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Life in Early Poverty Bay

A Born Fighter — William Lee Rees—Idealist his Triumphs and Disappointments

page 135

A Born Fighter
William Lee Rees—Idealist his Triumphs and Disappointments.

If by “Early Settler” we mean one who was in Gisborne in 1877, then Mr. Rees has no right to the title, as he first came here two years later, and even then might be classed as “semi-detached,” because afterwards he moved to Auckland and then to Napier. In all, he spent over 25 years—a third of his life—here, a longer period than in any other district, and during those years his wonderful vision, enthusiasm, ability, untiring energy and warm affection for Poverty Bay accomplished much, so that his name is indissolubly linked with the early history of this town.

Happy Days at Te Hapara.

Every Gsborneite of the '80's probably, at some time or other, visited Te Hapara, then the home of Mr. and Mrs. W. L. Rees. Church fetes and open-air functions in aid of any good cause were almost invariably held in the garden. On these occasions, brakes, spring-carts and cabs (a term which covered a few magnificent growlers and a fleet of high, narrow, closed-in waggonettes) raced through a two-mile-long cloud of dust, conveying townspeople—often gratuitously—to the festivities. The garden gate was approached from Gladstone Road by a narrow avenue a quarter of a mile long, a green tunnel between alternate willows and poplars, and careful driving was necessary to avoid collisions, especially when it was a case of four-in-hands meeting.

Inside the second gate the scene was gay and animated—booths lining the walks and drives; sometimes the band or an orchestra; tea-stalls; crowds visiting these attractions, strolling over the lawns or seated in the shady shrubberies; sometimes children's sports or a costume cricket match, the air full of talking and laughter. In the evening an openair concert—rows of seats facing the front verandah which served as a stage. Sometimes dancing on the tennis lawn: sometimes in one of the paddocks a great display of fireworks.

Late Mr. W. L. Rees.

Late Mr. W. L. Rees.

A Fireworks “Tragedy.”

The most spectacular pyrotechnic display was staged one night by V. G. Day and W. E. Akroyd, then both recent arrivals from England. By some mischance their careful plans went a-gley, and, after a quietly successful page 136 opening, the whole store of fireworks got out of hand. Catherine Wheels circled madly. The Devil amongt the Tailors showered flames and sparks from a dozen different spots. Roman Candles blazed green, purple and crimson. Squibs and crackers exploded under the feet and in the faces of the crowd. The air was full of colored streamers and showers of stars—a regular Aurora. The first outburst was greeted enthusiastically. The show was beyond anything ever seen before. But when the rockets began banging and shooting wildly just over their heads or sending fiery snakes through the long dry grass, the spectators turned and ran for their lives. Women fainted and children howled with fright. Fortunately no one was hurt. The only tragedy was that the fireworks were all burnt out in that lurid ten minutes.

Te Hapara garden, the morning after a fete, was a sorry sight, strewn with torn paper wrappings, empty bottles (looking as rakish as if they had held Falernian instead of lemonade and raspberry vinegar), overturned benches and trestle tables. Flower-beds were trampled down, arbours broken, and—horror of horrors—the tenins lawn! Instead of smooth green turf, a sandy waste bearing eruptions of stubble and torn-up roots!

Mr. and Mrs. Rees were garden lovers. They quailed before the mute reproach of the green things which had trusted them. They vowed “Never again,” and Mrs. Rees might upbraid her husband for being too ready to consent to such a sacrifice, and exact a promise that it should not happen again. And then—next time—she herself would give permission.

His Love of Sport.

Cricketers throughout the district and visiting teams played their matches in one of the paddocks where “W.L.” laid down an excellent pitch and a very fair fielding ground, levelling, turfing, watering, rolling incessantly, early and late, with the help of his three young sons, Lincoln, Arthur and Ted—the last barely in his teens. Tennis flourished vigorously, four courts being all in demand when forty or fifty players assembled.

