The European settlement of Feilding and the surrounding Manchester Block was the result of a private emigration scheme set up by a group of English upper class businessmen and philanthropists led by the Duke of Manchester. Calling itself the Emigrants and Colonists Aid Corporation, this company was formed in 1869 to select a block of land in one of Britain’s colonies and to settle there a group of people principally selected from the unemployed agricultural labouring classes and others adversely affected by the many social changes brought about by the industrial revolution.
Initially the Directors were all English, including among their number the Earl of Denbigh, his brother Colonel William Henry Adelbert Feilding, Henry G Ashhurst Esq, a London merchant, John Balfour Esq, and secretary C Stuart Bailey, a former officer in the Colonial Land and Emigration Office in London. Later New Zealand Directors were appointed as well and a New Zealand agent, Arthur William Follett Halcombe, who was to live on the selected block of land and supervise and assist the emigrants as they began their new life.
Colonel Feilding was given the task of selecting suitable land for the project and initially he began his search in Queensland, Australia. Finding little to tempt him there, either in terms of the quality of land he saw or in assistance and support from the government of the day, he set his sights on New Zealand.
On December 2, 1871,William Feilding arrived in Auckland. By Tuesday, December 12, Feilding was in Wellington and by mid morning he was talking with ministers of the New Zealand government about possible suitable blocks of land. By the end of December the deal was done and on December 30 Feilding sailed from Auckland to report back to the Directors on ‘The Feilding Contract’.
What Colonel Feilding had agreed to buy was an area of 106,000 acres as well as 1000 acres which was to be kept by the government until the totara had been cleared from it. A grant of 6,000 acres for roading and reserves was included. Ten acres of land at Terrace End, Palmerston North was also included, to be used for the construction of an immigration depot. This was built on the corner of present day Ruahine and Main Streets and was eventually used as Palmerston North’s first hospital when it was no longer needed for its original purpose.
The agreed price for the land was 15 shillings per acre and the Corporation was required to pay one third of this on April 1, 1877, another third in 1879 and the final instalment in 1882. Interest on the money lent was to be at 7% up to 1877 and at 7 1/2% thereafter. The outside boundaries of the block were to be surveyed at the cost of the Wellington Provincial Government, the sellers of the land, but the internal surveys were to be the responsibility of the Corporation. All but 12,000 acres of the land was covered in dense bush, the main clearing being on the southern boundary, where the ‘on the spot’ Agent, appointed by the Corporation, Arthur William Follett Halcombe, decided to establish the first settlement. This new township was named Feilding.
Back in Britain, Feilding’s contract was ratified by the Emigrants and Colonists Aid Corporation directors in March, 1872.
Then advertising and campaigning began for suitable immigrants to join the scheme. An important condition within the agreement between the Corporation and the Provincial Government was that at least 2,000 emigrants would be living in the block by the time the first payment was due in April, 1877, with no fewer than 100 of these to be there before April, 1873.
Initially the Emigrants and Colonists Aid Corporation had a big advantage. They had extracted from the New Zealand Government an undertaking that they would provide free passages for the immigrants along with barrack accommodation and provisions for two days upon their arrival in Wellington.
By the time that the first emigrants were ready to leave England this advantage had disappeared. By then the New Zealand Government had itself begun to actively seek huge numbers of emigrants as the Vogel Scheme of the 1870s got underway. A huge loan for the purposes of public works - roading and railways - had been raised and manpower was desperately needed to enable these projects to be carried out.
Nevertheless, the Emigrants and Colonists Aid Corporation was, in a way, able to piggyback off the extra publicity that agents were generating about New Zealand as a desirable destination.
The scheme did manage to attract sufficient numbers of prospective emigrants - many of them agricultural labourers as originally envisaged - but an equal number from a huge variety of other occupations, ranging from ‘letter sorter’ to ‘photographer’ to ‘railway porter’. Many called themselves ‘sawyers’ or other occupations they knew would make them desirable candidates for acceptance by the Corporation.
The Corporation was not able to meet its first deadline for assembling the initial group of emigrants of April, 1873, but by September 9, 1873 31 people, comprising four family groups, were boarding the Duke of Edinburgh at Gravesend, London, to sail to Wellington as the first settlers destined for the Manchester Block. Another group of twelve families was to follow on October 5 on the Salisbury, and a third group left on the Ocean Mail on November 12. Before the end of that year the Woodlark had departed from London with another group on December 11 and the Mongol just over a week later on December 19.
From January 22, 1874, when the first small group from the Duke of Edinburgh actually arrived on the site of Feilding until December 1879, around 1,700 men, women and children arrived in the Manchester Block as assisted immigrants under the Emigrants and Colonists Aid Corporation Scheme. They came as some of the passengers on 37 ships that also carried many other government assisted emigrants who flocked to New Zealand during the 1870s.
Settlers in the first few years were based round Feilding and Makino. Later the towns of Halcombe and Ashhurst were established and many who arrived on the ships from 1876 on were settled in these areas. The first small group of European settlers arrived on the site of Halcombe on April 8, 1876, while the first settlers in Ashhurst got there in August 1877
Activities will also include a slowest bike-riding competition and the popular pioneer pastime of whacking the "rat in a drain-pipe".
The annual celebrations commemorate the arrival of European settlers in Feilding nearly 140 years ago.
Feilding and District Historical Society member Helen Trotter said visitors were in for a treat.
"It's a simple, fun-filled family day where we get together to celebrate the history of the town," she said.
"It's a way to honour our pioneers, to show people a different way of life and we look forward to it every year."
The highlight of the morning promises to be what Mrs Trotter says is "the world's longest apple short cake" - nearing on 8 metres.
Made by Feilding bakers, it was always a tasty treat, she said.
Roaming the streets will be horse-drawn vehicles, traction engine-drawn carriages and vintage cars.
There will also be wool spinners at work, Edwardian style clothes to try on for size and a historical sausage sizzle.
The Feilding Scottish pipe band will be there alongside stilt-walkers and fully garbed society members.
Settlers' Day starts at 10am tomorrow and finishes about 1pm.
The first European settlers at Feilding arrived in 1874. Some Europeans were leasing land from Maori groups, but the new settlers were mainly working-class immigrants from England looking for a better life. They lived in a town of tents, fending off mosquitoes, before cottages were built. An initial group of about 28 settled in a swampy clearing known as the Manchester Block and by 1879 there were 1800 people living there. The Duke of Manchester and the Earl of Denbigh were active agents for the scheme in England and the earl's brother, Colonel William Feilding, was sent to New Zealand to find suitable land for felling bush. Feilding was one of only a few successful private immigration schemes in New Zealand