The promised land
Albertland was to be a city to rival Auckland, a third religiously based settlement following the successful examples of Anglican Christchurch and Presbyterian Dunedin. Despite great fanfare surrounding the departure of the settlers from London in 1862, little came of the grand scheme, which was based in a quiet arm of Kaipara harbour 15 kilometres west of present-day Wellsford.
Driving home to Tapora one day from the farm store in Wellsford, I stopped for a German hitchhiker on Port Albert Road. He manfully hid his disappointment at being picked up by a Scot rather than a fair-dinkum Kiwi before confessing he wanted a look at Port Albert.
“Was the port a working one?” he enquired, and I could see he was happily anticipating a crisp autumn afternoon’s wander amongst such marine delights as hawsers and fish boxes, and maybe an interesting chat with sailors freshly ashore from coastal cargo voyages.
It seemed a pity to disillusion him. Five minutes later we pulled up at Port Albert wharf. Someone’s tinny bobbed at anchor in the middle of the Oruawharo estuary, and a dog barked outside one of the houses on the settlement’s one and only short street. The German looked at me, I looked at him, and the pair of us looked at the grey mudflats and the mangroves and the barnacled tinny.
“It didn’t work out,” I explained. “This is all that’s left.”
Emigration has always been fraught with problems, not least of which is the gap between the migrant’s preconceived ideas of the destination country and the warts-and-all reality of the place. My own transition to a new life 16 years ago was relatively painless, but what was it like for the real pioneers, when mass emigration appeared a heaven-sent solution to the human overflow from crammed Old World cities?
In 1861 a man called William Rawson Brame discussed the benefits of moving to New Zealand with some of his Nonconformist brethren. They were soon to become the Albertlanders, members of New Zealand’s third and last organised religious settlement. Ignorant of what they had taken on, they would struggle with harsh conditions and fears of hostile natives. Their names live on in now-prosperous farmer descendants, but their memorial is the never-realised plans for a Shining City of religious free thought on the banks of the Oruawharo River, 15 kilometres west of modern Wellsford.
It is hard for us in this secular age of Pop Idol and Coronation Street to believe just how worked up our recent ancestors got over questions of religion. The Industrial Revolution had created a vast middle class of clerks, craftsmen and tradesmen who ran the dark Satanic mills of England. Nineteenth-century inheritors of the Puritan mantle, with decidedly low-church religious leanings, they mistrusted the aristocratic Church of England and her current flirtation with the painted wiles of Rome. They were good, hard-working, pious people ripe for Christian self-improvement. With civil war in the United States closing off that Utopia to Britain’s land-hungry sons, attention focused on the raw countries of Australia and New Zealand. Two other New Zealand religious settlements, one in Otago established by the Scottish Free Church, the other in Canterbury set up by the Anglicans, had been notably successful. 1862 would be the bicentenary of the expulsion of the dissenting ministers from the Church of England. Why not mark this anniversary in a suitably grand fashion?
In his out-of-print book Albertland, J.L. Borrows wrote: In August 1861 an advertisement of a somewhat unusual nature appeared in a Birmingham newspaper. It invited enquiries from persons interested in the establishment of a non-conformist settlement in New Zealand. The advertiser was a young journalist, William Rawson Brame. To him belongs the credit (or blame) for instigating the Albertland Colonisation Movement.
Brame’s idea snowballed. Within weeks he received hundreds of letters from putative migrants and became honorary secretary of a settlement association complete with offices, a committee of management and a council of reference. A travelling secretary was appointed to handle publicity, and genteel functions were staged all over the English Midlands in an effort to promote the Albertland colonisation scheme. Bachelor Block, edited by E.J. Halfpenny, cites the following advertisement:
A Tea Meeting will be held on Tuesday April 8th in Park Row Chapel School Rooms, when W.R. Brame Esq. is expected to give an address on “The Future Prospects of the Colony”. … Tea at 6 o’clock – – – Tickets 9d. each. After Tea admission 3d. when the proficient class of Mr. W. Petty of the Tonic Sol Fa School will sing several of their highly interesting pieces.
Rather fittingly, the name of the new settlement was chosen to honour HRH Prince Albert—Prince Consort, husband to Queen Victoria, father of nine, and middleclass icon of virtuous moral probity.
