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


page 15


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.

A Personal Odyssey

At about the time Kaponga's first settlers swagged in, another young man, my paternal grandfather Richard Arnold, crossed the hills from the Waimea plains to begin carving a farm from Nelson's bush frontier. After a childhood and youth in the bush burn landscape that resulted from his endeavours I began my first extended experience of a wider world as a tertiary student in Christchurch at the age of 17. My university studies in the literature and history of Britain and Europe were an enriching experience, but they left me dissatisfied in that they made little connection with my bush frontier origins. I was vaguely conscious that thinking on this subject was beginning in our nascent university geography departments. It was, however, very much an awareness of an untold story of major achievements, and of great difficulties lying in the way of identifying these settlers and grasping what their experiences had been. From 1949 to 1965 my career path took me to the southern North Island, the region whose settler history had been most dominated by forest clearing. Years in Napier, Stratford and Palmerston North convinced me that there was indeed a glaring gap in the telling of our settlement story—the bush frontier experience. An enriching academic year as a history research student at the University of Melbourne in 1951 gave me the skills to contribute towards filling this gap. For years I awaited the opportunity.

In 1965 I joined the staff of Victoria University of Wellington and here I was soon able to undertake my PhD thesis, ‘The opening of the Great Bush, 1869–1881: a social history of the bush settlements of Taranaki, Hawke's Bay and Wellington’. Having grappled with the first decade of the main assault on the North Island bush my appetite was whetted for a deeper understanding of settler origins. Fortuitously a sabbatical leave in 1972 enabled me to delve deeply into English sources for the backgrounds of our English village immigrants of the great ‘Vogel’ inflow, resulting in my major 1981 book, The Farthest Promised Land: English Villagers, New Zealand Immigrants of the 1870s. I then followed the fortunes of these settlers page 19
William and Sarah Swadling, July 1904

William and Sarah Swadling, July 1904

through the ensuing decades, leading to my 1994 book New Zealand's Burning: The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s. While both books tackled the total New Zealand settler world of their periods, they gave special attention to the first two decades of the main assault on the lowland bush.

The interpretative bases of these two books contained several implicit challenges which led to the present work. Firstly if, as I maintain, colonial life indeed had three main aspects, town, country and bush, it is the bush that still sadly lacks in range and depth of treatment. Secondly, I have advanced ‘the village and the globe’ as a major interpretative pattern, contending that ‘This settler community was essentially a village world, but a village world that was responding to ideas and influences that were global in the scope of their origins.’3 If this was indeed so, I should be able to write a local history that is at once enriched by the concept and in turn enriches it. Both books also contain various other concepts that call for testing at the local level and, equally important, following down through the decades beyond the restricted periods of the first two books. Settler Kaponga is my response to these challenges, and a further step in my odyssey in search of understanding of the world of my personal origins.

But why Kaponga? My earlier writings have covered a range of the bush settlements originating in the 1870s. These were mainly founded on what quickly developed into important communication routes, some on railway lines from the start, others soon reached by the railway. Many later settlements did not enjoy this important advantage and it seemed appropriate to choose one such venture of the 1880s, see how its founding developed in the harder times of that decade, and follow it through the career span of page 20 the pioneer generation. Taranaki was the most active bush frontier of the 1880s and the peopling of the Waimate Plains the major settlement project of the decade. What clinched the choice of locality was that my wife, Betty, was Kaponga born and bred, her grandparents Joseph and Elizabeth Turner having in 1913 taken a farm on lower Palmer Road that was to remain in the family until 1994. This gave me a natural interest, many useful contacts and a knowledgeable and active helper.

Boundaries: ‘Kaupokonui’ to Kaponga

What are the boundaries of our Settler Kaponga community? A simple answer is that we are concerned with those folk who looked upon Kaponga township as their local centre. But history is never too simple. As we saw from Joel Prestidge's reminiscences, the township was not there for the pioneers; their local centres were Manaia or Okaiawa, and they were lumped in with a wider group, the ‘Kaupokonui’ settlers, the folk up in the bush sections of the Kaupokonui Survey Districts. Not till towards the end of the first decade was the name Kaponga coming into frequent use. At the start we shall have to be content with much reporting covering the larger Kaupokonui community, but at the personal level we are concerned with those who in due course came to centre their local affairs on the rising Kaponga township.

