Polish immigrants south leave from a harsh life

It was  August 4, 1876 when the ship Fritz Reuter berthed in Wellington after a long voyage from Hamburg in Germany bringing just over 500 Polish immigrants to New Zealand.

A long drawn out voyage of 110 days saw 11 deaths on board including four children and six babies less than 12 months old. The immigrants were leaving a harsh life in their homeland in West Prussia, formerly the Polish province of Pomerania.

Villages were run by the Prussians and the people were banned from speaking Polish. Life was little better than slavery and the people were thought not worthy of educating. So the opportunity to leave took little convincing after news that a boat was leaving Hamburg that offered an escape to a new life.

Some thought they were heading to America and most would not have heard of New Zealand. New Zealand saw a large influx of both Polish and German immigrants in 1876 and beyond.

Around 52 of the new immigrants arrived in Taranaki in 1876 from Wellington on board the S.S Taupo. They were housed in the old Marsland Hill Military barracks, which was used as the immigration centre. Some ended up staying in what was originally the military blockhouse barracks near West Beach in Waitara.

It was imperative that work be found for them as soon as possible as relations between the German and Polish immigrants was strained, and fighting was common amongst them, due to the clash of cultures and the frustration from waiting for work.

These people were given work laboring on the new railway line from Sentry Hill to Waitara, which eased the tensions. The New Plymouth to Waitara railway line was also being formed, as was the line to Whanganui which provided work.

The first Polish immigrants here settled in the Bell Block area, but by 1877 the bush block that was to become Inglewood was opened up and a flood of laborers hurried there for tree felling and scrub cutting work. The virgin bush of the Moa block was reputed to be the densest in New Zealand and produced a huge amount of fine trees for building.

Some laborers took on work such as the developing of Pukekura Park, which was achieved with shovel and sweat! Many of the Polish immigrants settled on Durham and Norfolk roads, and also in Tariki and on the York Rd.

There were years of back breaking work ahead for these hard working people and life was tough. With husbands working away from home as well as trying to break in their own property, it was a lonely life for the wives bringing up large families on a meager income.

However they were used to harsh conditions and helped each other, keeping to themselves and speaking their own language and holding close to their cultural traditions. Music was a big part of their lives and the accordion, violin and zither (much like a Jaws harp) kept the sounds alive of their homeland.

During these lean years wives and children collected bats ear fungus from the bush and dried it in large quantities to sell to Chew Chong, who exported the delicacy to China. He certainly played a huge part in keeping families incomes afloat through very testing times.

These families cleared the bush and the land where Inglewood is now. It’s hard to believe what was achieved by axe and shovel. The Polish community of Taranaki has made a huge contribution to the history of the province and to what we enjoy now.

On New Year’s Eve, the Stratford Racing Club honours the immigrants of the Fritz Reuter with the winning prize of the Stratford Cup. Next Year the Polish community here will celebrate 140 years since the landing in Wellington of their ancestors on board the Fritz Reuter.