Despite the strong religious ideologies of the group, no one was turned away on grounds of faith. Applications poured in from professional men, labourers, tradesmen, servants and scholars, all willing to pay the enrolment fee of five shillings per adult and two shillings and sixpence per child to join the exodus. As more clamoured for inclusion, the fees went up—to cover administration costs, said Brame.
Someone did a few sums and the first discontented mutterings were heard. Whatever the rights and wrongs of Brame’s case, he didn’t help his situation much by cutting a deal with shipping agents Shaw Savill and Co. whereby he trousered five per cent commission on the passage money and freight charges of his brethren and got a free cabin and passage for himself and his wife all the way to New Zealand. On top of that, the Auckland Provincial Government was paying him for each person settled on the new land—ten shillings per adult and five shillings per child. Indeed, Borrows felt compelled to remark in Albertland, with deadly politeness: “it seems that Brame had more than made provision for any possibility that he would come out of the venture a loser”.
Eventually, after repeated urgings by his fellow committeemen, Brame fronted up over his alleged wheeler-dealings. Serenely, he assured everyone that his arrangements with Shaw Savill and the provincial government represented his only financial take, that he had costs to defer and that no one would be subjected to further expense. It says a lot for the man’s personality that he apparently satisfied his restless cohorts, although the demon malcontent was not dead, merely sleeping.
The colonists were also pacified by the generous grants from the Auckland Provincial Government of 40 acres (16 ha) of freehold land per man, plus a further 40 for his wife and 20 each for his children, if he stayed on the land for five years. This juicy carrot was dangled to lure people into the sparsely populated countryside and to discourage them from joining the flight to Australian goldfields. To ambitious lawyers’ clerks, carpenters and barbers from terraced houses in the smoky cities; to skilled farm workers who had no chance of tilling their own piece of dirt in the land of their birth—to these men, for whom “land-owning” equated to “gentry”, the 40-acre scheme promised untold riches.
The association appointed two men to go out to New Zealand, have a look around and report back. One of the two, Joseph Newman, was a Kiwi colonist in England on business. The other was an Englishman named Jones. They were adjured to be thorough in their reports for, as Brame said, the settlement was to be no “plunge in the dark”. Jones and Newman set off in a whaleboat from Auckland in January 1862 accompanied by Charles Heaphy, the Auckland Provincial Surveyor, who had three blocks of land to show them. They landed at what is now Silverdale and set about their task, taking copious notes as they went.
The party stopped off near Orewa to inspect the Waiwera Block and were most impressed with a local farmer’s bumper crop of potatoes, but local Maori wanted to keep the coastal land. Later, this area became home to the Bohemians, whose descendants inhabit the Puhoi valley today (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 21).
Next, Heaphy took the pair up what was optimistically marked on maps “Great North Road”, to the Komokoriki Block. Attempts three years previously to clear the route had long since been overwhelmed by jungly undergrowth encroaching from the adjacent forest. Both explorers crossed Komokoriki off their list.
One more district remained for inspection: the Oruawharo Block, on Kaipara Harbour (see New Zealand Geographic, Issue 26). After an arduous overland journey during which they depended upon the abandoned gardens of nomadic Maori to eke out their meagre provisions, the intrepid travellers sighted the huge inlet. Jones waxed lyrical about its vast waters, navigable by vessels of 400 tons (408 tonnes), but the more cautious Newman sounded a minatory note, warning his superiors of the bad repute in which shipping insurers held the treacherous Kaipara bar. There had been “repeated heavy losses,” he wrote, “…but not of recent times”. He thought that a small steam tug would overcome any problems. Meeting up with local Maori, who proved hospitable, sociable and commercially astute, charging a handsome price to convey the party by canoe to the home of the Reverend William Gittos, Jones and Newman grew more convinced with every step of the potential of the country.
Gittos was a Methodist missionary who had won the loyalty of the Kaipara tribes during his ministry at the Otamatea mission station. He was “a giant of the Knights of God”—a well-deserved epithet for a man who combined intelligence and sensitivity with raw courage. He had already been in correspondence with the Albertland association and supported its aims. Nothing would please him more than the establishment of a holy citadel to shine its beacon of godly light across the Kaipara wilderness, and he had advised the association on the type of good people he would like to see brought out.
