One of the many joys of doing historical research is reading the editorials and letters to the editor in historical newspapers (see also: Manawatu’s environmental past to be documented). People seemed to have been very free with their opinion on all kinds of things – not least of which the doings of government – and used sarcasm, dry wit and irony liberally and adeptly.
One letter I came across recently dates from 1868, and contains the correspondent’s observations on road and bridge-building around the fledgling Manawatu settlement of Palmerston. It is a masterpiece of irony and facetiousness, one which would be difficult to surpass even by the most seasoned letter-writer today. It is perhaps an indication of how necessary a sense of humour was to endure the trying conditions in which early settlers found themselves living. Those who feel infuriated with the progress or frequency of road works today may find that the letter puts their complaints into some perspective:
“In travelling through the far famed Manawatu country in search of a piece of land for settlement, I was very much struck with the substantiality of some of the work upon the roads (bridges especially above Palmerston) that I cannot refrain from making a few remarks upon them.
One would be led to believe, upon looking at the bridges, that timber was a very scarce commodity in the midst of a bush. They are generally constructed of small tawa sticks for bearers, covered over with slabs from half-an-inch to one and a half inches thick, and the bearers fastened down at each end with cross peg, sticking up from foot to eighteen inches high, I presume to keep the bridge from being washed away with floods, but more likely to trip a horse into the creek and break his rider’s neck.
The cream of the work, however, is to be seen now going on about a mile below Palmerston. That is a solitary individual of a man, with a wheelbarrow, laying gravel upon the muddy road about three inches thick over at least from six to nine inches of mud, to say nothing of the roots and logs intermixed. This is a new way of road making, to my idea, and a very economical one too, I should think. Are there no horses and carts to be had in the district, that a man should be put to such work at this season of the year ?… and in about twenty years get the whole of the road done…”
—I am, &c., A WOULD BE SETTLER”
A letter to the editor to the Wellington Independent, Volume XXIII, Issue 2700, 30 June 1868.
Photo: Road construction (from a later era), with horse drawn machinery and workers, 1916. Photographer and location unidentified. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. ID: PAColl-6348-51.