One of the most exuberantly happy gatherings was when Mr and Mrs Rees invited all the school children and then, hating invidious distinctions, extended the invitation to any children. Games, a programme of sports with attractive prizes; an open-air feast with liquid refreshments—mostly pink—cakes and fruit galore—surely the memory of the party will be cherished by some of those children of over forty years ago.

Ccusin of the Three Graces of Cricket.

As this sketch is concerned chiefly with Gisborne and only subordinately with Mr Rees, the facts of his life elsewhere must be touched on as briefly as possible. These stand recorded in many books of reference. His birth in Bristol in 1836; his mother widowed two years later; Dr. Rees's practice taken over by his brother-in-law, Dr. Grace, father of “W.G.”, “G.F.”, and “E.M.”, the Three Graces of the cricketing page 137 world; the indelible impression made on the young lad's sympathetic heart by the terrible scenes witnessed in Ireland during the potato famine of 1847–8; his voyage to Victoria two years later to join two older brothers, one by that time a fully qualified medical practitioner; with them building a slab hut for mother and sister, getting any work that offered on goldfield or sheep-run; supporting himself and helping others;, tramping immense distances, swimming flooded rivers; at one time earning £4 a day carting logs on a Government contract; attending Melbourne University, reading, writing, debating; articled to solicitors; reading for the Bar; playing for Victoria against New South Wales in the first intercolonial cricket match, while two cousins, W. G. Rees (later to give his name to river and valley in Central Otago) and G. Gilbert played for New South Wales; under the influence of some earnest kindly Congregationalists deciding that his gift of public speaking ought to be dedicated to evangelisation, throwing up his articles and becoming a Congregational minister, publishing essays, pamphlets and his first novel: his days were not monotonous.

The Late Mrs. W. L. Rees

The Late Mrs. W. L. Rees

In 1863 he married the daughter of Mr Opie Staite. Mr and Mrs Rees met for the first time in Melbourne, though born in the same Square in Bristol. Shortly after his marriage, Mr Rees resumed his law studies and was called to the Victorian Bar in 1865. Briefed for a New Zealand case, he came to the South Island in 1866, and, after passing a more or less formal exam necessary before he could appear in this Court, he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of New Zealand by Mr Justice Chapman, father of Sir Frederick Chapman.

Hectic Days on the West Coast.

Those were the first hectic days of the rush to the newly discovered gold-fields of the West Coast. Strong persuasion was offered to the Victorian barrister to go there. Probably he needed little urging. Shortly we find him moving his household, consisting of mother and sister, as well as wife and two bairns, to Hokitika. Three exciting years followed. Events moved with dramatic swiftness. People made sudden fortunes—were as suddenly beggared. Untimely death lurked on the rock-strewn coast with its dangerous bar-harbors, and its encroaching ocean; in the swift floods in the Bealey and other mountain torrents which had to be forded by travellers; at the hands of bushrangers hidden in the forest along the course of the Buller, the only track to Nelson; in the hasty quarrels of the diggers; in the threatened clash between Fenians and Orangemen. Fortunately, the last danger was averted; but buildings were burned, a great procession organised in honor of the victims of the “Manchester Murders” and a cross erected to their memory in the cemetery, guarded night and day by an armed body of the malcontents. On the other side, most of the loyalists were enrolled as special constables and patrolled the streets every night. Orangemen threatened to cut down the rebel cross in spite of the guard. And cut down it was one wild night when the guard had sought temporary shelter.

Great Friend of Sir George Grey.

A great rush of business was being dealt with in Mr Rees's office with its large staff. And in the course of his work he was more or less connected with all the excitements. Elected to the Westland County Council, he threw himself heart and soul into the work of furthering the interests of the district. But the radiance on the future was clouding over. People began to drift away. Mr Rees's sister married Mr E. K. Tyler. His mother died. The money which had poured into the office had been lavished in the development of worthless claims. Another move was decided on and in 1869 the family moved to Auckland.

