Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
The Chameleon House on Manaia Road
The Chameleon House on Manaia Road
James Hayes had yet another brush with the law after losing his home in a suspicious fire on the night of 15 September 1888. The house was on the west side of Manaia Road, a little south of the Kaponga township. Living there at the time were James, aged 44, his wife Catherine, 43, John, 21, Joseph, 15, Thomas, 13, a daughter, 11, and another son, eight. Older daughter, Mary, was married and living beyond Otakeho.
The household began to disperse early on the afternoon of Friday, 14 September. By late next evening the house was empty. Next morning it was found burnt to the ground. Suspicions about the fire led to a thorough investigation by Constable Franklin of Manaia. A fire inquest that lasted ‘four long days’ began in a crowded Manaia courthouse on 3 October. Evidence was heard from 27 witnesses, and Hayes's counsel had a number of others whom he decided to keep back for ‘likely further legal proceedings’. This enquiry throws a brief flood of light on Kaponga pioneer circumstances and social relations—a much broader beam than our previous episodes. Neither coroner nor jury were satisfied with what they heard for there was a mass of contradictory evidence of such a nature that perjury was clearly involved. Several witnesses told of being approached, either by Hayes or on his behalf, and offered bribes to perjure themselves. The jury was unable to decide on the cause of the fire. We, however, can be thankful page 86 that even witnesses telling only ‘likely stories’ were throwing light on the nature of their lives. We will suggest some alternative likelihoods as we proceed.7
James Hayes took the Manaia Road property on DP in September 1882 and at the time of the fire held 329 acres—a considerable property. In 1885 he erected his substantial two-storeyed house. In August 1887, while involved in complicated negotiations with a Patea agent about insuring the house, he met at Davy's store Charles Major, mayor of Hawera, in Kaponga canvassing for Felix McGuire in the general election. Finding that Major was agent for the Northern Insurance Company, Hayes arranged for him to see the house immediately and fix the matter up. The nature and value of the house became the main matter in dispute at the inquest. Before we see how Major came to give the house a very unsatisfactory inspection let us look at Hayes' version and the alternative one. At the inquest Hayes began his account of the house with the insurance story:
… saw [Major] at Kaponga at the store; did not particularise articles of furniture when making the proposal; told him there were ten rooms, and that it was a two storey house shingled; the house had been erected about two years before the insurance was effected; got the timber from different people—from Langley Bros., Melville, Days, and some from two sawyers at the Kapuni bridge; the shingles were split by me; Barlow partly built the house by contract for labour only; I was to give him a clean receipt for a debt he owed me (£4 10s) £12 cash, and his food whilst at work; reckon the house cost me £400 in all; am not sure whether I told Major of my estimate, but I told him that the size was 40ft by 28ft unpainted; building was rusticated all round; there were six rooms and passage downstairs, four rooms upstairs lined and papered, was all match-lined to 41/2 ft from floor; there was a double chimney; every room downstairs was match-lined; Barlow did not complete the gable end facing the mountain, which was only about half finished; ‘Wallaby Tom’ helped me do it about a year ago; I did the whole of the scrimming and papering upstairs; bought scrim and paper about five years ago from Days about the time he filed; and have had them in the house ever since; there were eight doors downstairs; one window upstairs for the three rooms; walls downstairs were 8ft 6in, and 3ft 10 in upstairs.
A good idea of the alternative version is provided by the evidence of David Briggs, a young labourer who had worked for Hayes:
Know Hayes' house; have often been there; lived there a fortnight about 12 or 13 months ago; have often been in the house since then, last time about 7 or 8 weeks ago; was then in the three back rooms; was in bedroom talking to McLean; bedroom was not lined at all; partition was of rough boards, with spaces between, about 7 or 8 ft high; at ends of the room could see studs; in the ceiling could see joists; boards were laid on top of them; kitchen was not lined; could see studs; ceiling was similar to that of Jack's and Joe's rooms; page 87 there was a ladder made of poles leading from Joe's room upstairs; ladder was not firmly fixed; was upstairs about 12 months ago; upstairs was all one room containing fungus; room on left-hand side of front door was Mrs Hayes' bedroom; was there about 10 weeks ago; was helping to carry in some flour bought by Hayes; took all the flour, 8 or 10 cwt, into this room, and none into the room on right-hand side; there was no chest of drawers in Mrs Hayes' room, which was not lined; there were five rooms downstairs; no windows upstairs; there was a hole at the end of the upstairs room facing the bush; saw no timber stacked about the premises inside or out.
