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

Farewell to Kaponga

Farewell to Kaponga

One evening in the early spring of 1909 some 150 Kaponga settlers braved heavy rain to farewell Mr and Mrs Maurice Fitzgerald*, who were about to lead a family migration to the Waikato. They met in the Kaponga town hall, since 1901 proudly known as the Athenaeum, and enlivened the occasion with dancing, items and complimentary speeches. In his valedictory speech chairman William Swadling* told how Maurice Fitzgerald and he had been among Kaponga's first settlers, and had walked there together from Hawera as there was no way of returning horses. How one wishes that ‘Our Own’ had reported this speech more fully, and filled it out with an interview with these two pioneers. They had bought their farm sections on 8 September 1882 amid the excitement of a government land sale, with some 700 to 800 others crowding the Hawera town hall.

This was the last of a series of sales, beginning in October 1880, by which the government achieved its aim of quickly settling the Waimate Plains, west of the Waingongoro River. At the sale the ‘Kaponga Village Settlement’ township sections had also been offered, without much success, but several other settlers had joined Swadling and Fitzgerald in taking rural sections neighbouring the village site. How informed were these folk about the land they were buying? The New Zealand Gazette sale notice had stressed that roads had been opened up to this land from the New Plymouth-Hawera railway line. ‘With the exception of a few rata,’ it averred, ‘the bush consists mainly of soft woods and other light timber, and can easily be cleared. The country is well-watered, and is admirably adapted for conversion into grass lands.’1 Had they checked this advertisement by riding out to see the land for themselves? Had they interviewed surveyors and other knowledgeable persons? As they swagged in, what did they think of the roads made to ‘open up’ the land? They may well have gone by way of Skeet Road, which a month or two later a correspondent to the Star (15/ 1/83) described as impassable to traffic, a mere track made by throwing the felled timber to the sides, with the tree stumps still sticking up above its surface and great roots running off from them in all directions. What did they lug in in those first swags? How did they set about the task of page 16

Maurice and Julia Fitzgerald and family and their Kaponga home, c.1900. Back row (with birth years): Mary '84, Nora '89, JULIA '55, Maurice jnr '99, MAURICE '56, Ellen '87, James '86, Julia '91. Front row: William '93, (Whyte relative?), Alice '95

‘settling’? Did William work alone on his upper Palmer Road section and Maurice on his on Manaia Road, just south of the township site? Or did they arrange some teamwork?

William Swadling's farewell from Kaponga was quite different from Fitzgerald's, for he died suddenly in June 1912. The local school closed for the day of the funeral. Among the three or four hundred who gathered in the Kaponga cemetery were many from outside the local district, including almost all the members and staff of the Eltham County Council, the mayor of Stratford, representatives of various dairy factories and other business leaders. Swadling had been a valued leader in many south Taranaki enterprises and public bodies as well as in a wide range of bodies in his own township, including the Town Board, Anglican Church, Oddfellows' Lodge, Dairy Company and school committee. Unlike Maurice Fitzgerald, he had not had to leave the district in search of a wider world for a growing clan. On his wife's death in 1906 he had been left a widower with an infant daughter. While his sister, Elizabeth Swadling, took care of his daughter, William threw himself so vigorously into public life that he came to be regarded as the ‘father of Kaponga’.

There was a third way of ‘leaving’ besides migration or death—the quiet withdrawal of retirement. Joel Prestidge* had bought his section on Manaia Road, a little south of Maurice Fitzgerald's, in May 1881, and may have page 17
Maurice and Julia Fitzgerald in later life

Maurice and Julia Fitzgerald in later life

begun ‘settling’ earlier than these other two. He is probably the Mr Prestidge who arrived in Patea with a wife and children on the S.S. Wakatu in November 1881. Though, like Fitzgerald, he had a large family (his first wife Charlotte died in 1910, leaving seven sons and four daughters, aged 16 to 30), the clan managed to make their way in south Taranaki. Prestidge retired from Kaponga farming at about the beginning of World War I. Looking back on his 90th birthday in 1940, from his retirement home in Hawera, he recalled coming as a young man with his wife by ship from Nelson, bringing a wagon and horses with them. They landed at Patea and trekked to the Manaia Road section. He told of losing their first home, a split slab whare, by fire when burning felled bush. He ordered milled timber to replace it, but the carrier would deliver only one load because his bullocks had practically had to swim to get to the section. Prestidge averred that at one stage Manaia Road deteriorated to such an extent that no one was able to travel to Manaia for six months. He told how in those early days there was as yet no Kaponga township but ‘the site was marked with the word Kaponga scrawled in charcoal upon a pukatea tree’2.

Our three farewells give us brief glimpses of three Kaponga settler careers that roughly span the years of our study. They illustrate the diversity of pioneer origins. Prestidge had learnt his farming in Nelson, where he had arrived as a child immigrant. Swadling was a recent immigrant, with a year or two of colonial experience in Manawatu and Rangitikei. Fitzgerald was a staunch Roman Catholic from County Kerry, Ireland, with five years of page 18 colonial experience in Canterbury. Swadling's memory of swagging in and Prestidge's reminiscences indicate how primitive and amorphous were the district's beginnings, while the farewells accorded to Fitzgerald and Swadling give some intimation of the complexity and substance of what was achieved in the Kaponga district within one working lifetime, and of its interweaving with the wider world. All three were successful farmers, but while Prestidge took almost no part in public life, Fitzgerald took an active part, and Swadling became a prominent local and regional leader. This study examines the quality and the interplay of hundreds of diverse careers, of which these three are a small sample. But something must first be said about our purposes in choosing Kaponga's early settler years for close study and about our methods of approach and the reasons for them.