Stepping at once into a good practice, briefed in every important case, four years later elected to the Auckland Provincial Council, later appointed Provincial Solicitor, Mr. Rees was brought into intimate relationship with Sir George Grey. A page break page 139 wonderful friendship sprang up between the two idealists. On the abolition of the Provinces in 1876, Mr Rees was elected to Parliament as the Member for Auckland City East. About this time he wrote “Sir Gilbert Leigh,” a novel dealing with the Indian Mutiny and also with some of his own experiences in Australia. His successes in the Supreme Court, especially in the George Jones Jnr. libel case at Oamaru, and his celebrated speech of twenty-four hours in the House, successfuly outmanoeuvring the surprise tactics of the other side, made him well-known throughout New Zealand.

The Late Sir James Carroll in Contemplative Mood.

The Late Sir James Carroll in Contemplative Mood.

Battling with Baffling Native Laws.

Influenced by Sir G. Grey's desire that he should guard the rights of the Natives in disputed titles to land, he moved to Napier in 1878 and shortly afterwards, in pursuance of the same course, settled in Gisborne.

The Native Land Laws were a mass of baffling restrictions preventing open and legitimate dealings, while giving cover in their technicalities and ambiguities to fraud hard to bring to light and prove. Only a man of great courage and most sanguine disposition could have flung himself almost alone into a threefold fight: against the European owners of lands unjustly acquired, against Natives who wanted to repudiate perfectly fair contracts and against the contradictions and delays of the Statute Law. His object was to benefit both pakeha and Maori. But, as usual in such cases, he was often regarded with suspicion and alarm by both parties. By amicable compromise, also, he often ended ruinous litigation to mutual benefit.

“Rees's Folly.”

In 1883 he arranged a friendly settlement of disputed titles between the original Native owners of the Whataupoko block and Mr. P. Barker, who had purchased most of the interests in it, but could get no finality and no sure title in the Courts. Mr. Barker re-sold a part of the estate for a cash payment and an indefeasible title to the interests he retained. Then the suburb of Whataupoko, so popular to-day, was surveyed, subdivided, roaded and thrown open for settlement. But the locai authorities had little desire, and perhaps no money, to build a bridge, so Mr. Rees, realising that one was indispensable, spanned the river at Peel Street. He persuaded the Natives to provide some of the funds, but had eventually to contribute a great part of the cost out of his own pocket. The bridge (known as “Rees's Folly”—the public wondering how he could expect anyone to make a home among the thick manuka, so far from the Post Office) was for years only wide enough for one vehicle from bank to bank. Later, the authorities widened it on both sides of the middle swing. When the present splendid bridge replaced it, the excellent state of preservation of the piles and other timber caused surprise.

Besides many beneficial arrangements similar to that of the Whataupoko block, local settlers had also cause to thank Mr. Rees for urging on the legislation by which they were able to convert their leaseholds into freehold titles.

For years he advocated a simpler manner of dealing with Native lands through a system of committees. He continually urged that a Commission should be set up to consider the whole question and take evidence throughout the North Island. Eventually, in 1891, the Commission was decided on, with Mr. Rees as chairman, and Mr. (later, Sir James) Carroll as a member. The report of the Commission was a valuable contribution towards the proper understanding of the need for reform.

Mr. Rees a Strong Outer Harborite

From the first Mr. Rees strongly advocated the construction of an outer harbor. One of the prime movers in getting Sir John Coode and other eminent marine engineers to visit Gisborne and report, he was eager to see the plan on which they were practically unanimous—a breakwater on the reef running out from Kaiti—adopted and put in hand. He appealed to the public by letters in the page 140 newspapers, occasionally by leading articles, by private letters and conversation, and at all gatherings. Backed by a few sympathetic enthusiasts, he would engage a hall, advertise a meeting, and try and make his audience see the vision before his eyes, of Gisborne not many years later with cargo ships lying at her wharves, prosperous exceedingly—the fifth city in New Zealand.

Prime Mover for Grant of Tauwhareparae.