Under Gittos’s guidance, Jones and Newman surveyed a spot on the banks of the Oruawharo River for their city, Jones estimating that ships of 300 tons (306 tonnes) would have no difficulty in unloading direct onto a natural jetty in the river. Returning to Auckland, the pair lost no time in asking the provincial superintendent that the Oruawharo Block be reserved in the name of the Nonconformist Association.
Jones and Newman’s eagerly awaited epistle to the Albertlanders met with raptures of delight. It described the extensive water frontages and valuable timber stands of the Oruawharo Block, advised on the type of agricultural implements needed to break in the land and even gave details of the kinds of insect pests to be met with. Newman brought the state of the Great North Road to the association’s attention, but the overjoyed Albertlanders, busy planning elaborate projects and anticipating only blue skies ahead in their new land, dismissed the roading issue as a minor hiccup. Anyway, it had already been suggested that the settlement site could be accessed in large vessels via the harbour. Who cared about the road?
In a florid speech larded with biblical references, Brame lauded his two emissaries. Jones and Newman were the Israelite spies sent into the Land of Canaan by Moses. They had been “faithful spies…for while they do not fail to describe the beauty and luxuriance of the land—and the very grapes of Eschol seem to have hung around their path—still they do not shrink from the recital of what might deter minds less earnest than those who have counted upon these things.”
This last was in response to another of Newman’s warnings: “it will require much skill and judgment on the part of the first pioneers…otherwise difficulties and discouragements will arise when you arrive and these difficulties may greatly obstruct the fulfilment of your plans”. To alert ears, a cautious note was playing. Unfortunately, nobody in charge was in the mood to heed a party pooper.
The Albertland settlement association swung into action. A system of disposing of the land by ballot was presented to the Auckland Provincial Government for approval. Surprisingly modern plans were drawn up for the new town, including a school, flourmill, library, newspaper office and sawmill. The association was determined that theirs would be a model community, built through Christian cooperation and run on pseudosocialist lines. Two doctors, a schoolteacher and a journalist were engaged to attend to the physical and temporal health of the townsfolk, and after much interviewing of prospective candidates a Baptist minister, the Reverend Samuel Edger, was chosen to be the pioneers’ spiritual guardian. A temperance society and an agricultural-implement association were formed and noble plans laid for “triumphal processions from Auckland to the Settlement” and “villa residences on the Oruawharo”.
Two ships, Matilda Wattenbach and Hanover, were chartered from Shaw Savill and Co. to carry a first wave of colonists the following May, with a third ship engaged to leave with a second body in June. Finally, Brame and the association wrote to the provincial government requesting that work on “Great North Road proceed at once”. The association knew the government was sitting on £2500 allocated for completion, and without the road, attempts to hold a triumphal procession through the “mirkwood” of the Komokoriki Block could prove problematic.
All over England, farewell addresses were rehearsed and subscriptions raised to present suitable testimonials to colleagues setting off for the other side of the world. The Albertlanders packed their bags, said their goodbyes to family and friends and savoured their last English spring.
EMIGRATION OF EIGHT HUNDRED NONCONFORMISTS TO NEW ZEALAND blared the headline in the Illustrated London News of June 7th, 1862. “The London Docks were thronged at an early hour on Thursday week by an immense concourse of persons assembled to witness the departure of the first instalment, about eight hundred persons, chiefly members of different Nonconformist bodies, who are emigrating to the new colony of Albertland, New Zealand.”
Onlookers—15,000 of them—gathered at East India Dock on the morning of departure for farewell speeches. A curiously prophetic final hymn, Father, Though Storm on Storm Appear, was sung, and the multitude, led by a brass band, moved off in procession to where Matilda Wattenbach and Hanover were tied up. The vessels slid out into the river, their decks alive with waving handkerchiefs. Cheers from the crowd drowned out the cannon salute and the band playing Auld Lang Syne. At Gravesend, the “select few” relatives and friends allowed on board disembarked after more speeches, and the ships made for the open sea. Passing the Lizard, mainland Britain’s southernmost point, on June 9th, the passengers aboard Matilda Wattenbach looked their last on England.
