Samuel and Jane Oates are almost legendary figures in Wairarapa history, largely due to the strenuous efforts of Samuel on his first journey to Wairarapa. He was commissioned by Charles Rooking Carter to transport goods over the rough Rimutaka Hill track in 1856, including a small number of gum trees.
Samuel, accompanied by a man called Fairweather, struggled across the bullock track with a huge wheelbarrow, laden with Carter’s goods. When the two men reached the newly-established settlement of Greytown, on their way to Carter’s holdings at Parkvale, they decided to rest and quench their thirst. While they were recuperating at the Rising Sun Hotel someone stole some of the trees from the wheelbarrow.
The trees were planted in various sites in Greytown. One remains, a huge Eucalyptus regnans, in the grounds of St Luke’s Church on Main Street.
Jane Oates, though, has left an equally remarkable legacy in a large number of letters that passed between her and her family, largely with her sister Margaret Morten. They tell a moving tale of the trials of those settling families who uprooted their families and moved halfway across the world in search of better opportunities.
Jane and Margaret Bonsall were born in the Peak District village of Monyash, north-west of Derby, in the early nineteenth century. They were part of a family of nine children born to Richard and Jane Bonall, nee Brassington.
Their parents were both from farming families. Richard leased the 200 acres of ‘Rake End’ that his father had worked as a tenant farmer while Jane’s father had an 80-acre holding nearby. Of Richard and Jane’s children only four were to survive to adulthood.
In 1840 Jane married Samuel Oates, a farmer from the low-lying country at Codnor, near the border with Nottinghamshire. Samuel was of humble origins, his father being an agricultural labourer but he had had a good education. The Wairarapa Archive houses his copper plate “copy books,” which show the young Samuel was assiduous in learning to write. His later letters also show fluency.
Margaret, although older than Jane, married later. She was 33 when she married the widower John Morten, then a wheelwright in Monyash. When John’s sister migrated to America with her husband in 1848, he and Margaret took up the tenancy of a farm a few miles from Monyash.
Samuel and Jane Oates were also farming, firstly at Codnor then at Woodthorpe from around 1845, where arable farming was the norm as opposed to the livestock farms of the Peak District. The winter of 1852 was very trying, with bad weather hampering a lot of farm work and with farm prices low. Following the death of their son William in August, Samuel decided he had been a tenant farmer long enough and looked for a way out.
He determined that the family’s future lay overseas and decided that he would try his luck on the Australian goldfields. Jane was less sure about leaving her close family to go to the colonies, and it was agreed that Samuel would go on his own and would send for his family when things had improved. He left England in October 1852.
The Victorian goldfields proved to be a disappointment and Samuel’s fortune proved elusive. He tried his luck in New Zealand, where the Wellington Provincial Council was actively seeking recruits from Victoria, arriving in Wellington in January 1856. He immediately found work with the builder and politician C R Carter. Probably under Carter’s influence he also bought land near Carter’s holdings, purchasing 60 acres in April 1856. He now had a home for Jane and his five children and sent a message back home for them to join him.
Jane was still unsure about leaving England, but family matters had taken a turn for the worse. Jane was living with her parents at their farm and had fallen out with her brother Joseph, also on the farm. In later letters to her sister Margaret, Jane said that Joseph’s behaviour was the only reason she left for New Zealand. She and the children left England in September 1856.
On the boat at Liverpool, waiting for the tide to turn, Jane commenced what was to be a twenty-six year correspondence with her sister, a remarkable sequence of letters outlining the fortunes of two farming families on opposite sides of the world.
Jane’s arrival in New Zealand was unheralded and Samuel, at work on his holdings in the Wairarapa, had no idea that his wife and family had arrived. Jane’s letter to Samuel, prior to setting out, had not reached him, and two letters he sent to her from Wairarapa had not arrived before she left. Fortunately C R Carter noticed her name on the passenger list of the Oliver Lang and sent word to Samuel as well as arranging accommodation for the Oates family.
Jane found the transition to life in New Zealand very difficult and she longed to be back in her homeland. She wrote back to her sister saying that she could hardly sleep at night through fretting about all those she had left behind, those whom she knew she would never see again except in her dreams.
