The Farthest Promised Land — English Villagers, New Zealand Immigrants of the 1870s
THE SUBJECT OF this study leads to no obvious denouement. Neither New Zealand's harvest of village labourer immigrants in the 1870s, nor the stirring of rural England with which it was so closely linked, led to any single decisive culmination. The Revolt of the Field wilted under the pressure of its adversaries, and faded away with the onset of harder times for English farming. The village emigrants to New Zealand merge into the larger story of the building of a new nation. Yet, although we are offered no single obvious vantage point, we would be unwise to ignore the way in which history, in its continuous unfolding, reveals new significance in what has gone before. In this chapter we will first look briefly at the New Zealand careers of a small group of men who had held significant offices in the unions of the Revolt, for the further light this may throw on the movement they helped to lead. We will then supplement the examples we have already given of the New Zealand careers of English immigrants, by examining aspects of rural society in both England and New Zealand in the 1900s, because this decade roughly represents the close of the active careers of those who were adult village householders in the 1870s. By the turn of the century the outcome of the decision for or against emigration from the English countryside may be assessed in terms of the lives of the men and women who made the choice on behalf of themselves and their families. As has been our practice throughout this study, we will also take some account of the wider agrarian scene — the structure of rural society, and the interaction between men and the land they tilled.
No members of the executive council of the Lincolnshire Labour League appear to have emigrated to New Zealand. We will therefore choose Henry Tomlinson from Laceby as probably the most prominent member of the League to settle in New Zealand. He was the able secretary of a strong local branch, and would probably have taken an increasingly important part in the League's affairs had he not left in September 1874 as leader of a large party of its emigrants. His diary of the voyage to New Zealand was published in 1875, and his A Farm Labourer's Report of New Zealand in 1876,1 as important contributions to the recruitment campaign conducted by Burton and White in close association with the League. We have already followed his New Zealand career, for the first twenty years as the trusted manager of several large Canterbury stations, and then as a landowner in his own right. We have also traced the New Zealand career of James King Peirce, who served for over two years as secretary of the Banbury district of the National Union before leading a party of labourers to New Zealand. Early in the new century both Tomlinson and Peirce were recorded as local page 329 worthies in the Cyclopaedia of New Zealand, both with a record of public service on local bodies.2
We have already noted the two members of the Kent union's executive committee who emigrated to New Zealand — James Pratt, the former Royal Navy short-service man, and secretary of the Otham branch, who joined the Stad Haarlem party, and George Tapp, secretary of the Lamberhurst branch, who led the 1874 Waikato party, and became a pioneer of the Inglewood bush settlement. By 1882 Pratt was a settler in the South Taranaki bush district of Mangawhero owning 50 acres freehold worth £175, and Tapp was a police constable at Hawera, owning 71 acres of freehold worth £100.3 Tapp cannot have developed this land, for New Zealand directories indicate a life-long career in the police force. He served as a constable, first at Hawera, Inglewood and Foxton, and then from the early 1890s in several centres in the Auckland Province. In 1907–8 he is shown as both a constable and clerk of the magistrate's court at Helensville. About 1913 he retired to the Auckland suburb of Ponsonby.
One of the twelve agricultural labourers who served as foundation members of the executive of the National Union was George Allington, the Primitive Methodist lay preacher from Stretton-on-Dunsmore. He was an early delegate of the union and, in two years of travelling on its behalf, visited twenty-two counties. In mid 1872, for example, he formed the first district branch of the union in Dorset.4 At this early stage he apparently hoped that the village labourer would quickly acquire the franchise, and change rural England by means of his voting strength. The Dorset County Express of 9 July 1872 quoted him as telling ‘the rich, that an increase in wages is not all we want; we want, and we intend to have, the franchise, and we intend sending working men to represent our interests’ in Parliament.5 We have already seen that he later chose to leave England, leading a large party of unionists to New Zealand. He settled in the Canterbury rural township of Rangiora, where in 1882 he is shown as owning the freehold of land worth £120.6 The rolls of the Kaiapoi electorate show that he spent the rest of his life as a labourer residing on a quarter acre section in Rangiora. After almost exactly thirty-eight years of quiet colonial life, this man who had carried the torch of the Revolt through twenty-two counties died almost unnoticed on 29 December 1912, at the age of 83.
Joseph Leggett, the first secretary of the Oxford district of the National Union, also lived to a ripe old age, dying at Highbank on 19 June 1918, in his eighty-first year, after forty-four years of colonial life. We have already traced his career to 1896, when he took a farm in the Highbank State Settlement. He probably combined farming and building till the end of his active career. In Wise's Directory for 1910 and 1917 he is listed as a builder at Highbank, but his death certificate gives his occupation as farmer. He was among those giving evidence to a Royal Commission appointed to examine the colony's land laws, when it visited Methven in April 1905. He told the Commission, ‘I am a farmer, and was formerly a builder’. Many who appeared before the Commission throughout the colony were holders page 330 of lease in perpetuity farms who desired the freehold. The Liberal Government had introduced lease in perpetuity mainly to discourage undue aggregation of land. Unlike so many of his fellows, Leggett told the Commission that he had no desire for the option of the freehold. He considered that the unearned increment to the value of the land should belong to the State, and that the tenants should be entitled only to the value of their improvements when they quitted. He himself had had to pay ‘goodwill’ when helping his son to purchase a 73 acre section in the settlement. He also told of being refused a loan by the Advances to Settlers Office; but he considered their refusal to have been wise, as it had prompted him to rely on his own resources. Later in the day Leggett was allowed to make a further brief submission to the Commission. In listening to the evidence of other settlers he had heard complaints of damage done to farms and crops by rabbits from the riverbed. He wished the Commission to recommend that the Land Board let the riverbed opposite each tenant's holding to that tenant, rather than in large blocks to men with no great interest in keeping the rabbits down.7 Obviously Leggett was a public-spirited settler, concerned for the good of his neighbours, and of the colony as a whole.
