The Industrious Heart A History of New Plymouth / 6


Sir-Permit me to direct attention to the "alterations" and improve- ments going on in Devon Street. I should much like to know what possible benefit can be derived from depositing large quantities of vegetable mould on the hard surface of an old water track. The wet season is now approaching and I should have supposed that the persons entrusted with directing the repairs of public roads would have endeavoured if possible to prevent that accumulation of mud in our streets so much complained of in wet weather instead of, as in the present instance, doing all in their power to promote and increase the nuisance; and this, forsooth, under the name of "improvement". The public, besides having to put up with the inconvenience of walking knee-deep in mud, will no doubt have to pay for this addition to the many "luxuries" conferred upon them by the judicious spenders of their money. An Inhabitant'! This letter in 1853 gives some idea of the problems of moving from place to place in the town of New Plymouth after a decade of settlement. The 'improvements' referred to consisted of scattering river silt and gravel on the surfaces and letting foot, horse and ox transport consolidate it-until the next heavy shower. Most of the metal and silt came from Te Henui streambed, which was processed by a crushing machine acquired from Auckland in the middle of 1864. Much of the spreading work was done by prison labour, no doubt because it was 'free'. The prisoners were far from enthusiastic and required much supervision. In 1863 the newly constituted town board was urged by the Provincial Council to contribute to the salary of warders supervising the work, and a year later it was recommended that 'tobacco should be issued to the prisoners for good conduct' .2 There is no record that either suggestion was adopted. One hundred and twenty years later probably 'An Inhabitant's' great-great-grandsons were among those who were still criticising 'the judicious spenders of their money' on 'luxuries' which included the one-way street system, the northern outlet, the motorway (perhaps the shortest in the country) and the Devon Mall. Whatever the critics said, few would doubt that the town, borough and city councils of their times have spent ratepayers' money judiciously, keeping pace as best they could in overcoming the ever-changing and increasing problems of transport. In' A summary of roading improvements' given at a public meeting in July 1872 by the town board's Chairman, W. M. Crompton, it was revealed that 'in Dawson Street, near the hospital, the road had been metalled and two open paved drains laid. There had been a pool of stagnant water where Gill and Gover Streets met into which 2000 cubic yards of earth and gravel had been deposited. In Liardet Street a culvert had been strengthened and a cart track made across the swamp.' 3 At a later meeting that year complaints about' a water hole 20 feet deep in Vivian Street' were received, and a minute records that' it was pointed out that there were many such in the town'. In the late 1870s central government began to show more attention to Taranaki, especially in the way of roading, with several important undertakings. Work was progressing on the Mountain Road from Sentry Hill southwards and the Junction Road from the Meeting of the Waters to Patea. In 1877 the House of Representatives voted $20,000 for the completion of this road. In the town there was little improvement. The town board found it impossible to raise enough money to answer the settlers' demands for municipal services and adequate roading; those who needed roads and bridges either made them themselves or managed without. When New Plymouth was declared a borough under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1876, the town was only a little larger than it was 20 years before. But 1875 and 1876 were years of promise-two of the most significant in the settlement's history: hostilities had eased; the railway between New Plymouth and Waitara, opened in 1875, was proving popular and potentially prosperous for the province; the provision of a harbour was a distinct possibility, a harbour board having been constituted in 1874; immigration was being actively encouraged; new buildings were going up. The Municipal Corporations Act gave the borough council borrowing powers which, used with care and judgment, could lift the town from the slough into which it had fallen following the land wars. Soon the muddy (or dusty, according to season) tracks and pathways in the town gave way to roads capable of bearing the heavy oxtrains and horse wagons need by farmers carting their produce into the town. Bridges were a special problem. Some of the small streams could be forded; across others bridges were essential. In the first two years of settlement the Henui and Huatoki were successfully bridged, but the more turbulent Waiwakaiho River posed problems, which it continued to do for the next century. It was first spanned in 1843 by E. Brown and H. Goodall with a suspension bridge, using chains off the Fyfeshire wrecked in Nelson Harbour the previous year.

