Although a British colony only since 1840, New Zealand grew rapidly, spurred by the discovery of gold in the South Island in the early 1860s. Within two years of the discovery of gold in 1861 the population rose from 12,600 to some 60,000. In the years 1865-7, some further 15,800 gold-seekers crossed from Australia to the new goldfields on the West Coast of the South Island.
The Provinces struggled to cope with this sudden influx of people. The central Government, under Julius Vogel, believed that the future lay with aggressive settlement of the country. To this end it promoted large-scale immigration from the British Isles, borrowing 10 million pounds finance it.
The government's development schemes focused on projects already underway: railways (especially railways!), buying Maori land for further settlement (the Government was the sole purchasing agent of land still owned by Maori), grants to roads boards, telegraphs, and public buildings.
Reports of favourable conditions in New Zealand sent 'home' by earlier migrants, especially in letters were instrumental in building an image of New Zealand which served to attract later migrants. Arnold quotes a stirring call in 1873:
Not a farm labourer in England but should rush from the old doomed country to such a paradise as New Zealand. ... The exiled labourers will be requited for their ages of suffering as a class in the Eden of New Zealand, and avenged for all the spoilation they have suffered from the plundering landed aristocracy, and a mean, thoughtless set of farmers by leaving them ..., by taking themselves off as fast as ships and steamers will take them to the land of promise; - A GOOD LAND - ... A LAND OF OIL, OLIVES AND HONEY; - A LAND WHERE IN THOU MAY’ST EAT BREAD WITHOUT SCARCENESS: THOU SHALT NOT LACK ANYTHING IN IT. ...
Away then, farm labourers, away! New Zealand is the promised land for you; and the Moses that will lead you is ready.
A striking feature of such letters is the biblical reference to the ‘land of [milk] and honey’. This image of a land of plenty is a constant theme running through the comments home by emigrants.
Joe says he wishes someone would pay him to come over for some of you. ... He earned 2 [pounds] 15s last week, and said he had worked harder in the old country for 15s. If you want to come out of bondage into liberty come out here. ... I wish a lot of from Grandborough would come. Joe says he would get you all such a meal as you never had at home.
Not only were migrants publicists for New Zealand; the Government agents were doing their part as well. One offer of free passages was quoted thus:
Everything here betokens prosperity, the inhabitants are well dressed, thoroughly respectable. A man’s a man here, as you see them walking along the streets, their head erect, and their whole bearing impresses one with the idea ‘that Jack is as good as his master’. No cringing here, - yet there is no rudeness - but everything around betokens comfort, respectability, and happiness.
And so they go on, seemingly obsessed with food and work and pay. It is easy to understand the focus on the worldly delights of a full belly, warmth, and shelter gained seemingly with lightning speed and beguiling ease.
And what of conditions in Ireland?
Until the Famine the children of Irish peasant farmers had, by and large, married as they pleased; obligingly and traditionally the father had subdivided his land between his sons as and when they did so. But the desperate suffering of the 1840s and the Land War which followed had brought home the unviability of small units and put iron into the soul of the survivors. After that the father held on to his land as long as he could, chose one son to inherit it and discouraged both him and any other of his offspring from marrying early. Frequently he and his wife had to endure the subsequent emigration of their children, but they did so with resignation, seeing no help for it.
The Irish marriage rate became the lowest in the world. The annual average number of marriages per 1,000 of the population fell to 24.1 in the 1890s. When country people did marry, they did so late and a situation was eventually reached whereby ninety-seven per cent of men and eighty-one per cent of women between the ages of twenty to twenty-four were unmarried, and between the ages of thirty and thirty-four the percentage of single men and women was sixty-eight per cent and thirty-six per cent respectively.
The job market for women was small and unattractive. The only large-scale industry was in Ulster where the manufacture of linen provided the biggest employment for women and children, who could earn twelve shillings a week, which was half what a man could earn. Otherwise there was domestic service in big houses and in the towns but, despite Jacobs’ thriving biscuit-makers in Dublin, unemployment, especially among women, was high. Religious orders proliferated in the nineteenth century, but so did red light districts, ... Or there was emigration.
The agrarian population fell from almost seven million in 1841 to three million in 1911.
Would a large proportion of girls who had a chance to make Irish marriages have gone anyway? The almost continuous childbearing and drudgery of their mothers, the high infant mortality rate - it was ninety-nine out of every 1,00 in the last decade of the nineteenth century - must have seemed less than compelling compared with a new life in the new world.
It is likely that a mixture of a sense of adventure, the pressures of finding a successful future, the constrictions of Irish female life for female children, as well as the appeal of the New World probably all played a part in tempting the King family to book passage New Zealand.