If we were to examine the colonial careers of the larger group who had held lesser places in the English rural unions — as branch secretaries or branch delegates, for example — they would merely reinforce the impres sion given by these more prominent leaders. In New Zealand they proved themselves to be solid, hard-working, responsible, public-spirited men. Although many of them had shown their ability to move their fellows with a simple, direct form of oratory, none developed as demagogues in the colony. These New Zealand immigrants provided further proof that the Revolt was a well-justified movement of protest against the oppression of a social class, and the debasement of an honourable calling.
Of course, many who were active in the Revolt must have seriously considered following their friends to New Zealand, but have been held to England by personal ties and predilections. Joseph Arch himself may well have been among these. In a letter of 1 October 1874 Andrew Duncan, the Canterbury agent, reported that he had good reason for believing that Arch would within twelve months be a resident in Canterbury.8 Arch had been offered a cabin passage if he would go out as leader of a party, and clearly must have been showing some interest. In the event, he did not go, and nor did Holloway despite the good report he brought back of the ‘Promised Land’. But these two leaders did not have to face the aftermath of the Revolt as farm labourers. Many of the movement's lesser leaders must have endured years of unrecorded bitterness and victimisation. Of the Wychwood villages it is reported that the bad spirit between masters and men persisted for years, with the bitterness creating divisions in both churches and chapels.9 E. N. Bennett, writing some forty years after the Revolt, reported that many villages in the southern half of England held the humble tragedies of men treated as social lepers for daring to lead their page 331 fellows in union. As a boy, Bennett had paid stealthy visits to one Robert Clarke, who lived alone in a tumbledown cottage in a remote Suffolk village, a broken man, full of helpless resentment. A clever and industrious workman, he had led during the Revolt a local strike which had been defeated by the importation of Irishmen. For daring to strive for some little advance on the miserable pittance of ten shillings a week, he was refused regular employment by the farmers, ignored by the parson, and universally described as a ‘dangerous man’ in the village. Bennett reports the similar case of another honest man, P___, in a Midland village. Refused all employment on farms or even road-mending, P___, tried to make some sort of living by hawking fish. Pursued by bitter persecution, he failed in the enterprise, gave up the struggle and died.10 It was to escape futures such as these that many of the union leaders opted for New Zealand.
When we turn to the English countryside of the 1900s we find that since the 1870s there had been significant changes, both in the farming industry and in rural society. Our present purposes will be served by dealing mainly in broad outlines, but looking in a little more detail at some of the districts which we dealt with in depth for the 1870s. English farming adjusted to its long depression by a considerable shift from arable to permanent pasture, and a reduction in its labour force. Pastoral produce enjoyed an expanding market, faced less foreign competition than arable produce, and of course required less labour. Labour was also dispensed with by accepting a less tidy standard of farming (allowing hedges and ditches to deteriorate, for example), and by the use of labour-saving machinery. In general it was the small farm and the large which weathered the depression best. The large farmer had the capital to finance adjustments in his style of farming, and was the best placed for economising in labour. The middling farmer, unprepared to labour himself, but yet with limited capital, tended to go to the wall. The small man, prepared to work himself, and accept a quasi-subsistence level of living if necessary, proved more resilient, though he often survived at the expense of turning his sons against farming
These changes brought a considerable movement of rural population. Farmers who did not adapt were forced off the land. From Devon and Cornwall, Wales and the Welsh border, and Scotland, came new men, mainly farmers' sons, bringing livestock and dairying skills to the east and south. Local labour would not always adjust to the new style of farming, and often it was not given the opportunity, for many of the newcomers worked their farms themselves, with little assistance outside their immediate families. One midland gentleman defined the immigrant Scottish farmer to Rider Haggard as ‘a sandy-haired fellow with a foreign accent, who came from the north with a sheep dog and a roll of barbed wire, and took half the parish’.11 But farm labour was not merely being forced out by changes in farm practice, often it was moving away faster than the decline in labour demand, drawn by the increasingly well-publicised attractions of the cities. As the village labourer drifted citywards, many from the middle and upper levels of society were turning back to the country. From the page 332 middle classes came a flow of cultivated persons who in earlier times would have stayed in the cities. May Sturge Gretton reports that from about the 1890s, the coming of the safety-bicycle, followed by the cheapening of motor-cars, served to supplement the railway network, making the villages attractive to ‘authors, artists, or retired naval, military, or civil servants.’12 In small towns lying off the railway lines, such as Burford and Chipping Camden, these people reclaimed the sixteenth and seventeenth century merchants' houses — ruinous in the 1870s and 1880s. While earlier comers from the cities had tended to conform to the rural social order of the squire and parson, these later comers created a social round which was largely independent of the old order. Yet they also tended to hold a watching brief on behalf of a wider public opinion, and thus they made an immense difference to the human relations of the countryside.13 Less desirable, in the higher levels of society, were an increasing number of landowners who had made their money in business, and who used their country houses mainly for hunting and shooting parties, without recognising any special duty towards the local community. More than ever, the English countryside was a playground as well as a land of farms.14 And still the soil was generally expected to provide support for four classes — landlords, clergy, tenant-farmers and labourers. This arrangement continued to handicap the prosperity of English farming and the well-being of the English farm labourer.
