As the new year approaches, we reflect on the year that has past and look forward to the year to come. In our fast-paced world, it is easy to lose sight of who we are and what we are trying to achieve in our life time. So, we need to slow down and refocus, rethink our ideas and our choices and reconnect with who we are. But we also need to appreciate what we have and look at the world with eyes wide open. To understand that we all have a story…
I have always had an interest in living off the land, from being raised on farms in the Gisborne region. To delving into a book as old as me on my Nana’s book self, ‘The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency’ by John Seymour, which even now sits on my desk as I write. I may have taken a 17 year hiatus from living in the country but it was always still there and I never stopped gardening. Now living in rural Manawatu, we are achieving that goal, it has been a long journey with many side roads, but as they say good things take time. It has also been about changing our mind set, changing the way we think and how we choose to exist on this earth.
This is a story which is a part of me, one with which I have only recently reconnected, but affects me deeply and I believe partially defines who I am, where I stand in this world and how I chose to live.
In 1874 my great, great grandparents Bernhard and Johanna Langer left their home in Moravia, Austria to come to New Zealand. Times were hard in their country and Napoleons army was calling up the young men for compulsory military service. They decided it was better to leave their farm and take up the offer from Queen Victoria to their Emperor Franz Josef, of land in the new country. With their six children and Johana’s brother Johann Schubert, they traveled to London to catch a ship to New Zealand.
It was in London that things took a change for the worst, Bernhard a simple German speaking farmer, was tricked by confidence men (con men) and money changers while waiting for their ship. But he had paid their fare so they boarded the ship with the promise of a grant for 20 acres of land in New Zealand. The journey was a bad one, they encountered terrible storms in the Roaring Forties and the ship was so badly damaged the Captain urged all Christians on board to pray for deliverance. Thankfully two days later the storms cleared and the ship arrived safely in Lyttelton Harbour. The Moravians, Bavarians and Poles were all taken to the Provincial Governments Barracks at Addington, and were later moved to the immigration barracks at Oxford.
But the Langers 20 acres of land was not to be, through some confusion, it appears that Bernhard did not receive their entitlement. Instead Bernhard utilise his skills learned while living as a peasant farmer in Moravia to earn a living, he found work cutting flax and then landed a job in the timber milling industry,working on the stationary steam engines at Glen Miller Estate. It was there that they realised their dream of owning land as, while the owner was away, the foreman sold them 13 acres of the estate, on which they build a small house and moved in. But this to was not to be, the owner of estate returned and declared the sale illegal and the money to be refunded. The Langers were forcibly evicted with the roof torn from their house to prevent them from returning.
Bernhard refused to give up the dream, the following year he bought 20 acres beyond Coopers creek and immediately set about occupying the land. Trees were chopped and milled and the Langers second house in New Zealand was built. Again, this was not to be, Bernhard had mistakenly built on the wrong land. He refused to leave so the Rangiora police were called and the family’s belongings were removed from the house before it was burnt to the ground in front of them. In desperate need of shelter for his family Bernhard found some unclaimed land,milled the trees and built another shack. But the Oxford police heard he was on a roading reserve and again they were evicted and their house burnt to the ground.
Returning to Oxford they were befriended by a blacksmith, Mathias Horricks. Who generously allowed them to build on his land and wrote up a lease so they could live there rent free. So, Bernhard built his fourth house, a more substantial one this time and they developed a garden. Sadly, in about 1880, the Blacksmiths wife died and he decided to sell the property. The new owner ordered the Langers out. Again, devastated, the Langers moved, this time to a Road Board cottage near the cemetery. In six years, they had left their homeland, lost almost everything they owned and been evicted from four hand-built houses. Their dream of owning their own land seemed fated to never be.
Then, unexpectedly, the deeds to the real land at Coopers creek turned up. Bernhard was not going to let this one go, he decided to occupy the land immediately. The local police officer in charge of the district escorted the Langers to the land, pointed out the boundary and “planted them on it”. But this was not the land Bernhard thought he had bought, instead of fertile flat it was on the cold side of a hill and clay, land that no one else would have bothered with. But it was theirs and he was determined to make it work. He built a basic hut and storage shed and then started on the main house. This time he made sun-dried bricks, diverting a stream into a hollow, he then spread rushes through it and drove some cattle into it to churn the muck. This was then shaped into bricks and dried in the sun. It took Bernhard three years to build a five-room cottage with a dried flax thatch roof. At the same time the family was clearing the land of scrub and ploughing the ground with a make shift plough pulled by their daughter Rose. Through sheer hard work and determination, they transformed their clay ground, carting humus from the bush to feed the soil and create a fertile garden. They grew many vegetables and also rye, which was ground with a wooden mortar to make bread. With a house cow for milk, ducks, geese, poultry, pigs and many beehives they finally had the self-contained farm they had dreamed of. Surplus was taken down the road to sell from a wheel barrow. This was no easy feat as to access their land the Langers had to wade through a swamp, cross a neighbour‘s land and then follow a stream up a ravine to where their farm lay. They may have had their farm but it had come at a cost, they no longer trusted people and kept to themselves, with only a few friends among the neighbours, it was these friends who brought the Langers food in hard times, when they feared they must be close to starvation.
