Norsewood - a special settlement

A few months back, on a day trip around the Hawke's Bay, I happened upon Norsewood, just north of Dannevirke. Norsewood was famous for that line of outdoor clothing Norsewear and appropriately the day I passed through, I could have done with some Norsewear. Wild weather was bashing the North Island, and by the time we left Norsewood it had begun to get dark and the passengers were starting to get a little nervous. We were about to head through the Manawatu Gorge. At night.

The home of Ole Lund and family

Secretly, I thought the advantage of driving through the Manawatu Gorge in the dark was that you couldn't see how far down you'd fall if the car went off the road. It's quite a drop. The other plus was that we were on the side farthest from potential doom, although with the tendency for the gorge to suffer slips, I would never be bold enough to assume I'd get through in one piece, even in daylight.

We had stopped at Norsewood in the freezing, violent wind, to take photos, but  not of anything Norwegian. It was Massey graduation week, and we were having a bit of fun taking pictures wearing graduation robes. It was a quite brilliant idea that had struck me with amazing clarity the day before. Since we were heading up for a tiki tour of Hawke's Bay, why not, I suggested, take our wizard robes and caps, stop off heaps along the way and take pics. It was a great plan until we hit Norsewood. At that point, wrecked by the wind, we lasted about ten seconds standing in front of the Jail sign at the Pioneer Museum before we threw ourselves back in the car, wondering if we'd make it through the Gorge in one piece while dreaming about the fish and chips we were going to have when we got home. Fish is a very Scandinavian thing, although probably more preserved herring than, say, deep fried snapper in batter.

Well. You can imagine how intrigued I was, some weeks later, to be back at the library and to find a book all about Norsewood and its settlers. Quite the co-incidence. Not that I have any claim to Scandinavian ancestry, but if you do, or just have an interest in that part of New Zealand, you'll find heaps to keep you occupied while flipping through the pages of  Norsewood: A Special Settlement by Diane and Terry Kitt.

It's a comprehensive history of the area and the (predominantly) Norwegian and Danish settlers, and it has so much detail. It began as a project by the authors who realised there was a lot of incorrect information on the pioneers, and that they needed to go back to the primary sources to figure out what was the truth. Much of their research relates to the land allotments of the special settlement from 1872 up until around 1930 in the area known as the Seventy Mile Bush.  The 'special settlement' was a government system "whereby immigrant men with families should take up the land, finding part-time employment at road making to tide them over the difficult period until their holdings became productive." Thus the aim was to provide labour to build roads and to settle the bush lands.

The book covers detail not only about the land allotments, but about this new tough life, from the jobs (such as saw milling), the hotels and establishments, the churches, notable identities, to building the railway.  At one point in the 1880s, after nearly a decade of hard work, some settlers had apparently had enough and were planning to abandon the settlement, charter a couple of ships and head to America. You'll also find photos, information sourced from newspapers, and lists—such as a list of all the resident doctors over the decades. 

Kudos to the authors for the meticulous work that must have gone into producing all 500 odd pages of the book. Note that their research includes items from the Bush Advocate, the local paper of the time, and that the Bush Advocate can be accessed via Papers Past

I am so going back to Norsewood again to take a better look, and this time, not just to perch outside the old jail for a few gratuitous pics.

Author: Joanne - Central Research Centre