As our main guide for a closer look at a few selected districts we will take Rider Haggard, who spent eight months of 1901 travelling through the English countryside investigating rural conditions. The county which, from his description, would seem to have been nearest in character to contemporary rural New Zealand, was Devon. He found that Devon continued to be a county in which small farms predominated, some of them owner-occupied, and many others held by ‘sitting’ tenants — those whose fathers and grandfathers had worn their lives out on the same fields before them. Others had begun life as labourers, and had risen by sheer hard work to the tenancy of small holdings of fifty to a hundred acres.15 One of Rider Haggard's informants, an aged clergyman in north Devon, explained why he favoured an increase in this class of smallholders, whose virtues he had become acquainted with in parts of Warwickshire also. He had found them the best and most obliging labourers, who were glad to spend their spare time in the service of a farmer. Working well for themselves, they get into the habit of working well for their employers also. He knew parishes where the only men who could be trusted to do a really fair day's work for those who hired them were the small-holders.16
With others of her young men moving out to convert arable to grazing elsewhere in England, rural Devon offered something of a ‘farming ladder,’ not too unlike that being enjoyed in contemporary New Zealand by the first colonial-born generation of the Strawbridges and Bonds from Stockland. Yet in comparison to New Zealand, the upward path was hard and the rewards meagre. Rider Haggard records thatpage 333
Nearly every farmer I spoke with in Devon told me that he did not mean to bring up his son to follow the land. When I congratulated one of them on the appearance of his boy, his answer was, ‘I will take good care he shall not be a farmer,’ and many others said likewise.17
In contrast, in New Zealand of the 1900s the young Bonds and Strawbridges were eagerly embracing a farming career.
Echoing through Rider Haggard's two volumes one hears the ceaseless tramp of young feet leaving the land. In his account of Oxfordshire the theme recurs again and again. An informant in Islip, a man active in the village's social and sports clubs, told him of what was happening in that parish.
Islip was a purely agricultural village of some 600 inhabitants. As its youth grew up they drifted citywards, upwards of thirty having left Islip in 1900. The chief attraction to them was work on the railways in or near London, or rather the superiority of the wage for that work over land pay. The best young men went, the worst — the dullards and the least energetic — remained. As they grew up they fell more or less into the ‘habits of beer’. Nearly all who saved ceased to be mere labourers.18
From near Banbury a tenant farmer wrote to tell Rider Haggard that five young men had that day left a neighbouring parish for London, and reported that ‘we are so short of labour that we cannot get our work done, but it is looked upon as a disgrace to work upon the land’.19 At Great Rollright the school-master told Rider Haggard that ‘three-quarters of the young men and all the young women left the village at nineteen or twenty years of age, only the dullest staying at home’.20
At Binbrook on the wolds of north Lincolnshire the school-master told almost the same story as his fellow at Great Rollright. Over sixty per cent of the children he taught left the village, only the dullest staying on the land.21 The foreman of a large farm in this parish told Rider Haggard that the young women went to the towns and drew the young men away after them.22 Of these lads one wold farmer remarked that ‘it is not wonderful that they should go seeing that in the country they had no prospects, whereas in towns a man may rise’. Of his own class, this man believed that the only ones making money on the wolds were ‘land skinners’ and ‘monopolists’. The latter were men of large capital who took a number of farms, shut up four out of five of the houses, or put their foremen in them, and farmed the land as economically as possible.23 Between Swallow and Riby, Rider Haggard spoke with one of Lord Yarborough's tenants, M. Addison, who had held Riby Grove Farm for the past twenty-five years. Addison said that when he began, the farms of Lord Yarborough's estate were in great demand, and it was almost impossible for an outsider to rent one. Now on the 20,000 acres which lay around, in no one case had a son succeeded his father in the tenancy.24 All over the wolds Rider Haggard noticed signs of neglect — turnip crops failing through not having been marled, grass growing on the roads, houses shut up.
Of changes that had come in the daily lives of farm labourers, Rider page 334 Haggard has less to tell us, for his converse was mainly with their masters. The most interesting comments are those supplied to him by Thomas Hardy. To illustrate the farm worker's vastly improved economic position, Hardy told of a sheep-keeping boy he had known in his youth, who died of starvation, and whose stomach at the autopsy contained raw turnip only. At the time of writing, Hardy reported
I could take you to the cottage of a shepherd, not many miles from here, that has brass rods and carpeting to the staircase, and from the open door of which you hear a piano strumming within. Of course, bicycles stand by the doorway, while at night a large paraffin lamp throws out a perfect blaze of light upon the passer-by.25
But Hardy also noted less attractive changes. The labourers had become more and more migratory, and one consequence had been the complete disappearance of much village tradition — folk-lore, local chronicle, local topography. A Somerset clergyman offered Rider Haggard another explanation for this restlessness among the younger generation. He had noticed a loss of the trust in an over-ruling and personal Providence, which had enabled their fathers to bear their trials and privations with so much patience.26 The general impression Rider Haggard received from the masters was that the labourers had never been better off, nor more discontented. He was deeply disturbed by their flight from the land, but we will have to turn elsewhere to gain real understanding of the grounds of their discontent.