Matilda Wattenbach, at 954 tons (973 tonnes), was 91 tons lighter than her companion vessel and made good progress once she struck the light trade winds. The ship’s passengers and crew enjoyed a shipboard rag, the Albertland Gazette, got up by Samuel Johnson, the journalist appointed to edit the settlement’s newspaper. The voyage passed uneventfully until July 3rd, when the ship’s log recorded the tragic death of a 16-year-old sailor, William Robertson, who fell from the topgallant yard onto the deck and died of his injuries a few hours later. As Matilda Wattenbach neared the Cape of Good Hope, disaster struck again. One miserable Sunday evening, the Reverend Samuel Edger was below taking a service. Let him relate what happened, as quoted by Borrows:
We had got half way through a hymn when the ship gave a big lurch, and down crashed one hundred human beings, men, women, and children, pots and pans, innumerable kettles and crockery ware… The captain’s orders were “All hands on deck; all passengers keep below!” sounds well known at sea and sufficiently ominous! Not many minutes of suspense, for there through the main deck projects the end of a yardarm, two feet into the cabin below, where Mrs. Marcroft is just putting her child to bed!
The ship had lost both her main and mizzen masts in a storm. Battling mountainous seas, she was impossible to steer. It was thought she would have to head for Cape Town to be repaired, but the crew managed to rig jury masts and the ship carried on to Auckland.
Matilda Wattenbach wasn’t alone in falling foul of inclement conditions. Brame was once again facing the wrath of his brethren, this time over his reluctance to mix with the common herd. He had scored a nice cabin for himself and his wife as part of his commission on his comigrants’ passage money, and, not unnaturally, the proles in their dismal hutches below took his aloofness as a personal affront.
Women in particular had a hard time, having to cook, clean and care for their children in a family space about as big as a double bed. Muck seeped down endlessly from the livestock pens on the top deck, and one roll of the vessel could tip bundles of clothes and bedding onto the dirty floor.
Accusations of snootiness were not Brame’s only trouble. A number of the pioneers had announced that they had no intention of going on to Albertland, wanted to abandon the whole thing and would jump ship in Auckland to seek their fortunes there. Facing the possibility that his cherished scheme might disintegrate round his ears, Brame made an effort to rally the dissenters. He published a stirring article, couched in the best Victorian verbosity, in a further edition of the Gazette:
We are one! Be that our watchword evermore. Inscribe it on our banner. Let it pass through our ranks, that all but the base-hearted and craven may shape their future in common accord with a sentiment so grand and ennobling. May many an illustrious example be recalled to bind us yet closer and render our union more indissoluble…
The article touched upon Brame’s pet vision—the triumphal march of the colonists to Albertland. Discoursing airily upon the “arduous and honourable work in conducting that almost unparalleled march inland… which will be a really glorious incident in our enterprise”, he clearly envisaged a banner-waving, cheering throng wending its way north with him at its head: a Nonconformist Napoleon en route to Moscow. Amongst the flowery prose, he made imprecise references to the conveyance of the Albertlanders’ “immense cargo of personal effects”. This vagueness did not go unnoticed. The more practical of the pioneers had a few curly questions no one wanted to answer. Just how were they going to get the women, the children, the agricultural implements, the printing press and all their other bits and bobs from Auckland to the Oruawharo?
Matilda Wattenbach arrived in Auckland on September 8th, 1862, followed nine days later by Hanover. The Albertlanders were given temporary accommodation in the government immigration barracks in Freeman’s Bay. Wandering around the town, the new arrivals were agog at tattooed Maori, the wooden buildings, and the streets, which were little better than scoria-lined tracks. If they had expected more sophistication from Auckland, they were sadly disappointed. Living conditions were primitive, few houses boasting the modern conveniences of gas, coal, baths or even a decent water supply. One of the first correspondents to the New Zealand Herald complained that citizens had “their food, eyes, and throats filled on windy days with a finely prepared powder of scoria, dirt and horse dung”. Wet weather turned the ground from where this mixture was blown into an impassable quagmire.
Auckland may have been a dirty, backward hole in the 1860s, but at the time of the Albertlanders’ arrival the town was experiencing something of a boom. Several thousand British soldiers were quartered there as fearsome Waikato and Hauraki Maori threatened daily to march on the infant city and raze it to the ground. The newcomers were puzzled, then dismayed, by the incredulous reaction of the townsfolk when they told them of their plans. Despite their boggy streets, ramshackle buildings and lack of basic amenities, never mind the prospect of a rampage by bloodthirsty warriors, none of the Aucklanders envied the pioneers. Pitying smiles or amused sniggers were typical Auckland responses to Albertland enthusiasms.
