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

The Changing Township

page 204

The Changing Township

In the first 14 years of the new century Kaponga township experienced a diversity of fortunes. In the prosperous early years its social, cultural, sporting and church life were invigorated by a new trend, the coming of professional men as residents. But after several years of lively progress there came a misfortune leading to a sharp reversal. In response the citizens carried through a thorough reshaping of local management. The new order wrestled successfully with the main causes of the misfortune and set the place once more on the path of steady progress. We must now trace these changing fortunes.

A big shift from being serviced by itinerants from neighbouring towns to having resident professionals began in 1903. Two lively young doctors, Patrick Noonan and David Maclagan,* both took up residence in Kaponga in September. In October Eltham barrister T.B. Crump opened a Kaponga branch office where his representative could be seen daily. In December the Rev Father Thomas Haire became the town's first resident clergyman. Sometime during the year Kaponga had its first local newspaper editor, for the Kaponga Advocate's only extant copy, which indicates that it was

Kaponga Anglican Bible Class on the summit of Mt Egmont, 1908. This group was indebted
to Dr and Mrs Maclagan for its vitality. Back row from left: Unidentified, Arthur Cleland,
Tom Cleland, Unidentified
, Dr Maclagan, Unidentified, Harry Faull, Mrs Maclagan; front
row from left: Nurse Gulley
, Jacob Moller, Thora Moller, Gladys Faull, William Faull.
(Names in roman are suggested identifications based on comparison with other photographs.
The Clelands were identified by their nephew R.B. Cleland. The photographer was probably
Wm St Claire, custodian of the Mountain House, but earlier a photographer.

page 205
Kaponga Township, 1905

Kaponga Township, 1905

page 206 published Mondays and Wednesdays, is dated 29 July 1904 and numbered 119. So proprietor and editor Thomas List probably brought out the first issue at his Eltham Road, Kaponga, office in late May or early June 1903. On 15 June 1904 Kaponga's second newspaper, the tri-weekly Kaponga Mail, was launched by James Staples. The Mail lasted until the loss of its premises by fire in November 1905. How long the Advocate lasted is not known. Both were studiously ignored by ‘Our Own’, our general source of local information. But clearly for a time Kaponga had both two newspapers and two doctors. If pioneer William Swadling had had his way the Anglicans would have had the town's second resident clergyman. When, after a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing about parish boundaries, Manaia and Kaponga were joined to form a parish, Swadling offered land for a vicarage in Kaponga, but arbitration gave the honour to Manaia. So the Methodists had the first resident Protestant clergyman, the Rev William Bramwell Scott,* the first minister of the newly formed Kaponga circuit, in April 1907.

The ‘coming of the professionals’ introduced several active, socially gifted young couples into the district's life. The coming of the two young doctors must have seemed like the start of a new epoch for Kaponga. Both had graduated in Edinburgh: Noonan in 1892 and Maclagan in 1898. Neither can have found enough work around Kaponga to keep them fully occupied and both promptly became involved in a variety of community affairs. The next round of annual elections saw both became vice-presidents of the cricket and the athletics clubs, and members of the school and town hall committees. In August 1905 Dr Noonan bought an established practice in Manaia but continued to serve his Kaponga patients from there. Dr Maclagan, the more socially gifted of the two, remained in Kaponga till February 1911, when he left for England to enter the Anglican ministry. While in Kaponga he and his wife both made major contributions to the life of St Mark's parish, he particularly as a gifted lay preacher and choir leader and she as organist and Sunday school teacher and superintendent. Maclagan had good Anglican status as a nephew of the Archbishop of York, and his broad range of talents made him widely acceptable. He was a gifted vocalist and cello player and, besides contributing to various concerts, he founded a successful glee club. He was an all-round sportsman. He became the first president of the tennis club in 1905, the first president of the soccer club in 1906, and served variously as secretary and chairman of the cricket club. He was a fine rifle shot and won the rifle club's 1910 championship after a thrilling shootout. He was an active supporter of the horticultural society, serving from time to time as its chairman. Alice Maclagan also took an interest in sport and in 1910 served as the first president of the women's hockey club. Dr Tovey, who succeeded Maclagan, and his wife, shared a number of the Maclagans' interests, serving as presidents of the tennis, soccer and women's hockey clubs and contributing to the life of St Mark's Church.

There were plenty of social and sporting contributions from other page 207 professionals besides the Maclagans. Peter Matheson,* who became the school's second headmaster in 1904, was a keen sportsman. In 1907 he was a member of a south Taranaki cricket team that went on tour to Marlborough, and after the matches he cycled through to Christchurch.5 School cricket and hockey flourished under his coaching, as also did school concerts. He was a versatile contributor to the life of the Kaponga Presbyterian Church. In his five years as Kaponga's first Methodist minister William Scott made a notable contribution to the town's sporting and social life. He was active in the rugby and tennis clubs, and refereed for the Taranaki Rugby Union. He was active in the horticultural society, and helped launch an annual Methodist spring flower show. He also founded a young men's literary and recreation club. Other young professionals made lesser but nevertheless significant contributions to the community.