In 1904 H. H. Mann published the results of a careful investigation of living standards in the Bedfordshire village of Ridgmont,27 from which the Allen family had emigrated in 1874 to settle in Karamea. After making generous allowance for all possible sources of income both in cash and in kind, he found that forty-one per cent of the working class population was living in primary poverty, that is, with an income so low as to result in physical inefficiency even when spent to the best effect. A further nine per cent suffered poverty due more to waste of means than lack of means.28 The wages in this district were by no means the country's lowest, and Ridgmont benefited from cheap cottages provided by the Duke of Bedford. Mann's considered conclusion was that the prospect this village offered its labourers was
a weary and continued round of poverty. During childhood, poverty conditions are almost inevitable. As a boy grows up, there are a few years intermission till, as a young man, he has two children: then poverty again till these children grow up, and, finally, at best, a penurious old age, barely lifted above the poverty line.29
What the village labourer's continuing poverty meant in intimate day to day terms is described in Christopher Holdenby's Folk of the Furrow.30 Holdenby gained his knowledge by living and working with the rural labourers in the early years of the twentieth century. Although he was ashamed of betraying the hospitality and generosity of the cottagers with whom he had lived, he forced himself to describe the deficiencies of the page 335 food on which his friends were underfed, because he had been shocked by their sudden illnesses and short-delayed deaths.
I have known men, subject to all weather conditions, go from morning till evening on a bread-and-butter pudding, and the evening meal was often a question of whether you wanted any. ‘Ay, ol’ Tony an' Ned went all of a sudden, and I be thinkin' fro' the looks of Ted as 'ow 'e won't be long. You watch 'ow 'e stoops as 'e goes along, an' that there cough which keeps a troublin’ ‘im.’ A few weeks before, Ted had looked strong and weather-beaten, but he went very suddenly, just like his brothers. In a crisis my friends have nothing to fall back on.31
But a deep hurt to the spirit cut far more keenly than material want. Holdenby describes the labourer's inborn feeling that he was of the land, and that the land was by right part of him, yet he was alienated from this very native soil on which he lived. ‘Most naturally he fathers the wrong on those he sees wielding power around him. Suspicion has reached a painful point almost stultifying action.’32 Interwoven with the resentment at disinheritance was the rankling hurt of a continuing state of servitude. This was well described by Lieutenant-Colonel D. C. Pedder in the Contemporary Review of February 1903.
Farm service is still subjugation. It yokes and goads and brutalises. Men are still dismissed if their acquaintances do not please their masters. Their wives, though under no legal obligation to do so, must still go out to field labour or ‘give offence’. Opposition in politics may involve ‘a march’ as they have learned to call a compulsory flitting … ‘Still a slave before his lord’ represents the attitude of the farm hand in the presence of his employer. No sheep before her shearers was ever more dumb than the milkers and carters and ploughmen at the village meetings to which their masters may choose to summon them. They are cowed.33
This state of subjugation persisted despite the labourer's somewhat improved economic position, and despite the laws passed to free him. Since 1884 he had had the vote, and the ballot was secret. But although for decades the village walls had been placarded at election times with announcements of the secrecy of the ballot, the labourer still harboured the deep suspicion that squire, farmer and parson would know how he voted. Similarly, and with much more cause, the great majority did not dare take advantage of the acts aimed at giving the labourer access to allotments and smallholdings.34 Even Rider Haggard, with his landholder's outlook, admitted that the labourer, though now armed with his vote, still looked upon the farmer with fear, if not with hatred.35 Worst of all, he had lost his self-respect.
The farm labourer is looked down upon, especially by young women of his own class, and consequently looks down upon himself. He is at the very bottom of the social scale. Feeling this, and having no hope for the future, now-a-days he does not, in the majority of instances, even take the trouble to master his business. He will not learn the old finer arts of husbandry; too often he does as little as he can, and does that little ill.36 page 336 Clearly, in the 1900s the past still laid a heavy hand on village England.
To complete our brief survey of ‘afterwards’ in rural England of the first decade of the twentieth century, we must glance briefly at Cornwall, to see how this very different county had fared in the changing world. Fortunately for our purposes, in September 1908 George Sturt, the author of the classics of village life, Change in the Village and The Wheelwright's Shop, paid a fortnight's visit to Cornwall, spending much of his time among the farming folk of the parish of Zennor, which lies on the north coast of the toe of Cornwall, between St Ives and St Just.37
Sturt found that the occupied land of Zennor consisted of ‘that sloping platform between the waste downs and the turf that slants down to the cliffs’38 and that here lived a curious remnant of a much larger population that had flourished there ‘before the mines closed down, say a generation ago’.39 The numbers had fallen from 1100 to 300, and when Sturt asked what had become of the miners, he was told that they had emigrated. The fisherman too had gone, and almost all the artisans. Sturt found no masons, carpenters or builders, though he learnt that somewhere in the parish there was a smith and a wheelwright. Practically none remained save people capable of getting their living out of the land.