At long last, 12,000 miles from home, Brame’s followers began to wake up to the grim reality behind the rosy dreamscape. Work in the city was plentiful, so many of the migrants quietly evaporated, taking jobs, moving their families out of the barracks and forgetting their contract with Brame to settle in Albertland.
Jones and Newman, in their report to the settlement association, had recommended sailing from Manukau Harbour to Kaipara Harbour and thence to the site of the projected town on the Oruawharo, but some of the pioneers found that a ship had been arranged to take them to Mangawhai, from where an overland trip by bullock dray would get them to Te Hana, at the head of the Oruawharo River. Passage from Te Hana to the settlement site, now christened Port Albert, would be by boat. Others were advised to sail to Riverhead, portage to the Kaipara River, then take to boats again up the harbour. Yet more were to travel overland from Helensville to Port Albert, while a few hardy souls sailed right round the top of the North Island from Waitemata Harbour. These journeys proved anything but triumphal processions.
One group, having sailed up to Mangawhai, was put ashore at Te Arai because the vessel was unable to pass the difficult bar at the entrance of tiny Mangawhai Harbour. The captain assured his passengers that Port Albert was only just over the hill. Three days later, they were still wondering which hill. One woman, fed up with waiting for a bullock dray to take her to Te Hana, walked there with her three little children. When the kids got tired, she left two, carried one a hundred metres or so, sat it by the path, then went back for the others in turn. In this way she covered 30 km, on a sodden clay bush track, wearing typical Victorian female accoutrements—corset, petticoat and ankle-length skirt.
The Reverend Edger, plus family and friends, took the Riverhead route to Helensville. Edger’s daughter Marian wrote of sitting with her sisters on lurching piles of boxes atop a sledge being hauled over an unformed road littered with fallen trees. The girls soon gave that up, preferring to scramble in their long skirts through the dense undergrowth. One of the drays overturned, spilling boxes, and the case containing the Edgers’ piano was left standing in the rain for several days. Apparently Brame had extracted more money from the good reverend for having his goods transported over this leg, a transaction that soured all subsequent relations between the two men. Brame had tried a similar trick on another man, one Hovey Brookes, and been firmly told where to get off, but how many others, less assured than Brookes and Edger, hadn’t wanted to make a fuss so had stumped up the cash before heading north in a deeply unhappy frame of mind?
Be that as it may, after accepting the hospitality of an Irish farmer, the doughty reverend set off with four companions in a small boat in an effort to reach Port Albert and send back a bigger boat for the others. The crew were caught in bad weather, lost their sail and ended up marooned on a mud bank. Rescued by some Maori, they set off northwards on foot.
In the meantime, some of the party left at the Irishman’s accepted a lift in a cutter but the captain misunderstood their directions and dropped them off at a creek near Tauhoa, many miles south of Port Albert.
Before leaving England, Brame had engaged a farm manager, Thomas Inger, to work his New Zealand property. To help the settlers move to their new home, Brame bought a boat, sent it to Helensville and put Inger, who had never handled a vessel in his life, in charge of ferrying people up the harbour. Inger’s first three passengers were two brothers by the name of Baldock and a man called Jones. The travellers knew as much about sailing as their skipper.
Things went swimmingly until they decided to haul up at Shelly Beach for the night. Inger carefully tethered his craft but made no allowance for the rise of the tide, and whilst the mariners slept, their boat, with all their food on board, became swamped. Someone had to go back to Helensville for more tucker, so, leaving the Baldocks on the beach with a pile of luggage, Inger and Jones bailed out the boat and sailed away. Inger was to comment years later that it was just as well they never discovered the harbour mouth or they’d have sailed right out of it. For two days they drifted around the inlet, looking for Helensville or the Baldocks, till they staggered ashore, ravenous, at Hoteo—a considerable distance from either destination. A settler fed and sheltered the pair till a cutter, which had been dispatched from Helensville to look for the men, turned up and took them back to town. In Helensville, people asked where the Baldocks were. “God only knows, for I don’t,” replied Inger.
