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Letters from New Zealand 1857-1911


page 192


Timaru, South Canterbury, February 20th, 1876.

My dear St. John,

After a few weeks in Christchurch, I found myself in my new sphere of work. Eighteen years ago I rode from Christchurch to Timaru, then a journey of several days, through a mere wilderness of tussock grass, no roads, here and there a faint track, rivers to be forded, with an occasional night camped under flax bushes, under the open sky. Timaru was then a mere name on the map, one small hut on the beach, tenanted by an old whaler and his wife; nothing else but the rolling, grassy downs, the cliffs, the surf, and the Pacific Ocean. Yet, even then, there was something which attracted the eye of my fellow traveller, an Australian, whose remark comes home to me now: "In a few years' time this will be a port and a centre of the district; if you have any spare money to invest here in land, you would find it profitable." To-day, I find here a flourishing township, backed up by extensive arable and pastoral country. A single line of railway from Christchurch runs as far as the Rangitata river, and from thence a coach to Timaru, which I did not need, as my parishioners had sent a buggy for me. As I had chanced to meet en route two English tourists, Spencer Lyttelton, son of Lord Lyttelton, page 193one of the founders of the Canterbury Settlement, and A. J. Balfour, nephew of Lord Salisbury, I gave them a lift to Timaru.

South Canterbury, I imagine, will prove to be the pick of the province; about a hundred miles by fifty of rich land, free from native forest, open to the plough at once, with a background of hill country, much of it as yet unexplored. The climate, also, is all in its favour, moderate rainfall, cold winters, but plenty of sunshine; with this a population, small at present, but of the sort which the founders of the Settlement took pains to attract; practically picked emigrants in all classes of society; bringing with them a fair amount of capital, strong hands, and stout hearts, ready for any difficulty in making new homes for themselves in this Southernmost of all the colonies of the Mother country.

I am in a small rented house, taking stock of Church affairs here. I am inclined to grumble, for, with the exception of the small site on which the church stands, given by Mr. G. Rhodes, the pioneer of South Canterbury, nothing has been done to acquire land, which could have been had for a mere song years ago, and now is at a dear rate. There is neither land for house or school, or any extension of Church work. At first the Canterbury Settlement did not extend to South Canterbury. Within its limits ample provision was made for Church sites; but with much lack of foresight, nothing of this kind was done when the Province was extended to the South. So I have all my work before me, with the prospect of having to borrow considerably to get a due foothold for the Church, besides paying one's way year by year, without any endowment.

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The Church itself is a curious structure; a tiny wooden nave, well designed, built by the first resident in Timaru, Captain Belfield Woollcombe, R.N., and his cousin, Herbert Belfield. Captain Woollcombe was, and still is, to a great extent, the factotum of the place; a typical naval officer, of ready resource; Magistrate, Coroner, Registrar, Harbour Master, Churchwarden, and Lay-reader. With his own hands he built most of the nave, so well, that it might last a century; to this was added at a later date a small transept and sanctuary, in stone, but of clumsy design and badly built. A certain amount of parochial work, with somewhat irregular services, has been maintained, but with the disadvantage of the clergyman's residence outside the limits of Timaru. "We want you," said Mr. Ormsby, the churchwarden, to me, "to get everything into working order." That, I thought to myself, will be a very large order for some time to come, for I find I am in the position of a settler on land which has been badly farmed, instead of having virgin soil to tackle, as was the case in Westland. But I am with people, of whom the larger proportion are Church folk, who give me liberal assurance of support and co-operation, so I have little doubt of the future. "The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground; yea, I have a goodly heritage."

Come with me, and have a glance at the general contour of the place. A coast line, not unlike that of the Southdowns at home, with the Pacific Ocean in place of the British Channel clay cliffs instead of chalk, buttressed by outcrops of dolerite rock; a sheltered bay, in which several ships are lying at anchor, with little risk, as the prevailing winds seldom blow on shore. The surf is not nearly so heavy as on page 195the West Coast, so we can have a cruise in a whale boat and get a good view of the situation; rolling downs, which lie up against mountain ranges forty miles inland. Ships are lightered here by surf boats, but there is already talk of a breakwater, a plan having been received from Sir J. Coode, of Colombo Harbour fame, for an enclosed harbour, rather an ambitious scheme, but quite possible, considering the enterprising character of Timarau colonists. One of them, a typical old salt, Captain Cain, has a firm belief in it. Years ago he was a sailor lad on a brig trading to the North Island, before Auckland was colonised, and eventually became owner of a small vessel, the first to visit Timaru regularly to supply the wants of the place. "I was chartered," he told me, "by Mr. G. Rhodes of the Levels Station, and one day he rode down to meet me on the beach, and said: 'What do you think I've done, Cain? I've been to Christchurch, and bought a hundred acres for fifty pounds just here,' pointing to the beach. "And when do you expect to see your money again?' said I. 'Cain,' he said, 'if we live another thirty years, we shall see a harbour here, and those cliffs covered with 'willas.'" I own I was fairly puzzled at this, till I surmised that the Captain's pronunciation of "villas" suggested the idea of "willows," of which as yet there is no sign in Timaru, the only trees being eucalyptus and pines of a few years' growth. But of the villas there is no doubt, as already the town, though small, is well built. There are other prosperous centres of population in South Canterbury,—Waimate, Winchester, Temuka, Geraldine, and Pleasant Point, all within my Archdeaconry.

page 196
8th July, 1879.