It was as if a storm had washed out all but the bedrock of society, so to speak; and here they are, the men and women able to live by their own labour on that rugged land, independent of all other help save that of the black-smith and wheelwright.40
Granted that they bought their bread, clothing, and materials for firing and lighting, these folk were in all other directions ‘a simple self-supporting people’. The parish had no unemployed, for it had no labourers. Nor had it class distinctions, for all were small farmers. They worked about seventy farm-holdings, all concerned mainly with dairy produce and pigs. The farmers met their labour problems by helping one another. Sturt commented that he had ‘never elsewhere seen so near an approach to a community of self-supporting peasants’.41
Sturt had gone to Cornwall with the purpose of seeking for ‘evidences of the dying-out peasant taste for beautiful things’.42 He was at first puzzled to find none of that ‘love for quiet comeliness of workmanship’ that was still much in evidence in his native Surrey. Instead of clipped hedges he found coarse carelessly piled stone walls, instead of neat thatches on the cottages, stark slate roofs, and the cottages themselves lacked gardens.
The whole country (at least outside Penzance) had a grey poverty-stricken aspect; suggesting to me that on those rugged moors it was as much as the folk could do, or had ever been able to do, to wring a scanty subsistence from the soil and the weather; that their hard cruel granite stone had all but baffled them, so that they had barely been able to make terms with it that would let them live, and that they had never had leisure to think of living in comely manner.43
Sturt soon came to see the wind as the great enemy of refinement in the region's buildings and landscape. Only stone and well-weighted slate page 337 would stand secure in the strong sea-winds. Wind, too, prevented the growth of timber trees and deterred the people from gardening. The granite and iron, on which the people had come to depend, did not lend themselves to pretty peasant crafts. Yet when he searched more closely, Sturt found a variety of evidence that at one time the region must have had busy, skilful stoneworkers, and in the more distant past, even those who had carved in stone.
Sturt spent some of his evenings in the inn tap-room and he was surprised to find how many of the men, who looked so much like sons of the soil, could talk familiarly of San Francisco and Colorado. Some had started life in the mines of their native Cornwall, learning skills by which they had prospered in America, and had returned with the means to set up farming on their own account.
One old gentleman (in his cups and very boastful of his own wealth) bragged of Zennor as the best bit of land, and of its people as the very best people, in all the world. He has been to Colorado, and to South Africa; having begun life by being dismissed, as a boy of 11, from the farm he now owned.44
New Zealand too must have seen some of the folk from Zennor, and in turn have sent its own ripples of influence back to affect the parish's ongoing life.
Having drawn together the more readily available material on the New Zealand careers of Cornish immigrants of the 1870s, one is left with an impression almost the converse of Sturt's account of the population of Zennor. While Zennor, no doubt in common with similar parishes throughout Cornwall, had lost its miners and almost all its craftsmen, New Zealand had gained with its Cornish immigrants a wealth of mining, mechanical and craft skills and interests. Of course, the decline of village crafts was proceeding throughout rural England over this period, with many former village craftsmen finding their way into the rising urban industries. But in Cornwall the emigration agents had an unusual measure of success in recruiting such artisans, along with the miners, on account of the county's remoteness from industrial England. We have already noted how New Zealand's agricultural technology benefited from the rich experience of mechanical skills among Cornish immigrants, and numerous individual careers could be quoted by way of illustration. One interesting example is William Kittow, who claimed to have operated the first cream separator in Hawke's Bay, and was an early user of shearing machines.45 It seems to have been common for Cornish immigrants to combine farming with contracting.46 They also contributed in many ways to the development of transport and communications in the colony, contracting for the building of roads and bridges,47 making a strong contribution to the manning of the railways,48 and operating many of the road transport services.49 As one would expect, Cornish immigrants were also to be found in good numbers among the colony's artisans — both in workshops of the old village craftsman type,50 and in those of modern urban industries.51 page 338 New Zealand would surely have been much the poorer if her immigration drive had not recruited in Cornwall.
Sturt's impressions of Cornwall raise afresh questions concerning the complex inter-relationship between the sending and receiving countries, with which this study has been concerned. His account would suggest that any real understanding of the depopulation of Zennor must include some consideration of the selective nature of the emigration, and also of the feedback influences from the new lands. Conversely, any local community in the new lands that received a significant number of immigrants from Cornish parishes such as Zennor can scarcely hope for an adequate understanding of its own local history without some study of the meaning of this Cornish background in terms of the skills and traditions of the people, and the continuing influence of the homeland on its migrant offspring.
