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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University, Wellington. Vol. 21, No. 8. 2nd July, 1958

. . . But the Workers Carried the Bricks

page 4

. . . But the Workers Carried the Bricks

It is over two years since the publication of "The Merchants Paved The Way," Malket Millar's commissioned volume to commemorate the centenary of Wellington's Chamber of Commerce, but to my knowledge it has never been treated to a serious review, no doubt because of the tedious and tendentious nature of the entire undertaking.

It is we who ploughed the prairies, built the cities where they trade;
Dug the mines and built the workshops, endless miles of railroad laid,
Now we stand, outcast and starving mid the wonders we have made.

—Rex H. Chaplin.

The writer's chief aim is evidently to glorify the businessmen of Wellington, and give the impression that they founded the city and built it into the splendid thing it is today—with the natural corollary that without the blessings of their continued power and prestige the place would tumble down about our ears.

There is no word of criticism of the adventurer Wakefield, who, having tried eloping with two heiresses, decided that a surer way of making easy money would be to start a colonising concern and staff it with members of his family. There is no suggestion that the New Zealand Company was engaging in a swindle when it sold prospective emigrants land which it did not and might never own, or that it was doing anything morally reprehensible in "buying" land from the Maoris who, having a completely different (and undoubtedly morally superior) conception of property, had no understanding of the act in which they were meant to be participating—all this quite apart from the unmentioned question of whether there could be any possible equation between the value of the land bought and the top-hats, jew's-harps, and sticks of sealing-wax which constituted the purchase-price.

The founding of the settlement is pictured as a sort of happy, gymnastic bible-class camp, with everyone following unquestioningly the dauntless leadership of the businessmen. From the description, Wakefield's "vertical slice of society" was evidently a very commercial brand of feudal system. But aristocratic pretentions were kept up with the name of the Company's first ship, the "Tory", with its figurehead representing (significantly in solid wood) the head of the Duke of Wellington—and with the christening of the new town in that gentleman's honour.

Grocers (dignified with the title of "merchants") and New Zealand Company officials are spoken of in tones of hushed reverence as if they alone carved civilization out of the bush. George Hunter ("merchant" and early mayor) and St. Hill (N.Z. Co. foreman, later magistrate) are acclaimed for their part in establishing the Chamber, but there is no whisper of the desperate attempt which they personally led to put down the movement among the workingmen for an 8-hour working day in the first week of Wellington's history. Parnell, the carpenter who initiated the movement, comes in for some cheap sneers; but the alternatively bullying and underhand methods of the employers concerned are entirely passed over.

The whole work is permeated with a narrow, miserly outlook on life. There is fulsome reference to the Chamber's campaign in 1857 to have some Insolvent Law enacted "to deal with" the "evils" attending upon people being unable to pay their bills. (Presumably the kind businessmen wanted to have these people locked up as was the current practice in England—"Little Dorrit" was published in 1857.) Again in the 1880's, Mr. Miller devotes more space to a new campaign to "revise" the laws on the same subject, arising out of a "very gross" case of a man who became insolvent and (oh, unspeakable crime!) "kept no stock books", and who, though convicted by a magistrate, "escaped" (sic!) on appeal.

Mention of "native troubles", "trouble by the Maoris", (with no suspicion that there might be another way of viewing the matter), and the completely one-eyed and mendacious account of the Wairau engagement, are nauseating. For the rest, Maoris merely provide the author with material for humorous anecdotes about Parliamentary debates and Government House dinner-parties.

While singing the glories of the powerful among the pioneers, the author neglects to remove from the record odd things that make both them and their successors appear faintly ludicrous. If the way the merchants paved was, for example, Manners Street or Willis Street, why didn't they take a short look into the future (in which they had so much faith) and make it just a little wider than was barely necessary for two bullocks to pass at three miles an hour. Indeed, a manifesto of the N.Z. Company's directors quoted on page 13 pompously proclaims their desire for "ample reserves for all public purposes . . . a Park, extensive bulevards." What have we one hundred years later? The Botanical Gardens and the Town Belt, flung out on the inaccessible periphery of the city. There is hardly room for a blade of grass in the centre of the town— the businessmen's counting-houses are clustered too thickly together.

Eloquent tribute to a century of progress is paid by the quotation of a citizen's complaint in the 1860's that "I fell into a large hole in Ghuznee Street the other night." Either that hole is still there, or it has been replaced by another one just as large, and the other night I fell into it.

Fatuous eulogiums of the well-to-do are adequately balanced by spiteful outbursts against the working-class of Wellington. One chapter is entitled "Worker and Employer", and includes, as well as the broadside of the 8-hour movement, explanations of the three great wharf disputes of 1890, 1913 and 1951—each more ignorant, crooked, and ill-humoured than the last.

1890: ". . . hotheads . . . blandishments . . . overseas agitators . . ." The then President of the Chamber is quoted as making the profound comment that "to his mind the strike was the most extraordinary thing he had ever heard of."

1913: "Eventually the forces of law and order triumphed."

1951: The description has to be read to be believed, it is so charged with hate and inaccuracy.

Except for these passages, the working people are virtually ignored. A long section on "handling goods over the wharves" speaks of nothing but arrangements for wharfage and customs payments, as if the goods walked out of the holds by themselves. Human sweat and suffering have no meaning to certain people except in terms of cold cash.

Nor do the tragic thousands of Wellington's war dead receive a token tribute. One would expect the flag-flappers who cheered them away to die, but were themselves kept home by the burden of their investments, to take a minute off from their self-trumpeting to stand in silence for them.

And Vic — Wellington's own University- It has been an important part of the life of the city for over half a century: it has poured out teachers, administrators, lawyers — yes, even accountants to count their money for them—into the city since 1900. But there is nothing in the book to indicate that the place exists. Understandable enough. How many endowments have come from the downtown Scrooges? They could hardly approve of an institution which has consistently harboured a spirit of free and independent thinking, has given a platform to trade union leaders who were officially muzzled by "emergency regulations", and which has never acknowledged the existence of the Chamber of Commerce except by writing its name on a bedroom utensil in Capping processions.

In so far as it tries to be a history of Wellington, "The Merchants Paved The Way" is thus worse than unsatisfactory. The concepts on which it is based demand a complete distortion of the relevant importance of historical facts. The books covering similar ground by Louis Ward, Alan Mulgan, and Fanny Irvine-Smith, patchy as they all are, give a fairer picture of Wellington's development.

The book is neither a work of scholarship nor of entertainment. Completely undocumented, its form is bitsy, and its style lurches unevenly between romantic ecstasy ("What a land — so green, so dazzling bright!") and the dull recital of uninteresting and desperately unimportant facts.

Nevertheless, if you are interested in Wellington's history, and you want a good laugh, you ought to read this book. You can get a copy, as I did, from a library. Not even the laughs would justify the price asked in the shops—until it appeared for 1/- at Whitcombe's sale.