My first years here have been full of encouragement. It was evident at once that a considerable venture of faith had to be made, to provide sites for parsonage, schoolroom, and for better church accommodation. The Vestry, aided by leading business men, decided on the purchase of a suitable site for a building to be used as a temporary church, during the erection of a new church on the present site, and afterwards as a schoolroom and parish hall. Liberal subscriptions were forthcoming, but not sufficient, without borrowing a considerable sum. It may seem rash to incur debt, but in a young community like this, with all its life before it, prudence yields to an optimistic forecast of the future, and I feel sure that I am doing right in encouraging the enthusiasm of the moment, which is very strong. So we have arranged for a spacious temporary church of wood on concrete foundations; a parsonage house of brick on the same site, and further, a plan is being considered for the new church, of which I will tell you in a future letter. Moreover, we find that parishioners are willing to lend money on debentures issued by the Vestry for a term of years, and we see our way to meet the interest thereon.

Meanwhile an event has occurred which has given me much anxious thought. The Bishopric of Waiapu has fallen vacant through the death of Bishop Williams, one of the pioneer missionaries who did such splendid work amongst the Maories previous to the arrival of Bishop Selwyn. The Diocesan Synod of Waiapu have met and unanimously nominated me to the vacant See. I must tell you of the difficulty of my position. The nomination is made with every ex-page 197pression of regard and confidence, laying stress on the fact that there have been serious troubles in the diocese which, in the opinion of Synod, I am better qualified to deal with than any other person they know. They earnestly press my acceptance of the See. But, on the other hand, there are grave considerations which I cannot ignore. There is no endowment of the Bishopric; the late Bishop was a man of private means; there is no house, and further, by far the larger proportion of the population is Maori. I have next to no private means, my knowledge of the Maori language, in which the late Bishop was proficient, is merely superficial, and would greatly handicap me in the oversight of what is chiefly a Maori Diocese; and, to accept such a position, without income or house, on the chance of both being forthcoming, is a venture of faith I am honestly afraid of making. In addition to this, my present obligation to the Diocese of Christchurch, and the work in Timaru so recently begun, seem to me a responsibility not to be lightly laid aside. It was no easy matter to come to a decision, nor was it made easier, after I had declined the offer, by a further communication from Waiapu asking me to reconsider it; but, all things considered, I have felt it right to adhere to my refusal of the See.

Since writing, I have again visited Westland, which remains part of my Archdeaconry; a three days' journey from Timaru, which I did in fine weather, but with an awkward adventure in the Waimakariri river. In Spring and early Summer rivers here are liable to floods fed by snow and glacier, which melt rapidly in Nor'westerly weather. On the second coaching day we were obliged to halt at the junction page 198of the Waimakariri and the Bealey, where the riverbed is very wide and rough, often merely intersected with a network of streams of moderate depth, but on this occasion one sheet of rushing water. There is a small hotel there, where we spent the night, hoping that in the morning the river might have fallen enough to allow us to ford it. Against the advice of the old hands of the place, in the morning, the driver attempted it. I was on the box with him, and a groom, who confided to me that "he had come to lend a hand, as he was sure we should make bad weather of it." He was right; the coach stuck fast against a boulder midstream, the water rose nearly to the backs of the horses; one of them fell, and the whole team would have been drowned, had not the groom managed to get down on to the pole, unhook the traces, and set them loose. They drifted down stream, and landed safely. Meanwhile we were left, the water running through the open sides of the coach, drenching the few inside passengers, and rising nearly to our knees on the box. Rescue was at hand; the mounted constable, who is stationed at the Bealey, rode his powerful horse into the stream, and backing to the coach, shouted, "Jump on behind me, and hold fast," The water was rushing over the saddle; I took the first jump from the box, and, gripping him by the waist, was convoyed ashore, followed by the others, fortunately only two men, the coach being left like a wreck at sea. The river fell that afternoon, the coach was extricated, and, after an evening spent in drying baggage, we proceeded on our journey next day.

Approaching Hokitika, at Arahura, I saw in the distance a number of boys on either side of the road. "They are your boys, Archdeacon," said the driver,

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"with a wagonette and pair to drive you home again." To our great amusement, one of the passengers, an American tourist, said, "So you're returning home, and those are your boys, sir; I congratulate you, sir, a very fine family!" They drove me through the main streets of the town, with much cheering, and amongst a number of my old parishioners who had assembled to welcome me. I spent three weeks in Westland, visiting every centre, preaching, lecturing, and renewing old acquaintance; but I imagine an Archdeacon's visitation here is very different to anything of the sort at home, certainly in one matter; there are no visitation charges, either in word or coin.