The general impression gained from reading a good range of accounts of New Zealand's Cornish immigrants of the 1870s, is that they have had a modest pride in their backgrounds, and have been prepared to give relatively balanced and unvarnished versions of their origins. The same cannot be said of the majority of the 1870s immigrants from the English villages. It is a curious feature of the recording of New Zealand history, whether at family, local or national level, that for nearly a century there has been an almost complete absence of any reference to the Revolt of the Field, or to the degradation of the village labourer, against which it was a protest. The Cyclopaedia of New Zealand, a massive six-volume commercial venture of the turn of the century, contains nearly twenty thousand biographical notices of local worthies from all districts of the colony, among them a considerable number of the English rural immigrants of the 1870s. Yet one might read the accounts of all these latter, without gaining an inkling of their low status in England, or of the Revolt which was associated with their departure. Many contemporary immigrants from other callings supplied the Cyclopaedia's interviewers with detailed information on their English careers, but the former farm labourers are in general merely recorded as ‘brought up to farming’ or having been ‘engaged in farming pursuits’. One might easily gain the false impression that these settlers sprang from a small yeoman class in England, and indeed the Cyclopaedia's writers sometimes make explicit, but quite inaccurate, statements to this effect. Thus Henry Tomlinson, the one-time Laceby union secretary, is said to have ‘worked on his father's farm until he emigrated’,52 yet the records of the Revolt in Lincolnshire show that his father had worked for Francis Sowerby for forty years before being ‘spotted’ following the 1874 lock-out.53 Many New Zealand families seem to have a vague, erroneous notion that they have sprung from nineteenth century English yeomen stock. It would seem that the immigrant generation largely suppressed any discussion of the degradation they had endured in their former life, and that in rural New Zealand there must have been a tacit understanding that personal links with the English past, with its page 339 cruel distinctions of class, were to be forgotten. A similar repression of all reference to convictism has been noted in rural Australia.54
We have already followed through the careers of quite a wide selection of the immigrants, and thereby gained some impressions of the development of colonial society. However, before we turn to our brief examination of New Zealand rural society in the 1900s, we must give some account of the economic and social developments of the years between. We have seen how the Vogel immigration drive was brought to a halt at the close of the 1870s by the onset of depression in the colony. With brief interludes of recovery, this depression was to last till the mid 1890s. Did this decade and a half of difficult times lead to widespread disillusionment for the English immigrants of the 1870s? Was their general experience one of severe setback in their progress towards the better life of their dreams, and of the emigration agents' promises? I believe that the answer to these questions must be a qualified ‘no’. Against the background of his deprived and restricted past, I believe that even in the worst years of colonial depression the typical experience of the immigrant from rural England was one of freedom and plenty which represented a very considerable ‘bettering’ of himself.
Much more research of a careful and detailed nature is required before we can claim a clear understanding of the nature and social impact of the long depression of the 1880s and 1890s. The picture which I believe is emerging is one of hard times which were very uneven in their impact both in terms of geography and of sections of the population. In a most useful survey of the evidence, R. J. Campbell concludes that ‘the problem of unemployment seems to have been one of isolated pockets’ and that ‘it is seldom that there was no work available anywhere in the colony’.55 I have myself suggested that later Victorian New Zealand falls logically into three broad regions, viz., the South Island, Auckland, and the Bush Provinces (Wellington, Taranaki, Hawke's Bay), which differ markedly in the rhythms of their economic and social development.56 In particular, while the rest of the colony saw considerable net losses on migration over these years, the Bush Provinces experienced a continuous inflow. Thus, in the decade 1881—1891, Canterbury and Otago experienced a net loss on migration of 25,534, while the Bush Provinces had a net gain of 23,317, drawn mainly from the South Island. With new settlers flowing in, and new country being opened up, many districts in the Bush Provinces were reporting thriving times even in the worst years of the depression. Similarly, the depression fell unevenly on different sections of society. Those who felt it worst seem to have been the runholders and the itinerant labourers. Those least affected were the yeoman smallholders, and the married labourers with freehold homes and sections. The squatters, dependent on money income from their yearly wool clip, would have suffered in any case from the long-term depression of wool prices, but many of them suffered the more through having been forced to freehold their lands at inflated prices in the 18/Os boom years. The itinerant labourers suffered from the seasonal nature of their work. In the good page 340 times there had been plenty of odd jobs to fill out the slack spells in the farming year, in the bad years they could expect many months of idleness and want. The married freeholder, even if he had not ventured beyond an urban section and cottage, was able to draw a subsistence from his section, and from the often readily accessible wild, to tide over hard times, in a way which he must only have dreamed of in his earlier years in the Old Country. If he had become a yeoman farmer, he could expect to see his land and its amenities improving year by year, through the investment of the labour of himself and his family, whether times were good or bad. The census returns of smallholders (farmers, dairy farmers, market gardeners) grow steadily over these years, from19,371 in 1881, to 27,202 in 1891 and 33,036 in 1896. The evidence would suggest that the cottager and yeoman ambitions of the English Vogel immigrants were to a reasonable extent fulfilled.
A balance sheet of how these immigrants weathered the hard years can only be fully made up when we have firm answers to such questions as how many remained itinerant labourers, how many became cottagers in town and city, and how many established themselves as yeoman farmers in the countryside. Some suggestions on these matters will be given in our next chapter. Here, to complete our treatment of the hard times, we will move down the years for a series of glimpses designed to build up a sketch of the contexts in which the immigrants developed their careers.
