Austerity and fecundity, Michael Bassett

James Dilworth
R C J Stone
Dilworth Trust Books $49.95
ISBN 0 473 02990 1

Plain Living, High Thinking: The Family Story of Jennie and Will Lovell-Smith
Margaret Lovell-Smith
Pedmore Press $34.95
ISBN 0 473 03033 0

These two books about pioneers and their lives in early New Zealand could scarcely be more different. Stone’s is a commissioned life to commemorate an Irishman without issue whose estate has provided quality education to several thousand boys within the “Auckland Province” over the last 91 years, Lovell-Smith’s is partly an act of family piety, the story by a descendant of a large extended family of two English settlers who took up residence in the South Island.

Stone’s book is largely a business history, written with the same sure academic touch that has made him the pre-eminent historian of Auckland’s early days. It has few personal details, because, as he notes, James and Isabella Dilworth’s lack of children meant that family stories didn’t survive. Lovell-Smith, on the other hand, was blessed with diaries, reminiscences and contemporary accounts of her family that enabled her to paint her figures with intriguing detail. Family foibles, political and social activities and secrets (most particularly, the relationship between Will Lovell-Smith and Kate Sheppard) abound. On a human level, the one book is as austere and commercial as the other is fecund, familiar and barren of mercenary detail.

Yet both books are important contributions to the growing literature on that extraordinary smorgasbord of immigrants from whom many New Zealanders are descended; Dilworth from Northern Ireland a “large man with a gruff and somewhat unbending manner”, emigrated first to Australia and then to Auckland in search of land and wealth. He arrived in 1841 and made several prudent land purchases over the next few years, which he extended during a “restlessly acquisitive” life. Dilworth was “cautious and secretive” in his business dealings, was the driving force behind the establishment of the Auckland Savings Bank, served in the Auckland Provincial Council and was a leading Anglican at his local church, St Marks of Remuera.

Will Smith came from an English-Scots background in Bristol and had links to earlier Nova Scotian emigrants, suggesting a connection with Waipu and the McLeod family that is not explored in the book. His family’s emigration is described as an “act of desperation”, due to illness and a run of bad luck in Bristol. Jennie Cumberworth, who became his wife, was from Glasgow. Methodism, music and shared interests in social reform drew the two together in Christchurch, where they produced six children.

Both the Dilworths and the Smiths had small means at their disposal when they arrived – enough to house themselves. But whereas Dilworth was able to buy judiciously and keep his land intact, building a tidy fortune by the time of his death, the Smiths had more mouths to feed. They lived comfortably, but although the men in the family worked mostly in the family printing business, details of which are fairly sparse (the breadwinners are not centre-stage in this book), there is no hint of great wealth.

Poorer they may have been, but one senses that the Lovell-Smiths lived richer lives than James and Isabella Dilworth. Margaret Lovell-Smith concentrates on her family’s ethos: “concepts of unity, sisterhood, underlying Christian beliefs, and a love of music”. The family supported the women’s suffrage movement, whose leader, Kate Sheppard, lived with the family for more than 30 years, enjoying a mysterious but probably platonic relationship with Will and Jenny. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union bulked large in their lives and the White Ribbon was printed by the family firm. The family was active in the Canterbury Women’s Institute, and Will voted for Dick Seddon’s Liberal Party, while his son Ken became an evangelist for the Social Credit movement. The Lovell-Smiths were into anything to do with health and hygiene, and what was called “rightful and natural living”. Breast feeding, plain food diets, hydropathy and open air schools were all part of the agenda. Good health, morality, political and religious duty and the pursuit of happiness marched hand in hand. They were as non-conformist as Dilworth was true blue and unyielding.

Where Lovell-Smith concentrates on what became an influential Canterbury family, Stone portrays a growing commercial empire within New Zealand’s most important city. Dilworth wheeled and dealed, befriended and fought with the entrepreneurs of early Auckland on his way to wealth. His efforts to extend his family by attracting relatives to New Zealand were as unsuccessful as the Smiths and Cumberworths were triumphant. Dilworth had close and distant relatives at hand with whom he had little communion. There are pictures of as many as 30 Lovell-Smiths together on occasions – cousins, babies, dogs, musical instruments, and in one case a parrot as well. Where 43 Great South Road, Auckland, must often have been as quiet as the grave, “Arcadia” on Russley Road and “Midway” in Riccarton were hives of activity. It took both sorts to build a new society.

Stone’s is the more substantial book. It has been constructed from extensive archival research and the author’s extraordinary feel for the dynamics of the city he has lived in all his life. To read it is to understand how Dilworth prospered when so many others failed. Margaret Lovell-Smith’s study is less ambitious, although hers must be one of the best researched family histories that we have. Sadly, it ends without a reflective note on a family with such wide interests.

James Dilworth or Jennie and Will Lovell-Smith? Who had the more enduring influence on the land of their adoption? Stone himself seems to have had doubts about his subject, concluding that nothing so much became Dilworth’s life as his last will and testament. It resulted in a school that has produced a Governor-General, cabinet ministers, Rhodes scholars, a Fellow of the Royal Society and many captains of industry. The Lovell-Smiths, on the other hand, produced as wide a cross-section of individuals as any early settler family. The women’s movement, the Methodist church, as well as a series of causes that today have a faintly ridiculous air to them, but which are all part of our historical woof and warp, benefited from their energetic support. Who, in the end, is to judge? And does it matter?

Michael Bassett has written two political biographies and is at work on a third. He teaches history at the University of Western Ontario, sits on the Waitangi Tribunal, and is an old boy of Dilworth School.

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