Settler Kaponga 1881–1914 — A Frontier Fragment of the Western World
The 20th century opened with New Zealand education experiencing widespread reform as the vision of George Hogben, the new head of the Education Department, coincided with government ability and willingness to finance new developments. It was mainly from the new beginnings in technical education that the Kaponga district benefited directly. The Manual and Technical Instruction Acts of 1900 and 1902 offered education boards wide scope for new developments both with their existing pupils and with new classes formed with young people and adults. Especially after its appointment in 1905 of a new chief inspector, George Braik, the Wanganui Education Board seized these opportunities enthusiastically. Braik had a vision, in which he was apparently well supported by the board, of using these new acts to redirect education in his rural districts. He maintained that ‘we live in a new age, confronted by an entirely new set of problems’ and was particularly keen to see worthwhile agricultural instruction at rural grassroots level.58 There were also more conventional courses, which must have helped many rural folk to make their way into the urban world.
To get things started at Kaponga, in May 1906 Braik arranged to come with Arthur Varney, director of the Wanganui Technical School, for an evening with the school committee. Kaponga responded to this prompting. Evening classes were set up at the school—bookkeeping taught by John Bennie, secretary to the dairy company, and arithmetic and English taught by headmaster Matheson. At the town hall a dressmaking class was taught by Miss Young, an itinerant instructor. But with the typhoid crisis at its page 271 height the timing was inauspicious and the evening classes did not flourish. Also, Bennie and Matheson were probably overcommitted; they had demanding jobs and already had many public and social commitments.
There was more success when itinerant instructors came with courses more directly related to rural life. The board's technical work was organised into three districts, with the northern one made up largely of south Taranaki. Its first director was Robert Browne, a dairying expert. In 1907 he gave courses in 19 schools. ‘Our Own’ (7/6/07) reported that at Kaponga great interest was taken by both boys and girls, that herd testing was a prominent element in the course, and that some boys were planning to visit the Palmerston North show under the charge of Browne and their headmaster. Other commitments prevented Browne continuing the classes in 1908, but he had given sufficient instruction to Matheson for him to continue the work.59
Meanwhile another of Braik's initiatives was having an effect at the school. This was the appointment in 1905 of the country's first itinerant instructor in primary school agriculture and nature study. He was James Grant, ‘an experienced teacher with an intimate knowledge of plant and insect life’.60 One of his particular responsibilities was to encourage the improvement of school grounds. His work intermeshed with Robert Browne's, whose report on 1909 gave Kaponga as a good example of what might be done ‘to improve the appearance of grounds by planting shrubs and trees and making lawns’.61 So great was the interest in this work that two further instructors had to be provided to assist Grant, the bulk of their salaries being provided by public subscription.62 The report on 1914 explained that the aim was to show children how to improve the surroundings of their own homes and to this end they learnt to look after hedges, shrubberies, orchards, lawns, flower borders and vegetable gardens.63
By 1910 Robert Browne could claim that ‘we have at last got a solid hold on the farming community’. In his ambitious aim of launching ‘a forward movement in rural instruction’ among the farmers64 he had found by experience that night courses and the teaching of ‘general agriculture’ were not the way to go. But the farmers gave good support to day courses in ‘special’ rural work such as wool classing, veterinary science, beekeeping and orchard work. Beekeeping courses held in Hawera drew students from as far away as Kaponga.65 Veterinary courses were run in Kaponga in 1911 and 1912.66 Towards the end of our period Braik arranged for the board to free Browne for the innovative strategy of taking his courses right out onto the farms. Farmers formed-themselves into classes, paying a small fee, and for an additional fee could have further advice from Browne throughout the year. In 1914 the Star (5/9/14) sent a reporter to Kapuni to accompany Browne on one day of this work.
He had four farms to visit that day, and on each the procedure was the same. ‘The farmer had prepared a sub-divisional plan of his property, and with this page 272 Mr Browne visits each paddock, and notes the condition of the pasture. If top-dressing be required, he advises the best manures to put on each section, and advises, also, on the best methods of putting in crops and the most suitable mixtures and the methods of sowing down pastures…. On more than one occasion he commented very strongly on the practice of ploughing in a partly worn-out pasture (with a view to bringing on a new one) where a little judicious top-dressing would secure better results almost immediately than could possibly be secured until three or four years after the laying down of a new pasture.
In the evening Browne gave a final address at Kapuni, illustrating his remarks with samples of pasture that he had collected during the day. Of the farmers who had arranged to receive Browne's advice over a longer period it was claimed that ‘in every case the capacity of the farms has been more than doubled, while the cost of treatment—top-dressing, &c.—has been reduced’.67 During 1914 Browne spent a week on this work in each of eight districts, one of which was Kaponga. Here, as commonly elsewhere, the course aroused such interest that a farmers' club was formed, which Browne then visited monthly to deliver a lecture. This work also intermeshed with that of the Department of Agriculture. From time to time over these years Kaponga's ‘Our Own’ reported visits by parties of local settlers to its experimental and demonstration farm at Moumahaki, near Waverley.68 Browne used this farm for field days with some of his courses, as also did the senior agriculture classes of the district high schools now being established in the region. The April 1913 Journal of Agriculture carried an article on rural education in the Wanganui Education Board's northern district. Paying a tribute to Braik following his death in 1914, the board's annual report featured his innovations in rural education and listed the wide range of local bodies, public institutions and private individuals who had encouraged the work with substantial contributions. Kaponga's settlers had contributed both through their farmers' union branch and as Eltham county ratepayers.69 Having received a blow with the passing of Braik, the work was crushed shortly thereafter by the coming of war.
The (mainly evening) classes for Kaponga young people and adults had revived for a time. The establishment of a technical school in Eltham provided a base from which specialist teachers could itinerate. In 1910 Kaponga had a total of 131 enrolments in courses in dressmaking, millinery, bookkeeping, shorthand, art, woodcarving, English and arithmetic. These classes faded away when the new Reform government reduced the capitation payments, leaving insufficient to pay for the over-night accommodation of the itinerant teachers.70