Here’s Looking At You

In recent weeks, I’ve spent a great deal of time looking through 120 year-old newspapers while researching for a book that I’m writing. After many hours of electronically turning the pages (the papers are online) one gets a sense of the historical events unfolding as if in a movie.

People act out their lives, businesses crash, pubs close, councils and boards meet, bridges are built, buildings burn to the ground – the printed word generates an impression of a newsreel playing out on the screen.

So it came as a shock when I turned one electronic page and found the editor of the Poverty Bay Herald looking straight back at me from 1889.

Poverty Bay is a large sandy bay on the East Coast of New Zealand’s North Island. It’s principal claim to fame is through being Captain Cook’s first landing place on his rediscovery voyage in 1769. Following in the wake of Abel Tasman’s voyage, Cook initially intended calling the bay Endeavour Bay, after his vessel. However, his first contact with local inhabitants was fraught with misunderstanding, deaths occurred, and he was unable to replenish essential supplies. As he left somewhat chastened, he named the area Poverty Bay, “for it provided no one thing we wanted.”

The first traders arrived early in the 19th century, and the nucleus of a settlement sprang up at the confluence of three picturesque rivers – the Waimata, Taruheru and Turanganui. The area was known to local Maori as Turanganui-a-kiwa and, as a village formed, locals shortened the name through common usage to Turanganui and then Turanga. However, as the colony of New Zealand developed, the use of Turanga was causing confusion with another settlement called Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty.

In 1868 it was decided to rename the area near the three rivers Gisborne, after William Gisborne, the Colonial Secretary. There was some resistance from locals who rather liked Turanganui and it seemed that the plan might not go ahead anyway. A government blunder meant that the deposit on the sale agreement had not been paid and, in any case, the sale agreement between the crown and the Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki tribes was missing – probably having been destroyed when Major Bigg’s home was burnt during the Poverty Bay Massacre

A fresh agreement was drawn up on the 9th of August 1869 and the town of Gisborne came into being. Interestingly, the district then nearly followed the Hawke’s Bay model where two settlements (Napier and Hastings) vied for domination in the area. With a population of about 500 in the early 1870s, Gisborne had a strong rival in the settlement of Ormond inland on the Poverty Bay flats. At one stage, Ormond seems to have been more populous than Gisborne boasting a 30-strong Armed Constabulary, the area’s first band (a drum and fife band) and two hotels.

Travel with the rest of the colony was fraught with difficulty. The area inland from Gisborne was covered by dense bush which held the unstable steep hillsides in place. Road building was severely restricted by the lack of suitable roading material – most of the local stone turned to pug in wet weather and more than one waggon got bogged down and had to be abandoned until things dried out in the spring.

This allowed Gisborne to “win-out” against Ormond by virtue of its location on the sandy shores of Poverty Bay. By the 1880s, Gisborne was a regular port of call for the coastal steamers despite its lack of a deep port. Intending passengers had to brave a sandbar as they headed to and from steamers moored in the bay in whaleboats, rowboats and the hard-working Harbour Board lighter The Snark.

They were an enterprising lot, as I can aver, having spent a fortnight earnestly trying to develop square eyes through trawling the pages of the Poverty Bay Herald on the National Library’s Papers Past website.

During the 1880s Gisborne’s boom/bust economy saw the South Pacific Petroleum Company drilling for oil; land agents, publicans and lawyers filing for bankruptcy, the first stage of the port designed and developed and, of course, the panic caused by Te Kooti’s intention to revisit the area in 1889. The coal gas company was extending its gas network through the town and the fire brigade installed a steam engine to pump water to the business area of the town following three major fires that virtually ripped the heart out of the town.

Reading these stories day after day causes them to coalesce into something of a movie as people live out their lives through reports and comments in the daily newspaper.

So it came as something of a shock when I saw this item by the editor of the Poverty Bay Herald on the 9th of April 1889. Suddenly, it seemed that the one-way view from the present to the past had been reversed.

“Sir Julius Vogel’s new work Anno Domini 2000 is on the way to the colony. The plan of the book is evident from its name – it is a story of the world 120 years hence, and has for its sub-title ‘Woman’s Future.’ This sub-title will give some notion of the moral of the novel, if novel it can be called; and to make his meaning clearer Sir Julius has added a statement in explanation of his purpose. His objectives are – first, to show that a ‘recognised dominance’ on the part of either sex is unnecessary, for in 2000 A.D. a woman is guiding the destinies of the Federated Britain; secondly, to convince his readers that the materials are at hand for the formation of a federated empire, capable of defying the world; thirdly, to suggest a means of neutralising the great evil of poverty and misery in low class life. How all these ends are accomplished let the reader discover for himself. If he care to open the book he will learn of the fortunes of Miss Hilda Richmond Fitzherbert, the member for Dunedin in the New Zealand Parliament, and Secretary for Foreign Affairs in the Federated Parliament, after Duchess of New Zealand, and finally Consort of the Emperor of Greater Britain. That these fortunes are very exciting, or anything above the average of fortunes, cannot well be said, but they are on a somewhat different plane, and may possibly be followed with some interest. For a few particulars, such as flying cars, Sir Julius has been anticipated by the Rev. H.C.M. Watson, of Christchurch, in his romance, ‘Erchomenon,’ published some eight years ago. On the whole, the book will be read more for the name of the author than for any great intrinsic merit or interest.”

Here’s looking at you from the past, researcher. Now get up off the floor, right the upturned chair and get back to work.

Leave a Reply