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



The district's children also had their lives reshaped by the emergence of the township and the rise of dairying. Potent influences in this reshaping were the school in the township and the multiplying milking sheds on the farms. These two interests soon came into conflict. Before following the rise of the page 172 school and its conflict with the milking shed we will give a more general sketch of childhood experience.

With their adult male emphasis our sources are thin on childhood. We do, though, have one small cache of material from the children themselves. During the decade Kaponga children wrote about 20 letters to ‘Uncle Ned's’ Children's Page in the Farmer. Some are just a sentence or two; most have the feel of being inhibited by parental censorship, and by the recipient being a somewhat moralistic ‘uncle’ with children of his own. This is therefore not a rich source, but still one worth probing. The letters came from 13 children in six homes. Three of the families (Hemingway, Smith and Taylor) were Scottish in origin, and a fourth (McCutchan) had an Irish-born father who may have been Scots Irish. The other two were English Anglican (Hobbs) and English Wesleyan (Mellow). All but one letter (McCutchan) were from the fringes of the district. So they are in no way a representative sample. Probably children in and near the town had enough interests without writing to Uncle Ned. The three ‘Scottish’ homes provided 16 of the 20 letters. This probably reflects both the Scots' high regard for education and their openness to agricultural improvement, giving a propensity to subscribe to the Farmer. Here are substantial portions of one letter from each of these ‘Scottish’ homes:

DEAR UNCLE NED.–This is the first time I have written to you. We have three cats and a kitten. One day one of our cats took away the kitten and planted it in a hay paddock, and about ten days afterwards my father found it eating a big rat. I go to school, and am in the Third Standard. We live about four miles from Kaponga. I have two brothers. We have two hens with chickens. We have had a fearful storm at Kaponga. It lasted three days. We go to the factory with our milk. I milk seven cows night and morning. [Sends a riddle.] Goodbye, Uncle Ned.—JOHN C. HEMINGWAY. Kaponga.

{I expect the cat took away the kitten, John, to save it from being teased by boys, eh? You are a useful boy on a dairy farm. Write again soon.— UNCLE NED.}

(Farmer, June 1895)

DEAR UNCLE NED.—I am going to write you another letter and I am going to try to continue writing. The cows are coming in fast now. On the ‘Prince of Wales’ birthday I was up at half past three, and at night milked fifteen cows. I have got another dear little sister now, and she is a week old today. I am twelve years of age and I am in the fifth standard. Two of my sisters and one of my brothers went to the Manaia sports. My brother is busy making a box for birds' eggs just now. He found a thrush's nest with five eggs in it. The flowers are coming out in bloom now.–JEANNIE TAYLOR. Jasmine Grove, Kapuni. (Farmer, January 1901)

DEAR UNCLE NED.–This is the first time I have written to you. Father takes the ‘Farmer’ and I like reading the cousins' letters, that is, some of page 173 them. There is not much to write about down this way, cow-spanking being the leading industry, though some coxfoot is ready to cut, but on account of wet weather the yield will not be near so heavy as last year. And now I've got a grievance to explain. Some time back we borrowed a stipendiary magistrate from Auckland, who since he came here has made himself obnoxious by the manner in which he speaks of the rising generations of New Zealanders, some of whom have to get up before four o'clock and milk cows to help to pay his salary. He ought to know better than to speak in a disrespectful, sarcastic fashion of the people whom he is the hired servant of…. I must conclude now with the best respect to you all.—COLONIAL BILL. Palmer Rd., Okaiawa. (Farmer, February 1899)