Hayes and his family described a well-developed two-storey dwelling, match-lined, scrimmed and papered. The four upstairs rooms included the bedrooms of James and Catherine and of their younger daughter, and a fungus drying room. In the alternative version the upstairs was an undeveloped loft reached by a rickety bush ladder and used solely for storing and drying fungus. The ground floor was roughly finished and unlined with few windows. George Hurley told the inquest that he had inspected the house as tax valuer in 1885 and valued it then at £90. Sawmiller Robert Palmer, who had last been in the house early in 1888, put its value then at £140. Major's assessment as the insuring agent should help us decide between these versions, but the jury commented in a rider to its verdict that ‘the property was over insured, and showed great negligence on the part of the agent accepting the risk’. Major gave his evidence, with lawyer Caplen appearing to cross-examine on behalf of the Northern Insurance Company and C. Bridge, an agent of the company, present ‘to watch the case on their behalf’:
I was recently agent for the Northern Insurance Company; had a risk of £200 on the house burned, and £100 on the furniture…. do not remember the amount at which Hayes valued his house and furniture at date when insurance was effected, but it must have been over £200, or I would not have insured it for £200; I looked in at the kitchen door, but did not go through the house; the proposal produced is the one on which the first policy was issued for £250 and £50; since then a policy for £200 and £100 has been issued on second proposal (produced) … the ‘insurable’ value of any property varies, but is usually about three fourths of the actual value; when I inspected the building, I thought the cost would be about £300; did not think the building was a shell; thought it would be before long finished; understood that some of the rooms downstairs were lined; with reference to the furniture, I accepted Hayes's word, considering that in a house of those dimensions £100 worth of furniture would not go very far; I accepted his statement as to value of furniture.
[To Mr Caplen] The first proposal was made to me during electioneering times at Kaponga; he told me he had proposed to another company, but that it was too far away, and asked me to insure his property, when returning called in at Hayes' house and saw only a child; might have said to the child page 88 ‘It is getting dark, I won't get off my horse’ but do not remember saying so; recollect noticing that the place was incomplete outside, but was assured that it would be shortly finished; inferred from what I saw that Hayes was a substantial man and the risk would be a good one; cannot say why I filled in ‘iron’ instead of ‘shingle’ when describing the roof in the first proposal, think it must have been because it is so usual for roofs to be of iron; did not make any further inspection when making second report to company … the alteration of the allocation of the amounts on the building and on the furniture £250 and £50 to £200 and £100 was an error on my part; the rate (15s) charged to Hayes was the rate for an iron roof…
[To Mr Welsh, Counsel for Hayes] I have at other times insured buildings on the understanding that they were to be afterwards finished, but only when satisfied of the status of the proponent and other circumstances.
Before examining the circumstances surrounding the fire let us draw out some of the implications of what we have already presented. Major's inference that Hayes was ‘a substantial man’ with whose ‘status’ he could be ‘satisfied’ is borne out by other evidence. Hayes's claim at the inquest that ‘at the time of the fire I owed 15s only’ was not contested. He had apparently met all payments on his extensive DP land holding and done the considerable improvements required. Even if we take the alternative version of the quality of his house, it was a substantial achievement. As we shall see, he was able to afford a bushfelling gang at work on the property at the time of the fire. This is the third time we have seen Hayes involved with the law, and each time he has been able to afford to be represented by counsel. The history of the house and matter of the insurance show some of the difficulties of doing business and getting things done on the bush frontier. They also show that Hayes, coming from a labouring background, had met the challenge of the transition to successful bush settler. Both building timber and building skills would have been at a premium in these pioneer years. Hayes had not been among the losers in the scramble. He had been versatile in raising money, turning to road contracting, butchering wild cattle, and fungus gathering, as well as developing a large mixed farm. He had a dairy herd, and the family made butter (two churns were lost in the fire). Butter-making implies pig raising and James said he had cured bacon, but did it outside (hence no fire risk in smoking it). The size of his holding suggests that he ran beef cattle as well as a dairy herd. He owned a horse and dray as well as a riding horse. He claimed some building skills, having split his own shingles and helped the carpenter with the building. He claimed to have made a chest of drawers lost in the fire. He obviously intended both to be, and to appear to be, a man of property. He had plans for the further development of his house, having put down blocks for a verandah. His wife told how they had planted about 150 trees in the month before the fire, which had destroyed many of them.