In fact, the two brothers had acquired food from some nearby Maori but felt uneasy in the vicinity of so many natives, about whom they had no doubt heard all sorts of hair-raising stories back in Auckland. One brother stayed with their possessions while the other headed back to Helensville, from where a boat was eventually sent to retrieve the first. In spite of his little contretemps with the Baldocks, Inger was put in charge of another boatload of pioneers. He steered them up the Makarau River and had to be rescued again.
Still, by boat, foot and bullock team, the Albertlanders were dribbling into the Oruawharo Block. No one can describe their disillusionment better than Marian Edger, again according to Borrows:
“The rain having ceased, we started to walk to our own land, a distance of some two miles away over hills on a slippery clay path not more than a foot wide, with wet scrub on either side, then across a creek on stepping stones. On the other side of the creek was some felled bush over which we had to scramble as best we could for a distance of about a furlong. Here a spot had been cleared for our tent but the ground was soaking wet with recent rain, and there was nothing to do but sit on a damp log watching the firelight and waiting until it was possible to pitch our tent. Such was our arrival at our new home. Romance had faded into reality.”
Of those who came with the intention of being part of the Nonconformist settlement scheme, only about half actually went to the Albertland area, and of these less than half remained to pioneer the district.
It didn’t take the Albertlanders long to work out that they had been abandoned in a wilderness. Their block consisted of scrub and fern, there was no road—anywhere—and seafarers didn’t want a bean of their custom if it meant sailing into the dreaded Kaipara Harbour. Word trickled back to the brethren waiting in Auckland, many of whom turned their backs on the whole thing, cut their losses and took jobs in town.
Brame was in conniptions over this mass desertion of his beloved settlement scheme. He was also losing money big time. After all, the provincial government was paying him a commission on each person he managed to get established on the Oruawharo Block. No people on the land, no cash in the pocket. In a desperate attempt to keep his baby afloat, he canvassed the backsliders in Auckland, promising work at five shillings a day if they went to Port Albert. Some were persuaded, only to be given four shillings, so promptly threw in the towel and returned to the city. Vexed and frustrated, Brame travelled up to Port Albert in October 1862 for the first land sale. Instead of the orderly beginnings of a bustling new town, he found a few tents on a hillside and a bunch of very angry people.
In view of the patently disgruntled behaviour of his late disciples, Brame’s subsequent actions were bizarre to say the least. Some of the land had already been disposed of by ballot, but the Albertland association had set aside 550 acres (223 ha) beside the provincial government’s township reserve with the intention that this be subdivided into small sections. Brame tried to claim this land, wanting to broker the sections to buyers on behalf of the association and thus make up some of the expenses he claimed to have incurred. The Albertlanders objected, preferring to form a body of trustees to administer the sales. In spite of their protests, Brame hung on to the title to the town lands and then sold off 35 acres (14 ha) at a public auction in Auckland for the sum of £960. He saw this as recompense for the failure of his dealings with the provincial government—after all, he’d brought folk out from England for them and it wasn’t his fault if the settlers chose not to go beyond Auckland. Their failure to settle on the Oruawharo was costing him a lot.
Word of the auction got back to the Albertlanders, who went ballistic. They had left their comparatively comfortable lives in England, overcome extreme danger in their travels to the other side of the world and had struggled through flood and forest to reach a Promised Land that proved to be a remote and inhospitable wilderness. Brame was lambasted for everything that had gone wrong and branded a scamp by those who had enthusiastically marched to the beat of his drum back in Britain. He visited the settlement once more, in December 1862, and left a broken man, the only epitaph on his departure a dismissive aside in a letter written by one of the Albert‑landers: “Brame has gone to Auckland and says he shall never come back again. Everyone here hopes it is true.”
Three months later, at the age of 30, Brame died of a brain haemorrhage. Shortly before his death, and under pressure from a solicitor, he signed over the remaining 515 acres (209 ha) of town lands to the Albertland trustees.
The Albertlanders were relieved when at last the wet spring weather gave way to the warmth of summer, though heavily dressed women and children suffered in the unfamiliar torrid stickiness and everyone was plagued by mosquitoes and sand-flies.
An unhappy wife is the best spur to a spot of DIY, and with the heavy clay soil drying out and the days growing longer, the men got busy. They constructed temporary nikau-thatched whare; some even contrived to build proper cottages, which nevertheless had to remain window-and doorless while joinery was brought up from Auckland by ship. Gardens were established, and the settlers, many of whom were townies, learnt how to care for their chooks and the few cows they possessed. As they worked together, the entrenched class distinctions of their old life in Britain slowly eroded. The gentleman and the labourer cut logs, ploughed the ground and tended their crops side by side. The mood of the whole settlement lifted. Team spirit was the way to go.
