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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 7, Issue 1, 2009

Getting Started in New Zealand in 1879

page 18
Some of Jean's research – extracts from The Nelson Evening Mail and Western Morning News with news of the Opawa.

Some of Jean's research – extracts from The Nelson Evening Mail and Western Morning News with news of the Opawa.

page 19

Getting Started in New Zealand in 1879

Today's immigrant to New Zealand can travel from the "The ship arrived in the bay late in the evening of November 27th after a voyage of ninety-seven days from Plymouth". remotest corner of Britain or Europe to the remotest place in New Zealand in less than a week but, however one travels, the problems of getting started can have some similarities. The immigrant's major concerns have always been to find a job, earn some money and set up a home. Sometimes a job can be arranged before one emigrates but, as we shall see, that is not always successful. Luck plays a big part and in many cases there can be disappointment. There can be the lucky break, but often there are some trials before the immigrant begins to feel settled.

Latterly I have been following the fortunes of one shipload of emigrants who arrived at Nelson on November 27, 1879. The ship was the Opawa and, although the passengers landed in Nelson, they were destined for the West Coast and Marlborough as well as the Nelson region. They were almost the last immigrants to reach Nelson under the Vogel Scheme, with only the Eastminster to come, arriving on January 15, 1880.

The Opawa, a new iron ship of 1076 tons built in 1876, was too big to come to the wharf and had to stand off beyond the Boulder Bank. Her Nelson cargo had to be landed in Wellington and ferried back later. The ship arrived in the bay late in the evening of November 27th after a voyage of ninety-seven days from Plymouth. The following morning the passengers were up early, looking around and getting page 20their baggage ready. The immigration and health officials arrived and then, paperwork completed, the baggage was taken ashore in the small steamer Murray. All the passengers had been ferried to the Government Wharf and then taken in cabs to the Immigration Barracks at the corner of Examiner Street by 7pm.

After one night there the Marlborough contingent left in the Wallace for Blenheim via Picton, and the West Coast passengers left in the Murray for Westport, Greymouth and Hokitika. The Opawa passengers were from England, Scotland and Ireland and there was even one family from Germany. There were 61 families, 47 single men and 39 single women, although some of the single men and women were family members who were of working age, i.e. over twelve years old. A high percentage of the men were agricultural labourers, with a few tradesmen. There was also a party of 50 miners and their families who had been specially "ordered" by the Westport Coal Company, and consequently had had free passage.

Agricultural labourers and servants

Many Irish servants and most of the farming men were for Marlborough. We are fortunate that the Depot Master's Book for Blenheim has survived, and it has been most useful in finding out what happened to them. Some had connections with Blenheim and were met by relatives or sponsors. For example, Ralph McFarlane, a coppersmith from Lanark and his family were "received on landing" by James McColl, a plumber, of Blenheim, who had nominated them. James Neville, an agricultural labourer, and his sister Bridget, a servant, were from County Clare, Ireland. They were received on December 1st by James Neville, their nominator, who was obviously a relative.

Some stayed in the Blenheim Depot for a few days before leaving for a job. The McDonnell brothers, agricultural labourers from Ennis, County Clare left the Depot on December 8th. James went to Charles Redwood, in the Wairau, and Michael went to Mr Hood at Port Underwood at 17/- a week and "found", which included board and lodging. James later married Bridget Neville and they settled on a farm near Wanganui. Michael later went to Taranaki.

An Irish family from County Cavan, Bernard and Bridget Duffy, both aged 26, and their three children also left the Depot on December 8th. The employer, Nicholas Kelly at Omaka, was paying a wage of one pound a week and found, and there was a cottage for the family. They settled in the area and both are buried in the Omaka cemetery, with Bridget having died aged 56 and Bernard aged 89. All the other farm labourers got places with a wage and "found" on properties in the Wairau, the Awatere and around Blenheim.

The servant girls appear to have had no difficulty in getting live-in posts. An example is provided by the three Hickman sisters from Clare, Ireland. Bridget, 20, page 21a dairymaid, went to Mrs A Ward at Blenheim on December 10th, Maria, 18, went to Mrs Murphy Junior at the Flaxmill on December 2nd and Annie, 16, went to Mrs Western at Lindens, in the Waitolu Valley, on December 9th. Mary Kennedy, 19, a dairymaid from Waterford also went to Lindens and got 10 shillings a week. Some of the girls went to hotels, such as Mary Callan who went to the Ship Hotel in Picton. It seems to have been fairly easy for the agricultural labourers and the single women to begin the first stage of getting settled. As far as I can tell, all seem to have left the Blenheim Depot by the middle of December, which was just over a fortnight after they landed.

The fifty miners and their families

The miners and their families did not fare so well. They were taken to the Nelson Immigration Barracks when they landed, thinking that their jobs were secure. After all, they had been "ordered" by the Westport Coal Company. On May 27, 1879 Julius Vogel, the Agent-General in London, had sent Christoper Holloway "to find the best localities for miners". He had approved free passage for 20 families from the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire and 15 men from Lancashire. Fifteen men had already been approved from Durham, and he went to Barnsley, Yorkshire, to complete the party.