Surely I am not the only person alive to-day who remembers those meetings—political, too, some of them, for Mr. Rees unsuccessfully stood for Parliament—perhaps McFarlane's Hall with its historic notices round the walls “Smoking, Chewing and Dogs are Disallowed”; perhaps a little up-country room where smoking was not “disallowed” and where through the blue haze, one might see persistent hecklers being hustled out by stalwarts anxious to hear—or even a stout interrupter rolled on the floor and used as a sofa by a couple of self-constituted guardians of law and order placidly smoking and sternly forbidding even groans from their victim. One question seemed invariably to suggest itself to the audience: “Who's going to pay for the hall?” The lecturer would loftily dismiss the triviality and proceed with his prophetic rhapsody. Incredible as it seems, Mr. Rees and a few kindred spirits so fired the community with their zeal that that handful of people—perhaps not numbering as many hundreds as there are thousands here to-day—decided to take upon their shoulders a liability of £200,000 and build the harbor on Sir John Coode's plan. Determined to get the harbor, it was strange that the public never succeeded in electing a Harbor Board prepared to carry out the public wish. I have been told that Mr. Rees was the prime mover in securing over 44,000 acres of land at Tauwhareparae as a Crown grant for the endowment of the Gisborne harbor. But I have no evidence of the fact. The block was recommended by Col-Porter, applied for in the House by Allan McDonald, member for the district, supported and voted for by all Mr. Rees' friends in Parliament. But whoever moved in the matter, the Harbor Board certainly did not. Mr. McDonald's advertisement of intention to apply for the endowment was brought under the notice of the Board by one of the Board members in May, 1883, and provoked an amusing discussion. “Where was it?” “Was it of any value?” “Should they send a letter to Mr. McDonald approving of his action?” Ultimately they decided that endowments of 44,000 acres were not likely to fall from the skies every day and that they would write approving of the application. Until lately, Gisborneites have paid no harbor rates, thanks to the rentals from Tauwhareparae.

An Unexpected Sequel.

In 1884, The Gisborne Harbor Board Empowering Bill, drafted by Mr. Rees and commended by him to Sir G. Grey and other friends in the House, was presented by the member for the district and became law. It sanctioned the raising of £200,000 for the building of “a deep sea harbor,” “a harbor for ocean-going vessels.” That night there was rejoicing in this town. Its usually dark streets were illuminated, and the wish of the people to have an outer harbor seemed as good as fulfilled. But the Harbor Board used the money for improvements (!) to the river. Later, no fewer than seven Amending Acts had to be passed in about the same number of years to enable them to continue to use the money which had been granted for a different purpose. The unexpected sequel was a bitter blow to Mr. Rees, but he took it as a temporary check, not checkmate, and until he died continued his agitation for an outer harbor on the site chosen by Sir John Coode and approved by nearly every marine engineer since.

In 1883, on the invitation of Wahanui, Mr. Rees and Captain Tucker visited him in the jealously guarded King Country to discuss the position of the Native lands.

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A Storm Centre at Apia.

In 1886, briefed by Mr Percy Macarthur. Mr. Rees went to Samoa. He won his case in which immensely valuable interests were at stake. But during the only ten days he ever spent in Apia he became the storm-centre of events of world-wide interest. Samoa was at that time under the joint protection of England, the United States and Germany. The last, however, asserted its dominance. The German flag had been flying for eighteen months instead of King Malietoa's, and when Mr. Rees reached Samoa the one topic of conversation was the presence of the German fleet, rumored to have papers of annexation.

A party of rebel natives were being feted and visited by Admiral and officers, the flagship's band playing ashore while Admiral Knorr dined with Tamasese the rebel leader. On the following Monday morning, said rumor, the rebels would come into Apia harbor, receive last instructions from the German ships, land, loot, sack and burn, and then the Admiral, in the name of law and order, would annex the group.

Germans Glide Out of Harbor.