The insurance negotiations illustrate some of the problems in doing page 89 business in a bush frontier district. Insurance companies were shy of bush risks,8 and were further discouraged by difficulties in getting to properties to inspect them. Major came to grief with Hayes's business through crowding it in at the fag end of a day of electioneering work. Rather than make a difficult further journey to inspect the house with Hayes, he trusted to his own impressions of the man and perhaps to brief assessments of his local standing (possibly from storekeeper Davy?). In new districts where people from diverse quarters had been promiscuously thrown together, and where many were in the process of making their way up in the world, the atter of assessing a man's ‘substance’ and ‘status’ was a very different affair to what it had been in the Old World whence the business institutions had been inherited. It would also have been easier in the more solid world in and around Manaia, from which the jury was drawn, than in the amorphous ‘Kaupokonui’ of 1888.
We must now turn to the events of the weekend of the fire and their aftermath. Early in the afternoon of Friday, 14 September James Hayes left home for Eltham, taking three bales and four bags of fungus in his dray. Dissatisfied with the price offered locally by Newton King he was off to New Plymouth to try for something better. John went with him to bring home the dray. George Moir, hotelkeeper at Eltham, confirmed that James had stayed the night and caught the early train next morning. Catherine Hayes's evidence continues the story:
My husband said he would be back on Saturday night if possible, but that if he did not he would get a horse at Eltham to come home on; it was usual for him to take a horse with him, but this time his horse was lame; my husband told me not to leave the house, but on Saturday I went to see my daughter at Otakeho, took my three children and two mattresses; left John, aged 22, and Joe, aged 15, telling them to look after the place and milk the seven cows; went away against his will; did not tell them to stay at home; heard my daughter was ill; she was not ill, but I heard she was; the first I knew of the fire was what Joe told me at Otakeho on Sunday; after telling me of the fire, he said neither he nor Jack were there; I intended staying at Otakeho until Tuesday or Wednesday; when I left home told the boys to set the milk or give it to the calves whichever they chose.
James concurred that ‘on Saturday I left instructions with my wife not to leave the house during my absence, she made no reply but I understood that she assented’. But the Hayes' story about Catherine's intentions was poorly co-ordinated:
Joseph Hayes, a son of James Hayes, corroborated the evidence respecting the fungus being sent away and his mother going to Otakeho and intending to be back so that he would not know she had been away; … father said he might be back on Saturday, but perhaps not until Monday … don't know why mother went to Otakeho.page 90
Catherine's journey to her daughter's would have been at least 12 miles. In Joseph's story she would have had to slip there and back on the Saturday. This is not credible. A likely story that makes sense of several curious features of both James's and Catherine's evidence is that they had planned together for both to have a trip away before the full flush of the new milking season tied them to home. Why did John have to make the long trip to Eltham and back with the dray? Why could not James have left it in Eltham for use on his trip home? Probably because Catherine would need it for her expedition to Otakeho with the three younger children and two mattresses. Her trip to Otakeho only makes sense if it was for several days. But James doctored his family's evidence to show him making proper supervision arrangements for his absence. Of his own trip he told the ‘likely’ story that ‘I intended returning from New Plymouth on Saturday, but went to the hospital to see a friend, and missed the train’.
John and Joseph both left the house on the Saturday evening to spend the night in bushfelling camps where they had friends. Joseph told how he left first:
… milked the cows at 4.30 on Saturday, fed the calves, and set two pans of milk; then went to Peterson's camp; brother did not say he was going anywhere … I took a slasher to Peterson's, riding there with Arthur Larsen; have never been there before for a night; they had only been there a few days at the time of the fire.
The location of the camp was not given. The camp boss's wife also gave evidence:
Mary Peterson, wife of P. Peterson: Am living about six miles from Hayes' place; Joe came before tea on the night of the fire, and after went out with my son, returning about an hour afterwards.
John went to a camp on the back of Hayes's property, and we have his own, his friend John Briggs's and the camp boss's evidence on his movements:
John Hayes … said: When I left the house on Saturday, having an early tea by myself, I locked the door, and put the key in my pocket; then went to McLean's camp a mile away; did not take blankets.