Note that all three letters mention milking, and two mention school, if only to give their school standard. ‘Colonial Bill’ was William Smith, a 14-year-old of lower Palmer Road, who had probably left school. All three letters indicate outdoor interests beyond the milking shed—the barnyard (John), bird nesting and the garden (Jeannie), the cocksfoot harvest (Bill). This full involvement of settler children in farm activities is reflected in other letters. An older sister and brother of Jeannie's had both earlier told of a fortnight spent helping their father cut grass seed (Farmer, March 1892). Another sister had described their 200-acre farm and told of their flower and vegetable garden and of the orchard their father had planted, only to have the trees killed by a gale (Farmer, June 1898). Jeannie herself was to tell of their 32 varieties of chrysanthemums (Farmer, July 1901). We have already noted John Hemingway's older brother Frank telling of the game on their property and of going bathing in the summer. The same letter also told of bushfelling and of plans to plant exotic trees as shelter belts. Bill Smith tackled the Farmer for saying that where twin calves were a heifer and a bull the heifer would never have a calf. ‘Now that is wrong, for we had one that had three before we sold her.’ (Farmer, July 1898). Two of the three letters quoted reflect the farmers' general interest in the weather, with John telling of a fearful three-day storm and Bill of wet weather affecting the cocksfoot harvest. Several other letters tell of the weather and Jeannie's sister Helen tells of great bush fires, and of taking in their burnt-out neighbours (Farmer, June 1898). Five of the letters tell of outings. Jeannie tells of going to a Cantata in the Kapuni School when she was nine and of a more ambitious outing when she was 12. ‘Father, Mother, Helen and I went to a concert and dance on Thursday and we got home at 3 o'clock on Friday morning.’ (Farmer, July 1901). Frank Hemingway tells of the great celebrations for the Town Hall opening:

The Kaponga Town Hall was opened on June 6th, and there was a plain and fancy dress ball the first night for big people, and a dance the second for children. The hall was nicely decorated with palms, ferns and chines lanterns. All the children enjoyed themselves very much at the dance. The hall was crowded both nights. (Farmer, August 1895)

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As with work, recreation boundaries between adults and children were much more blurred than in later times. The separate ‘big people’ and ‘children’ evenings for the town hall opening were probably forced by the logistics of the numbers involved.

Not much is said directly about parent/child relationships. Three of the letters have news of trips away by fathers. Guy Mellow's father has been to the Palmerston North show and has brought back six little pigs (Farmer, February 1900). Frank Hemingway's father is away in Wanganui, with a promise to bring back a game of Tiddlywinks (Farmer, November 1895). Ten-year-old Eunice, one of the middle children of the large Taylor family of six girls and five boys, writes thus of her father's return from a winter holiday:

My father has been away for a holiday about a month and he arrived back home safe. Mother, Willie, Jeannie, Bertie and I went into Hawera on Saturday 6th July and met him. He brought home a rattle, a doll, and a book for my little sister, a book for Hector, a whistle for Leonard, a knife for Bertie, a pinafore for Jeannie and Helen, a bit for a bridle for Willie and a pair of slippers for myself. (Farmer, September 1901)

The family party meeting this returning father, and his carefully selected presents, suggest warm parent/child bonds. The total effect of the available Kaponga childhood material accords with the conclusions of Rosemary Goodyear's oral history study of Otago childhood 1900–20. She writes:

Though there was no one type of family, the traditional type with distant dominant father, and submissive mother, does not seem the norm … What was surprising was the extent to which fathers played with their children.21

These Farmer letters reflect quite a range of family tones. ‘Colonial Bill’ Smith may have mirrored parental views on the ‘obnoxious’ magistrate, but his further letters indicate a tearaway unlikely to have submitted to parental vetting. His letter complaining of inaccurate information in the Farmer concludes: ‘I've got nothing more to growl about except that I should like the yarns in the ends of the Farmer to have a little more adventure and a little less moral in them.’ Since he had no younger brother it seems likely that he himself perpetrated the following:

DEAR UNCLE NED.—I thought I would write to you about my elder brother “Colonial Bill” who writes such fearful letters to you. I only want to tell you he is just out of a lunatic show, in which he took first prize in the donkey braying competition.—COLONIAL BILL JUNIOR

{I only hope your remarks are not prompted by envy, because you could only take second prize in the same competition, my young friend. Never mind, better luck next time.—UNCLE NED.} (Farmer, December 1899)

