Sunday, 15 June 2014

George Magnus Hassing - An Extraordinary New Zealand Pioneer (Part Two of Two)

George Hassing (at right) with Mrs Christina Wraytt (at left),
(Mrs Wraytt an early Teacher at Kingston before
her marriage to Mr Josiah Wraytt of Garston).
[Source : "Golden Days in Lake County"] 

This Blog concludes the story of the Danish born George Magnus Hassing. George led the most extraordinarily varied and fascinating pioneering life. From globe-trotting seaman, to bush saw miller in New Zealand, to Clutha River log raftsman, to gold rush store-keeper and ferry-man, to West Coast Explorer, to gold miner during the glory days of the Otago and West Coast Gold Rushes, to respected long-term country Schoolmaster, and not forgetting a prolific Journalist; before finally retiring in 1921 at the venerable age of 85. To view the first Blog in this two part series please click Here.

Isolated Cardrona shown at lower centre in relation
to Albertown (at upper right) and Arrowtown
(at lower left). From a map dated 1888.
[From my own collection]

The Overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty :

By 1874, Hassing was the principal owner of the Empire Gold-Mining claim at Cardrona. At this time there were around 150 European miners on the field and some 600 Chinamen, it being "a happy hunting ground for the Celestials". Hassing, "with a view to improving and elevating the moral and intellectual nature of the Chinese residents... started an adult Chinese evening school..". He notes their "keen interest and remarkable aptitude in acquiring the rudiments of English". Soon becoming affectionately known as "Mr Ah Sing", Hassing believed that his previous two years' experience in the coastal towns of China had been of much value to him. With a dry sense of humour he notes that most of his Celestial pupils made enough money to return to the "Flowery Land" but "whether the subsequent overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty was in a remote way due to my democratic teaching is, of course an open question." Hassing held the "most happy recollections of the pleasant evenings spent with my Chinese friends."  

The Catastrophic Great Flood of 1878 :  
In 1878, "a great flood overwhelmed the place" destroying most of the gold mining workings. This catastrophe ruined many miners, including Hassing. Thereupon he made application to the Southland Education Board for the position of Teacher of the Cardrona School, which was then vacant. He carried on this occupation at Cardrona until 1885, "... very happy days, though not without care, anxiety, and sorrow - the outstanding feature was the cosmopolitan, brotherly, charitable, and helpful spirit animating the whole community."

The picturesque main street of a much smaller Cardrona as it
 appears today, but still retaining a 19th century atmosphere.
[From my own collection]

Never Shall I Forget the... Fixed Stares of Those Children :

"Never shall I forget the rigid attitudes and fixed stare of those children as their gaze was riveted upon [the School Inspector]... He had on an Indian helmet, a large dust coat, a pair of double black goggles, and carried under his arm a heavy riding whip with an ugly brass knob on the end of the handle." On closer acquaintance Hassing found him to be "a most affable and courteous gentleman."

A Miners' Orchestra :

As Secretary of the newly formed Miners' Association, Hassing "burned the midnight oil" on many occasions in order to win concessions on behalf of the town which included "£6,000 for a mountain traffic road, 3,000 acres adjoining the town set apart for a public commonage, a fine cemetery site, telegraph connection, [and] library subsidy..." With an acknowledged gift for organisation, another of Hassing's achievements at Cardrona was to set up a "fine miners' Orchestra", comprising of men who played the piano, violin, concertina, banjo, piccolo, and drum. The social life in Cardrona would extend well beyond the bars of the four local hotels.

