When Germaine Greer barnstormed New Zealand in 1972 the women's liberation movement was a bit of a joke. She didn't come to New Plymouth, but her week-long stay was headlined by the news media, especially a court case when she was acquitted of a charge of using an offensive word-'bullshit.' By the time she left, her message-that domesticity was a confidence trick, that women were being cold- bloodedly exploited to keep the economy on an even keel, and that marriage did not operate in the interests of women-had created an impression which had far-reaching effects. She was regarded by many women as a salvationist; by others as a moral anarchist. And a Taranaki Herald editorial mirrored the views of most men-and not a few women-by suggesting that her motto should be Floreat Excretum Tauri . But it is significant that following her visit, the Women's Liberation Front, which had for some time demanded some sort of equality with men, took on a more positive influence. For many years after the first settlers had arrived at Ngamotu in the 1840s, essentially, perhaps, because the historians were male, men had been the history-makers. Men had rowed the boats ashore through the surf; men had landed the provisions, erected tents and raup shacks; men selected their sections and cut into the bush and pit-sawed timber to make their single-roomed houses. Men were the leaders; the decision- makers. Father's word was law.
But most men had brought wives and families with them who shared the privations and hardships as the settlement struggled to survive. Woman's place was in the kitchen, cooking on camp ovens, making bread, soap, candles and other necessities oflife; washing clothes in the Henui and Huatoki Streams, and in their spare daylight hours toiling beside their men in the bush-and then sitting up half the night knitting, quilting, embroidering, and making and mending torn clothes by candlelight. And their place was in the bedroom too. They were expected to bear large families-and they did, some of them a child a year-to educate their children, to tend them in sickness. A study of the headstones in any of the town's cemeteries reveals their frequent lack of success. The result was that women were forced to become adaptable, ingenious and independent in situations where they could seldom count on outside help. History records little of their tribulations. Why should it? Was it not all part of the scheme of things? Sarah Hellier (later Mrs Sole) was 11 when she came to New Plymouth with her parents, John Hellier, his wife and their six other children, in November 1841. In an interview on her 98th birthday, Sarah recalled a woman's view of life in the settlement during the turbulent early years.
The Conditions on the ship (the Oriental) were 'rather cramped.' The married people shared one large compartment which had bunks in tiers around the walls. 'The only privacy was to be found in one's bunk. Imagine donning all the complicated garments worn at that time, and doing it on a bunk with only curtains to hide you from the public eye.' Sixteen months after their arrival Elizabeth Hellier was widowed when her husband died after an accident as he was sawing timber for their house. She was left with eight children (the youngest aged five months), and the eldest boy, Thomas, aged 13, automatically became 'head of the household.' They bought a cheap section on Poverty Flat, and Thomas, helped by another lad, built their first home, of one room. Money was scarce and so was food. At times the settlement was near starvation. A small garden was planted in which 'everything flourished.' Elizabeth 'washed, scrubbed-indeed did anything for anyone who needed her. In return they gave her goods, clothes and even her children's education.' For nearly 20 years Elizabeth Hellier and all the other women of New Plymouth-helped to build as decent a background to living as they could. The settlement expanded and prospered; but tragedy was not far away. Disputes with the Maoris over land caused a flare-up which ended in war. Settlers on the outskirts of New Plymouth left their homes and flocked into the town in such numbers that soon every building was overcrowded. Sanitation became a problem and with it, inevitably, disease, Diphtheria was a major killer. Martial law was proclaimed, and all women and children were ordered to be evacuated to Nelson.
Many of the women rebelled; some hid from the troops who had orders to remove them by force; others even took rifles and threatened violence if they should be forced to leave. The Hellier women were among those who rebelled; only the youngest daughter, Ellen, went to Nelson. Because of continued opposition by the women, the evacuation order was rescinded, but settlers were warned that they remained at their own peril. Sergeant William Marjouram, Royal Artillery, chief gunner with the troops stationed on Marsland Hill, wrote to friends in England in January, 1862: 'Our position is very perilous; we are beset by savages on every hand. Although the troops protect our wives and children, the thought of them being borne down by numbers sinks into my soul. New Plymouth is at present no place for helpless females, unprotected, neglected, and constantly exposed to the tomahawk of the rebels, who are hovering about the town in all directions.' When uneasy peace came settlers found their homes had been plundered and burnt; most of their treasured possessions destroyed or stolen; stock driven off. The farms and gardens which had yielded such bountiful returns were overgrown with gorse (imported to provide hedges) and blackberry. It meant starting all over again in the face of a new depression.