Our first glance is at Ormondville where forty-seven settlers petitioned Parliament's Waste Land Committee in 1882. This southern Hawke's Bay bush settlement founded in 1876, drew heavily on the ‘Vogel’ immigrants for its pioneer families. Heads of these families included Job Packer, one of the Chile's Brogden party; William West, from Milton-under-Wychwood; John Maycock, formerly a glover in Charlbury; Emmanue! Plank, a one-time groom in Wiltshire; Jeremiah Newling from Cambridgeshire; and Robert Groom from Kent, who served Ormondville as its pioneer storekeeper, and as one of its most prominent early leaders. The distress in 1882 was due mainly to the poor quality of much of the land. The settlers' advocate before the committee was their local member of the House, W. C. Smith. He explained that the district's land was not fit for cropping, and that little of its forest was fit for sawmilling. Yet despite the hard times, the settlers did not wish to leave the district. Their request was for additional land on deferred payment conditions, to bring their holdings up to an economic size for this type of country.57 This incident illustrates one important factor in the progress of many an immigrant's fortunes — his ‘luck in the draw’ as regards the quality of land taken up. By concentrating one's attention on districts where the land proved inhospitable, one might paint a very gloomy picture of the 1880s. But even in terms of these settlers, it would be a distorted picture. In time the land in such districts would be aggregated into fewer, but economic holdings, releasing some of the settlers to make a fresh start elsewhere, guided by their experience in their next choice of land.page 341
The year 1883 provides ample illustration of the regional nature of the long depression. From newspaper accounts and Post Office Savings Bank returns W. H. Scotter reports 1883 as Canterbury's worst year of the decade.58 Yet a quick survey of the Bush Provinces in this year yields a sheaf of rosy reports. In January mills were being expanded around Feilding to meet a largely increased demand for timber.59 In February Palmerston North was described as ‘flourishing’, the building trade was said to be ‘particularly thriving’ and it was reported that ‘a more sanguine lot of townspeople it is seldom the lot of a visitor to fall in with’.60 In March Taranaki's Inglewood was described as ‘a pushing little place’ with five stores and another going up.61 In July it was Woodville's turn. A travelling reporter decided that it was probably unequalled in the North Island for activity, ‘speculation runs high and everything is brisk’.62 Over the autumn and winter there were frequent reports of good shooting — pheasants, wild pigs, rabbits, hares, as well as native game.63 The harvest of waste and wild — bush, swamp, river and sea — must have made a significant contribution to the well-being of the common people throughout the colony. In Feilding one problem reported in the spring of 1883 was the widespread illicit cutting of timber both for personal use and for sale.64 Yet this district was experiencing a steadily increasing demand for labour at the time, with sawmills short of hands, shearers being sought for, and wages rising.65
However, even in the Rangitikei, individual experiences varied. On 18 October Charles Francis wrote from Marton to his newspaper, complaining of exaggerated statements in a rival journal regarding shortages of labour and exorbitant wages. Francis told of nine years' experience in New Zealand as a navvy. He reported his wages as one shilling an hour, and complained that in his five weeks in the district he had earned only £5. 12s., having lost much time with wet weather. Furthermore, labourers were daily seeking work on the contract, and invariably received the answer ‘full handed’.66 As we have seen, the evidence suggests that there was ample work in the district for those with the relevant skills. But it is clear that, even in good times the itinerant labourer with limited skills could be in difficulties.
Early in 1884 the editor of the New Zealand Industrial Gazette commented that ‘perhaps at no time in the history of the colony has there been such a mixture of good and bad times as is just now the case’. While in Christchurch the previous December, 307 workmen had petitioned for employment, stating that they were destitute, in Wellington and other North Island centres employers were having difficulty finding labour.67 Even in Canterbury the hard times must have been very unevenly felt, for from circuit after circuit of the Methodist Church there came reports of building debts being wiped out, and good sums being raised for connexional appeals.68
In the mid 1880s reports of buoyant times and of the progress of rural industries, continued to come in from Bush Province settlements. In September 1885 a well-advertised bush felling contract in Feilding received page 342 not a single tender.69 In June 1886 the Wanganui Dairy Factory reported a very successful season, with top prices secured for the forty tons of cheese made.70 These two brief references must serve to illustrate two constant sources of Bush Province optimism over these years — the prospect that the business and labour market might at any time be stimulated by the development of virgin country, and the steadily growing promise of the new dairying and frozen meat industries.
Finally, in this brief survey, we will note that this diversity of experience persisted into the later 1880s, when the hard times of the South Island were leading to an exodus to Australia, in which Aucklanders also joined as depression spread to their province. Yet in August 1888, during the high point of the exodus, Palmerston North was forging ahead, with ‘no falling off in material progress’, a building trade ‘more than usually brisk’, and a demand for houses considerably in excess of the supply.71 Across the ranges in the northern Wairarapa bush settlements, the settlers were reported to be buying fruit trees in immense numbers, the supply coming from as far away as Nelson and Christchurch.72 Year by year labour shortages continued to be reported from Taranaki,73 while in inland Rangitikei of 1889, Hunterville was reported to have been for a time ‘like a new goldfield’ when railway construction and bush felling were in full swing together.74 As the farms became more developed, the demand for agricultural skills increased. A correspondent writing from Rangitikei early in 1890 put the matter succinctly:
The ordinary swaggers who at times abound on the country roads are unfit for agricultural work, and are now almost useless on farms where a course of systematic cultivation is pursued. Men able to milk or work with horses are at a discount.75
Let us now sum up the significance of this brief summary of the unfolding years. It seems inconceivable that a fair proportion of the English ‘Vogel’ immigrants did not weather these years with credit. Times such as we have described were surely suited to the talents and ambitions of men such as those from the Cornish exodus and the Revolt of the Field, men drawn by, and selected by, such recruiters as Carter, Burton and Duncan. The many successful colonial careers which we have traced must surely be not exceptions, but typical of the common experience. We must now turn to a consideration of the colonial world which they had helped to build to see what had been achieved by the opening years of the new century.