We will use the term ‘Kaponga District’ for a clearly defined area whose settlers will receive our closest attention. These are those spread between the farms along Mangawhero Road to the west and Palmer Road to east, with northern and southern boundaries provided by the mountain and the Te Roti-Opunake railway. Settlers south of the railway and along Skeet Road tended to centre on Manaia and Okaiawa; those to the east of Palmer Road on Eltham and its outlier Mangatoki, or on Stratford if living in the northern reaches. The western boundary proved the most fluid throughout. Early Rowan and Mangawhero Road settlers made their way in via Skeet Road and at first tended to look south to Manaia, but when Eltham Road was at last properly formed and bridged Kaponga won over not only them but also settlers further to the west at Awatuna East and Makaka. Wherever folk outside the bounds chose to centre their lives on Kaponga they will be given their full place in our story. We will use the term ‘Kaponga district’ (i.e. without the capital ‘D’) when referring to this broader, less clearly defined group.


The most valuable source for this study has been the files of the Hawera Star. Founded in April 1880, the Star gave exemplary coverage of south Taranaki life throughout our period. Since it sought to maintain a circulation throughout the rural districts, it shared the settlers' deep interest in roads and transport services. It closely followed the settlers' farming fortunes, page 21

Joel and Charlotte Prestidge and family, about 1902. Back row (with bith birth years): Lilian '89, Arthur '80, Fanny '78, Thomas '86, Front row: Kenneth '96, Leewis '88, CHARLOTTE '55, Enid '93, JOEL '50, James '99, Edward '82, Albert '92. These are the founding stock of an extensive South Taranaki farming clan

kept a careful eye on the activities of all the local bodies, and maintained competent local correspondents who gave an in-depth coverage of the unfolding life of all the main districts. Nevertheless, the first decade of settlement was for Kaponga one of half-hidden years, partly because for the earlier years its fortunes were reported rather vaguely as part of the wider world of the ‘Kaupokonui’, but also because no files of the Star seem to have survived for the period from the end of June 1888 to the beginning of October 1891 — the crucial years of the township's meteoric rise and the consequent recentring of the district's life. From October 1891 onwards the Star gave a rich coverage of Kaponga affairs and of their regional context. The Star material has been extensively checked against other sources, such as local and national archives, official papers and other newspapers. These have largely confirmed the quality and accuracy of the Star material, while their scattered and incomplete nature has made it clear that without the Star an in-depth study such as this would have been impossible. Handling the Star files has also been of great value in achieving our aim of seeing the Kaponga story against its global setting. For this wider setting a combing of the Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives has proved particularly rewarding.
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A Structured Approach

To gain a firm and disciplined grip on our story it has been shaped by periods into three parts, each consisting of parallel sections on four major topics. For each part the first chapter is ‘Time and Space’. Here we deal with the changing features of the lie of the land as the settlers' programmes interacted with the virgin landscape, and with the changes through time in how the settlers envisaged themselves in relation to their local world and its and their interaction with the wider regional, colonial, imperial and global worlds. These sections share the concerns of the historical geographer in the shaping of landscapes over time with a major interest of the social historian, the reconstructing of the changing mental worlds of the common people. These folk were structuring new local and regional worlds while engaging in vigorous debate as to what the shapes of these worlds were and ought to be. At the same time they were acutely aware that their economic and social fortunes were inextricably intertwined with wider worlds which they made considerable efforts to understand and influence. We will not grasp their bush frontier experience unless we can place them firmly in time and space, understanding them both as shapers of a little new world and as integral citizens and active participants in western civilisation and its economy. If we wish to gain a real understanding of their story we must enter with sympathy into minds where deep concerns for such minutiae as the changing weather jostled with anxieties about the London markets and the clash of empires. We shall find the weather dominant in the early years, the markets and the empires more to the fore as time moved on.

