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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



After the collapse of the Vogel boom, immigration was in abeyance for some years. But it was renewed in a modified degree in 1882, while Rolleston was Minister of Immigration. He aimed to bring in about five thousand nominated immigrants a year. The modern housewife, in constant despair over her inability to get domestic help, will be tantalised to learn that each year one thousand girls selected for this purpose were included in the list of assisted immigrants. But the picture is not so rosy as might be supposed. These girls were not the highly trained and qualified servants that the housewife dreams of, but they were the best New Zealand could hope to get in competition with nearer countries, like Canada and America. They were drawn from the very poorest homes. Sir Dillon Bell, the Agent-General, was filled with pity and dismay at their condition:

I don't suppose (he wrote to Rolleston privately) you ever saw an arrival day of a cargo of men, women, and children assembled for a ship. Some of them swarm with vermin, and have never known what it is to be without lice in their life. Others come with itch from head to foot. Others smelling of every conceivable ordure. Don't imagine for a moment that these things page 56are contracted in the depot. They are brought there. It is at times horrible beyond words. On the whole the wonder is that there is not much more serious trouble in the shape of large numbers of girls who are anything but sanctae virgines, poor things.

Sir Dillon Bell fought hard to improve the system. He made a deep study of the problem, and, although he was overwhelmed with office duties, he frequently visited the embarkation depots, wrangled with ships' captains, doctors and matrons, and promoted many reforms. But even so, the whole thing was a nightmare to his kindly soul. After one visit to a depot where the ship had been delayed, he says:

The people are there without guide—strangers, ignorant and voiceless. The "use and wont" of the depot and the shipping work and worry make even good officers rough with them. A kind word, on the contrary, goes far; they are so unused to it! They swarm round you if you will only let them think you have the least human regard for them. Their lives in their own hovels are so dreadful and so hard. Then all the sympathy of women's societies etc. seems always to be for the fallen. No one seems to care for the girls who are good and want to keep so. Modesty, of course, in the sense you and I use the word, you can hardly look for; but decent regard for themselves is plain, only it is so hard for them to realise that any sympathy can be felt for them by the classes that are above them in the world.

He advocated that all the Colonies should unite to form a depot of their own, under proper management, with reading rooms and proper arrangements for the care and comfort of the women, girls, and children, Rolleston agreed with him that the state of things was horrible, and between them they did much to improve it.

The extracts quoted above show how fallacious it is to suppose that, in the 'eighties, there were thousands of healthy, rosy-faced, highly trained immigrants eagerly waiting to embark for New Zealand. On the contrary, many of them were half-starved, poor, and miserable. But on the voyage, as Bell says, "they waxed fat and lusty", page 57and in the healthy environment of New Zealand life they rapidly gained their self-respect and independence. In short, they became admirable citizens, and their descendants were among those who helped to save the Empire in its hour of trial.

It is not necessary to give a detailed history of immigration. Enough has been said to show how much New Zealand owes to Rolleston for his wise administration of a vigorous flow of immigrants. Perhaps if his policy were revived to-day with the same precautions as he observed, New Zealand might make progress in solving one of her most urgent problems.