The people of Ngati Whatua, under the Christian chiefs Paikea Te Hekeua and Arama Karaka, brought gifts of potatoes and kumara to “their” Pakeha and traded peaches at good prices. It was a pity that to begin with the pioneers were suspicious and even afraid of the Maori and reluctant to have anything to do with them, despite the chiefs’ many declarations of friendship and the Reverend Gittos’s assurances that the tribesmen only wanted to help.
This attitude remained unchanged until the day the embryo town was overrun by a gang of armed Waikato warriors, who had escaped from Kawau Island, where they were being held. The Waikato hoped to incite Ngati Whatua into joining them in driving the Pakeha away but were tactfully disabused of this notion by Parata Mae, the chief at Puatahi. After a few weeks swaggering around the district, getting drunk, trying to kidnap a settler at gunpoint for a coveted pair of trousers and having no luck stirring up the locals, the Waikato faded away. The Albertlanders at last knew that they could trust their Maori neighbours.
Indeed, without the goodwill of the local Maori, the colonists would have found themselves in dire straits. Many of them knew nothing about rural life and were now dependent upon such agricultural skills as they could muster to feed themselves. They planted crops according to the British calendar, forgetting that the seasons in their new home were back-to-front. One fellow sowed split peas and wondered why nothing came up. Another, given some pine cones for seed, planted them whole in rows like carrots. Someone else harvested his oats by pulling up the entire plant then chopping the roots off with a hatchet. In a novel attempt at tree-felling, one of the pioneers drilled holes round the circumference of a trunk with an auger, then sat back and waited for the wind to finish the job. Lacking a broody hen to sit on a clutch of eggs, another chap tied his rooster to the nesting box in a primitive effort to get the male to take a more active part in child rearing.
Mistakes caused many a setback, but the major deterrent was the intolerable amount of sheer backbreaking donkey-work. Even with all the conveniences of power-driven implements, scientifically formulated fertilisers and professional veterinary care, farming at the beginning of the 21st century is a tough, demanding, physical job. The hardship and grinding toil faced by early settlers such as the Albertlanders is unimaginable.
Many of them simply gave up. A year after the founding of the settlement, several of the cottages and whare lay empty and the pathetic patches cleared of scrub had reverted to their original condition. Rumours of near disaster and mismanagement had also reached England. People waiting to sail out and join their families and friends either decided not to bother or made plans to settle elsewhere in New Zealand. Yet some optimistic souls were still willing to give it a go, amongst them the family of Hovey Brookes and his brothers.
The brothers wrote to their parents itemising the many things they were to bring out when they came to join the settlers. Naturally, practical considerations came first, with requests for hayseed, clover seed, good sets of harness, knee boots and fence wire. Hovey also advised his mother and sisters to bring their pretty frocks, for, isolated though they were, the talented Albertlanders enjoyed quite a social whirl of dances and musical recitals at each other’s homes. Supplies of cocoa, treacle and lard would help lighten the food bills, and some carpet and nice china would make their house more homely.
Fourteen-year old Charles, the youngest brother, had some special wishes of his own: “You must not forget woodnuts, primroses, violets and holly berries. You had better ask Mr. Yates at Strelly to get you some holly berries.” Poor Charles. I too miss holly and primroses, but they would never survive the searing heat of a Northland summer.
Among those who stayed on in the district, feelings of camaraderie and good fellowship deepened. Every year on May 29th, they celebrated the anniversary of their leaving London in story and song, with a church service, a grand tea and a musical entertainment.
This sounds uplifting till one realises that fewer folk must have rolled up each year for a cuppa and a bun. Of the 3000 who had signed up to the Albertland settlement scheme, around 1500 made it north from Auckland, and it is thought that fewer than 300 attempted to stay on for any length of time. By 1881, only two families out of the original migrants—the Ingers and the Hindles—remained in Port Albert itself. The greater Oruawharo Block was home to around 60 families, while another 22 from later ships had settled the Paparoa and Matakohe Blocks further north. Wistful recollections of the optimistic ceremony, hosted by Reverends Edger and Worker, to mark the opening in 1863 of the township’s first street (graced by Isle’s Boarding House, “Fresh Butter Always To Hand”), would have provoked only melancholy sighs. Twenty years later, Brame’s putative holy citadel had dwindled to a tiny hamlet consisting of a handful of houses on that solitary street, a cooperative store and a sawmill.
