Forest clearance in 1880s New Zealand – the views of Mrs Robert Wilson

In 1962, A.G.S. Bradfield published “The Precious Years”, a sequel to his earlier book “Forgotten Days”; both books recounting stories of the “pioneering days of Palmerston North and Districts in the Manawatu”. These are charming little books, in which Bradfield draws on first-hand memories of older Manawatu residents, giving it an authenticity and poignancy that would not be achievable today, nearly half a century on.

In the “The Vanished Bush”, a chapter describing the forest of the Manawatu and the Wairarapa, and its clearance in the 1800s, he cites passages from “In the Land of a Tui”, a book by an English woman, Mrs Robert Wilson, who visited New Zealand in the late 1880s. During her visit to New Zealand, she traveled by train and horse-drawn coach from Wellington through Wairarapa to Woodville, then back again via the Manawatu to the capital.

Her observations of the vast expanses of devastated forest that she saw on her trip are both insightful and poignant:

Of the Wairarapa she wrote: “I had often heard of the work of pioneering but until now had never realised its capabilities for upheaval. For mile after mile along our route we saw lands covered with fallen timber, stumps blackened by fire and great trunks standing scarred and broken with no vestige of green upon them.  … As we wound about the hills the devastation and desolation become more apparent for pioneers burn all before them and wait for years until the scarred timber has rotted sufficiently to make it easy to uproot, labour usually being too costly to employ for clearing. During the years of decay English grasses are sown and cattle graze among the mouldering stumps.”

She adds some observations of the grandeur of what remnant forest remains amongst the devastation: “I must not forget the brighter spots that enlightened the pall of gloom lying over the scene. In the midst of ruin were large tracts of untouched primeval forest which were almost too beautiful for description. No mere words can convey the wonder of nature’s lavishness in the wild tangle and green bewilderment of the bush. Verily it is an enchanted land and yet, alas, it is doomed and these most priceless gifts will in time, be laid waste for ever.”

Her observations are enlightening too in the sense that they contrast markedly with the predominantly negative views expressed about the New Zealand forest in writings of her fellow countrymen earlier in the century, as surveyed by Paul Shepard in his 1969 monograph “English Reaction to the New Zealand Landscape before 1850.”

Photo: Coach crossing bridge on Palmerston North to Woodville Road through Bakerstown, one mile out of Woodville (1880), photographer unknown. Photo: Palmerston North City Library. (This is one of the many historical photographs found in “The Precious Years”.)

Sources/further reading: “The Precious Years” (1962), by A.G.S. Bradfield; In the Land of the Tui: My Journal in New Zealand (1894), by (Mrs) Robert Wilson, click here to view on Google Books.

See also: This sacrifice will bring retribution – deforestation and its consequences; The evils of deforestation; The Scandanavian settlers of the Manawatu.


One thought on “Forest clearance in 1880s New Zealand – the views of Mrs Robert Wilson

  1. The Manawatu countryside has changed completely in the last 100 years; reading these early accounts of beautiful, lush, primeval bush one can’t help feeling very sad that most of it was ripped out so thoughtlessly, in order to superimpose, as it were, a “fake England” on the landscape.

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