There is a strong contrast in atmosphere between this home and that of Guy Mellow, who writes:

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I am ten years old and in the third standard…. I can ride on horseback. Mother is going to take me to the mountain house in my holidays. I milk ten cows. We are milking eighty six cows…. My little brother, Sydney, has such a dear little pony. (Farmer, February 1900)

We turn now to the schools in the Kaponga district. The Wanganui Education Board, whose district took in Hawera County, ran a canny administration to cope with its disadvantages under the government's capitation system. The act provided for an annual parliamentary vote of £3 15s per child in average attendance, an approach that made things very difficult for boards such as Wanganui, which serviced mainly country districts. In brief, small schools ran at a loss. Thus a school with a roll of 40 and an average attendance of 80 per cent earned £120 (i.e. £3 15s × 32) a year. Deducting other expenses left less than £110 for the teacher's salary, and you could not get teachers for this. Smaller schools were, of course, even worse propositions. Like all boards, Wanganui subsidised its country schools from‘ ‘surpluses’ earned by larger town schools, of which it had too few. Among its economy measures were pressure on settlers to subsidise salaries in small schools, great care in locating schools, and an expectation that some children will travel good distances. The Kaponga district's first school was Kapuni, on Manaia Road, just north of Skeet Road. It opened in mid-1888 as an aided school, which meant that the settlers had found a teacher acceptable to the board and agreed to be responsible for part of the salary.

During 1890 Kaponga's settlers negotiated with the board for a school on the town's northern edge, on the Manaia Road Education Reserve. The board required the settlers to sign a bond agreeing to make the teacher's salary up to £100 a year, should attendances not entitle him to this amount by the board's scale of payments. A school committee was elected, the school built, and the first teacher, Charles MacLean, opened it on 22 June 1891. Some pupils who enrolled had been waiting for years for their first chance of schooling; others who had attended school elsewhere had waited up to five years for a school at Kaponga. Some who had been trekking down to the Kapuni school transferred to Kaponga.

Charles MacLean was a young teacher from Auckland province, where he had joined the profession in Dargaville in 1885, but had had most of his service commuting between two small half-time schools near Te Aroha. His early days in Kaponga must have been difficult for both him and his pupils. He had to teach all classes from beginners to Standard 6, with a jumble of ages in each class because of the diversity of past experience. The continuous arrival of new pupils compounded the difficulties. Attendance was erratic. Especially in winter this was excusable on account of bad weather, bad roads and sickness. But when the good weather came children were kept away for tasks such as grass seed cutting and hay making. The school's ‘big day’ each year was the inspector's examination visit. Its results were very public, with the children's passes listed in the press and the teacher's reputation page 176 depending on the overall result. The first examination was held in May 1892. The report of W. H. Vereker-Bindon MA shows he had not come expecting too much. Only spelling was ‘on the whole’ good, with three unusually excellent cases in Standard 3, but

… Reading, as usual in newly opened bush schools, is a very poor subject indeed. Indeed it is not too much to say that there is not a good reader in the school. Owing, however, to the circumstances of the school, I have not put the regulations strictly into force….

Mr MacLean being new to the District, I have written several examples of how the work is required to be done. I also give the following hints. Pupils should have been brought earlier into the school, and placed in their desks in such a manner that no two pupils in the same standard were near each other. All papers should have been on the desks already. Slates in S1 & S2 should have been ready, clean with headings written down and blackboards should have been clean.22

Mr MacLean and his pupils had a demanding task for in those days primary schooling was all that most folk received. School-leavers were expected to have the literacy and numeracy to learn trades, handle accounts, measure farms and crops, manage their future homes, farms and businesses, engage in local and national politics and so on. They should also have sufficient understanding of history, science and geography to grasp their place in the world, and have had some experience of music, drawing and literature. Kaponga School pressed on with these aims, and the quality of its work improved year by year. The steady build-up of shopkeepers' and craftmen's families in the township must have helped, for most would have come from good schools elsewhere with habits of regular attendance.