The timber used to suspend the chains was pukatea 'and this, being a soft and perishable wood, the structure was a complete wreck in five years after erection' .5 In 1858 a low truss bridge was built on the present crossing site which meant running a deviation from Clemow Road. This took almost a year to complete and the town had a picnic day to celebrate its opening on August 18, 1859. Eight years later this bridge, too, was swept away in a flash summer flood, to an island about 50 metres down stream. Groups of settlers, using muscle power and winches, eventually recovered and re-erected it. In 1907 a new concrete structure was built which served its purpose for 70 years, when increased traffic necessi- tated the construction of the present bridge a few yards farther down-stream in 1979. Timber and stone were the main materials used in early bridges, but in 1910 the municipal council was told that '$28,000 has been spent on bridges and culverts, which with one exception have been built with concrete and should be everlasting.' The exception was Te Henui Bridge in Devon Street East costing $8800, 'A steel bridge with concrete abutments.' In 1968 this was replaced by the present bridge ... The opening of the rail link with Inglewood and Stratford in 1879 resulted in increased population in Taranaki, and the founding of other small towns throughout the province tended to reduce direct trade from New Plymouth. New Plymouth's population had increased by 3000 in a decade, but the number of people in the whole of the province had grown to 14,000. The main trunk railway was not completed until 1908, and the town was the trans-shipment point on the combined rail-sea journey between Wellington and Auckland. This brought a tourist industry of sorts to the town which benefited hotel and shipping interests, but the roads were still a matter of contention, from visitors and townspeople. Levels of paths and streets were raised or lowered to meet the requirements of the railway and shop owners. But the council's roading work was not appreciated by everyone: 'The borough council have a happy way of spending money. After devoting considerable sums to raising streets, they are now spending a consider- able amount on lowering them. In fact, the streets seem to rise and fall with the change in surveyors,' said one critic.
Gradually the roads in the town were widened, but the surfaces were very rough and uneven; still dusty in summer which required frequent use of the town's water cart, and muddy in winter. Such a surface was sufficient for horse-drawn traffic, but with the introduction of the motor car a need was seen for an improved top coat. Tarseal was introduced in the first decade of this century, applied by hand until the council could afford a machine for thejob. But there were many disadvantages: New Zealand-made tar, which was undistilled and of poor quality, perished after a few months, requiring frequent and expensive repair. Concrete road surfaces were considered but rejected on the grounds of expense. 'During the summer months, owing to the materials of which our roadways are constructed, the rapid evaporation in such a climate as ours, the roadways become very dry and easily disintegrated by the traffic. Watering the roads therefore becomes a necessity, not only for laying the dust but also for preventing the macadam from breaking up' , the council was told in 1913.7 Obviously a new type of construction was needed, and it was Russell Matthews who supplied it. In that year, then in his late teens, having started his career two years earlier as assistant engineer with the council at a salary of$1 0 a week, he became interested in road contracting and in particular road sealing. A petroleum derivative, bitumen, was being experimented with overseas, and young Matthews persuaded the council to let him seal the hundred or so metres of Currie Street between Devon Street and the railway goods yard with this material. The bitumen had been imported from California, and Matthews, knowing very little-but more than anyone else in the country-about the science of road-making, put about three times more bitumen on that stretch of road than was necessary. It was the first road in New Zealand to be constructed and sealed with bitumen, and it lasted for more than 15 years without further attention. Matthews' efforts to exploit this roading technique were thwarted by the outbreak of World War One. On his discharge from war service he stayed in England, furthering his engineering studies and specialising in road-making. When he returned, penniless, he joined a firm of surveyors in Auckland. A brother, Alan, of Pukekohe, like hundreds of others during the post-war recession, was forced to abandon his farm, and the two brothers embarked on property development in a way which epitomises the Kiwi do-it-yourself method. In an interview on his 80th birthday, at his lovely home, Tupare, just outside the city, off Mangorei Road (which annually has been the venue for thousands of visitors during open weekends) Russell Matthews recalled: 'A friend of my brother was prepared to sell his land near Pukekohe, and asked us to do this. He had no money, so it was decided that we should survey it for him, and when we could sell the sections we

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