Observant recorder of nature

19:46, Jul 16 2014
john hardcastle
MANY TALENTS: John Hardcastle, editor, geologist and scientific thinker.

Professor Ian Smalley of the Geography Department at Leicester University writes here about former Timaru Herald editor John Hardcastle, a major scientific thinker who, until recently, has not received the recognition he deserves. He is now noted in the Te Ara encyclopedia. The university has been studying Hardcastle's writings since 1980.The following has been contributed by Prof Smalley.

John Hardcastle was born in Yorkshire in 1847 and died in Timaru in 1927. His was a proper New Zealand existence and he contributed to life in several ways. He was a journalist; he spent 40 years with the Timaru Herald, becoming editor for a brief period; and he was a geologist, an amateur geologist but a dedicated and expert practitioner.

His hammer and hand lenses reside in the South Canterbury Museum, and he is becoming more appreciated as his geological work is examined closely. His geological virtue was in careful and exact description and his descriptions are still valid and valuable.

His theories and interpretations may have proved wrong but the descriptions are useful. He was a writer, and it may be that he should be most appreciated as a writer, as a generator of a form of literature, as a real contributor to New Zealand writing. Now his writing might be described as 'popular science' and there is a great vogue for it. But there is something more about the Hardcastle writing. It is more than just popular science. There is an air of association: this is the essence of South Canterbury, this is a special look at the Hunters Hills and the other wonders of South Canterbury. Hardcastle published long pieces in the Timaru Herald. He was the right person in the right place at the right time with the ideal journal available.

He described the remarkable geological fortune that had provided Timaru with a harbour and an income for the inhabitants:

"A paper of considerable length might be written on the effect of the existence of lava rocks on the character of the coastline between Pareora and Washdyke, but we must be content with remarking that but for these rocks at sea level, there could be no port of Timaru today, nor any suggestion that an artificial harbour could be made anywhere between Oamaru and Banks' Peninsula. "The reefs in the sea and on the coast are the material foundation of the shipping trade of Timaru, and the artificial moles are but additions and improvements upon the provision made by Nature for the convenience of the import and export trade of South Canterbury."


(Notes on the Geology of South Canterbury, 1908).

The Hardcastle family disembarked from Yorkshire at Lyttelton on April 12 1858 and John's father Thomas soon found employment at Longbeach, near the mouth of the Hinds river, where he was in charge of Fitzgerald, Cox & Co's cattle-grazing station. In 1863, after Longbeach was sold, he bought the property of Castlewood, near Geraldine.

Thomas was a man of character and determination, as shown by the decision to move to New Zealand, and he made a considerable impact on the local community. He played a major part in the construction of St Anne's church at Pleasant Valley near Geraldine, one of the oldest extant churches in New Zealand (150th anniversary in 2013).

At Castlewood he broke in the land for a dairy farm. John, as a boy of 16, went to Timaru, then a pioneer settlement of about 1000, to run a milk round and after that he could not settle back on the farm which, as eldest son, he was expected to do. The milk delivery business failed because of competition, and for the next few years John travelled around the South Island doing a variety of jobs. After another period at Castlewood, he went to Christchurch to train as a school teacher. This he completed in Australia on 23 April 1878.

He came back to New Zealand and was appointed teacher at Waihi Bush School near Geraldine. He spent a short period as acting headmaster of the Temuka School and became chairman of the Pleasant Valley School Committee, and it was while he was acting- headmaster at Temuka School that he ventured into journalism, with the Temuka Leader.

In 1879, in his early thirties, he became a junior reporter and proofreader with the Timaru Herald and apart from a period of about three years when his family moved to Napier, his association with the Herald was to continue for nearly 40 years - mostly as a reporter, then subeditor, and on two occasions as editor.

In the 1880s he spent time in Hawke's Bay, before returning to Timaru to take up the editorship of the South Canterbury Times, and he joined the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Institute in 1889. His name is on the membership list from 1889 to 1898, and he rejoined at the age of 77 in 1924 and remained a member until his death in 1927. In 1889 and 1890 he presented the two papers on loess soils and loess ground which have subsequently become quite well known and are widely seen as the first recognition that loess deposits contain palaeoclimatic information.