After having to travel two miles of muddy roads each night and morning for a good part of two winters MacLean moved into the teacher's residence erected next to the school. In August 1893 he had a further boost when pupil Johanna King began to help him as a cadet. The Wanganui Education Board's canny cadetship scheme had competent senior pupils appointed to assist the teacher half time without pay, with the promise, if they proved satisfactory, of becoming paid pupil-teachers. By 1894 Johanna was a pupil-teacher on £20 a year; which meant she was teaching full time, training on the job and doing extra professional studies under MacLean's instruction.

In June 1894 the settlers at last received a pleasing inspector's report. ‘Our Own’ (19/6/94) commented:

… from what I hear the teacher and parents have every reason to be highly satisfied. The inspector, Mr Bindon, seemed to have a very happy knack of getting the children into their work with a good zest in place of—as is mostly usual when exams are on—being in a state of fear and trembling.

In fact, this was not the annual examination visit, though Bindon may page 177 have given some coaching in how to take his examinations. But so pleased were the committee with his report on the visit that they sponsored a public subscription for prize books for all pupils present on the occasion. The school, together with many parents, assembled in the Wesleyan church for this prizegiving. Having distributed the prizes, committee chairman Frank Canning gave a short encouraging address. The school then gave three hearty cheers for the school committee, another three for Mr and Mrs MacLean, and were dismissed for a celebratory half holiday.

The 1894 annual examinations followed some further festivities in November. On the initiative of ‘a few ladies’ a very successful settlers' reunion and dance was held on Thursday evening, 15 November. Finding a large amount of food left over, the company decided, in the small hours of Friday morning, to invite the children and their parents to assemble at 7.30 on the Saturday evening, when feasting and dancing were kept up until 11 pm.23 The following Thursday was examination day. In contrast to earlier examination reports, this one had nothing but praise for the children's classroom conduct. ‘Order, discipline, attention and behaviour really excellent. Manners of pupils most pleasing.’24 The inspector found Johanna King teaching the primers and Standard 1 in the Wesleyan church down the road from the school. Even so, MacLean's schoolroom was very crowded. After months of badgering by the committee, the board had just let a tender to more than double the school's size. Over the next three years the esidence was enlarged and, with the committee finding half the funds and organising working bees, a shelter shed and fencing erected and a shelter belt of trees planted.25 With so much of their own time, money and labour invested in upgrading the school and its grounds, the settlers must have felt that it was their school, not just the property of a distant bureaucracy.

What quality of experience did the school give the children? In its early days things must have been fairly chaotic, with MacLean struggling to classify his diverse intake and implement the system. Children with previous schooling coming to the bare, basic new building on its undeveloped bush clearing would have had some idea what to expect. There would first be a quick interview and some tests to establish one's standard. Some would have had the disappointment of being ‘put back’, having forgotten too much since last at school. Whatever the case they would have found a wide age range in their class. So, at the 1892 examination, Standard 2 pupils ranged from the 10 years nine months of James Hayes up to the 16 years 11 months of the school's oldest pupil, George Anderson. Beginners, too, ranged widely in age, with primers at the 1892 examination from five years seven months to 13 years 10 months. So the work got under way in the rather depressing setting of unpainted walls and primitive furniture. To the board interior painting was an unnecessary luxury, but each year it struggled to paint a few exteriors and to replace a few shingled roofs with iron. Some, though, were too far decayed to be worth attending to. Kaponga's children were fortunate in having a new, painted school with an iron roof. The standard classes page 178 probably had the new dual desks the board was introducing throughout its system. But the infants probably worked awkwardly on benches throughout the decade. The New Zealand Journal of Education first issue in March 1899 described the furniture provided for the colony's primer pupils:

In a few schools desks are provided, but in the vast majority nothing of the kind is to be seen. The greater part of the first two or three years of the school life of most of our children is therefore spent perched upon seats, their slates clutched in their left hands, their heads twisted on one side, one leg crossed over the other, and at the same time struggling to hold on their knees, beads, sticks, or other kindergarten material. What a comfort it would be to these bairns if small desks were attached to the seats.

