I am reading David Johnson’s book Wellington Harbour (Wellington Maritime Museum, 1996) for my evening course on Wellington’s architectural history. In a post of – almost exactly – two years ago I wrote about my great-grandparents in Wellington – this was some research I also did for my evening class so it’s not surprising it is the same time of the year. Johnson includes a painting and some information on the ship they arrived in Wellington on – the St Leonards, and some background information on 1880, the year they arrived.
The picture, which shows the St Leonards being towed into port by the government steamer Hinemoa, is from page 139, and this is the caption.
Unfortunately they did not arrive at a propitious time. In 1879 land prices had fallen sharply and there had been numerous bankruptcies. Wool prices were lower than they had been for years and prospects of employment for new arrivals were not good. The programme of assisted immigration through the 1870s had built up considerable momentum and didn’t stop because employment became difficult to find. At a meeting of unemployed in February 1880 there was criticism of the government’s migration policy (some things don’t change!)
The wharf provided a place of entertainment for townspeople, as well as of business, and fishing. Immigrant ships were always greeted by onlookers. As Johnson says: “Yet some migrants were welcome. Of the 209 passengers by the ship Geraldine Paget which arrived in June, 120 were single women. Their arrival at the wharf attracted an even larger crowd than usual.” (p. 141). The government and the city council both created work schemes to try to provide employment relief. Those who could raise the fare, set out for Australia. Some of the men who left did have savings – in one week when two ships sailed there was quite a run at the Post Office Savings Bank as the men drew out their money. And assuming that many of them had arrived as assisted immigrants, the country also lost on the cost of those passages.
Johnson gives an evocative sense of what life was like around the wharf (this is Queen’s Wharf): “The everyday plod of draught horses as they patiently hauled drays, the peremptory cries of hansom cab drivers as they pushed their way through, the hissing … of engines on the steamers as they wound and unwound the winch wires, the parade of wellwishers to greet or farewell friends, the hooting of ships’ sirens to warn on impending departures, the calls of newspaper sellers, the orders of stevedores, and the jeering of sailors as their mates returned from the local pubs were all entertainment enough, but sometimes those who waited and watched were rewarded with a cameo piece… In January 1880 a minstrel show played to local audiences. When the time came for it to move on to Napier… rumour had it that a lady of the town had a matter to settle with one of the departing minstrels. …Anticipation increased when the woman was seen walking up and down the wharf carrying a horsewhip. Her visits on board failed to reveal her man…” (pp. 142-3).
There was also the stench of fish, where offal was thrown in the water at the end of the wharf next to one of the town’s all-purpose drains!
This is some of the background to my great-grandparents arrival in August 1880. It is perhaps not surprising they are thought to have joined friends in Wainuiomata for several months – probably while my great-grandfather established himself as a bricklayer.