John Briggs, laborer, gave evidence of having gone to Hayes' house on Saturday night: … it was between 7 and 8 when I went to Hayes' on Saturday evening; … The sun had gone down when I had my tea on Saturday, so that it must have been after six o'clock.
Murdo McLean, a resident of Kaponga, and sometime of Waverley, said: On the day of the fire was at the bush camp about a mile from Hayes' house; there were also present my two sons, Jack Briggs and Jack Hayes; the two latter, together with my son John, came to the camp about dusk; Jack Briggs left the camp about 10 o'clock, the others stayed all night; am positive none of us left the camp until Sunday morning about ten.page 91
Jack Briggs worked for Maurice Fitzgerald, whose home was on Manaia Road opposite Hayes's. In going home to bed from McLean's camp he passed the Hayes's house at about 10.30 and all was well. His arrival at Fitzgerald's at about this time was corroborated.
Storekeeper Henry Davy passed the Hayes place early Sunday morning and found that it had been utterly destroyed. Joe was the first of the family to learn of the disaster. He left Peterson's at about 8.30 or 9 and was told of it on his ride home, presumably coming to milk the cows. He hurried to his brother. Murdo McLean told how ‘Joe Hayes came to camp, his horse being covered with perspiration, and said, “the house is burnt down to the ground”; he was sobbing.’
Joe rode out to Otakeho to tell his mother what had happened. The father was the last to learn of it. John made his way to Eltham to see if he could telegraph his father in New Plymouth, but like the trains the telegraph was ‘respecting the sabbath’. When Hayes reached Eltham on the early train next morning he found John waiting on the platform with the news.
Hayes decided to rejoin the train and proceed directly to Hawera to make the insurance claim, taking John to provide evidence of the loss. The fabrication of an inflated value for the house and contents must have been worked out on the journey. The declaration of proof of loss prepared by Charles Major claimed £525, or £225 over insurance. It was signed in the presence of Felix McGuire. We are now entering a murky area where various matters need explanation and all we have to go on are statements by the unsatisfactory witnesses Hayes and Major. Why did Hayes inflate his claim? Why did Major lose this insurance agency, apparently shortly after the fire? Why was Hayes's house insured at the rate for an iron-roofed one? Why had Major adjusted the values between house and contents when renewing the policy? We will suggest one or two possible explanations of what was going on, but before doing so it will help to look more closely at the personalities of Hayes and Major.
From his experience of frontier life and the ever-changing world of farm prices Hayes seems to have developed a shrewd, haggling, rather daring approach in business matters. We have seen him valuing his rampaging bull at £30 when local ‘experts’ would not put it above £5. With his fungus we have seen him test the distant New Plymouth market when dissatisfied with local pricing. In the valuing of his land and home more complex issues were involved and shrewdness had to be tempered with a concern for status. At the inquest both Hayes and Hurley commented on a conversation they had had when Hurley was doing the property tax in 1885. Hayes said:
Mr Hurley, property-tax assessor in 1885, wanted to value the house at £400 or think he wanted to, as he asked me if it cost me £400; replied that it did not, and that it was unfinished; he then valued it less, but I don't know at what price he valued it, house was then in condition left by Barlow; Hurley's words were, as nearly as I can remember, ‘What did it cost, £400?’ I said page 92 ‘£100 would be more like the value’; I thought that was a fair value, as it was unfinished; didn't think it was worth much more at the time. Witness corrected himself by saying his valuation at £100 was quite sufficient to pay rates and taxes on.
Obviously while Hayes's status as a successful settler was affected by what the community thought was the real value of his property, when it came to paying property tax shrewdness sought a low valuation.
Hurley's account put a rather different complexion on the conversation:
Was property tax valuer in 1885; in that year valued Hayes' house, recently burned, at £90; remember chaffing Hayes about valuing the house, and with reference thereto said, ‘I think I shall have to value your “palace” at £400 or £500.’
Hurley remembered making a playful dig at the status consciousness of this up-and-coming settler. As a Manaia land broker, Hurley would have been well aware of the endemic status anxiety of the district. But Hayes had taken Hurley's ‘palace’ valuation seriously. He was happy that he had both successfully talked his property tax assessment down and been given ‘a nod and a wink’, which he interpreted as something like, ‘Yes, I'll be kind to you on the tax matter but we both know you've got something here of substantial worth, don't we?’