Gradually the school's work settled into the pattern desired by the authorities. The cramped conditions, the scanty equipment, the wide range of classes and the teacher's limited training all pointed the system in the direction of static pupils mastering much of their learning by rote. Pupils who did well with their three Rs, and enjoyed using them, must have got a good deal of pleasure from their schooling, but struggling learners being goaded by a teacher anxious about examination percentages will have found school burdensome. Still, the place will have had something of a family atmosphere, with sisters and brothers sharing the same room. There was also the companionship of the playground and of the journey between home and school. Over the first year the teacher shared the trials of the roads with the farm children and on wet days some of his clothing may have joined their coats, shoes and stockings spread out to dry before the open fire. Each year there were special activities to look forward to, such as the school picnic, the prizegiving, and perhaps a concert. The 1897 picnic was described by ‘Our Own’ (19/3/97). On a beautiful day children, parents and friends gathered in Mr Webby's paddock for races, games and feasting that lasted till 6 o'clock. A dance for the older children followed in the evening. In prizegiving the school followed the common Wanganui district practice:

On the subject of prizegiving this district is quite ‘old-fashioned.’ At almost every school there is the grand fête day, on which the diligent and deserving of the school are presented with the rewards of their excellence. It is undoubtedly a memorable day to the young prize-winners. Besides the benefit to the pupils, the old custom of prizegiving is the means of introducing choice literature into many homes which would otherwise be bookless.26

But looming over all was the annual examination day. The Farmer children's letters show that the date was seared on their minds. ‘We will have our examination on 8 May,’ wrote Charlie McCutchan (Farmer, May 1893). ‘We are going to have our examination on the first of June,’ wrote Jeannie Taylor (Farmer, July 1901), and a few weeks later her sister Eunice reported:

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‘I am glad to say that we all passed our exam.’ When the examination day came it was a long one, often running on till 6pm,27 and it was followed by anxious waiting to see if one's name made the pass list. Few but the better scholars wrote to the Farmer and most made their school standard an important part of their self-description.

We turn now to the conflict between school and milking shed, which developed in the later 1890s. The Farmer letters show that milking was a large element in many Kaponga children's lives. In a June 1898 letter Jeannie Taylor, then a nine-year-old, told of their herd of 43 cows and wrote: ‘I hurt my hand with milking.’ Presumably the work had proved to be beyond her strength but, as we saw in her January 1901 letter, as a 12-year-old she had been able to perform valiantly for some special occasion on ‘Prince of Wales’ birthday—up at 3.30am, and at night milking 15 cows. Several Kaponga pupils mentioned quite heavy regular milking loads. We have seen that Guy Mellow (10 years, Standard 3) was milking 10 cows in a herd of 86. Looking forward to the 1895–96 season, Frank Hemingway of Standard 4 was expecting to milk 12 to 14 cows in a herd of about 60 (Farmer, November 1995). Some of these children must have had more time in the milking shed each day than at school.

The effects of dairy industry ‘child slavery’ on schooling in the Wanganui board's district were first brought into the open when Georg Hurley of Manaia told his fellow members at their November 1897 meeting of

… a most reprehensible practice of sweating in the dairying districts. He had been informed by a teacher in one of the schools that one of the boys had to get up at 4.30 in the morning, milk 16 cows, and after doing other work was sent to school. The teacher said she had frequently seen the lad sitting on a log asleep while the other children were playing. After school the boy had to milk the same number of cows again, and then learn his lessons for school, getting to bed about 10 o'clock…. the system of swearing was worse because of the relationship between the victims and those who were responsible for the sweating.28

This raised little immediate response. The press reported Hurley's fellow members as ‘somewhat surprised’, but neither they, the Wanganui newspaper editors, nor the public raised any protest. Only the Patea County Press took the matter up, averring that the facts were widely known but that children could expect no help from Seddonism since they did not have the vote. However, at its meeting of 18 January 1898 the board accepted MacLean's explanation that children overworked in dairying had caused his school's poor 1897 examination results, and expressed its regret that such a state of things should exist.29

The following month the board's inspectors took the matter up in their report on 1897, describing it as a ‘very serious obstacle’ to satisfactory school progress.

