Katikati: How Ulster Scots pioneers created New Zealand town

By John Deering
Documentary maker

Image caption,
George Vesey Stewart transformed from gentleman farmer to pioneer settler

What persuaded a party of Ulster Scots pioneers to leave their homes in the 1870s, and travel halfway round the world in search of a new life?

It started with a poster that appeared in Orange halls around Ulster in 1874.

The message began: "To all Protestant friends and brothers - I present to you the rare opportunity of being amongst the 40 families who will become a part of a settlement of Ulstermen in the country of New Zealand.

"Each member of this party will receive a free grant of 40 acres, with additional land for each child to a maximum of 300 acres."

The author of the poster and the man behind this extraordinary venture was a County Tyrone gentleman farmer and flax mill owner, George Vesey Stewart.

He wrote that his ambition was "to transplant a little corner of Ulster upon a Garden of Eden in New Zealand, free from rents and taxes, with magnificent soil and the finest climate under the British flag, and in a country devoted and loyal to its noble Fatherland".

Image source, Picasa
Image caption,
This photograph of Katikati's first school was taken in 1900

Stewart had borrowed heavily to finance his mill and when the linen industry hit a severe downturn in the early 1870s, he was facing bankruptcy.

Around this time, the colonial authorities in New Zealand were trying to build up their sparsely populated country by encouraging special settlements.

They believed that large groups coming out together from the same cultural background would have a better chance of surviving the challenges of pioneer life.

Orange card

Vesey Stewart saw it as a chance to repair his finances. He went out to New Zealand in 1873 and explored both islands for months before choosing a huge plot of virgin land at Katikati, on an isolated stretch of the North Island coast.

Stewart agreed a deal with the New Zealand authorities but faced strong financial penalties if he failed to recruit the agreed number of settlers, ship them to Katikati and get them working on the land, on time.

However, he had a strong card to play - an Orange one.

His family had a long and influential association with the Orange Order throughout the Irish province of Ulster and this was vital in his bid to attract recruits.

Twenty-seven families bought into the plan and in June 1875, they joined Stewart, his wife, Margaret, and their nine children on the quayside in Belfast, to board the Carisbrooke Castle for the voyage direct to New Zealand.

Three months later, after an exhausting journey, the pioneers disembarked from small sail boats and clambered up the riverbank at Katikati with all their worldly possessions.

They had to start from scratch, clearing the land, planting their crops and building their new homes.

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Image caption,
The settlers built the community infrastructure, such as the post office, from scratch (photo 1898)

"I think most of them probably thought they'd come to the end of the world," says Katikati historian Ellen McCormack.

"Stewart had arranged for a few small huts to be built for the people when they first arrived.

"They were very basic, made of flax with just a doorway and flax roof. They were very small, with dirt floors.

"They cooked outside when they could but, of course, on a rainy day they had to cook in there so it would be very smoky.

"It wouldn't have been good at all if you had a whole lot of little children and babies were born in these huts too."

The community survived a difficult start and was boosted by a second shipload of Ulster settlers, brought out by Vesey Stewart three years later.

One of the first public buildings they erected was an Orange hall.

New Zealand historian Brad Patterson says: "Every Twelfth of July they donned their regalia and marched through the scrub and bush country to the local Orange hall.

"There were Orange dinners and all other facets of the calendar that they knew from Ulster, would be observed religiously."

Today Katikati is a thriving market town.

Image source, Picasa
Image caption,
This picture of the settlers in front of their Orange hall was taken in 1910

The Orange hall is long gone, but its origins are still remembered and celebrated by a few direct descendants of those first settlers.

George Vesey Stewart tried many other ambitious, and usually unsuccessful, business ventures before he died in 1920.

He is buried in Katikati and nearly 100 years later his name stills provokes strong opinions amongst local historians and academics.

To some he was a conman. To others he was visionary.

But they all agree that he must have had tremendous charisma and determination to persuade dozens of families to abandon their lives in Ireland, for the possibility of a better future on the other side of the world.

A documentary presented by Mark Thompson - Katikati, the Ulster Colony Down Under - is repeated on BBC Radio Ulster at 19:30 GMT on Thursday 13 February.

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