Election 1893: how our foremothers voted.

In this second part of my ‘Election 1893’ blog, I attempt to gain some understanding of how my foremothers might have voted 118 years ago, on Tuesday 28 November, 1893. Unless we have documentary evidence about their political involvement, or the oral process has preserved some clues as to their political leanings through anecdote, we’re unlikely to know who they voted for in 1893 and, more importantly, why. Given the detail which has been preserved, it is possible, however, to indulge in some historic re-creation of how these women went about exercising their new-found equality.

In my previous ‘Election 1893 …’ blog I creatively imagined the half sisters Isabella Cable and Christina West stepping out together, from their Harrington Street homes in Port Chalmers. Exactly where were they going to vote, how far away was the polling booth and how might they have got there?  The Otago Daily Times of Wednesday 29 November 1893 informs that there was just one polling booth in Port Chalmers – in the Municipal Council Chamber – and further reports “ … the ladies – young and old – came forward in solid numbers to avail themselves of their newly-gained privileges; indeed, so many of the fair sex have not been seen together in the streets of the little seaport town for a considerable time past, and their presence from first to last made the proceedings exceedingly cheerful and lively.”

Did Mrs Cable and Mrs West walk the 1 kilometre or so from Harrington Street via Burns Street then along Wickliffe Street to George Street where at its northern-most end stands the Municipal Council building? And did they then, as we must now, recognise the relevance of these street names to the history of the Presbyterian Free Church settlement of Otago? Rev Dr Thomas Burns was the spiritual leader of the pioneer settlers and founding minister of the First Church of Otago. The ‘John Wickcliffe’ arrived on 23 March 1848 with the first ninety or so settlers, thereby establishing the date of Otago Anniversary Day, celebrated ever since. Or, perhaps they took an alternative route, along Harrington Street connecting with Magnetic Street, then down Grey Street to the corner of George Street where the handsome Municipal Council building had been completed just four years earlier.

Port Chalmers Municipal Building

Then again, did Mesdames Cable and West accept a ride on one of the “… several vehicles [which] were provided to convey ladies and others from the upper part of the town to the polling place”?  Clearly, some effort was made to ensure the newly-enfranchised participated. In the same Chalmers electorate, Isabella’s and Christina’s sister, Ann Telfer, would likely have voted at Pine Hill. It is reasonable to assume the polling booth was at Pine Hill School, established 1872 and probably the only public, or government, building on Pine Hill.

Mary Dellow and her youngest daughter, Emma Ford, both lived in Crescent Road (now Trafalgar Street), St Albans and would likely have voted at St Albans School, just a few blocks distant. Enrolled in the Christchurch Electorate, they were required to vote for three of eleven candidates, two of whom were ministers of religion – the Congregationalist Rev C H Bradbury, and Anglican Rev J O’B Hoare – and both of whom were prohibitionists.

Mary Coleman lived in the Avon Electorate, on a small farm in Hills Road, Marshland. The most rural of my voting foremothers, her nearest Polling Booth was the recently-built Marshland School near the corner of Marshland Road and Prestons Road – a good 45 minute walk away.

Marshland School opened 25 June 1888

And who took care of the four children, Harry (5), Tom (4), Tottie (2) and seven month-old Caroline? Or did Luke drive them all in one of the farm vehicles – the milk delivery dray or maybe a dog cart?

As we follow these women to their respective polling booths, what political issues might have influenced the way they voted? Beyond the principal decision whether or not to return the Liberal Government of the previous three years, there were two hotly-debated issues, both of which directly concerned the women of New Zealand: prohibition and education.

Women of Mary Dellow’s age were more likely to support the return of the Liberals, for old age pensions were in the offing. However, given her family’s significant commitment to the Weslyan Methodist Church whose stance on prohibition was immutable, she was more likely to favour the Prohibitionist candidates, Revs J O’B Hoare and C H Bradbury, whose campaigns were widely and publicly endorsed by such Wesleyan clergy as the Rev Len Isitt.

For Mary Coleman, whose own education was seriously compromised by the depressed Cornish tin-mining economy of her childhood, the Liberal policy of free, secular and compulsory education must surely have appealed. Moreover, she was casting her first vote in the very school where her eldest son, Harry, was either already attending or soon to attend. In his acceptance speech upon re-election to the House of Representatives the Liberal member for Avon, Mr W W Tanner, could for all the world have been speaking  directly to Mary Coleman when he said, “I thank the women for looking after the interests of their children.”

Special thanks to the current Marshland School Principal, Jacqui Pascoe, for permission to copy this photograph from the school’s website.

‘Bursting Up’ and giving birth

There’s a case to be made for celebrating a rather different sort of birthday today, 19 April : that of the family farm. It’s an idiosyncratic element in our nation’s growth and development; one that boxed well above its weight and, in the face of some fairly hostile odds such as distance from export markets, effectively demonstrated to the ‘developed’ world what efficiency could really deliver. Or so it once was – things a have changed a bit in recent decades.

