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

The Trials of Daniel and Hannah Crowley

page 71

The Trials of Daniel and Hannah Crowley

In the autumn of 1881 the five 100-acre sections along the south side of Neill Road between Manaia Road and Palmer Road were bought by three settlers Whose lives were to be intertwined over the following years. Stephen Kissick took the one on the Manaia Road corner on DP, Daniel Fitzgerald* took the next two for cash, and Daniel Crowley* took the remaining two, also for cash. At about 11am on 16 January 1883 Daniel Crowley lit a burn on his clearing. Shortly afterwards the wind changed, with sad consequences for both Crowley himself and his neighbour, Fitzgerald.

According to Crowley family traditions, Daniel had gone to view the Neill Road sections with Daniel Fitzgerald, an older man whom he first met in the Shamrock boarding house in Hawera, and the records show that they both purchased on 23 May 1881. Leaving his wife, Hannah, in Normanby for the first six months, Crowley set about vigorously clearing and developing his sections. In November 1882 he asked the Road Board to culvert Neill Road so he could drive cattle onto his land where he had grass waiting for them.1 By the time of the fire he had replaced his pioneer whare with a house and established a garden. As they entered 1883 the Crowleys must have felt that life was working out happily for them. They were getting well settled on their section, and had a son, Cornelius, born in 1882. They had a compatible neighbour in Fitzgerald, Irish and Roman Catholic like themselves, and also making fine progress on his clearing. But things must have looked very different after the events of 16 January. Unable to come to a neighbourly agreement about the damage caused by the fire, the two Daniels resorted to the law. They and four witnesses trekked to the Hawera Magistrate's Court to put the matter before Captain Wray. His decision, given a fortnight later, provided Taranaki's legal guidelines on bush burning for years thereafter.

Fitzgerald v. Crowley was a claim ‘for £100, alleged damage done to plaintiff's property adjoining the defendant's at Kaupokonui’.2 Fitzgerald himself was first called to prove the damage, which he detailed as follows: page 72
Hut £12
Rye grass seed 120 bushels @ 5s 30
share in 180 bushels* 9
Grass seed 12 acres not cut @ £1 12
37 bags 1 10s
Bridle and saddle 5 10s
Contents of hut (grass seed, bags, clothing, fixtures, provisions & sundries) 21 14s
Fencing half share 14 chains @ 12s 4 4s
half share 8 chains @ 7s 1 8s
6 chains @ 12s 3 12s

Fitzgerald was obviously into grass seed in quite a big way. In the Wanganui Yeoman of 1 June 1883 its agricultural reporter told of Fitzgerald having ‘done a good bit of clearing, from 50 to 60 acres having been laid down’. However, this would have been just after his second burning season, so it seems likely he would have had 25 to 30 acres shut up for seed in the 1882–83 summer. If the 300 bushels of rye grass seed in his claim refers to crop he had just harvested, he must have had a heavy crop on upwards of 20 acres in addition to the 12 acres awaiting harvest. The grass seed lost with the hut may have been about to be sown on the current burn. Over half his claim was for the bulk of the season's produce from his clearing, the rest was for improvements, equipment and sundries. The half share of fencing will have been for the boundary fence. Under examination Fitzgerald admitted that ‘several items as charged were excessive’, but even so he had obviously been hard hit.

Near neighbour Maurice Fitzgerald was then called to corroborate the plaintiff's evidence and, with Joel Prestidge and another, to prove the custom as to burning.

The witnesses all admitted that the weather was calm in the morning, but that it suddenly came on to blow a stiff breeze, and that they tried to save the property; also that the customary time for burning was in February and March, although the witnesses did not appear to have had any lengthened experience on this coast.

The gist of the plaintiff's case was that Crowley had fired at an unseasonable time as grass seed was still awaiting harvest, and that his negligence in not using ordinary care and diligence included failure to give notice to his neighbour.

