of the Kaponga district on a fine day each autumn throughout the decade the most striking change we would have observed would have been the shifting balance of clearings and wild. The patterns and speed of this change were a result of a complex interplay of forces. We must examine the inflow of settlers, looking both at government handling of land sales and buyer responses. We must see how these settlers' clearing activities were shaped both by land settlement regulations and the effects of changing labour and commodities markets. We must look at the seasons, especially at how their diversity of weather directly affected bush-felling and burning, and indirectly the demand for bush land. Throughout we seek the larger overview, leaving individual fortunes to our next chapter.
The first Waimate Plains bush sections were offered at the sale of 28 February 1881. Most lay just outside our Kaponga District but several were on lower Palmer and Manaia roads and passed into the hands of Kaponga pioneers, mainly on deferred payment (DP). The DP system was designed to get genuine settlers of limited means onto the land, on terms of small deposits followed by payments over a period of years. To deter speculators the system required residence on, and development of, the sections. If more than one applicant applied for a section it went to auction. Reflecting on the sale, in the context of earlier sales along the Mountain Road, the Star (2/3/81) concluded that:
The lesson taught by the recent sales … seems to be that bush land will sell for deferred but not for immediate payments…. In respect of the Waimate bush land, the arguments in favour of forcing on settlement as much as possible are incontestable; the public exchequer will gain … If land be offered at once, the newly cut road and survey lines will not need to be recut …
The pattern of the offering of the bush sections was that the first put up were to the south and east between Matapu and Kapuni, along Skeet Road and the lower reaches of its side-roads. The offerings then moved steadily westwards and northwards. The 3 October 1881 sale put a number of further settlers up lower Palmer Road and along Eltham Road to the north of them. The 22 December 1881 sale put three more settlers on Manaia Road. There were also about half a dozen cash buyers of sections further west along lower Rowan and Mangawhero roads, but this land does not seem to have been occupied for some years. ‘Kaponga Village Settlement’, page 35 and a number of adjoining rural sections, were finally put up at the large sale of 8 September 1882 that ended the series, together with a good deal of rural and village land elsewhere across the plains. When these folk took up their land there was a sprinkle of settlers across the eastern half of the Kaponga District. But although the government had felled the township sites along the Mountain Road, it did not do so for Kaponga. The few folk who purchased township sections were quite unable to establish the place as the district's centre. As the colony faced harder times the forward march of settlement began to falter. In 1882 the government amended the land laws, particularly to make bush settlement easier. A perpetual-lease tenure was introduced and residential requirements were made less stringent to allow settlers greater freedom to earn the money needed to develop their properties. But in the Taranaki bush of the early 1880s it was not the land laws that were the greatest discouragement to settlement but the weather.
Those few Kaponga pioneers who began their first clearings for the burns of the summer of 1881–82 would have shared the general experience described in a Star editorial of 17 May 1882:
We hear that a petition is likely to be forwarded to the Minister for Lands by a number of bush settlers between here and Inglewood … Hardly any of those who felled bush on their land last season have been able to burn it off. Those who tried, and ‘singed’ the leaves and light twigs off the timber, are inclined to regret that they ever set light to it.
The 1882 winter would have seen the first significant amount of felling in the Kaponga District. Bush burn fortunes were patchy. The weather was favourable early in the summer, and the Star of 7 February 1883 reported many settlers in the Manaia bush having good burns, but on 10 March, after a survey along these bush roads, it found that ‘as a rule the burns have not been good’. In reporting on the district's roadworks for the 1882–83 season, Crown Lands Ranger G.F. Robinson gave as one reason for their lagging ‘the unusually wet season we have had since January last’.6
But the worst was yet to come. The 1883 winter saw a massive assault on the bush, with the Star of 11 October reporting an estimate that ‘from 400 to 500 men are now employed bushfelling in the bush between Okaiawa and Otakeho’. They were working in atrocious weather. Some months later, in accounting for the delays in the surveys required for his work as West Coast Commissioner, William Fox explained that the season had seen ‘the prevalence of the wettest winter weather ever remembered in the colony’. Influenced by the experience that ‘last year the early burns were the good ones' the settlers got most of the felling completed by mid-October.8 It did not pay off. In the Star of 17 January 1884 the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ reported that:
One or two attempts have been made by the over-anxious ones to burn off the bush during the week. The high winds forced the fires through pretty page 36 well, yet, from the amount of timber still remaining on the ground, the venture proves to have been anything but a success.