As these young professionals joined the existing leadership ranks of shopkeepers, tradesmen and rural settlers the township was as well led as at any time in its history. From the countryside men such as William Swadling, John Frethey,* F.W. Wilkie and Richard Mellow were now able, with their farms developed and providing good returns, to give more time to social and civic affairs. Continuing prosperity encouraged the township's commercial leaders to enlarge both their individual and civic vision. In July 1899 the Kaponga Settlers' Association was formed and over the next six years, led by men such as F.W. Wilkie, John Robertson, William Swadling and Philip Larritt, it prodded local bodies and government departments and organised local citizens to bring about various improvements and innovations. It initiated simple practical measures such as a town noticeboard and a basic bucket fire brigade. It pushed for banking, postal, telegraph, street, town lighting and cemetery improvements.

There was much to be done, for Kaponga of the turn of the century might be described as half a town trying to pass as a whole one—like those half models of ships that give the illusion of being whole by being set against a mirror. Standing at the centre of Kaponga, in front of the post office on the south-cast corner of the Eltham Road/Manaia Road intersection, and looking up and down Eltham Road and north towards the mountain, one could have worked up a real enthusiasm about the progressive nature of the place. On the opposite north-west corner was the substantial verandahed elegance of the Commercial Hotel. Up and down Eltham Road could be seen substantial shops, stores, workshops and stables, with that citizens' achievement, the Athenaeum, down the street to one's right. Every weekday morning school children and milk carts would be seen converging from east, south and west to wend up Manaia Road to the school or the co-op factory. Every Sunday there would be first the flourish of milk carts, later a flow of worshippers up Manaia Road to the Wesleyan chapel or St Mark's Anglican, or east along Eltham Road to the Roman Catholic church.

And between the facades of the north side of Eltham Road one would have caught plenty of glimpses of substantial homes. So as not to be page 208

Centre of Kaponga township, 1912. We are looking west, scanning the north side of Eltham
Road as it crosses Manaia Road to pass between the Egmont Coffee Palace and the Dominion

disillusioned one needed to take care not to look directly behind one for, as ‘Our Own’ (15/8/00) remarked, what was ‘supposed to be the Post Office site … at present is occupied by a dilapidated cowshed, on which some facetious person has stuck an old clock’. But Settlers' Association agitation and a deputation to Postmaster-General Sir Joseph Ward when he visited the town in February 1902, got that put right by 1903, when a substantial new post office, described by ‘Our Own’ as ‘a showy little building’ opened for business on 18 May. Private enterprise also did its bit to enhance the panorama as one looked north. In 1904 Mrs Fowler opened the Kaponga Coffee Palace on the north-east corner across from the new post office, in a fine new building erected by F.W. Wilkie. The Kaponga Mail's first issue gave a fulsome description of this venture, telling of capacious and well-furnished sitting and dining rooms on the ground floor and of 17 bedrooms upstairs, and asserting that ‘we have no hesitation in saying that the Kaponga Coffee Palace will compare favourably with most institutions of its kind in the inland towns of the colony’.

But if as the new century opened one had stood instead on the Commercial Hotel's balcony and looked south, there would have been a very different story to tell. Much less had happened here since the site was felled in 1889–91. The view was of public open spaces only just beginning to see a little development, the recently named Victoria Park which, as ‘Our Own’ (8/9/00) remarked, ‘only a short time since was one mass of timber’, and the Cemetery Reserve, little used because of an impossible surveyed access. Some folk had arranged for corteges to pass through private property, others took their dead miles away to Manaia or elsewhere for page 209 burial. One southern development, the saleyards, had added to the township's problems, having no bypass access for the many mobs coming from the north, west and east. All had to pass through the Eltham Road/Manaia Road intersection, fouling the streets and endangering passers-by as they went.

It is not surprising that residents had not flocked to this half of town. Here were plenty of challenges for the newly formed Settlers' Association. They were helped on their way by the gazetting of a board of trustees for Victoria Park in December 1899. Step by step this board developed Victoria Park, raising money in various ways to stump, level and plough it, and to fence the creek that lay between it and the town hall.6 Within a few years tennis courts and an asphalt cricket pitch (to beat the Taranaki mud) had been developed Long wrestlings began for a bypass to the saleyards and good access to the cemetery. On 10 October 1900 ‘Our Own’ reported that dwellings were at last being erected on the southern side of the town; Settlers' Association efforts helped speed up this development in the following years. But over the decade's middle years all development was overshadowed by an agonising problem in the older ‘north’. To its citizens' dismay Kaponga found itself being shunned as a ‘plague’ town.

Looking cast along Eltham Road, probably from the Coffee Palace balcony, 1910. The three
buildings are Kelly's Stables, Davies & Sargeson, plumbers, and the Town Hall. Beyond them
lies Victoria Park, still looking raw despite improvements. The procession coming towards us
seems to be led by the ubiquitous Kaponga Brass Band