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The Orange colonial boys

Ahead of a programme on BBC Radio Ulster this Sunday, John Deering tells how one man's bid to rebuild his fortune led to a unique settlement Down Under

Katikati school house, 1900, with teacher Mr Parker
Katikati school house, 1900, with teacher Mr Parker
Katikati Post Office, 1898
George Vesey Stewart in his garden in 1899

In September 1875, a flotilla of small boats sailed into an isolated area of swamp and bush, in the Bay of Plenty on New Zealand's North Island. They arrived at a small inlet called Katikati.

A couple of hundred men, women and children disembarked and clambered up the riverbank with all their worldly possessions. Their plan was to clear the land, plant their crops and create a bright new future for themselves -- their own Utopia. One of the first buildings they erected was an Orange hall.

The settlers were from the North of Ireland. They were all Protestants, mainly Ulster-Scots and nearly all members of the Orange Order. Katikati was to become unique -- the only planned Ulster settlement anywhere in the world.

The little known and remarkable story of 'Katikati, the Ulster Settlement Down Under' is the subject of this Sunday's BBC Radio Ulster documentary. The programme is presented by Ulster Scots historian, Mark Thompson.

This extraordinary venture was the brainchild of a Co Tyrone gentleman farmer and failed businessman, George Vesey Stewart, who saw it as a way to rebuild his fortunes.

Stewart's family owned the Ballygawley Park estate in Co Tyrone. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and then embarked on a career as a land agent, managing several estates in the North West of Ulster.

He also started a flax mill at Lisdoart, near Ballygawley, and built houses for the workers. But he borrowed heavily to finance his business and when the linen industry hit a severe downturn in the early 1870s, he was facing bankruptcy.

Vesey Stewart probably first turned his attention to New Zealand after reading one of the advertisements regularly placed in local newspapers, at the time, urging people to consider emigration to the distant colony.

The authorities there were trying to build up the sparsely populated country by encouraging the creation of 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.

Vesey Stewart struck a deal where he would be given 10,000 acres of land. He would provide the settlers who would buy the land from him and he would keep a thousand acres for himself. In modern terms it could be called a public-private partnership.

Vesey Stewart made his first trip to New Zealand in 1873. He explored both islands for months, often on horseback, before deciding on Katikati as the ideal place for his settlement.

The scrub land looked fertile. The small port of Tauranga, a day's ride away, would give them contact with the outside world, and plans to develop a goldfield nearby would provide a ready market for their produce.

Vesey Stewart 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. But he had a strong card to play -- an Orange one. As Brad Patterson, from the Irish-Scottish Studies programme at Victoria University in New Zealand, points out: "The Stewart family had a long tradition with the Orange Order. His father, Mervyn, had been the Grand Master in Tyrone. George Vesey Stewart had been the secretary. Before even the land had been secured in New Zealand, the proposal had been circulated throughout the Orders of Ulster, had been agreed to by the ruling groups and it was with their support that he actually went out to recruit."

Mark Thompson has discovered that Vesey Stewart was a prolific author of pamphlets and brochures extolling the virtues of life in New Zealand.

In them he stated his ambition " ... 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'."

He was also clear about what sort of settlers he didn't want, advising "...Irish Fenians, rebels, and Home Rulers to emigrate to the United States, where they might find a more sympathetic atmosphere".

Twenty-seven families bought into Vesey Stewart's plan. Many of them had worked in his mill or had been struggling tenant farmers in North West Ulster.

On June 8, 1875, they joined Vesey Stewart, his wife, Mary, and their nine children on the quayside in Belfast, ready to board the Carisbrooke Castle for the three-month voyage direct to New Zealand.

Noel Mitchel, recently retired from Queen's University's Institute of Irish Studies, suspects a bit of "creative accounting" might have gone on with the registration of the passengers.