Not till mid-February did the weather briefly raise the settlers' hopes. A survey of the situation at that point was provided by ‘Y’ in his Star ‘Farmers' Column’ of 21 February 1884:
The past week has done much towards drying up the felled bush … I have not yet heard of any very clean burns, but believe that from this time forward fairly good fires may be looked for provided that no heavy rain should fall within the next few days. Owing to the grass and rapid growth of underwood and weeds among the felled bush this season, the latest felled bush will probably burn the best…. Estimates of the bush felled awaiting burning within Waimate riding vary from 5000 up to 6000 acres. It is possible that even the latter area may be within the mark, as there are a great number of small patches scattered about which hardly any one knows of except the owners or immediate neighbours.
In the event the season proved to be disastrous. Local correspondents almost always did their best to look on the bright side and present an optimistic view of their district to the outside world. But the 1884 burning season was too much for the Star's ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’. His column of 18 March reported that:
Since Friday and Saturday's downpour the chances of anything like a burn this season have become very small. Disgust and disappointment is now easily discernible on many a countenance that hitherto wore a genial and hopeful expression. I wonder if there ever was such a season before? No doubt at times the bush has been sufficiently dry, but there has never been anything like a wind—one of the main requirements to ensure a successful burn in this flat and open bush. The loss is one that would be difficult to estimate, not only individually, but to the district at large. I have no hesitation in saying that it will throw the whole of the bush country back for a period of at least five years. Verily, sir, a man's heart need be, not only as big as a stump, as one of my neighbours very aptly remarked, but as big as the tree itself.
Faith, Hope and Charity! Three of the brightest gems in the world's diadem, but unfortunately only applicable under certain circumstances. Why sir, the first year we came here we had to live on faith! Then we turned to the second best, and for a time were buoyed up and existed on hope. But now, from present appearances, it would seem as if we were about to realise the latter, in the fullest sense of the word…. Without doubt, days of toil and nights of anxious waiting are plainly perceptible to all. But as for the summer and winter, things have got so mixed and jumbled together that we know not when or where to expect them.
There was not only disillusion for the pioneer settlers but a drying up of the flow of new recruits to the district. Early in 1884 the government page 37 began advertising a big sale of south Taranaki bush sections in Hawera on 28 and 29 February, aimed at pushing settlement further to the north and west.9 The Gazette sale notice, over two pages long, listed a wide spread of 161 rural sections, 35 small farm allotments and 60 Village-Settlement allotments in the village settlements of Makaka and Punehu (modern Te Kiri). Of the rural sections 33 were in our Kaponga District. Apart from five just west of the township on Eltham Road these were all to the north, on Opunake Road and the upper reaches of Palmer, Manaia and Rowan roads. Using recent land law amendments, the man of small means was taken well into account. Some rural sections were offered on attractive perpetual-lease terms, and contested DP small-farm allotments were to be decided by lot and not bid up at auction as in earlier sales. But all the hard work and careful planning for this sale ended in an absolute debacle. Only one of the 256 sections was sold. The Star turned an almost blind eye to this calamitous event. The Lands Department annual report indicates that this was more than a south Taranaki problem. Two successive unusually wet seasons with failed bush burns had undermined the demand for bush land throughout the colony, and much that was ready for sale had been kept off the market.10
The ‘Kaupokonui’ settlers faced long, anxious months as they awaited a change in fortune. In the Star of 29 May their ‘Our Own’ noted that new sowings of grass were proving very backward, but was encouraged in that older clearings were rolling in feed. Two months later Okaiawa's ‘Our Own’ was pleased that ‘several Auckland gentlemen’ were in the village arranging for felling a large area of land they had bought in the district. The summer began inauspiciously. On 29 December the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ wrote:
A sad time for the people in the bush, Mr. Editor, a sad time! Day after day nothing but rain. The morning breaks with it, the day ends with it, an everlasting drip, drip, drip. The branches of the huge pines are bent down with it, the younger trees are weeping under it, the roads are canals, all things are silent, with water everywhere. For eight days it has scarcely ceased.