In 1890 he did his best science and thereafter he devoted himself to writing. This transition is observed in the lives of many eminent scientist/writers, for example Steve Jones or Richard Dawkins. So for about the first 20 years of the 20th century John Hardcastle contributed his detailed essays to the Timaru Herald. In 1908 a collection of his geological material was published as a small book Notes on the Geology of South Canterbury and he co-operated with Johannes Andersen on the preparation of the Jubilee History of South Canterbury (published in 1916).

The early part of the jubilee history dealing with geology and related matters is essentially Hardcastle material. He was particularly lucky in his setting. South Canterbury is a region which is outlined by the Rangitata river to the north-east and the Waitaki to the south-west, by the Southern Alps with Aoraki/Mount Cook nicely placed in the north-west and the Southern Pacific Ocean to the south-east. He saw mountains and glaciers, rivers and lakes and plains, coast and beach, basalt and loess, shingle and sand.

"There is an enormous amount of wood on the beach, and for a few miles from Milford southwards, many stumps and sticks are seen in the break of the sea at high tide.

"The wood is for the most part stumps, though some logs have been washed up in past years, that have given good split posts. They are of totara, black pine, white pine, ribbon wood, and manuka, white pine being most numerous. Some of the trees were of large size, three or four feet in diameter; a short manuka tree not far from Washdyke lagoon is about 2 feet in diameter, quite a large size for manuka.

"The totara and black pine wood is, in many cases, sound and hard, and the roots frequently include even fine fibres that look as if they had been dead but a year. Yet this forest must have been buried a very long time, measured by years. It is buried under 10 to 12 feet of clay or loam, in two strata separated by a bed of lagoon mud full of drifted sticks, and roots of manuka that grew on the spot.

"To discover the slips in the deposition of the loam and the subsidence of the land which carried the forest bed down to sea level would be a nice little geological problem.

"For the rest there is not much to see along the beach.

"An oak beam full of wooden trenails, suggested the wreck of the Akbar; a very few pieces of rusty iron plate, that of the City of Cashmere. A couple of smashed fenders and a broken pile from the staging belonged to a later order of sea storms." (Timaru Herald, 9 November 1904)

Hardcastle arrived in South Canterbury soon after that region started to be settled and developed and he records aspects of a landscape which was in transition. The Port of Timaru, firmly founded on the Mount Horrible basalt, was developed during his lifetime. The Timaru Herald itself came into being and has provided the vehicle for the historical records.

"The most remarkable stream in Canterbury is surely that which claims the Rakaia, Ashburton, Rangitata, Orari, Opihi, Pareora, Otaio, Makikihi, Waihao and Waitaki as its tributaries, that stream of boulders, pebbles and sand which flows along the eastern coast for 140 miles or thereabouts; a stream which has neither bed nor bank; on which one may walk dryshod or be drowned, a boat may lie safely or be swamped or wrecked; which flows, not like water but by water, not by gravitation but against it, by fits and starts, both ways by turns, on the surface, and a part of the surface, and a part of the surface only; whose loss is not by evaporation or percolation but by trituration; the 140 miles of shingle beach that drifts along, defines, and defends, the coast line from Oamaru to Banks' Peninsula.

"Each of the rivers above named, when in flood rolls along its bed into the sea smaller or larger quantities of shingle, that has been gradually brought down from every spur and every gully, ridge, and cliff, in the country drained by its tributaries, - with a reservation in the case of the Waitaki. The Waitaki delivers the largest loads, but only some of its tributaries contribute to them. The glacier streams which go to form the Tekapo, Pukaki and Ohau, the three chief branches of the Waitaki, are 'silt trapped' by lakes, and their loads of shingle, enormous ones, do not reach the sea." (Timaru Herald, 23 April 1899)

John Hardcastle was a true nature writer, well ahead of his time.

The Timaru Herald