Charles Edwin Major (1859–1954) was a Jersey immigrant to New Zealand, arriving in 1871. Shortly after arrival, though still only a youth, he took charge of a store at the Manawatu frontier settlement of Oroua Bridge. His year there gave him a sympathy for both Maori and frontier settlers. He then worked in legal offices in Wellington and Gisborne, before moving in 1880 to Hawera and setting up as a land broker and estate agent. He served three terms as mayor of Hawera, the first being 1886–88, and was to be the local MP from 1902 to 1908. He was active in many sports. He showed a sympathy for the underdog in various ways, including being critical of settler treatment of Maori in south Taranaki and supporting Irish home rule.9
Let us return to Hayes's insurance negotiations. Surely he would have haggled, perhaps citing the earlier Patea quote. Major, with his affinity for both Irish and frontier settlers, would have responded sympathetically. Perhaps, on Hayes's assurance that he would shortly be replacing his shingles with iron, he offered him the iron-roof rate. At the inquest Hayes told how Major ‘insured my house sending me a proposal form filled up for signature; I altered the description of the roof from ‘iron’ to ‘shingle’. and returned it.’ Hayes, of course, would not have wanted his cover compromised by the agreement having incorrect information. As we have seen, Major could not tell why he had filled in ‘iron’ instead of ‘shingle’, but despite Hayes's alteration had charged at the iron rate. Major had been caught out by the fire occurring before Hayes had achieved the practical and page 93 status advantages of an iron roof. Its absence would be apparent at the fire scene, calling into question both the property valuation and Major's integrity as an agent. If this was how things had gone it goes some way to answering the questions we have raised.
It is not an uncommon experience for the historian to uncover a fact that forces a reassessment of all that has gone before. The reader may share something of this experience when we reveal that James Hayes was illiterate. Although he told the enquiry of receiving the insurance proposal for signature and changing ‘shingle’ to ‘iron’ he was later, under cross-examination, forced to explain:
… my boy John draws cheques on my account, and as a rule puts my mark on the cheques; it is only on an odd one that I personally placed my own mark on; he had my authority for doing so.
When Hayes was manipulative and devious he may have been seeking redress for the disadvantages arising from illiteracy.
A second possible explanation of what went on with the insurance is that the cover had lapsed. Major told the enquiry:
… the second proposal is signed by myself for Hayes, which is a very common thing to do in such a case, as I had the premium in hand …
… A second policy in accordance with the second proposal has been issued since the fire occurred; it is in my possession; the renewal receipt (produced) signed by me, and dated 16th August, 1888, was not issued until the 18th the day on which I received the money for renewal; it is true that the first policy had lapsed two days previously to the date of the new proposal; I invariably dated the receipts [thus] in similar cases.
Were John's desperation to telegraph his father on 16 September and James's haste to reach Major next day due to their realising they had allowed the policy to lapse? Is Major here covering over a manipulation of the records to get them out of their fix? His revaluing the house at £200 then makes sense—even this may have been high for a shingle-roofed rural house. But we can only conjecture.
It fell to Constable Franklin of Manaia to investigate for the inquest. Franklin had seen Manaia through its lively early days, and when he left on transfer in 1890 the Taranaki Herald's Manaia ‘Our Own’ wrote:
… he has shown himself to be a very capable detective, having often succeeded in getting evidence required, by the exercise of an amount of patience and perseverance that would do credit to Scotland Yard.10
Franklin would soon find the evidence to point firmly away from owner arson, but equally firmly towards Hayes being shifty about the property's value. It also called in dispute Hayes's claim to have left £50 worth of fungus in the house, twice as much as he took to New Plymouth.
The inquest opened in the Manaia courthouse at 10am on Wednesday, page 94 3 October with J.C. Yorke JP as coroner. A jury of six was called. Hayes's counsel, Welsh, objected to two of them: Peter McCarthy ‘on account of a considerable amount of litigation which had taken place between the families of McCarthy and Hayes'; and G.A. Hurley because he was also a witness. Although these objections were disallowed, Hurley asked to withdraw and was replaced. Once the jury was sworn they were told that their first duty was to go and see the site of the fire. The Taranaki Herald's Manaia ‘Our Own’ recorded how a procession of five horsemen and five in a buggy thereupon set out on the nine-mile journey:
The state of the upper Manaia Road, however, somewhat interfered with the order of procession, as the occupants of the buggy found it advisable to tie their horse to a fence and foot it for the last mile. On reaching the site a careful inspection of the ashes took place, also of the stack of the chimney, and a return was made to the township, where the enquiry was resumed at 2.30 p.m.