On 8 January 1885 he described ‘the heaviest rainfall that I ever witnessed outside the tropics' but on 23 January 1885 he was at last able to report a spell of fine weather that had only to last a few days longer to bring some good burns, while consoling himself that ‘if the wood will not burn it will rot’. On 24 January he was elated:
Hurrah! for the good burns—our little world is jubilant. The 27th is a day. that will long be remembered here as the day of the general flare-up…. the fire in some cases carried the tops of the trees for over two miles. Night is now settling down, and the red streamers are hung out—hundreds of them, thousands of them. The bush around looks like a living forest of fire, and the moon overhead, as if riding in a sea of blood…. Stout hearts and strong hands are working with a will, hatless and coatless, blackened and begrimed. … Beating him back in some places, and in others urging him forward. The page 38 bush must be burnt, but the homesteads, if possible, must be saved…. On! On! he rushes, accomplishing in a few moments what it would take men years to perform.
It was a great turning point in the south Taranaki bush settlement. On 7 March the ‘Kaupokonui’ letter told of a burn in bush felled as late as Christmas:
I have not seen the burn, but have been told that it made a splendid sweep. A great deal of last season's felling was fired on Saturday last, the fire going clean through the standing thistles and making a grand clearance of the old timber. This season will have done a great deal towards permanently establishing the settlement of the bush. Had there followed another such as last, I believe a great many would have cleared out in disgust, and wandered away to fields and pastures new.
On 9 March he was actually pleased with an hour of heavy rain, remarking that ‘it is a great relief to once more breathe the pure, fresh air, after living for about a month in an atmosphere of smoke.’
The following season was even more favourable for bush clearance. With hard times felling contracts were being let at very cheap rates over the winter.11 As 1885 closed the beginnings of the long drought of my New Zealand's Burning were being experienced in the ‘Kaupokonui’. In mid-December its ‘Our Own’ reported burns of ‘the heaps left from previous years’. On 2 January 1886 he wrote of widespread burning of the current season's felling, telling how ‘a lot of persons who have been disappointed in previous years … are now acting on the saying “Better be sure than sorry” ‘. Looking back on the season on 13 March he told how the season's weather had given two splendid chances for burns, one before the drought broke, the other after. Later he told of burns continuing into April, making this the ‘boss bush-burning year’ for Taranaki.12
Within this broad picture of the interplay between administrators' plans and the vagaries of the weather how had the occupation of our Kaponga District been developing? Crown Lands Ranger G.F. Robinson's reports in July and December 188513 and the March 1886 census give some help in summing up. Robinson's first inspection of some DP lands in several survey districts, including Kaupokonui ones, showed that all had met the improvement conditions. On his second inspection of 30 holdings in the Ngaere and Kaupokonui districts he was satisfied with all except one Ngaere settler. Some others were behind in the area of land cleared and grassed but were ahead with other improvements. Twelve settlers had their families resident. In December 1885 Robinson reported on 108 DP sections in seven survey districts, including Kaupokonui ones. While he again found some a little behind in getting the land into grass he reported that this failure ‘has occurred through the wet seasons, and from no fault of their own’. His summing up applies to about 17 Kaponga District holdings. Overall, the page 39 results were very favourable. Whereas sections inspected for the first time should have had 10 per cent in grass, they actually averaged about 15 per cent. Those inspected for the second time, which should have been 20 per cent in grass, actually exceeded 37 per cent. Clearly the government's DP regulations were holding these settlers to their task and despite the bitter disappointments of the wet seasons they were making admirable progress.
