Sonja Slinger: Settlers came to country with 'finest climate, and the most productive soil'

"You will think I am romancing but I give you my honour that I am not.  Some cabbages growing on a piece of bush land on ...

"You will think I am romancing but I give you my honour that I am not. Some cabbages growing on a piece of bush land on our farm measure five feet across and have only been planted out eight weeks." - unidentified settler.

They were a brave lot, those early settlers who sailed into a new and somewhat wild Taranaki colony in 1841, not really knowing what they were coming to or what they might find.  

Many of them arrived with young families, little money and few belongings.  

But they had big dreams - of prosperity and a new life in this small Pacific nation, far away from the mother country, England.  Sonja Slinger looks at the challenges they faced in establishing their gardens here in Taranaki.

"We have had enormous radishes, stupendous carrots and all sorts of vegetable wonders." - Charles Hursthouse

"We have had enormous radishes, stupendous carrots and all sorts of vegetable wonders." - Charles Hursthouse

The New Zealand Company promoted the colony as a paradise.  

In England, Edward Wakefield spoke in glowing terms to a House of Commons committee in 1836: 'Very near to Australia there is a country which all testimony concurs in describing as the fittest in the world for colonization, as the most beautiful country with the finest climate, and the most productive soil; I mean New Zealand.'

Books, pamphlets and broadsheets promoted New Zealand as 'a Britain of the South', a fertile land with a temperate climate, free of starvation, overcrowding or class wars.  

Agents spread the good news around the rural areas of southern England and Scotland.  The company offered free passages to mechanics, gardeners and agricultural labourers. The first ships arrived in Wellington from January 1840, Whanganui from September 1840, New Plymouth from November 1841, and Nelson from February 1842.

Investors in the company were promised 100 acres (40.5 hectares) of farmland and one town acre. The initial 1000 orders were rapidly taken up within a month

But when they disembarked, after a long (3-4 months) and often miserable journey, it was no paradise they found.

 While some tracts of land had been cleared by late 1841 in New Plymouth, most of the area was still in dense bush and the town had a few houses built of rush and rough timber.  There were rats and dwindling food supplies plus the settlers faced unease over the prospects of raids by Waikato Maori.

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George Cutfield, the head of the expedition, wrote a letter home, describing the settlement as "a fine country with a large quantity of flat land, but every part is covered with vegetation, fern, scrub and forest. The fern, on good land, is generally from four to six feet high."

Charles Hursthouse in his book 'An account of the settlement of New Plymouth', wrote that "the forest was a tangled mass of luxuriant vegetation" and presented a formidable appearance to the English axeman.  

 A dozen good men living on the spot, working together and stimulated by utu (payment) would soon cut down a 20 acre clearing …. would probably be done for 30 shillings."

As tracts of farmland were cleared, grain crops were planted first – wheat then barley.  Wheat grew much better.  It took some time for the new settlers to understand the growing seasons for barley and it was also plagued by a caterpillar in summer which attacked the ears of the crop.

Oats were also attempted but didn't grow so well either, primarily because of the same hungry caterpillar.

Tools were basic, and minimal, because the early pioneers had only brought essential items.  In Hursthouse's book, it recommends to prospective immigrants bringing a small chest of the most useful carpenters' tools, strong scythes for cutting fern stalks, strong slat axes for grubbing up tutu stumps, shovels, cart wheels and axle.

 Later, many tools were made locally using native timbers, for example, harrows from Puriri and Rata.

However, persevere they did and by January 1843, New Plymouth had grown, and was described as a collection of raupo and pitsawn timber huts housing almost 1000 Europeans.

By 1844 it had two flour mills on the Huatoki River and by 1847 it was recorded there were 841 hectares of land in cultivation.  

Wheat and maize (corn) was well established and in south Taranaki, Maori had huge plains of wheat, to supply the region and as far south as Whanganui.  They traded this wheat with the early settlers, who mainly used it for flour and bread, as well as potatoes and kumara.

The first potatoes had been handed to a Maori chief in Mercury Bay by James Cook in 1769.

Wheat peas and rice had also been given to them that same year by French explorer de Surville but these were foreign to them, unlike the potato which resembled kumara, and it soon became a staple in their diet.

By the early 1800s Maori were growing pumpkin, marrow, melons and other introduced crops such as onions, beetroot, cabbages and other greens.  Early missionaries had also brought seeds and some plant cuttings, including roses.  These were also traded among the new settlers in New Plymouth.

As settlers arrived, bringing more people (and labour) and food, they also brought seeds and a few plant cuttings. But those early years were challenging and survival was the priority.

In the garden, the emphasis was on food.

 They grew edible plants first and rough beds were established in town sections growing potatoes, beans, peas, cabbages, parsnips, carrots and onions.  Few could afford the time or money to establish a lawn of fine English grass, nor worry about beds of beautiful roses.  