Elizabeth Hellier's little home on Poverty Flat was still there, but it needed repairs. Her great-grand-daughter, Rita Atkinson, wrote in 1952: 'I have heard one small incident which helps to show the poverty of the times. Elizabeth is said to have papered the small rooms of her home with all the letters and documents her husband left behind him. They had been treasured for years, but her home needed renovating and she took the practical way out. It was quite interesting to lie in bed and read that lovely old copper-plate writing.' The record of the Hughson family, a name familiar in New Plymouth and South Taranaki for more than a century, is typical of many. Thomas Pole Hughson had come to New Zealand on the Eastminster in 1880 and had settled in New Plymouth, serving in the Armed Constabulary. One of his shipboard companions was Jane McLeod White, who went with her family to Nelson. Thomas and Jane wrote regularly, and 'an understanding' was reached. In 1875 Thomas received a strange letter his son, Geoffrey, recorded his diary Having been lately converted to the Christian faith (both families were Presbyterian) Jane wrote to her boyfriend saying she would have no more to do with him, as she could never marry a man who was not a true Christian. Poor Thomas. He could not sleep for thinking out ways and means of getting to her. Nothing could hold an anxious lover. Somehow he managed to get time off and caught a ship to Blenheim, walking to Nelson. He quickly convinced her that he was determined to become a real Christian.
They became engaged, and were married by the Rev. Sinclair. Both were as true as steel. Being Scottish, Jane made a prisoner of every penny, so she was able to help Thomas buy a Maori leasehold farm near Okato in 1885. They called it Windermere. They had ten children.' The diary describes a typical house of the times; 'Three rooms, all bare timber walls. All the food was stored in the kitchen dresser. A table stood under the window; a form was under it at the back. Three chairs and a sofa completed the furniture. It had a colonial stove set in stones in a flat-iron chimney. The iron stove was about 30 inches long and 12 inches deep. It also had a large oval-shaped boiler and a large iron kettle hung on an iron hook from a crossbar up the chimney. When baking in the oven live embers were placed under the stove. When we had visitors-and when we didn't-didn't mother cook marvelous food on this! Mother used to ride Firetail, a high-spirited bay mare, all over the farm hunting up cows as they loved to hide away among the flax and fern. The cows had to be milked, the butter churned-a long job because many times the butter wouldn't" come" ... all done by mother until the boys were old enough to help ... ' Thomas Hughson ran the New Plymouth-Opunake coach service, 'one way each day. Mother supplied the passengers with dinner. Mother saw to it that it was a good dinner; in fact she was about run to death. After a year or so she had to give it up when ... a new worry came upon my mother ... breastfeeding her new baby Robert while she was bathed in perspiration. This, she was convinced, was the cause of the child taking epileptic fits and just about broke her heart. I (Geoffrey) had to get a tin tub and hot water as quickly as possible and mother would bathe him in water as hot as he could bear until he came out of the fit. At seven Bobbie grew out of the fits .
Her recipe for the fluence, or La Grippe: one tablespoon of salt dissolved in hot water. Drink when cold enough. Have a bucket of tepid water with a little milk and keep drinking and vomiting until all taste of salt is gone out of the mouth.' Gradually economic conditions improved; and with it the lot of women. By the mid- 1870s ships were bringing more families to the colony.
In 1874-75 more than 32,000 immigrants arrived from Britain, and New Plymouth received its share. They brought with them new ideas, new values and new fashions, as they were to do in subsequent years. 'Coloured French elastic-sided boots' for women were advertised for 35c a pair, bloomers with elastic at the waist and above the knees were fashionable; whalebone corsets and cotton lisle stockings were the thing. Long skirts attracted male attention as well as Devon Street dust, mud and horse-droppings. Dressed for outings, picnics and for Sunday family church, women carried gay parasols in summer; furry hand muffs in winter. Mothers kept their families' boots and the iron stove polished with a mixture of half a pound of treacle, an ounce of lampblack and sugar, a touch of yeast and ox-gall which could be bought at the grocers.
A new hand-operated sewing machine, guaranteed for five years, could be bought for $9; with table and foot-treadle, $13.50.5 On cold winter nights stone hot-water bottles warmed beds; the more affluent ordered long-handled brass warming pans from Britain. Both sexes wore capacious bed-length nightgowns and many affected nightcaps. In contrast to the almost zero population growth a century later, the birthrate maintained its high level. In the early 1880s national census figures revealed that 220 babies were born annually to every thousand women of child-bearing age. As soon as she was old enough, unless she belonged to wealthy parents, or she was required to help in the house, a girl sought some sort of employment. A 'willing domestic servant' as advertised in the Daily News in 1879 was offered $1.30, but more usually the weekly wage was $1. A cook of 'first class' could earn as much as $1.70, nursemaids and kitchen helps, 60c. Often, marriage was the only 'promotion' the average working girl could expect. Men fared much better. Carpenters and joiners could earn as much as $1.20 a day; bricklayers $1; tailors and bootmakers 85c; and labourers could expect 70c. It was still very much a man's world. Not until 1885 did women have any significant part in running it. In that year an American campaigner, with ideals somewhat at variance with Ms Greer's toured the country. She was Mrs M. C. Leavitt, who brought with her a petition to be signed by women in all parts of the world, urging their governments to introduce the prohibition of alcohol. Her banner was' Peace, Purity and Prohibition,' later to become the Women's Christian Temperance Union, 'For God, Home and Humanity,' a branch of which was established in New Plymouth.