Malietoa came to consult Mr. Rees, who vainly implored the British Consul to intervene to save British lives and property. He studied the agreements of the three powers guaranteeing the protection of Samoa. In that of the United States was a clause not found in those of the other two—that, in the event of threatened hostilities, the United States would use its good offices to avert attack. Under this, he persuaded the American Consul most reluctantly to hoist Malietoa's flag under the Stars and Stripes, and to inform Dr. Steubel, the German Consul, and Admiral Knorr that King Malietoa was under the protection of the United States. The German replies to these communications, as well as to Malietoa's announcement of the facts and his assertion of his rights, were not merely strong; they were violent. The rejoinders of Mr. Greenebaum and of Malietoa (as anyone acquainted with “W.L.” might expect) were also strong and extremely pithy and trenchant.

Then, on Monday morning, the war canoes of the rebels swept into Apia harbor, went to the flagship for instructions and were ordered back to their camp. The German ships were hoisting anchor and preparing to leave when the Diamond's guns were heard, saluting the Admiral's flag. As the English ship came in the Germans glided out. There was feasting and laughter in Apia that night.

A Remarkable Prophecy.

In 1888, Mr. Rees, on his way to England, visited Washington and was received by the President, but found that Germany had gained later by diplomacy what for the moment had been snatched from her grasp. In London he learned that England had withdrawn entirely from Samoa.

He wrote the whole dramatic story for the Nineteenth Century (Nov. 1888) ending with a remarkable prophecy that, when the Great War came, the broken pledge of Germany to a Native King would meet with just retribution, and that the nation would have bitter cause to regret the leadership of the Kaiser, then newlycrowned and seemingly with a brilliant future before him. The article closes with the words “When that day comes, Malietoa and Samoa will be avenged.” It was strange that the first German possession lost in the Great War should be Samoa, taken by our New Zealand Expeditionarv Force before the end of August 1914.

Co-Operative Colonisation.

Mr. Rees' mission to England was to try to turn into fact a splendid vision of his mind. He and Wi Pere were entrusted with a quarter of a million acres of land in this district on which it was hoped to settle two or three thousand families from Great Britain, on the principle of what is now called “Group Settlement,” but which Mr. Rees, its first apostle, called “Co-operative Colonisation.” The money for such an Imperial project could well be expected from the Imperial Parliament. page 142 Payments for the use of land, for services, and for the use of money respectively would be made partly in cash and partly in shares in the Company. Mr. Rees also hoped to establish business relations with the English and Scottish Wholesale Cooperative Societies and to open direct markets between producing shareholders out here and purchasing shareholders in the Homeland, and so escape the menace of the trusts.

Mr. Rees and Wi Pere went to London, Wi Pere being much perturbed when he saw the shipping in the Channel, by the thought that all the people in England were going away, just when he and Mr. Rees had come so far to speak to them! Petitions from pakehas and Maoris were presented to the House. The big world listened eagerly to Mr. Rees' facts, theories and plans. Cabinet Ministers gave him attentive hearings. The House of Commons discussed the propositions. Several hundred crofter families were likely to be nominated and assisted by the owner of the Island of Lews. The British and Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Societies invited Mr. Rees to explain his proposals.

Great Interest in the Scheme.

A most influential committee, including Lord Onslow, the Earl of Aberdeen and fifteen or twenty equally well-known men and women, with the Marquis of Lorne as chairman, was set up to help Mr. Rees in London. His book on economics “From Poverty to Plenty” brought his mission still more prominently forward. He took an office at Westminster. Requests for lectures came from the most diverse quarters. One day he would address the leaders of thought or society; the next, perhaps a Radical Club in the Mile-end Road, a country debating society, or a vegetrian dinner-party. He attended the meeting of the British Association at Bath and read a paper on ‘Economics’ which aroused considerable interest. The newspepers throughout England reported every fresh step taken in his campaign, and the New Zealand press published frequent cables about the interest he was arousing.

Opposition Too Strong.