Crowley's lawyer, Elliot Barton, argued in defence that as the morning was calm, as was already proved, and as the wind was blowing at the time of the lighting of the fire from the West, and consequently from the plaintiff's land, and that had the wind not changed, there would have been no damage, that the defendant was not guilty of negligence, there being no statute … page 73 compelling him to give notice. He quoted authorities to show that the defendant was not liable, on the ground that the catastrophe was beyond the control of the defendant, the wind having changed its course … The defendant was, moreover, a heavy loser himself.

Daniel Crowley gave evidence that he had lit the fire four chains to the rear of his house at about 11 o'clock, with the wind blowing away from the house and from the road. Twenty minutes later the wind began to blow in the contrary direction. He hurried to the successful defence of his house, but lost an outhouse, cow-yard, garden and a crop of grass and had some cattle injured, the total damage amounting to £70. Oliver Robinson (possibly the son of Mrs Harry Robinson, who had been Hannah's midwife) corroborated Crowley's account of the wind and contradicted the plaintiff's witnesses both as to custom and the extent of the damage. He had offered to save some of Fitzgerald's seed but Fitzgerald did not seem anxious. A settler with 16 years of Taranaki experience then gave evidence that January was a good month for burning and ‘that there was no custom as to notice on this coast’.

Captain Wray would have been well aware that his decision was of considerable public interest as it had widespread implications. A highly regarded local leader, with a record of surveying and military service in the district dating back to the 1860s, he had the experience to make a wise decision in terms of local circumstances, and the standing for his decision to gain ready acceptance. His judgment given on 14 March accepted the defence evidence on the wind shift, and quoted case law to the effect that ‘the mere act of lighting a fire would not necessarily render the lighter responsible for damages, and he would be excused if the fire spread from some unforeseen and superior cause, which could not have been prevented’. He discussed the timing of burning at some length and there would have been widespread relief at his statement that ‘As to burning so early as January, there does not seem to be anything unusual in that.’ He thought Crowley should have given notice to his neighbours, but noted that ‘the plaintiff himself burnt early for two seasons, and gave no notice to his neighbours’. The decision was in favour of the defendant, with costs. A decision the other way would have inhibited bush settlement and might have brought Taranaki a plague of litigation for years.

So the two Daniels had to set about recouping their losses by careful husbandry, negotiate the replacement of their boundary fence, and somehow get on with being neighbours. There would have been a strong call for neighbourliness when Daniel Crowley died suddenly just under a year after the fire. Crowley family tradition reports him disillusioned with the Taranaki climate at the time of his death, and seriously considering returning to the West Coast. Daniel's death followed his receiving sunstroke at Manaia. He died at home on 13 January 1884, after making a will two days earlier leaving everything to Hannah, and was buried in the Manaia cemetery. page 74
Daniel Fitzgerald, probably at about the time of his marriage in 1889. No photo of Daniel Crowley has been traced

Daniel Fitzgerald, probably at about the time of his marriage in 1889. No photo of Daniel
Crowley has been traced

Hannah was left in an unenviable position: a 30-year-old widow with two infant sons and pregnant with a daughter. The farm was still an immature clearing, needing a steady application of heavy labour, its recovery from the fire hampered by the succession of unseasonable summers. The community must have rallied to Hannah's support as she is said to have continued on the clearing for a time. Then one day when she went to bring her three cows in for milking they took off into the bush. She had to follow them down to Kapuni before she could get them to come back. When at last she got back to the cottage she found the three children asleep at the door. She decided then and there that they would leave the clearing and move to Manaia, where she earned some money cleaning offices. She leased the farm, having to accept a horse for payment. This still left her with the problems of finding a more secure living, providing for her children's future, and making more satisfactory arrangements for the farm. In terms of the times the obvious solution was remarriage. This she did in 1887, to her Neill. Road neighbour Stephen Kissick. It was a Protestant/Roman Catholic marriage, but for both this was obviously outweighed by other factors. Hannah solved her problems and Stephen gained the boon of an experienced bush homemaker. The children of the union were raised in the Roman Catholic faith, which Stephen also joined at the last, to be laid beside Hannah in the Kaponga cemetery.

* [Seems to be a 1/5 share; the other 4/5 must have belonged to the harvesters.]