The nourishment which came from the burning of bush in the highly fertile soil produced crops of unimaginable size to the new settlers.  

Letters home to England from settlers in New Plymouth conveyed some of the delight they found in growing here.

From Hursthouse:  "I have grown vegetable marrows, from William Bayley's seed, 2 feet six inches (0.76m) long and I have one no win the garden 26 inches (70cm) in circumference.  We have had enormous radishes, stupendous carrots and all sorts of vegetable wonders."

From John Nairn, gardener, in 1843:  "The foliage of the trees and shrubs here is beautiful…the beauty of the climate is beyond an Englishman's imagination being that of a perpetual summer."

Unidentified settler in 1843, to Thomas Woolcombe, Devon: "You will think I am romancing but I give you my honour that I am not.  Some cabbages growing on a piece of bush land on our farm measure five feet across and have only been planted out eight weeks."

Benjamin Wells wrote in 1878 to his mother and proudly listed the plants he had growing: White moss rose, cabbage rose, monthly rose, indica minor rose, sanguine rose, geraniums of all variety, lupins, scabious, Canterbury bells, hibuscus Africanus, Cape Gladiolus, frararia, escoltyhia, linums, sweet Williams, Indian honeysuckle, foxgloves, hollyhocks, pumpkins, French beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, Savoy cabbage, kale, Brussel sprouts, asparagus.  He also had young plum, cherry, gooseberry, currants, quince and grape vines.

Honeybees were introduced from Europe to New Zealand in 1839 and quickly made themselves at home.

 New settlers sometimes came across wild swarms and managed to capture some to start beekeeping.  New Zealand had and still does have its own native bees, 28 species in fact, and while they do pollinate plants, they are generally attracted to native plants and live in nests in the soil.  

Bumblebees were introduced around 1884 in the South Island and within a few years they were found throughout the country, including Taranaki.  They had a great impact on pasture, pollinating clover and crops.  

Nearly all the common varieties of fruits from England were introduced.  Local Maori had already discovered peaches during the 1830s after travelling to Sydney with whaler Richard "Dicky" Barrett and they established peach groves in Northern Taranaki covering several acres.

Settlers had few real pests to worry about, some rats, pukeko and a native parroquet, as well as the odd wild pig, were the only real destructive animals. The Australian brushtail possum was introduced to New Zealand in 1837 for the fur trade but it took many years before it became a pest to the early settlers.

Rabbits were introduced in the 1830s for food and sport and rapidly became a pest, although more in rural areas of Taranaki in the early settlement years.

The dreaded white butterfly weren't recorded in Taranaki until 1932.  Introduced in a ship's food scraps, the species were first seen in Napier in 1929 and within months millions were sighted throughout the country.

Unfortunately not only fruit and vegetables grew well in Taranaki. From the earliest days of settlement, some introduced ornamentals have run riot, thriving in the fertile soil.

They include hedges (privet, boxthorn, barberry, gorse),flowers (honeysuckle and jasmine, South African Lily montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora), kaffir lily and Chilean rhubarb (gunera tinctora) which has become a pest on some South Taranaki coastal cliffs.

New Plymouth's lost gardens

  • One of New Plymouth's earliest significant private gardens had a short but spectacular life before being destroyed in the name of progress. Situated in the valley, now filled, on the site of the New Plymouth District Council building, Henry Weston's garden in Carrington St was a well-known draw card for visitors to early New Plymouth. The garden was destroyed in 1874 to allow the Waitara railway line to climb out of the Huatoki valley.
  • Gardeners have always put their garden first, often to the surprise of their neighbours.  Grace Hirst, who lived in nearby Willowfield wrote in 1863 of Richard Chilman's estate, situated on Gilbert St between Gover and Cameron Streets: "… Mr Chilman has built a very handsome house but as usual he has put it in a deep gully, he seems to do this for protection for his garden, which is very beautiful.
  • On the other side of our house towards Te Henui is Mr Hulke's. His house and grounds surpass Mr Chilman's but you know what a mania he has for a garden, but he is rich and has no family so he can afford it."
  • Now lost under suburbia, Frethey's Gardens in New Plymouth were a popular picnic spot for over 30 years. Established in 1908 by John and Maude Frethey after they moved from Kaponga to New Plymouth, the gardens were situated around what is now Budleigh Street.
  • The gardens in their bush-setting were continually developed over the years, eventually sporting a tennis court, croquet green, a maze, arbours, teahouse, children's playground, a couple of lakes with goldfish, a pigeon loft and guinea fowls on the lawns.
  • The home of James C. Sharland in Bonithon Avenue, New Plymouth, was once renowned for its extensive layout and fine plantings. He moved to Auckland in 1866 and there founded the pharmaceutical firm Sharland and Co.



 - Taranaki Daily News


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