Friday, September 25, 2020

Mike Butler: A new look at old roads, bridges, swamps

The biggest story of 19th century New Zealand is not missionaries, muskets, and the sovereignty wars, according to historian John McLean, it was the physical building of the country.

Sweat and toil – the building of New Zealand, tells the story of the building of New Zealand’s roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, viaducts, wharves, docks, lighthouses, tramways, telegraph, as well as massive reclamations as well as the draining of swamps.

Mclean did his Master’s thesis in history on the building of the Otira tunnel through the Southern Alps.

He has a personal connection with this story. His great-great-grandfather founded John McLean and Sons which became New Zealand’s largest public works contractor, and through a different line he is related to Alfred Sheath who set up the first telegraph system here.

New Zealand was colonised by Britain from 1840 when England was at the height of its power, and when Britain was building railways and other far-sighted projects throughout the Empire and around the world, he wrote.

At that time, Britain was producing first class engineers and risk-taking contractors many of whom were keen to seek their fortunes in the “new Britain of the South Seas”.

Engineers in the Public Works Department, set up in 1872, designed and oversaw Government projects but did not have the resources to carry out the work, he wrote.

Since pioneering projects were carried out in difficult terrain with numerous hidden snags, these projects were put out to contract with contractors paying the men, providing the tools, setting up camps, and taking the risk.

There were no wage-escalation clauses and contractors were held liable for workers’ performance and faced penalties for late delivery. Contracting was a gamble.

Roads were built during tribal rebellions in the 1860s, which led to the formation of an armed force of workers named the Armed Constabulary who could repel attacks while they worked.

McLean’s story readably shines a light on the roads and bridges that we all take for granted.

For instance, growing up in Napier, I did not know that for many years Hawke’s Bay was the main route between Wellington and Auckland.

I was aware that the old Cobb and Co stage coach used to stop at Te Haroto, Tarawera, and Rangitaiki on the journey from Napier to Taupo.

But I was not aware that before that, a series of five defensive forts called redoubts were built to protect the supply route from Napier to a garrison at Taupo.

These were necessary after a surprise attack by Te Kooti on June 7, 1869, at Opepe (20km from Taupo) which left nine cavalrymen dead.

McLean concludes that “one can only salute the surveyors, engineers, contractors, stonemasons, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, carpenters, platelayers, axe-men, navvies, and last but not least, the sweating horses and bullock teams that provided much of the transport and motive power”.

Sweat and toil – the building of New Zealand, John McLean, Tross Publishing, 252 pages, illustrated, $40 (including postage).

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