It is not so easy to assess progress on the cash-sale land. Some purchases had been for speculative rather than settlement purposes. However, information collated from various sources gives a fair idea in most cases of when genuine settlement began. It seems that by the 1885–86 season at least nine bachelors and five families had settled on these holdings. So the first five years of settlement had seen the beginnings of about 30 farms in our District. Some of the clearings were manned by bachelors in primitive whares, others by families in more substantial homes.
By collating land sale records, family information and census returns, one gets something of a picture of Kaponga District on census day, Sunday, 28 March 1886.* The census breakdown of Hawera County's Waimate Riding, which embraced the country from the Waingongoro to the Taungatara Stream, just east of Opunake, shows only two significant population centres, Manaia town district with a population of 323 and Okaiawa village with 68. Kaponga's name does not even appear. Opunake, Rowan and Mangawhero roads are not listed, so apparently the north and west of our District was still awaiting settlers. It seems that our 30-odd clearings were scattered along, or near to, only three of the roads, Manaia Road with perhaps 32 people on twelve clearings, Eltham Road with about 22 persons on about seven clearings, and Palmer Road with about 19 residents on about 10 clearings. Nevertheless the settlers were widely scattered, and this would seem to have arisen from their having ‘read’ the District in differing ways when buying their sections. Those to the north must have seen it as the Taranaki Herald's ‘Traveller’ of November 1880 had done, as an area whose main link to the outside was to be via Opunake Road, through Stratford. Many of these were an interlinked group from Wellington province, part of a northward flow deriving from the Hutt Valley's pioneer settlers, whose surnames included Ellerm, Frethey, Hollard and Wilkie. Some came direct from the Hutt, while others were moving on from earlier migrations, first to the Wairarapa, later to the Manawatu. They were predominantly English in origin and a significant number were Methodists. The settlers along and south of Eltham Road were a more diverse group who had ‘read’ the District as linked to the outside world by the South Road, through Manaia and Hawera. A number of them may have been influenced by their vision of a more distant future as there was strong buying within easy access of the Neill Road railway reserve, running to the south of the planned Kaponga township. These ‘southern’ settlers contained a strong South page 40 Island element—Prestidges from Nelson, Crowleys and Fitzgeralds from the West Coast, Stoddart from Dunedin. In Old World origins they were a mixture of English, Irish and Scots.
The remaining three burning seasons of the decade, in the early months of 1887, 1888 and 1889, saw substantial extension of existing clearings and the beginning of a number of new ones. Hard times forced felling contract prices ever lower and 1887 and 1888 had splendid burning seasons. As early as 31 July 1886 the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ reported 5000 acres of contracts already let. Looking back on this season, a Star (2/5/87) bush settler correspondent decided it had been perhaps the most favourable yet:
… the spring was ushered in with warm weather, which started the grass growing; the three summer months were everything that could be wished for; and a break early in February prevented an actual drought.
And by the winter of 1886 the flow of new settlers had revived. In the Star of 28 August the ‘Kaupokonui’ ‘Our Own’ reported settlement ‘going on apace in the back part of this block’, with most of the newcomers taking their land on perpetual lease. Land on Rowan Road was beginning to be taken up.14 Over the 1887 winter, despite still lower contract prices, felling by established settlers slackened somewhat15—after several good burning seasons they seem to have had almost a surfeit of grass.16 The following year saw another wonderful burning season, a great encouragement to the inflow of new settlers starting further new clearings on Rowan Road and also one or two along Opunake Road.17 In 1888 this inflow accelerated as new 1887 land legislation came into force. This gave the purchaser the choice of taking the land for cash, on DP, or on perpetual lease with right of purchase. Sections were put up at fixed prices based on the land's quality, and competing applications were decided by ballot.18 The 1888 winter saw bushfelling prices at rock bottom and a very large area was cleared.19 Late in 1888 the Star surveyed what had been achieved since settlers had crossed the Waingongoro. It estimated that of the Waimate Riding's 108,000 acres of bush, 35,000 acres were now felled, grassed and securely fenced. In the January 1889 Farmer, its ‘West Coast’ correspondent suggested that this understated the area felled. Since our Kaponga District was roughly the median strip in the flow of settlement across the Riding, we can probably safely say that by the end of the 1880s a good third of it was cleared.