Be that as it may, recent history cannot detract from one of the most significant political events in New Zealand’s rural history – the Liberal government’s Lands for Settlement Act , 6 October 1892 – by which the vast tracts of land under the control of wealthy, and thereby powerful, individuals could be ‘burst up’ into smaller economic units. Those who would otherwise have been denied the ability to farm in their own right found more equable access to land.

The first of the great estates to be subdivided in this way was the late William (‘Ready Money’) Robinson’s 84,755 acre “Cheviot Hills” estate, in North Canterbury. Negotiations with the Robinson family began almost immediately the act became law; by January 1893 they were unofficially complete; on 19 April, 1893, negotiations were deemed officially complete. In exchange for £304,826 (currently equal to an inflation adjusted $52,926,897.22) Richard John Seddon’s Liberal government enabled the settlement of 178 families, amounting to some 900 people, on land which had formerly sustained the employment of fewer than 100 single men.

Although the formal agreement is dated 19 April 1893, the disposal and occupation of “Cheviot Hills” land extended throughout the remainder of the year and into 1894. By far the greatest proportion of the former estate was initially either leased in perpetuity or leased for grazing; relatively little was freeholded at this point. Subsequent Liberal land legislation modified and amended the terms and conditions by which land was acquired and farmed.

For those of us who are the inheritors of a now diminishing experience, ‘raised on the family farm’,  we have the Liberal leader and Premier, Richard John Seddon and his (Scots Highland) Minister of Lands, John McKenzie to thank. I have a lurking suspicion that my late grandfather, Harry Coleman, understood the politics in a particularly appreciative manner, for he inculcated my childhood with the importance of ‘King Dick’, by which the imposing figure of the Rt Hon R J Seddon was affectionately known and by which title his biography by R M Burdon was published in 1955.

In her biography ‘Ready Money’ (2006), great-granddaughter Margaret Wigley expresses William Robinson’s legacy, thus: “The sale of Cheviot Hills …  set New Zealand firmly in the direction of the small independent family farm, rather than large estates paying income to absentee owners and heirs as has happened in other parts of the world.”

This fourth generation daughter of a small independent family farm remains grateful for the bursting up of the big estates, ‘King Dick’ and an instructive grandfather.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

Political influence on an infant: the Walter Nash effect

Oral culture has everything to recommend it not least because so much of our personal history and so many of our experiences are enshrined, and thereby perpetuated, in story. For as long as I can remember – and even longer – this simple story was told …

When I was just 11 months old, my parents took me on holiday. That meant they had to take my pram as well, which in turn meant they had to take the little grey truck to cart me and my clutter about. For a night or two, may be more – can’t quite remember now – we stayed at the Fox Glacier Hotel in South Westland. One of the fellow guests was none other than the then Labour opposition leader, Walter Nash.

In typical whimsical, tongue-in-cheek, throwaway manner, my father apparently said to my mother, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were seated at the same dining table as ‘old Walter’?” Someone must have overheard, because that is exactly what happened! And at that very table, an apparently very genial, well-humoured, child-friendly politician played ‘peep-bow’ through the flowers with me.

End of story? Well, almost, but not entirely.

Every story has a context which, when thoroughly interrogated, delivers  multi-layered, multi-dimensional and multi-coloured understandings. And this one is no exception.

The little grey truck I can actually just remember. In today’s parlance, it would be a ‘ute’. Not quite a Holden or a Ford, but certainly an assertive declaration of my father’s ‘farmer’ occupation. I’ve since checked up: this little grey truck was an International, Series ‘D’ model.  When I saw one of identical pedigree, beautifully restored to immaculate glory on display at a vintage tractor rally a few years ago, I went particularly gooey in the marshmallow portion of my inner person and thought most fondly and romantically of my first holiday, Fox Glacier Hotel, flowers and Walter Nash.

But there’s another level of association with this simple story that pertains to the treatment of eczema.  For those of us then afflicted with such a skin condition, the only known treatment was a hideously greasy, lanolin-based ‘ointment’.  At this point politics and medicine collide. Walter Nash’s  esteemed presence was sufficient to provoke my mother to declare she was not taking a greasy-faced child down to breakfast any more. So, from that point on, there was no more smearing of eczema with greasy ointment. More significantly, from that point on, the eczema simply disappeared. At this point I must now publicly declare my enormous gratitude to the late Sir Walter Nash for healing me of eczema.

Always fired with enthusiasm and passion to share New Zealand’s unique and amazing history, I’ve just reacquainted myself with one of this country’s foundational social historians, the late Keith Sinclair, and his biography of Walter Nash.  Simply titled, “Walter Nash”, and published in 1976 by the Auckland and Oxford university presses, its chapter titles from Nash’s time as Labour Party secretary (1922-32) roughly parallel successive phases and markers in both Nash’s political career and my father’s life.  But that is an altogether different set of stories …

I retain more fond memories of the Fox Glacier Hotel to which we returned some four years later on a family holiday. By then I had a gorgeous, impish and fun-loving younger brother, but our antics of this time are not really the stuff of blogs. As for flowers, they’re best left on the Fox Glacier Hotel dining room table, usefully serving the needs of Walter Nash and me.

By Dr Jennie Coleman

9 April 2010