The court sat till midnight, hearing the evidence of the Hayes family. As the four-day enquiry continued at intervals over the next 10 days it became clear that the police case, conducted by Sergeant Bissett, was concerned not only with finding the cause of the fire but also with challenging Hayes's description and valuation of the house and its contents, and with exposing his attempts at bribing witnesses to perjure themselves on this matter. This latter concerned principally the family of David Briggs, a Manaia carpenter. There had obviously been friendship between the Hayes and Briggs families, and the Briggs knew the Hayes house intimately. The Briggs boys apparently sought work in Kaponga, with Hayes and other settlers. Their mother, Annie Briggs, was told of the fire by Joe Hayes on the Sunday, probably on his way to tell his mother. The following day she conveyed to Catherine Hayes her husband's willingness to help with rebuilding the house. John Hayes and John Briggs seem to have been close mates. Hayes was concerned when he learnt that the Briggs were being called as witnesses, and when on the first day of the inquest he found the way the police case was heading he obviously became very disturbed. The Briggs boys claimed that he had approached them himself both before and during the enquiry, and also enlisted Murdo McLean and Murdo's son John to put pressure on them. He had offered money, and to Robert Briggs he had also offered a quarter-acre section in Kaponga, adjoining one he had already sold to Robert. Hayes had other friends prepared to give the evidence he wanted, though most were not called. The affair must have caused rifts in family friendships. While the Briggs family were rejecting Hayes's approaches, mutual friends, the Melville family, were lining up with the McLeans and others to oblige him. Thus Emma Melville, wife of John Melville of Kaponga, told the enquiry that she was ‘very vexed with Briggs for having taken the course he has in this case’.
The only person for whom a suspicion of arson was raised was John page 95 Briggs, reported by Murdo McLean as leaving his camp about 10 o'clock on the Saturday night. Thomas Whyte, a brother of Mrs Maurice Fitzgerald, told the enquiry:
Slept at Maurice Fitzgerald's house on the night of the fire; retired about 9.30, and John Briggs came in about an hour afterwards and slept in the same bed as I occupied.
Constable Franklin told how
… In order to find out what time it would take to travel from McLean's camp to Fitzgerald's, I ran a third of the way and walked the balance, in all occupying ten minutes; subsequently walked from Fitzgerald's to the camp in 17 minutes.
And John Briggs told how he
… once had a row with James Hayes over some oats I gave my horse whilst working for him; he never forbade me to enter his house; Hayes never accused me of being concerned in the fire
This is all that was reported on this line of thought, and clearly no one thought it credible that John Briggs had fired his friend John Hayes's home.
The enquiry ‘filled some hundreds of folios of evidence’ but its outcome satisfied almost no one. The Taranaki Herald's Manaia ‘Our Own’ thought that most of the evidence ‘would appear to have been more suitable to a suit between Mr Hayes and the Insurance Company than a coroner's inquest’. The jury thought that there should be some allowance to cover their expenses and the loss of four full days of time, but found there was none. The coroner decided to forward the depositions to the Resident Magistrate, ‘drawing his attention to the particular passages which indicated perjury or subornation of perjury’ but this does not seem to have been followed up. The Star thought that such enquiries were ‘for the public good, and must tend to check incendiarism and expose any attempts at defrauding insurance companies’. It had been a tedious business, but at least the district could claim to have faced up to its public responsibilities.
We have given considerable space to this affair because it shows so many aspects of Kaponga frontier life tied together as they were encountered in the seamless web of lived experience. We have seen how such activities as bushfelling contracts, the fungus trade, dairying, home building, wayfaring and business arrangements fitted together in the daily round of home and neighbourhood life. We have seen something of how one settler home related to the flow of life surrounding it. All this has been unfolded by folk who have had to trek miles to the Manaia courthouse to tell their story. Fortunately the roads seemed to have improved since the time of John Finlay's trip to the bush. Drays as well as riding horses were making their way around quite easily. The Hayes dray transported to the courthouse not page 96 only family members but also their friends Emma Melville and Mary Peterson.