Fresh gold has been discovered at Kumara, further inland than hitherto, not far from the road to Christchurch, and there is a considerable rush of miners to the place. We shall need an additional clergyman, making in all a staff of three on the Coast; on my return through Christchurch, I saw the Bishop, and arrangements will soon be made to supply a suitable man.


A great disaster has occurred. Vessels from England lie off Timaru in a safe anchorage, landing their cargo in surf boats; the breakwater which I mentioned is begun, but is not sufficiently advanced to form a harbour, but, as a rule, there is little risk here, as the Timaru bay is not a lee shore, and the surf is not heavy.

It was a calm Sunday morning in May; four ships were in the roadstead at anchor, and as I returned from an Early Service in the Gaol, I noticed the beauty of the sea, which lay like a silver shield sparkling in the sunshine. Within in a few hours there was page 200a marvellous change. Our Morning Service at St. Mary's was nearly over, when we were startled by signal guns of distress, and an ominous gathering roar of surf. Everyone made for the beach, where a furious sea was running, with immense waves, probably the result of a tidal wave caused by some submarine explosion in the Pacific, for there was not a breath of wind. Presently, three of the vessels broke away from their anchors, drifting towards the rocks which form a headland to the north. Their crews took to the boats, with little chance of making the shore in such a sea. Then came a call for volunteers to man the harbour lifeboat, and other whaleboats; there was no lack of response; five boats went to the rescue, for it was seen that two of the ship's boats had capsized. As the last boat was leaving the wharf, a man I knew well came running down and, noticing a friend who had taken his seat at the bow oar, sung out, "Come out of that, Jack, you're a married man, I'm not," and he took his place; a steady, hard-working fellow, a Swede, a fine specimen of manhood, seldom absent from St. Mary's evening service. The boats met a terrible experience; for three hours they battled with the sea, which still increased; swamped, righting again, picking up drowning men, until at last they reached the shelter of the breakwater, but with the loss of twelve lives, the Harbour Master, Captain Mills, so exhausted, that he died soon after he was lifted out of his boat, and amongst the missing was the gallant fellow who had given his life for his friend. It was a strangely tragic afternoon; brilliant sunshine over all that surging waste of waters; on land the calm peace of an Autumn day; nearly the whole population of the town on the beach, watching the page 201struggle with death, unable to help; and at last the return of the rescuers, battered, bruised, and spent, with the men they had saved. Then, as if to remind us that "the waves of the sea are mighty and rage horribly; but yet the Lord Who dwelleth on high is mightier," by the time of Evening Service there was a great calm, and under the clear moonlight "the gentleness of Heaven" was over all. You may imagine the congregation, and the solemnity of our Service that night.

A few days later, the bodies having been recovered, amid a vast concourse which well nigh filled the cemetery, I committed them to their last earthly home. A committee has been formed to collect funds for the relatives of those who were lost, where needed, and for the erection of a Memorial granite obelisk, to be placed near St. Mary's Church, where several streets meet. There is no lack of liberal and ready benevolence in such a community as this for such a purpose.

I am gradually getting the Sunday School into shape; this has taken time, as I found merely a handful of children, with a few teachers, and a state of indiscipline that needed strong measures. There is no chance of a Church Day School here; the secular state system holds the ground, with an excellent building, a good staff of teachers, in every way an admirable school save for the great defect of complete absence of Biblical or religious teaching. So we must make much of Sunday School work, supplemented by week-day classes. This, I hope to make a success, as I find many who are anxious to aid in Church work, There is a well-managed Hospital here, in which Sunday Services are held by Mr. Turnbull, one of the pioneers of the place. Actual poverty hardly exists, page 202but in order to meet cases of illness and misfortune, with the aid of several, including an old friend of mine in Hokitika, William Evans, who is engaged in the flour milling trade of the place, we have instituted a Benevolent Society, to which the public generally subscribe, and on its committee there are representatives of all religious denominations.

Visiting here is different work to that in Westland, open country, scattered population, but excellent roads, which would do credit to a much older place, the result of a system by which the Board of Works receives a proportion of all money acquired by Government by sale of Crown lands. The Board's affairs have been well cared for by its chairman, Philip Luxmoore, whom you may recollect at Eton, nephew of Dr. Pusey. I do a great deal of walking, with some riding and driving; there is no river trouble to be faced, and the difference between the rainfall here and Westland is immense. There, an average of over a hundred inches, here, a mere twenty-eight, per annum.

Talking of holidays, my idea is this: to stick to work here for some years, and, when the opportunity comes, if possible, to have a year or so in the old world again. I have a great longing to see something of the Continent, and especially of Italy. I have no lack of books, the mails are faster than some years ago, but one feels the want of that quickening of intellectual life which you enjoy in constant contact with cultured minds. After nine years of daily talk of gold and wash-dirt, this pastoral land, where Wool is king, is apt—to quote George Herbert—"to transfuse a sheepishness into my story," and one runs the risk of "being in the pasture lost." So I keep at my habit of study, reading every morning as far as pos-page 203sible, to say nothing of Home papers and magazines, and always find some kindred spirits ready to discuss them.

I am,
Yours ever,

H. W. H.