But with all this encouragement that he received there was also bitter and continued opposition. Anonymous letters appeared in the papers attacking Mr. Rees and declaring that the writers knew the land in question to be worthless, and that settlers on it would starve. Mr. Rees fought on, believing defeat impossible. But the opposition was too strong and the Government declined to consider the matter further. The blow, coming after the strain and hard work, was very severe, and Mr. Rees looked ten years older on his return to New Zealand in 1889. His own affairs had been neglected (except so far as they were bound up with his work for the community which had failed) and he lost Te Hapara.

Leaving Gisborne and making his home in Auckland, he was returned again to Parliament for his old seat. He was soon chosen as Chairman of Committees in the House of Representatives. His work in 1891 on the Native Land Laws Commission has been already noticed. In 1892 the “Life and Times of Sir George Grey” was published. This was almost an autobiography, for Mr. Rees and his eldest daughter who collaborated with him, living near Sir George were able to submit each chapter to him for verification or amendment of the facts stated, and to have access to his letters and documents.

The year 1893 found Mr. Rees again engaged in fierce political controversy. He charged Mr. Cadman, the Native Minister, with acquiring lands from Maoris while in office, throwing down a challenge in the House of Representatives that if Mr. Cadman would resign his seat he would do the same and test the feeling of Mr. Cadman's constituents by standing against him in his own electorate. Rees was defeated by a small majority and then had to defend a libel action on his charges. The jury found him technically guilty and assessed the damages at one farthing.

In 1894 he returned to Gisborne and did not leave it again until his death in 1912, except for short periods page 143 and a more extended visit to England to conduct appeals to the Privy Council.

Mrs. Rees' Modifying Influence.

This account, though not often mentioning Mrs. Rees by name, is the story of her life from 1863 to 1912, as she was associated with all her husband's activities, frequently modifying his extravagance of thought, and showing a greater mastery of detail than he. After his death, a year before they would have celebrated their golden wedding, her life seemed over, but as the months passed her affection for young people and flowers and growing things kept up her interest in life, almost, as it were against her will. Six years later, she passed away from a small world that loved her dearly.

In many of the causes dear to his heart and for which he worked untiringly, Mr. Rees met with little or no success. But his failures were partly the result of his over-sanguine disposition which saw a tree in full fruit when he planted a seedling, and partly due to the fact that he was a century before his time.

For the world at large, he wanted perfect industrial co-operation bringing commercial and national peace. For the Empire he wanted co-operative colonisation, a peopling of the wide empty spaces with prosperous happy citizens. For New Zealand he wanted just laws, a great future, liberty and progress not merely in wealth but in ideals, knowledge and vision. For Gisborne, besides the aims already referred to, he wanted large parks and playing fields. He persuaded the Native owners to offer one hundred acres of Kaiti Hill to the Borough Council at £10 an acre and fifty acres on the Waikanae, near Childers Road, at £50 an acre to the Sports Association—though that may not have been the name of the guardians of games of the day. Neither offer was accepted. In later years, he wanted the owners of bush sections to get the value of their timber instead of being forced to burn it; the owners of quarries to find a market for their metal; the local Councils to have stone for their roads and the harbor of his dreams; and he formed a plan by which these parties could work together to mutual advantage.

Sir Francis Bell's Tribute.

For himself, he wanted to give happiness, to plan great things, and help to carry them out (in which last attempt he beggared himself more than once), and to leave the world better than he found it. He was utterly lacking in the chief virtue of the commercial world. He had no money sense. With all his influence among the Maoris and his opportunities to enrich himself, he never accepted land or gifts from them. A prodigal giver, often in financial difficulties himself, he could make fortunes for others but when he earned a hundred guineas on a brief he would visualise a £300 plan of getting rid of it. Most kindly yet a born fighter; often impatient of a habit of thought or a standard lower than his own, he was greatly loved by many and disliked and feared by a few. Perhaps his most outstanding trait was that voiced by Sir Francis Bell: “One of the most unselfish and public-spirited men I have ever known.”

Late Mr. Wm. Miller, Senr.

Late Mr. Wm. Miller, Senr.