At the enquiry James and Catherine Hayes came across as proactive in using a rich range of rural skills to draw on the opportunities offered by their clearing, the wild and the community. James's typical reaction to a problem—take it head on—would often have been a virtue on the frontier but got him into difficulties when he applied it to the law. It is perhaps surprising that he had not made a head-on attack on his illiteracy. Catherine came across as a capable and independent-minded woman, loyal to her husband but in no way in awe of him. Probably she was illiterate like her husband. The older children, who were well on the way to mastery of their parents' rural skills, showed a strong sense of family loyalty, but had also developed personal initiative and independence of spirit. The older boys had significant possessions of their own. John lost a gun in the fire and 15-year-old Joe had his own horse. At the 1886 census the three older boys had probably been returned as ‘assisting on farm’, and they must have looked on the farm as an enterprise in which they had a share and a future. James Hayes had been extending his land holding, probably with likely forthcoming marriages of his older boys in mind. He had recently transferred the 279-acre homestead block into John's name (John could not have hel it until he turned 18 in 1885). This had enabled him to take the adjoining 50-acre block to the north—he could not have done so earlier as it would have taken him beyond the 320-acre limit for DP holdings. He had also bought quarter-acre sections in the township.
John, as the eldest, was probably the favoured heir; he had been taken into his father's confidence in using his literacy to manage the chequebook and likely was handling all the family's business and other documentation. Probably there was a family understanding that all the young folk would be ‘looked after’ in due course, though not necessarily as generously as John. This may account for what came through as a streak of rebellious independence from 15-year-old Joe. Of his absence on the night of the fire he said that he ‘went away from the house against orders, without much reason, just for a holiday’ and remarked that ‘[I] sometimes stay away from home a night or two without leave’. All the family stuck by James in his improbable description of their home. Thirteen-year-old Thomas maintained that he ‘did not know where his father and mother nor his sister slept; was never upstairs’. Yet outsiders had been upstairs and it seems most unlikely that Thomas had no involvement in the upstairs drying of the fungus he must have helped to collect.
Even though most of Hayes's own witnesses were not called, we have a surprising number of folk telling of having been in the Hayes home. Here is further evidence that the ‘open home’ provided most of Kaponga's community life. George Mackie, whose Eltham Road property abutted onto Hayes's, had ‘been in Hayes' house pretty often’. Arthur Gibbs, from a little further down Manaia Road, had been in the Hayes kitchen and in the back page 97 room adjoining it. Emma Melville of Melville Road had ‘slept in Hayes’ house on April 7, Easter Monday, we slept in Mrs Hayes' room on the floor’. Thomas Huckstep, engine-driver, living on a 27-acre section on the south edge of the township site, had ‘slept in a room in which Jack Hayes slept’ for about a month. Folk from further away, such as the Briggs and Mary Peterson, also knew the house well. In fact, the social life of the Kaponga settlers would seem to have revolved around either their own homes or ‘miles away’ Manaia, with the Kaponga township site contributing little.
At the inquest a deal of discussion centred on the state of completion of the gable end on the north side of the house. James Hayes referred to it as ‘the gable end facing the mountain’ but David Briggs described it as ‘a hole at the end of the upstairs facing the bush’. In other words, when one looked towards the township site all one saw was solid bush. James had been clearing southwards from his homestead site. His newly acquired 50-acre section to the north was untouched, as were the ‘township’ sections beyond it. Almost all conversations reported at the inquest that were not in Kaponga settler homes took place in Manaia, many of them in and around Lewis's hotel.
The easy intermingling between settlers and bushfelling gangs also calls for comment. These ‘itinerants’ were apparently made to feel very much at home. The McLeans seem to have been on the Hayes property for several months and were being treated as friends of the family. Murdo had a gun stored at the house for a time, and he gave John Hayes a watch of his for repairs. When John Hayes went to the McLean camp for the night he did not take blankets; obviously they had a bed for him. It must have been the social life around the campfire that drew him. Joe Hayes went to Peterson's camp for tea and to spend the night, and took a slasher with him. It seems, then, to have been an ongoing relationship, involving mutual service. After tea, Mary Peterson reported, Joe went out with her son. They probably went hunting. Joe, we have seen, described the outing to Peterson's as ‘just for a holiday’.
James Hayes died suddenly of a heart attack on 7 December 1890, at the age of 46. Perhaps the stress of the practical and social aftermath of the fire and the inquest contributed something to this. His family continued in the district as successful and respected settlers through the following years.page 98page 99page 100