Working Lives c. 1900: A photographic essay, by Erik Olssen (Otago University Press, 2014), 167 pp., $50
Dunedin has seen better times. Once the country’s economic powerhouse, it has been overtaken in size by the likes of Hamilton and Tauranga, and is facing the psychological precipice which may see its ‘main centre’ status replaced with the less recherché ‘provincial centre’. Policies and economic stringencies that have seen manufacturers close or move north have done little to aid the city’s cause. Yet the city was once the country’s most important economic centre, and it is still arguably the country’s most fascinating historically.
It is no coincidence that a city established by fine Scottish standards should also become a major educational centre; Scottish education has long been highly regarded, and was perhaps at its peak around the time Dunedin burst into life with the discovery of gold in the nearby hills of Central Otago. The boom quickly turned to bust, and by the end of the nineteenth century the city had already had a roller-coaster history of economic rise and fall.
The city’s history and its educational assets have, over the past two decades, combined into a major archaeological study, the Caversham Project, a substantial undertaking which sought to document life in an industrial suburb. Thanks to this project, there is probably more known about the life of Caversham residents at the turn of the last century than those of anywhere else in New Zealand. Nowadays a somewhat dowdy suburb bypassed by the main route south, a century ago Caversham was a major industrial borough. On the best route to the goldfields, it rapidly grew from a small settlement to a thriving township. By the turn of the century, its size was similar to that of Gisborne or Whangarei. The largely English borough (with sizeable Irish and Chinese minorities) bruised knuckles a few times politically with its larger Scottish neighbour before they settled into an uneasy alliance.
The launch of a new book of photographic images of historic New Zealand is always fraught with a major problem. Unless the photographs are previously unseen or the text is dramatically better than other works in the field, it is likely to disappear into the crowd. Any book of early Dunedin photographs is up against the heavyweight precedent of Hardwicke Knight’s seven-volume Otago Cavalcade series (published during the 1980s by Allied Press).
Erik Olssen’s Working lives c. 1900: A photographic essay stands its ground well, however, and with good reason. Knight was the supreme ephemeralist, gathering and collecting historical scraps, but his interest was as much in the history of photography as in the history of Otago. His books provide images and a general text overview, but no in-depth analysis. In contrast, Olssen is a historian and urban archaeologist, who – as the former head of the Caversham Project – has a wealth of detailed research into early industrial New Zealand to call upon. This has allowed him to produce a book that uses the photographic evidence to illustrate an informative text.
A book can be written by the most knowledgeable of experts and be full of erudite facts, and still be as dull as a sock. The real test of this book is whether Olssen can channel his knowledge in a way that appeals to the average reader. Thankfully, the answer is yes. The book is impressive and informative, and the text is both approachable and readable. Not only does Olssen infuse his words with his enthusiasm for the subject, but he has an occasionally poetic turn of phrase that makes for enjoyable reading. An example from early in the book gives some measure of what sets the author’s work above that of a mere factual reporter:
The impression of timelessness is the false beauty of the photograph. Houses, townscapes, and working lives change. Occupational labels may seem reassuringly solid: once a lawyer, always a lawyer, we assume, or once a labourer, always a labourer. In fact, the former was not always the case, and the latter was often not the case (p. 8).
The book’s title is apt, but also misleading in a way, in that the book offers more. This is as much a history of Dunedin as it is a simple, lovingly assembled collection of images of the working past. It also veers beyond its stated date, making the ‘circa’ of the title very approximate. In many ways, it is closer to the spirit of David Johnson’s Dunedin: A pictorial history (Canterbury University Press 1993), or – even more so – Barbara Newton’s Our St Clair: A resident’s history (Kenmore/Longacre 2003), a volume which it complements well.
Despite its emphasis on the southern city, this book is not intended just for Dunedinites but is of value to anyone interested in New Zealand industrial history and the social structure of the young country. For all its localised bias, in effect it aims to illustrate the life of early industry in the colony overall. Caversham and South Dunedin are, however, the specific locus of attention for much of the volume, and many places are mentioned in the text which would not be known to any other than locals (and, with the changes in the city over the last century, not even locals in many cases). As such, a map or maps with streets as they were then and as they are now, placed prominently in the book – perhaps as a frontispiece – would have been most useful.
Ironically, for a book that is primarily a photographic essay, it is the text that causes the biggest frustration. Weaving between and around the photographs, it often disappears for half a dozen pages or more, while the captions on the photographs prove lengthy distractions. The information contained in both is worthwhile, but a greater integration of information from the captions into the main body of the text would have allowed for a smoother and more enjoyable reading experience.
Two surprising features of early industrial New Zealand shine through. One is that the country was not simply a bucolic, agrarian backwater, but even in the late nineteenth century was maintaining pace – albeit one or two steps back – with the great industrialised nations. The entrepreneurs of the new society were not poor cousins; they often established bases both in New Zealand and Europe, and were competitive to some extent with the old continent’s best.
The other intriguing feature is that, far from the stereotypical Dickensian images of nineteenth-century industry, company owners took a progressive, socially conscious view of their workers. Ross and Glendining, for example, ‘… [made a public] amenity of Kaikorai Stream … established a savings bank to encourage thrift [and] a benefit society to provide insurance against injury or illness. Robert Glendining had no difficulty in allowing the firm’s “hands” to join the appropriate trades union’ (p. 62). ‘These firms also became the centres for a lively social life. Most established libraries for their workers. Almost all fielded sports teams’ (p. 63). Several of the photos are especially enlightening as to factory life of the time; a series of photographs of McKinlay’s Shoe and Boot factory, for example, gives a good indication of working conditions and standards at the start of the twentieth century.
The city’s Presbyterian spirit, while strict and staid, was instrumental in bringing decent working conditions to all, in a way that foreshadowed the left-wing political movements of the twentieth century. Its political leaders were prominent in their support for many of the socially supportive measures passed at a time when New Zealand itself was still a world leader in social reform; even today, southern Dunedin is one of the country’s most left-leaning urban areas. These factors, combined with others – ranging from the ease of movement through motor transportation to the changing role of women and increase in unionisation – all tempered by news of political unrest in countries such as Ireland, led to massive social and political change. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 New Zealand’s industrial towns were markedly different to how they had been a generation earlier. Working Lives c. 1900 devotes its final two chapters to the social and political forces that drove, and were driven by, these changes.
To be accurate, a reasonable amount of what is in this book, both in terms of fact and image, is not new information. What is unique, though, is its consolidation into one volume. A handsomely presented tome, weighing in at 167 sturdy pages and (thankfully) fully indexed, this book shines a light on an aspect of New Zealand social history that has been largely neglected, at least in terms of published works aimed at the general public. Many books of historic New Zealand photographs focus on street scenes, formal group photographs, leisure activities and historical occasions; only a minority of works feature more than a handful of images of New Zealand at work, and those that do generally ascribe just one chapter to New Zealanders’ working and political lives. Here, a whole volume is dedicated to this fascinating and important aspect of fin-de-siècle life, one which had far-reaching effects on New Zealand society that still resonate today.
English-born JAMES DIGNAN is a Dunedin-based writer, artist, and musician, and a regular art reviewer for the Otago Daily Times.