But it does not end there, according to the maps and The Oxford Road Board there was a road to their farm, in reality there was not. Bernhard refused to pay the roading rates and many others in similar positions choose not to as well. The board decided to make an example of someone to encourage compliance, Bernhard was the unfortunate one. The board applied to the supreme court to have his property sold to cover the unpaid rates, a mere 5s 5d (approx 55c NZ), the process was long and Bernhard refused to budge. On the 2 August 1897 the court ordered the land to be sold, which it was, eight months later, at auction for 21 pounds. But still he refused to budge, Johann Schubert (his brother in-law) died in August 1898 and Bernhard followed him in May 1899. Four of their children had already dispersed to other parts of New Zealand, leaving only Johanna Langer, her son Joseph, aged 25 and daughter Rosalie who was now 38.
Then one day in the pouring rain a bailiff and a policeman came to evict them. Their meager possessions were moved on to the hillside beyond the boundary and they were ordered to never go on the property again. Neighbours and even the policeman offered to house them but she refused and built a simple shelter where they stood, with permission of the land owner. They felt bewildered at the way the “Britishers” had used them from London to the shores of New Zealand and beyond. No-one locally knew of the court proceedings and all were shocked, they would have paid the rates for the Langers if they had only known. Instead the people of Oxford, in just three months, raised enough money to buy back the farm for the Langers and cover any future rates. Mrs Johana Langer lived in her mud brick house until her death in 1907, Joe and Rosalie staying on together after her passing. They kept mainly to themselves but the plight of the “Hermits of Ram paddock Hill” had reached the public in 1900 through an article in the “Weekly Press” and they were gifted money and some comforts. But none of this could shift Rosalie’s deep-seated resentment for the way her family had been treated nor quell the fear Joe had every time someone came to their property, for he had been threatened with hanging for brandishing a firearm during one of their evictions.
Both remained on the property for most of their lives, Rosalie only leaving when, at age 78, she was injured while going home, as they still had no access road in 1937. She died in 1940 at Nazareth House. Joe continued on the land alone for some time, before being taken to a home for the aged in Oxford and then also on to Nazareth House, where he died in 1951. *
These simple folk from Moravia built a life in New Zealand from nothing, their determination to succeed in owning their own land and their strength to fight against injustice is inspiring. Bernhard Langer and his family built six houses from the land, while some of them may have been only simple shacks, the process of milling timber by hand means this was no simple task. To build a house from handmade mud brick gives a foundation to your home, a connection of your blood and sweat to every inch of that dwelling. To farm a poor piece of land into a fertile garden is just strengthening that bond.
Today, not all, but most people have lost their connection with land and therefore,with the bounty it can provide us. For almost every purpose there is a natural resource and knowledge of how to use it, yet this has been stolen from us by these modern confidence men, who legislate not for the good of human kind but for their pockets. A good example of this is the building industry and how it has excluded the pioneer man from building on their own land with natural products with-out mountains of legislation. They have created a system of forced use of inferior man-made building materials with limited lifespan. Many of these ‘improvements’ are simply not that, ten/twenty years down the track and the issues start to show, leaky buildings, asbestos, health concerns, ‘oops, sorry that is actually not safe’. Another good example is the wool industry. Wool is a remarkable natural product that should be widely used, yet its virtually value less. Its insulating properties give it such promise and yet we still fill our walls with fibre glass.
We, the people, rush from place to place, buying what we want without any real thought, consume, consume, consume. We work and are motivated by money so we can enjoy life and things, but yet we have no time to just be. An example of this is the yearly holiday where you rush from one activity to the next with no time to really enjoy and actually take it all in, then you feel as if you need a holiday to get over the holiday because you are exhausted
I look at our ancestors and think they had none of this. Most lived simple lives and what motivated them was grounded and were very real needs. In actuality our real needs are simple; warm shelter, clean water, healthy food and companionship. These are the true wealth of our world, as long as we have these everything thing else is a want. The problem in our world is that so many put their wants in front of their needs. I feel that even though the Langers endured much hardship as a family, they were stronger and more resilient than many people I know today. They fought for their needs and for the land to provide their needs so they could maintain their independence in the corrupt world that they encountered. In the face of adversity, they simply began again refusing to give up on their goal.
Many of us have a story of the pioneering spirit which brought our ancestors to the shores of New Zealand, whether we came from Britain, Europe, the Americas, China or Pacifica. It was the courage and determination of these people, the simple hardworking people not the government or confidence men, which has shaped us and our country.
So, this year I choose to remember my great, great grandparents’ story, I thank them for the qualities they have handed down to me. Determination, resilience, the strength to stand up for my rights, the hardheadedness to not bow down to adversity and the bloody mindedness to seek our independence. Also, the ability to appreciate the abundance we have created and are still working to create on our own land. Through this I hope to share our experiences and knowledge gained in the hope that it will help others to create their own abundance, appreciate their own achievements and develop their own independence. We need to embrace the pioneering spirit and the resilience of these people in the face of a rapidly changing world.
*My thanks to ‘The Press’, December 16, 1978, for the information for this story.