Between the 1870s and the 1900s there had been considerable changes in the landscape of rural New Zealand. An English clergyman who had seen the Canterbury Plains in 1867, and revisited them in 1905, found that the growth of English trees and Australian blue gums had given the former open tussock grassland, ‘an altogether fresh aspect’.76 In the North Island, on the other hand, the main change had been brought about by the felling of great forests. Frank Bullen, another English tourist of the period, described the ugliness of the bush-burn landscape, as seen from the train when travelling from Wellington to Palmerston North:page 343
… glimpses of great stretches of down land, literally covered with fallen, bleached trees, in many places so thick that they covered the whole ground. This is where the fire has been run through them, and is the preliminary process of making grazing land. I could not help thinking that it was a sinful waste of timber …77
Bullen remarked that the little towns he passed through all ‘wore a delightful air of quiet comfort’. The men and women all looked fairly well-to-do, but their children ran about barefooted ‘in a way that is disconcerting to an Englishman’, though Bullen decided that this represented a fad, rather than a lack of means.78 It is perhaps fair to comment that it was the social control of his ‘betters’ that kept the ill-fed children of the English village labourer shod in a seemly fashion.
In January 1901 the Revd Joseph Berry, who had earlier played some part in recruiting English immigrants for New Zealand, provided an Australian journal with an account of New Zealand at the beginning of the new century. His description of the typical New Zealand homestead will serve our purposes well, drawing comparisons as it does with both Australia and England.
… the difference between a typical New Zealand and an Australian homestead … is the difference between a factory for the production of wool or corn, and a home. The New Zealand holding is less in area, the paddocks are smaller, green hedges are common. There is a front garden, in which familiar English flowers mingle with the semi-tropical. A vegetable garden is there, with fat cabbages, giant cauliflowers, and the green potato patch. To this add an orchard, with the hardy English fruits in the South, or in the North away from the sea and in the uplands. In warmer spots, lemons, oranges, figs, grapes, and peaches are abundant. The fields are always green, and the grass grows generally all the year round. There is an air of plenty, and quiet, and comfort, which one misses and longs for in Australia. The difference between a farm in the South of England and in New Zealand is mainly that in the latter the farmer does more work himself, and employs less labour. The wire fence is too common, even in New Zealand. It saves labour, but how bare and ugly it is!79
Of course not all New Zealand farm homesteads were as pleasant as Berry's idyllic picture, nor did all who came to New Zealand as farm labourers end their careers in possession of one. But the colony's relatively easy ladder to farm ownership, and its lack of marked class barriers, gave to rural life and work an easy, pleasant tone, too rarely found in rural England. E. W. Elkington, an English wanderer who spent seven years in New Zealand around the turn of the century, remarked that the colonists, instead of shirking work, as was so common in England, seemed to enter into the spirit of it and enjoy it.
It was the same on the farm: the men took a pride in their labour, and did it, not because it had to be done, but because it was their work; and instead of one man's getting annoyed because another did too much, they seemed to scorn any of their mates who were careless or slack, and dubbed them ‘loafers’…. All this seemed very strange to me because I page 344 had lived on a farm or two in England, and had often heard one man abusing another for doing too much. ‘Steady there, Bill,’ the cry would be, ‘it makes my back ache to look at you.’80
Elkington also found that no kind of work was a disgrace in New Zealand, but poverty was, ‘whilst in England you may be poor but you really must not drive a milk-cart or a bus’.81
Of course New Zealand life also had its less attractive aspects. The farmland landscape was raw and unkempt, as yet but partially tamed by the settlers. Colonial society was immature and often lacking in grace. Frank Bullen found Auckland, the colony's largest city, dishevelled and fortuitous, looking as though it had not yet decided whether to rise to the height of a metropolis or sink to the depth of a village.82 Probably it was the monotony of detached cottages and bungalows, many of them on sizeable sections, reaching in almost to the heart of the city, that gave him this impression. But he seems also to have sensed a deeper lack than the absence of the Old World's impressive facades of unbroken street fronts. In outlook most New Zealanders too seldom rose above the petty localism of the village mind. The parish pump tended to dominate, even in national politics, at the expense of the larger view. To Bullen the colony seemed almost at a standstill, yet everywhere, even in the smallest rural centres, he found a curious misapprehension that the local community was making rapid material progress such as would astound an English visitor. He observed that the local inhabitants watched over the erection of even the tiniest new edifice with almost parental solicitude.83
No doubt a shallow, unpolished materialism is a common feature of colonial societies, but the particular parochial flavour which it assumed in New Zealand surely had its origins, at least in part, in the injustices and deprivations endured by the village labourer of Victorian England. In the new land it was a village world which he set out to recreate, and soil, climate and terrain largely conspired with his endeavours. New Zealand entered the twentieth century as a predominantly ‘village’ society, with a strong flavour of parochialism. The return of good times, and the onward march of a rural economy whose husbandry drew readily on advances in agricultural technology, gave to these new villages a material affluence that must have provided the declining years of many a ‘Vogel’ immigrant with a strong sense of self-satisfaction. Nevertheless, a deepening hunger for ‘Home’, a growing reverence for the ‘Old Country’, bore witness to a feeling that there were some things lacking in the achievement.