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

Working on Wages and Contracts

Working on Wages and Contracts

In the early years of the decade work was plentiful and wages good, but the later years saw harder times. From 1881 to the summer of 1884–85 there was strong labour demand in south Taranaki, with a diversity of work at good wages. The government put money into the roads and pushed the railway through the difficult country between Hawera and Patea, completing it early in 1885. Government surveys continued in our district and also to open up new country east of the railway. The more affluent open-country settlers also had development programmes, creating a strong demand for fencers, builders, ploughmen and general labourers. Their rapidly multiplying flocks of sheep and acres of grain added a strong summer demand for shearers and harvesters. With work and wages beginning to languish in many older established districts, south Taranaki experienced a steady inflow of population. Some Kaponga District settlers will have first come to the region in search of work and then been encouraged by savings from good wages to go farming. DP land purchasers and poorer cash buyers must have had a wide range of skills to offer on this vibrant market and in turn taken useful experience back to their own sections. In these half-hidden years it is not easy to glean the information for a picture of how this complex interplay between labouring and settling page 59 worked out in terms of individual experience. One or two relevant diaries or cycles of letters would be invaluable at this point. We will have to make do with the available snippets of information, which are mainly on bushfelling and roadmaking.

The Star of 28 September 1881 provides a salutary reminder of the rougher side of this frontier life. It advocated a lock-up for Manaia because

… Bushmen who threaten to fight with axes, or go outside the hotel on Saturday night, challenging all or any of the bystanders to fight, are not the sort of rowdies which one policeman can safely conduct a mile or more to a lock-up against their will. [The ‘mile or more’ was probably to the redoubt.]

These Saturday-night gatherings of bushmen may have included a sprinkling from our district, perhaps one or two of the pioneer settlers on Manaia and Palmer roads and workers from the district's first sawmill, just getting under way on Charles Tait's* section on Manaia Road.3 But the rowdy element are more likely to have been itinerant workers felling roadlines for the government or cutting posts for settlers on the plains. Their number would have grown over the following winter with the first extensive letting of felling contracts. The Star of 18 September 1882 drew attention to its many felling advertisements and reported two-thirds of the settlers with bush adjoining the plains letting contracts. The following month William Ellerm sought fellers for his section a little north of the Kaponga township site.4 He may not have found men to make this long trek into the bush for even the government was having difficulty getting workers. In his 1882–83 report Crown Lands Ranger Robinson explained that roadworks had lagged partly because of the very wet summer but also because most available labour had been absorbed by the very large areas of bush being felled in south Taranaki. He had found most quotes for work put to tender ‘unreasonable’.5 After listing the work accomplished during the year he continued:

Nearly the whole of the above works have been done under the system of small contracts, the average value of the contracts being about £90, the work, in the majority of cases, being done by deferred-payment settlers, who were thus afforded an opportunity of earning money wherewith to pay for their lands.6

Settlers complained that during the 1882 season bushfelling pricés had risen from 28s to 40s or 50s per acre.7 Not surprisingly plains farmers had to offer good wages for their wheat and oats harvesting in January 1883 and even so one or two complained that men were hard to get.8

Over the 1883–84 and 1884–85 seasons these patterns continued but with a rising tempo and with bushfelling, roadworks and timber milling moving ever deeper into the bush. The transient bushfelling gangs that were a feature of Kaponga District life throughout the 1880s have left only minimal traces in the records but an interesting glimpse is provided by a page 60 letter from ‘Bush Faller’ in the Star of 1 March 1883. He was from near Opunake but his problem cannot have been uncommon. He wrote: ‘Some men like myself who have to camp on road lines with our wives and families would be only too pleased to have a chance of leasing, even at a pretty high rent, small blocks [of land].’ Obviously these encampments were not necessarily purely male preserves and not all were satisfied with a vagrant roadway setting when taking contracts in a district. The typical bush settler had rather different problems. He preferred to work from home and keep an eye on his own section while gaining a share of the moneys flowing out to manual labour, and he wanted the public spending on roads to bring good access to his own front gate. All these ends were met if he got a good contract on the roads near his place. Thus in September 1884 Henry Davy tendered £3 an acre to the Road Board for felling bush near his place. The board countered with £2 an acre.9 For some settlers access was as important as money. In July 1883 William Swadling waited on the Road Board, offering to fell a mile of Palmer Road, clear and stump it 16 feet wide, at 17s per chain, and to wait up to 14 months for payment if no funds were in hand. The offer was taken up.10 The government also continued spending in the district, again mainly on small contracts to nearby settlers.11

These good times for labour ended in the winter of 1885, with ‘Kaupokonui's’ ‘Our Own’ reporting ‘a bad look out for the “professional” axeman. Everything down bar ratas is quoted at £1 10s’.12 The following July he commented that ‘when ali timber except rata is chopped for 30s per acre … the storekeeper and butcher often suffer’.13 With prices still dropping, by November 1886 some small settlers felling for more affluent neighbours were bringing in no more than 4s a day, with rates as low as 22s an acre being reported.14 The winters of 1887 and 1888 saw ‘peppercorn wages’ with prices as low as 20s.15 The surge of new settlement turned the tide in the spring of 1888; by December south Taranaki grain farmers and public bodies were complaining at being unable to get work done at satisfactory rates.16 The hard years saw landless men suffer most, working long hours on contracts that scarcely bought them their food. But most DP settlers had somehow met their land payments. They benefited from being comfortably housed and eating well from their clearings and the wild.