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At many schools in the northern portion of the district the pupils appeared thoroughly tired and worn out at the very beginning of the work on the examination day, and some actually fell asleep while writing. But this cannot be wondered at when it is remembered that these children were up at about 4 a.m., milked several cows and did other farm work, and then had to wash and dress, get breakfast, and ride or walk some distance to school. We have come across children from six to twelve years old who milked as many cows morning and afternoon as they could count years in their lives…. We often sorely pitied them, but an Inspector cannot make distinctions.30

At the next annual examination of Kaponga School, on 26–27 October 1898, the inspector reported that ‘a boy only 12 years old was pointed out to me who milks 18 cows every morning before coming to school’.31

The government must have wondered what it could, or should, do. Regulating adult working hours through labour legislation was one thing; entering the amorphous, intimate world of the farming family was quite another. Apparently a small investigation was decided on, leading to the appearance in the June 1898 Journal of the Department of Labour of a page with a ‘Return Showing the Number of Children Engaged in Milking in Nine Schools in Waimate District, Taranaki’. There were in fact 10 schools in this district, and the figures show that the largest, Manaia, was the one left out. How, or by whom, the investigation was conducted is not indicated. A Taranaki item in the January 1898 New Zealand Schoolmaster shows that the timing must have been towards the end of 1897, at the height of the milking season:

The chairman of the Matapu School Committee writes that his children came home from school stating they had been catechised as to how they spend their time at home, what time they arise in the morning, and who milks the cows. A mother writes complaining of her children having the same questions put to them; other parents are complaining.

A footnote to the table estimate that these schools had a total roll of 700. Kaponga School had a roll of 101 at its 1897 examination. Assuming that Kaponga was in line with the overall pattern of these schools, what does the return tell us? The table gives breakdowns by age groups for the number of cows milked (131 pupils), and for their time of rising (116 pupils). It shows that less than 7 per cent of the milkers were under 10 (over 51 per cent of the pupils in the board's schools were in this age group); and that just under 60 per cent of them were over 12 (26 per cent of pupils were in this age group). Clearly most parents had resisted committing younger children to milking. But milking did involve long hours and early rising. Of the 116 tabulated, 68 were rising before 5am, and three of these were aged under 10. These pupils were probably averaging about five hours a day in the sheds. A footnote to the table estimates that 30 per cent of the milkers were girls and suggests that 41 per cent of boys ‘at given ages’ were milking.

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With its table the Journal made the brief comment:

Either from the point of view of those who wish to see the future citizens of our colony grow up strong and hardy, or from the position of those who wish children to bring clear minds and unrired bodies to school, the state of affairs such a return reveals is most unsatisfactory.

It was no doubt right that parents should have been made aware that they answered to public opinion in their use of child milkers. But this child labour must be seen in the perspective of the economic and social realities of the time. The towns, too, had their child labour, with many milk delivery boys rising as early as the rural milkers.32 The rural child milkers would in general have been well fed, well housed and well clothed. They were sharing in a family enterprise in which most members willingly paid the price of a more hopeful future. Such work, enriched with social meaning, provides experience that contributes to the development of a sense of social worth.

These children's experience contrasted strongly with that of many of their British contemporaries. In an official English report of 1884 Dr James Crichton-Browne, a leading medical authority, found:

Much dullness at school was due to hunger… At a Clerkenwell board school up to 40 per cent of pupils might come without breakfast. At another school poverty-stricken mothers, such as charwomen and flowers-sellers, would turn up on the premises during school hours, bringing morsels they had been able to buy with their meagre earnings that day. He found poignancy in the sight of forlorn and half-starved children in class. [The following pages show that these conditions continued into the 20th century.]33