Port Albert may have been a small place in the 1880s, but it was still noteworthy enough for a reporter from Auckland’s Weekly News to come up and cover the annual regatta on the Oruawharo River and to poke fun at the residents’ mania for hall-and chapel-building. The Albertlanders’ appetite for a rip-roaring religious dingdong between voluble men of the cloth had remained undiminished since the day they had left England to the strain of stirring sermons, and the journalist found particular joy in recounting the antics of a mob calling themselves the Conditional Immortalityites, who wanted to put up a meeting hall of their very own in which to propound their doubtlessly unique dogma to a rapt populace. Interestingly, many such edifices are still standing today, some half-derelict in the middle of paddocks, others converted into plush homes for Aucklanders fleeing the rat race. On a windy night, it is easy to imagine that the noise among the trees is really the ghost of some outraged Immortalityite calling down fire and brimstone on the heads of the sleeping townies who have dared to profane his tabernacle with gas barbecues and glitzy surround-sound home-theatre systems.
But the real Albertlander legacy consists of more than a few quaint buildings. The pioneers were quick to take on board any agricultural or horticultural innovations that would adapt well to their peculiarly wet microclimate and gluggy clay soils. Famed for its apples, Albert-land was one of the first major commercial fruit-growing districts in New Zealand. One orchard even had its own canning plant. Believe it or not, the country’s modern multimillion-dollar wine industry owes its beginnings to an Albertlander. During the late 19th century, Charles Levet—a coppersmith from Ely who picked up what he knew about viticulture from a book—and his sons were scandalising their devoutly teetotal neighbours with what was New Zealand’s first commercial vineyard. In fact, the Levet vintages were considered such ambrosial nectar that the governor general of the time, Lord Glasgow, condescended to bestow his name on their labels, and Levet wines were quaffed by the crate at parliamentary dinners.
Unfortunately, not all new ideas took off as spectacularly. Some progressive farmers flirted briefly with an Australian-funded tobacco venture in the mid-1930s. Their idea was to develop a tobacco industry in Albert-land to rival that of Motueka, but the project proved a damp squib when the crop was flooded two years in a row just before harvesting. The district’s mainstay has always been dairying. Once the remaining pioneers had cottoned on to the fact that their English farming methods didn’t travel too well, instead of persisting fruitlessly with arable farming they turned to cows, and Albertland became famous for its superb butter and cheeses. Dairy farming is still the foremost agricultural enterprise in the area, although the relentless northward march of the lifestyle farmer is seeing the advent of such exotica as olives and previously unheard-of breeds of cattle on pastures once grazed exclusively by Jerseys.
Illustrative of Albertland’s great leap into the diversity of the 21st century is the news that a descendant of Charles Levet is now growing bananas on his farm—the very place his great-great-grandfather nurtured his grapes and experimented with novel wine flavours for the delectation of the country’s Victorian elite. One hundred and forty-two years later, Albertland names like Shepherd, Inger and Oldfield have been joined on local school rolls by names from all corners of the world, and the perilous journey from Auckland on rutted bullock track or pitching sailing ship has been replaced by an hour-and-a-half’s smooth drive that Brame, embroiled in argument over the non-existent Great North Road, could never have imagined.
Throughout it all, however, the “city” of Port Albert has remained a sleepy backwater. The final nail in its coffin was hammered home when the railway bypassed the settlement in 1907 in favour of nearby Wellsford. Nothing remains now of Brame’s grand plan but a map, held in Wellsford’s Albertland and Districts Museum, showing the streets and other spaces of the Shining City: Government Road, Hanover Street, Florence Street, Market Place, Recreation Ground. Only lines on a piece of paper, but a fitting memorial nevertheless to the brave hearts of the Kaipara.
As for Brame, his widow returned to England and nobody knows where he is buried. A small hill nearby was named after him, but it makes a melancholy epitaph, having been used as a source of road metal for the district for years and now almost levelled.