Rev. A. Stobo
Rev. D. Ross

Clergymen Prohibited From Entering the School :

Hassing latterly encountered a vivid example of the fervent emotion still generated today by what we now know as "Bible in Schools" Religious Education. An Anglican clergyman was politely told to distribute his religious literature after school hours but, replying that this was not possible, proceeded to walk round the class placing a circular on each desk. But that evening the Chairman of the school committee accosted Hassing in a fury, "I have always respected you... but to permit a black Protestant to proselytize my children., I shall never forgive." Many of the local miners would have been Catholic or Presbyterian. Thereafter a notice prohibited all Clergymen from entering the school during school hours. But this did not deter the Presbyterian Ministers, the Rev's Andrew Stobo and Donald Ross, who duly entered but left "after a pleasant inspection" of the children. This violation incensed the School Committee who imposed punitive actions on Hassing, and resolved to appoint a Teacher "of the right [religious] persuasion" to start a denominational school in a hut below the township. Shortly after commencing work the newly appointed teacher broke his neck falling off a bridge.

It was no accident that prohibition era
"Hokonui Moonshine" was distilled in
the bush-covered Hokonui hills.
[Source : Moonshinefest

A Strong Leaning Towards Their National Beverage :

"The impossibility of carrying on the school under such conditions" prompted Hassing to seek a Teaching position elsewhere. Thus, in 1885, he moved, with his wife, whom he had married in 1876, to the small "Highland community" of Hokonui in Central Southland, "a kind, generous, sociable people, anxious for the education of their children, but with a strong leaning towards their national beverage." Even today, the colourful heritage of "Hokonui Moonshine" [illicitly distilled whisky] during the years of prohibition in Southland from 1905 to 1943 / 1954 is renowned - and celebrated.

George Hassing with his Wife and Daughter
outside the Heddon Bush Schoolhouse.
[Source : "Looking Back 100 Years"]

Think, and Ponder Over It, Ye Modern Teachers! :

By August 1888 the Hassing family had moved to the small country school of Heddon Bush, also in Central Southland. The poor attendance had meant that the salary had reduced to £42 per annum or 15 shillings a week so he was initially disinterested in the position. But he was assured that within a month of his taking the position the roll would double, then increasing his salary. But roll numbers were slow to increase so for the first three months it actually cost Hassing £1. 5s for the privilege of teaching 35 State school children; "Think, and ponder deeply over it, ye modern teachers!"

Heddon Bush School from the rear, showing the entrance.
The Head Teacher, Mr Samuel Jackson and Mrs Jackson
appear in the image. As with Mr & Mrs Hassing, both
also ran the Public Library, the Heddon Bush Post
Office, and the only telephone in the district was
connected to the Schoolhouse. Taken circa 1916.
[From my own collection]

The Committee Armed and Rushed for Recapture :

Hassing's predecessor, Mr Girle, and being of "the old school", had engendered a bitter and divisive feud in the community over his outdated teaching techniques and the children's education naturally suffered. Half the community wished to retain him, the other to see him gone. Finally, after a "free fight at the annual householders' meeting", the teacher was turned out of the school. He then countered by setting up school in his residence for those who still wished to retain him, "But one night, under cover of darkness, he made a sortie and recaptured the [locked] school building." Hearing this news, "the committee armed and rushed for recapture." They drove out the teacher, smashed up the table, chairs, windows, and door. So for his first month, Hassing worked till near mid-night repairing broken furniture, pasting up maps, putting up panes of glass, etc. At a public meeting Hassing gave the community a stern talking to which evidently soothed lingering ill feeling as an atmosphere of reconciliation immediately set in.

The 1902 New Zealand Education Department Souvenir
commemorating the Coronation of King Edward VII
and Queen Alexandra in 1902, being hand annotated
 by Mr George Hassing and presented to all
children then attending the school.
[From my own collection]

The Presentation of a Rabbit to Avert His Wrath :

A former pupil, Mr George Catto (1893-1993) recalled that Mr Hassing wrote in a "copperplate hand", also that he was "a man who was not too strict, but if a pupil wanted to learn, he provided the opportunities..." The strap would only be used "about once a year", but any pupil deserving such a punishment could expect a "hammering". He recalled that the next teacher was rather more strict, ending the "big boys" being able to extend their lunch hour to two, "knowing full well that the presentation of a rabbit to the teacher would serve to avert the wrath which might have been called down on them for their misdemenours." A two hour lunch break was however the norm on Tuesdays so that Mr Hassing had time to read the weekly "Otago Witness" illustrated newspaper, to which he was a regular contributor.