Her mother found it very difficult to be separated from a favourite daughter, saying at one time that she would rather have buried her than farewell her to such a distant land. When her mother was fatally ill Jane longed to return to see her once more but the reality of such a long and expensive journey ruled out any such trip, and her sister Margaret advised her to forget the idea.
The letters that passed between the sisters, and other members of their extended family and friends, give a unique insight into the way the families’ fortunes rose and fell in two different farming economies.
The Mortens were still on their tenanted farm in Derbyshire, riding through the fluctuating prices of various commodities by switching the focus of their farming operations. At one time pig raising was important, then store lamb production, and later still, wool production. All the time the farm was also producing cheese.
For his part, Samuel Oates was flourishing on the Taratahi Plains, quickly expanding his freehold holdings until he had 300 acres in 1866. He too was involved in many different aspects of farming, with an extensive orchard, and raising pigs, chickens, geese, turkeys, sheep and cattle. He was also cropping a lot of his land, and imported a reaping machine from England to more effectively harvest, both for himself and for his neighbours.
Richard and Jane Bonsall both died in the 1860s. Jane was disconsolate at news of their illnesses and death. Their parent’s estate was to cause further friction in the family, as Jane and Margaret’s brother, Joseph (the cause of Jane’s leaving) refused to pay out the sisters’ share of the estate. Letters between the sisters complain about the unfairness of the situation.
The letters are also filled with the medical troubles that beset ordinary people in mid-Victorian times. For most ailments there were little but herbal remedies available and accidents could easily cause severe handicap or death. Jane’s heartbroken letters to her sister following the death of her daughter Hannah in childbirth are very moving. Hannah was buried in the special cemetery set aside in what is now Somerset Road, and Jane bitterly records that she had never thought she would bury her own children.
It is clear from the letters that their Christian faith supported the sisters in their troubles. Margaret’s husband John was a preacher in the Primitive Methodist Church, and in several of his letters he points out to Jane that the trials she undergoes are all part of the Divine Plan.
Margaret’s last letter to Jane was written in January 1883. She wrote that her health was not the best, not helped, no doubt, by the fact that her teeth were all gone, “but for one stump.” She had been invigorated, though, by a week’s holiday at the seaside in Blackpool. She says she often wonders what Jane and her family are up to and would like to just “peep” at them. She tells Jane to tell her children that they must live on earth so that they can all meet in heaven.
Jane died at the family farm, Peach Grove, at the end of March 1883, and was buried alongside her daughter. Her sister Margaret died in July of that same year, and was buried at Monyash, next to their parents. Samuel Oates died in 1892.
The letters back to England were rediscovered by the New Zealand family when Jane Oates’ great-granddaughter Bethlyn Watters, nee Budd, lived in England in the 1950s. She knew she had relatives in Derbyshire, and visited the descendants of Margaret Morten. They showed her the letters, and then presented them to her.
When she returned to New Zealand, she, her brother Bonsall and her mother Amey Budd, nee Oates, spend a lot of time reading and transcribing the letters. The family realised importance of the collection of letters and, after photocopying them, presented them to Alexander Turnbull Library with another set being later gifted to the Wairarapa Archive.
In the 1980s the English branch of the family put forward the idea of publishing the letters. A relative, Dr Robin Holmes, an academic with a PhD in geography, was interested in editing the letters and providing some historical context for them. He visited Wairarapa and worked on a number of drafts for publication, but unfortunately died in 1996 before the work was finished.
Bethlyn Watters and her brother Bonsall Budd were still keen to see the book published. Another Jane Oates descendant, Allan Farley of Greytown, undertook to finish the editing and genealogical work and to source photographs from the family’s extensive holdings.
The book was launched September 24 by Professor Charlotte Macdonald of Victoria University. Professor Macdonald is the country’s foremost historian of the role of women in the 19th century and has written extensively about the subject. She is very familiar with the letters, having drawn on them for her own publication, My Hand Will Write What My Heart Dictates. In her speech she described the letters as remarkable, and said that they provided a unique glimpse into the lives of farming families in both New Zealand and England. She said the book will be of great interest to historians of Wairarapa, and Derbyshire, as well as those interested in the history of farming, society and women.