Arrangements were made for them to leave on the Opawa on August 22nd. On October 17, 1879, when the Opawa had been at sea for two months, Vogel received a letter from A J Burns, General Manager of the Westport Coal Company. Burns wrote that he had seen an article copied from a Newcastle newspaper stating that seven or eight local preachers were among those selected. "I feel very much annoyed at these men being selected. We have had a sample of these local preachers and we were very glad to get rid of them … I trust the government will send these men somewhere else and substitute others in their place as I am well aware we would not tolerate their conduct".

William Rolleston, the New Zealand Minister of Immigration, replied that the men had been interviewed and found to be satisfactory. Nothing could be done about their religion, and he suggested Burns met them when they arrived. Burns repeated his objections on November 6th: "Local preachers as a rule are the very worst miners going and give more trouble than any other class of operative. If the ship arrives they must remain in the Barracks". He wanted to see all the papers, certificates etc. Rolleston replied that the men would remain in the Barracks, but warned that the Government must be put to no expense.

The next letter to Burns was from the Nelson Immigration Officer, Alfred Greenfield, on November 17th: "All immigrants will go to the Depot. They must page 22be fed etc but the Coal Company must guarantee to pay the expences to the Government". When the Opawa arrived, telegrams began to fly back and forth, with Burns adamant that he would not have any of the miners, and yet procrastinating by saying he was awaiting instructions from the Company Directors in Dunedin. Rolleston's patience had run out by December 11th and he asked for a definite answer at once. On December 12th telegrams were sent to nineteen other collieries, including Brunner, but no miners were needed except two or three at North Kaitangata.

Things began to move on December 16th, when Malvern colliery in Canterbury said they could take some miners, although they would have to live in tents until some accommodation could be provided. Springfield colliery, in the same area, was in a similar position, being able to take some miners but not having cottages for them. Burns had a house in Nelson and a deputation from the miners, one from each county, went to see him there but came away very dissatisfied. Even on December 23rd he was still prevaricating, wanting to see all the correspondence relating to the choosing of the miners, while his Head Office in Dunedin said that Westport was not ready.

It is interesting to speculate why Burns felt so strongly about local preachers. From the Surgeon's log we learn that the local preachers were Wesleyan Methodists and had been allowed to take the Sunday services on the Opawa. They had also run a Sunday School for the children. Judging by their later activities on the West Coast, they probably had connections with the Miners' Union.

Christmas and New Year came with none of the miners or their families having been able to leave the Barracks. How did they occupy themselves during this time? One of the Durham miners, John Coulthard, kept a diary, which tells how he and his brother and friends explored Nelson and walked up the mountains. Almost every day they went fishing, with variable success, and also did some rabbit shooting with very little to show for it. On the day of the deputation to Burns he wrote: "I went to the Museum in the afternoon which is only a moderate affair. The books in the library only a moderate lot. There is a good many papers and periodicals in the reading room from England". On December 23rd he spent the evening in the reading room and comments that the "English monthlies for November are on the table today and a good variety there is weeklies also".

January 1, 1880 appears to have been a welcome change in the routine. "All the persons in the Depot were invited to a picnic at Mr Oldham's (Dodson's Valley) and very well enjoyed ourselves. We were treated very well and got some good things provided. We had a walk up one of the mountains belonging to Mr Dodson and got some gooseberries and saw a palm tree. We left to come home at half past 7 page 23o'clock. Mr Dunn in a few well chosen words returned our thanks to Mr Oldham for his kindness".

The authorities began to have some success in finding places for the miners. Springfield Coal Company could find work for 20 miners, who needed to be hewers, but could only take 15 families. The wives and children would have to remain in Christchurch until the cottages were ready. Gradually, work was found for the rest of the miners. John Coulthard and three others left for Greymouth and the Brunner mine on the 8th and the last left by the Stella on January 19th to go to Springfield, almost two months after they arrived in Nelson.

This was not the end for either the Government or the miners, however. Vogel wrote to Rolleston on March 10th saying that friends in England had been asking about the way the miners had been treated. He enclosed extracts from two letters, one of which had been printed in the Barnsley Chronicle on February 28th. Written by John Lomas, one of the local preachers who had gone to Canterbury, it described Burn's reaction to the deputation: "Burns said he knew nothing of our coming out here and the first he saw of it was in the Newcastle Australian papers, and a lot of suchlike rubbish". Lomas became the inaugural president of New Zealand's first coal-mining union at Denniston in September 1884.

The other letter, from Thomas Greenshields Stephenson, late of Murton Colliery, Durham was published in the Newcastle Daily Chronicle on February 25, 1880. By the 1890s most of the Canterbury group had gone to the West Coast and settled there in the Denniston area or at Taylorville. Five of the original miners or their sons were killed in the Brunner Mine Disaster in 1896, while others helped with rescue work and gave evidence at the subsequent Inquiry. Let the Government have the last word, on March 25, 1880: "No more immigrants for private companies unless written agreements".


Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives. Nelson Provincial Museum.

Opawa (ship). Surgeon's log. Archives New Zealand.

Coulthard, John. Diary 1879-1881. Alexander Turnbull Library. (no relation to me.)

Immigration Department. Blenheim. Depot Master. Record book of arrival of immigrants 1879–1881. Archives New Zealand.

Richardson, Len. John Lomas 1848–1933 in: Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Volume one, 1769–1869. Allen and Unwin, 1990.

Wood, Brian (1998). Disaster at Brunner: the coalmine tragedy at Brunnerton NZ, 26 March 1896: a commemorative history. The author: Greymouth, NZ.

Opawa (ship). Passenger List. Archives New Zealand.