Teacher, Mr George Hassing with Heddon Bush School
 Pupils, circa 1905. My Aunt and two Uncles appear in
the front row (from left, 3rd, 6th, and 7th). My Father
did not commence school until 1907.
[From my own collection]

An Act So Despicable :

Known to celebrate important occasions with a nip of whisky, Hassing would hide a bottle in a bag in the hedge during functions in the local hall, repairing at intervals for a nip and a yarn with his friends. But upon finding a slit in the bag and the bottle gone, a very angry Schoolmaster stormed into the hall, held up the bag, and told the no doubt astonished crowd "that in all his travels round the world he had never experienced an act so despicable as the theft of his whisky." I believe a replacement bottle was purchased for the good teacher.

The Leaving Testimonial to Mr GM Hassing, dated the
9th Dec 1906 & being signed by John Catto, James Ryan,
Charles Clarke, William Watson, and my Grandfather.
[From my own collection]

An Honourable & Industrious Career :

Here at Heddon Bush, George Hassing remained until after the early death of his wife in 1906 when he retired on superannuation. During his latter years at Heddon Bush he taught my own Aunt and two Uncles. As Secretary of the School Committee, my Grandfather knew Hassing well and wrote the testimonial to him dated December 1906 which I still hold, along with a first draft; "We can testify that you have done your duty nobly and well as a teacher and that you have taken an active part in every movement having for it's object the welfare of the district as well as the happiness of all around you.... we sincerely trust that under God's blessing you may be spared to enjoy in peace and happiness the reward of an honourable and industrious career."

A Christmas New Year Greeting, sent to
my Grandfather after George Hassing
left the Heddon Bush district.
[From my own collection]

The Teacher's True Reward :

Hassing ends his "autobiographic notes" musing on how he had played many parts on life's stage but teaching was his crowning achievement :

"I little learnt at that time [when his gold mining claim was destroyed in 1878] that teaching would be my future life's work, or that I could ever learn to love a profession that holds out so few worldly advantages. Yet now I recognize that those poor advantages are as nothing compared with the high responsibility involved in training the young so that disciplined characters and good citizens may be the finished product of the school."   

Above Images : The grave of George Hassing and his Wife Lavinia in the Old Winton Cemetery in Central Southland. [From my own collection]

"The Sailor Home From the Sea, The Sailor Home From the Hill" :

Unable to fully retire, Hassing offered himself to the Southland Education Board as a relieving teacher. Fully retiring in 1922 at 85 years of age, he spent the last years of his life residing with his Grand-daughter at Aparima :

"In that retreat one found him a hale, hearty old man of unclouded mind and bouyant soul, browsing among New Zealand and Danish newspapers, attending to correspondence, helping his little great-grandsons with their lessons."

George Magnus Hassing, aged 92 years, died at Riverton Hospital on Christmas Day 1928, being interred with his wife Elizabeth Lavinia Hassing (who predeceased him after "long and painful suffering" in 1906) in the old Winton Cemetery. While the vast majority of those passing the cemetery today would have no knowledge of Geoge Hassing most would however know that the convicted "child murderer" Minnie Dean, the only woman hung for murder in New Zealand, is interred here.

Bibliography / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • Watson Family Photographic Collection (held by the writer)
  • Personal Family Papers and Photographs (held by the writer)
  • "Papers Past" [National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa]
  • "The Memory Log of G.M. Hassing", 1930 (from my own collection)
  • "Looking Back 100 Years - Heddon Bush School 1881-1981" (from my own collection) 
  • "Golden Days of Lake County", by FWG Miller, 1962 (from my own collection)
  • "The Flame Unquenched", By G. McDonald, 1956 (from my own collection)
  • "The Interior Cold Lakes of Otago", NZ Survey Map, 1888 (from my own collection)

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