The second section in each part concerns ‘The Making of Livings’. These folk moved to the Kaponga bush frontier because they believed that they could make better livings there than in the districts they had left. We must try to discern what ideas they brought with them about how they would be making those livings, and how their unfolding experience reshaped those ideas. The fortunes of the yeoman farm will be very much at the centre of our concern throughout. The forest harvest will be of considerable importance in the earlier years, while the village shopkeepers, craftsmen and service industries will become of increasing importance as time moves on. The third section* in each part, on ‘The Quality of Life’, will follow the settlers into their leisure time, at home and abroad, to see how they enriched their lives with recreations and sports, how they made holiday, how they sought meaning for their lives through church, politics and intellectual debate, and how they raised and educated their children.

These first three sections in each part, taken together, should give a good deal of insight into the ‘frontier fragment’ experience of our title. But because each is focused on a particular aspect there is something they will page 23 not have adequately succeeded in giving. To get the ‘feel’ of the past we need to follow significant happenings in the intricate contexts within which life was actually lived. In search of this ‘feel’ the final chapter of each part presents and discusses a number of seminal episodes from its period, happenings that illustrate how personal idiosyncrasies and fortuitous contingencies are an inevitable part of lived experience. One purpose of these chapters, then, is to enrich while drawing together and illuminating the concerns of the preceding three chapters.

But these final chapters have also been included for the purpose of balance. The other chapters are particularly heavily dependent on Kaponga's own reporters, particularly ‘Our Own’, for their material. There is an element of bias in these reports due to the concern to present the community in a favourable light. Our episodes will be found to draw heavily on conflicts, litigation, inquests and disasters, in the reporting of which not only the community's good metal, but also much of its dross, has inevitably come to light. For Part 1 this chapter is particularly important and has been given liberal space because these incidents are able to take us a considerable way in penetrating the haze that gives this decade its half-hidden character.

The Epilogue, besides raising one or two more general issues, first reaches onwards for a brief survey of the war years, which lie beyond our stated period. These years, in which the cream of Kaponga's first homegrown generation of young men was siphoned off to help feed the slaughter fields of the northern hemisphere, have much to tell us about the quality of what had been being shaped in the Kaponga district since 1881. They are also included to illustrate how deeply this catastrophe marked the end of an era, both for little Kaponga and for the wide world, as they faced a new future after the years of devastation.

The Maori Dimension

While we have been wrestling with the settler story the Waitangi Tribunal has been shaping and publishing its The Taranaki Report (1996). This balanced and lucid report provides a mass of information that would have been of deep interest and relevance to the Kaponga settlers of our story. The simple fact is that they knew almost nothing of these matters, and what little they did ‘know’ was riddled with prejudice and distorted with misinformation. They saw themselves as the pioneer occupants of virgin soil, taken in good faith from the Crown, whose rights they had no reasons to doubt. To them the Pakeha settler was the dominant shaper of their region's life, landscape and economy. With no Maori resident among them, and only limited contact with the Maori of neighbouring settlements, most of them had a very limited understanding of Maori culture. While Te Whiti's noble and eloquent protests speak powerfully to us across the years, to them he was merely a misguided fanatic. We may deplore their ignorance and prejudice. But we are ourselves guilty of ignorance and prejudice if we do page 24 not discern why it was that they knew no better. And we will not tell their story truly and honestly if we insist on forcing it into the context of our current knowledge and attitudes. We are right to regret that the Crown failed to ‘sell’ its Treaty of Waitangi agreement within the colony and that the settler authorities repudiated the treaty as far as they dared. But while most of these leaders had a very good idea of what they were doing, this awareness did not extend to the common settler. We take up these matters for further consideration in Chapter 1 and in the Epilogue.

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* For the primitive world of the 1880s the second and third sections are combined in Chapter 2.