He says: "The New Zealand government paid a subsidy for family members and I think you would probably find that some of the families recruited individuals who weren't family members -- who might have been servants -- to get the full £20 subsidy per person."

The Carisbrooke Castle sailed to Auckland. A coastal steamer then took the settlers to Tauranga and there they transferred to small sailboats for the last leg of their exhausting journey to Katikati.

"I think most of them probably thought they'd come to the end of the world," says Ellen McCormack, a Katikati resident who has studied the history of the town and its founder for over 40 years.

She says: "Stewart had arranged for a few small huts to be built for the people to live in when they first arrived.

"They were very basic buildings made of flax, with just a doorway and flax roof, and they had to cook in there and live in there.

"They were very small, with dirt floors and 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."

She adds: "I'm sure some of them would have questioned Vesey Stewart's leadership and their own decision to come out here, but I think, before long, most of them were happy that they now owned their own land and if they got on and worked they knew that they had a future for their children, and all the letters that they wrote back were saying this."

Armed with some of those letters of recommendation, George Vesey Stewart was back in Ulster within three years with another 10,000 acres of land to offer at Katikati. He wasn't long recruiting another boat load.

The second group of settlers were different. They had titles and money. They included retired generals and bishops and even Vesey's 88-year-old father, Captain Mervyn, and his wife, Frances. Ellen McCormack sees it as all part of Stewart's master plan.

"He used his brain to bring those tenant farmers first, to clear the land, to get established, to cope with the hardships and then to bring the people with the money.

"They were then able to employ the people in the first group to work for them. This gave money to the first group and helped the new settlers as well. He thought everything out very carefully."

The remote little Ulster Scots colony was more or less complete. It even had its Orange Hall. 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, that had an Orange link, would be observed religiously."

Today Katikati is a thriving market town. The Orange hall is gone but its Ulster origins are still remembered and celebrated by a few direct descendants of those first settlers.

They'll tell Mark Thompson how the settlement survived early farming setbacks, community disputes and even the fallout from an erupting volcano.

He'll also hear how historians, in Northern Ireland and New Zealand, assess the cultural significance of this unique Ulster-Scots, Orange settlement.

And what about Vesey Stewart? In the following years his business ambitions extended beyond Katikati. Mark Thompson will hear how he organised a second settlement, with immigrants from several parts of Britain, which almost ended in disaster. He'll hear how he fought, in the corridors of power, to bring roads, railways and other facilities to the Bay of Plenty region.

Ellen McCormack will also tell Mark about Vesey Stewart's turbulent private life and how it scandalised the good folk of Katikati.

She says: "I think the community would have been very shocked to see him arrive back with a wife and two children. They were very religious still because you had that Ulster group. Even though they're getting elderly they were still very staunch with their religion. Not the thing to do."

George Vesey Stewart died in 1920 and he's buried in the old cemetery overlooking Katikati.

Nearly 100 years later, his name stills provokes strong opinions among 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 ambition to persuade dozens of Ulster families to abandon their lives here for the possibility of a better future on the other side of the world.


* New Zealand's first Orange Lodge was founded in Auckland in 1842 by James Carlton Hill from Co Wicklow. In 1867, a North Island Grand Lodge was formed followed by a second in South Island a decade later. The two merged in 1908

* The traditional Orange parades did not emerge until 1877. Previously the Twelfth was celebrated by dinners and concerts

* From 1912 to 1925 the country's most famous Orangeman, William Massey, who was born in Limavady, Co Londonderry, was Prime Minister and during World War One he led a coalition government with Irish Catholic Joseph Ward

* Although the Order has declined in size in New Zealand, in 1994 it hosted the Imperial Orange Council for its biennial meeting. It is unusual in having mixed-gender lodges

Katikati, the Ulster Settlement Down Under, BBC Radio Ulster, Sunday at 1.30pm. The programme is presented by Ulster-Scots historian Mark Thompson and produced by John Derring and is a Yamal Production for BBC NI


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