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

The Context

page 157

The Context

In Chapter 3 we surveyed the simple ‘home and neighbourliness’ social life of the scattered, primitive early bush clearings. Home and neighbourliness continued to flourish within the more centred and structured community life of the 1890s. Rural neighbourliness prospered with closer settlement, the replacement of bachelor whares by family homes, and the daily mixing that dairying brought about at the factory or creamery. Convivial settlers also mixed pleasure with business at the regular stock sales and the increasingly common clearing sales. Indeed, many attendances will have been purely for pleasure. In the July 1890 Farmer Normanby nurseryman William Rowe is quoted criticising farmers who ‘attended the stock sales until their horses went lame and their saddles became worn out’. The Star's ‘Travelling Correspondent’ (13/6/92) described this temptation after attending several sales of dairy herds on the owners' farms:

The sales … partook as much of the nature of a picnic as of a business transaction. Such was always provided and the beef and beer have, doubtless, done yeoman's service at these gatherings. John Bull, as well as Dame Nature, abhors a vacuum. To sit comfortably, on a sunny afternoon, on a stock yard rail, after a good dinner, smoking one's pipe next to one's particular crony, whilst someone else does the work, is luxury indeed … I can assure you these reunions are far superior to weddings. I not being in the dairying business, felt diffident at first about intruding on their convivialities, but I soon discovered that a loafer, more or less, was not noticed.

Not all attenders were as innocent as this correspondent. ‘Our Own’ (19/10/94) reported on ‘some very tarry-fingered beings’ who, at one clearing sale, were not content with ample to eat and drink but ‘coveted, and pocketed, portions of the good cutlery Mr McCutchan provided for his friends’.

‘Home’ also continued to flourish. As they prospered the settlers upgraded their houses, adding to and verandahing them; the more primitive saw their first coat of paint. The surroundings, too, lost their rawness as gardens and trees matured.1 Inside there must have been a steady upgrading of furnishings and the appearances of some pianos. At the end of the decade page 158 the Star's ‘Travelling Correspondent’ (1/11/99) wrote that the appearance of new buildings and the substantial additions to others had ‘architecturally changed’ Kaponga. He gave pride of place to storekeeper Harwood's new residence on Manaia Road:

Mr Harwood's residence is of square design, 52ft × 52ft, with verandah and pediment, hip and valley roof. The building is divided into nine rooms, with four fireplaces, hot and cold water being laid on. All the rooms are well lighted and airy, having an 11ft stud. The painting is well done, and quite artistic in its effect. Altogether the building has a handsome appearance, and when the grounds are laid out will be one of the nicest little country residences in Taranaki.

So at the turn of the century Kaponga's more prosperous citizens were acquiring substantial homes where they could enjoy domestic life in some style. But the biggest change of the 1890s had resulted from the creation of public venues and other township facilities, making possible a rich variety of institutions offering a wide choice of activities in a more public social life. By the later 1890s the Kaponga settlers could not only go riding, fishing, shooting and mountaineering in the countryside, but could also come into town to dance, sing, learn or debate indoors or engage in sports outdoors. They could borrow books from the library, shop for almost anything they were likely to think of, and on a Sunday had the choice of two or three church services. On the appropriate annual occasion they could test their speed and stamina at the athletic sports, enter their flowers and produce in the horticultural show, or their hack in the horse races. Most of these ventures struggled with primitive facilities, some were false starts that failed, others had their ups and downs, but together they prepared the way to make Kaponga's Edwardian years a golden age of sports and entertainments.

We need to account for the vision and initiative that so rapidly created such a wealth of recreation options. The settlers were drawing on memories of, and continuing contact with, Old World traditions. Their own Old World origins were mainly working class or lower middle class, but in their relatively classless new community, with its strong freeholder yeoman ideal, they drew fairly freely on the whole range of British traditions. These British traditions had recently gone through major transformation. An old pattern of rough sports for the masses and privileged sports for the upper classes had persisted into the mid-century. The lower classes enjoyed cruel blood sports such as cock fighting, bull baiting and dog fights, and their team sports were often of the nature of inter-parish fights where fierce local patriotism was kept in check by carefully regulated local custom. Hunting, shooting, game fishing and horse racing were preserves of the upper classes. One great change over the Victorian Age was the curtailing of the cruel blood sports. This was partly the work of a new skilled ‘labour aristocracy’ that had gained a firm hold by mid-century, with a culture of respectability that condemned the old rough traditions. Another great change was the page 159 creation of national sports codes, with national governing bodies regulating and promoting a range of sports. Thus the Football Association was formed in 1863, the Rugby Union in 1871, and the Amateur Athletics Association in 1881. Leading this change were public-school men, products of a transformed English upper-class secondary education that during Victorian times developed a new cult of ‘manliness’ and games. A truly national English sporting life had been made possible by the appearance of the rail network.

Our settlers drew from all levels of these British traditions. With their easy access to horses, firearms, countryside and trout streams they could emulate many activities of the British aristocracy. They also showed a general affinity with the Old World ‘labour aristocracy’ in preferring the new sports codes to the old blood sports. But adapting these sports codes to their primitive colonial world was no easy task. A bush burn took time to become a good playing ground. Poor roads and the constraints of the milking timetable meant that it was no easy task to create a district sports competition network in south Taranaki.

There was more to leisure, of course, than playing sports. The settlers were conscious of a world where many forces (such as the extension of democracy, the rise of literacy, the rising standard of living) were creating a whole range of new recreational and entertainment opportunities. There were all the possibilities of the reading-room, the park, the orchestra, the band, the music hall, the theatre, the dancing assembly, and specialist clubs and societies of all kinds to be explored. But even when we add Kaponga's 1890s experience with these possibilities to those of sport we are left with great gaps in our understanding of its citizens' quality of life. For one thing, the sources were mainly created by fit, adult males and tell mainly of the activities of fit, adult males. A satisfying account needs to bring in women and children, and also tell of provisions for hard times such as those of sickness, old age, bereavement and widowhood.

Even for the main well-reported social and sporting events it is not easy to give a succinct account set in a meaningful context. We must note that each event needed to fit into both a local and a district calendar, that socials were often run to raise sports funds, and that to draw visitors to major sporting events it was wise and economic to have evening socials to follow. Our approach will be to first follow Kaponga's main sports and social activities through the seasons of 1898 and 1899, with some background sketched in from the earlier years. To show how these activities were interwoven in individual settler lives we will give running case studies of the families of butcher Andrew John Hastie and farmer Robert Law,* and of bachelor farmer F.W. Wilkie. We will next discuss the less public sports and recreations, then survey the contributions of the churches, and conclude by dealing at some length with the quality of life of the district's children. Because of the paucity of source materials we will defer our treatment of women's experience, and of how folk were provided for in their bad times, to the next decade's account.