Hamilton residents wanted a safe bridge between the two communities, and joined forces so it would be built. But this didn't stop a number of issues from continuing to split the community in two. Tom O'Connor explains.
The formation of county councils, in January 1877, was hailed as a political victory for rural Pakeha communities and farmers but residents of the two Hamilton townships, one on each side of the Waikato River, felt they had been forgotten. At the centre of the grievance was a long standing requirement for a safe bridge between their towns to replace the ageing and unreliable ferry service.
While the Waikato, Waipa, Raglan and other county councils made an immediate start on raising funds for much needed rural roads and bridges, they had little interest, and certainly no money, for such a major undertaking. Most had started with significant debts in the form of bank overdrafts and land rates were set as high as their communities would tolerate. The government in Wellington had also declined to assist on the grounds that the huge expense would only benefit a few dozen people and there were much more important projects to focus on.
Early Hamiltonians were, however, as determined and committed to their community as their descendants are today and a number of public meetings were called to debate the issue. Their plight was finally recognised by premier, and former governor, Sir George Grey, who promised substantial financial assistance if the two townships could agree to combine under a single borough council. The Counties Act of 1876 allowed for the formation of boroughs and they would have the legal authority to set land rates within their boundaries, raise loans and negotiate bank overdrafts in the same manner as county councils.
Newly elected chairman of East Hamilton Town Board Albert Potter and clerk of the West Hamilton board James Gelling joined forces and drew up a petition to the government for a borough council. While others assisted them, these two men were the main driving force behind the idea and managed to get 130 land owners to sign up. While only 34 lived east of the river, the smaller of the two towns, and 96 lived on the west side, the two communities had finally decided to put aside inter-township rivalry and work together, at least until elections were held. In those times votes were allotted on the basis of land ownership and some ratepayers could exercise more than one ballot but the balance of political power was still with west side residents.
The new borough council was formally gazetted in December 1877 and the first mayoral election was held on February 5 1878. Old rivalries resurfaced immediately when Albert Potter and West Hamilton chairman Issac Vailou were both nominated, with former East Hamilton chairman William Cumming making it a three candidate contest.
There was obviously still some residual animosity between Cumming and Potter, the man who defeated him in the final East Hamilton elections, which showed up after the first round of voting in inaugural mayoralty elections for the new Hamilton Borough. Cumming was eliminated with only eight votes but he then called on his supporters to back Vailou over Potter. The final count gave Vailou 90 votes and Potter 72, and the man who had worked so hard to establish the new borough was out of the mayoralty but not out of politics for long.
To his credit Vailou did his best to unite the two communities for their common good and saw the long awaited bridge between them as a solution to the division but he, like many ratepayers, was to be disappointed.
Old rivalries and animosities died hard in Hamilton back then as they occasionally do today. The elections for the first council showed this just two days after Vailou became their first mayor. There were nine seats and 18 candidates with both east and west side ratepayers organising block voting tactics. So five men from the east side and four from the west were elected, and the scene was set for several years of divisive and often unproductive political arguments over both major and trivial issues.
The only people who enjoyed these confrontations were various editors of the Waikato Times who pulled few punches in their astringent criticism of old rivalries and poor decision making.
Local body politicians of the time had yet to learn the folly of attacking the news media. Within months of their taking office the new borough council wrote a stern letter to the Times complaining that a published report of an early council meeting, in which rivalries had led to heated exchanges, had been inaccurate and unfair. Most of the councillors were former military officers or from the upper classes of British society and accustomed to an obsequious respect from working classes and employees.
The newspaper, however, responded by publishing the letter in Waikato and further afield. The councillors were affronted and stung by such impudence but the paper and its editor were unrepentant. The message was clear "stop the tomfoolery and save yourselves public embarrassment". There were many more such exchanges over the years and it was the beginning of a long professional relationship based on mutual respect between equals. The old class system did not extend to newspapers in New Zealand.
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