Monday 23 July 2018

"Bunny is Getting it in the Neck" - Tackling The Rabbit Plague in Southland

Sign at Rabbiter's Residence, Otahuti, April 1964
Photograph taken by William Dykes
[From my own collection]

Having been innocently introduced as a source of fur and meat it would now be hard to comprehend the wholesale destruction, financial ruin, and complete utter despair that the rabbit plague has caused in Southland. Unfortunately for many, including those in Central Otago, the rabbit problem is ongoing.

Rabbits appear to have been introduced into Southland by whalers as early as 1843. Historian and early landowner Mr WHS Roberts observed in 1857 that they were then well established from Riverton (a former whaling base) and along the sand dunes of the Oreti Beach but had not yet crossed the Jacobs [Aparima] or Oreti Rivers or spread inland. Rabbits were, at this time still "regarded as a novelty which would in time provide sport for the gun".

By the 1860's rabbits were now well established in Southland and rapidly spreading inland. By the mid 1870's they had become an invasion, having "taken complete charge of the land, and were destroying it". Up till now the only real problems had been wild pigs and marauding wild dogs but these were nothing in comparison to the rabbit plague.

In May 1877 the Wallace County Council passed a resolution; "calling the serious attention of the Government to the incredible rapidity with which the rabbit nuisance was increasing in that county and in adjoining portions of the Southland County, more especially in pastoral districts." The Council had found, with some considerable alarm, that the annual value of the pastoral districts were, due to being overrun with rabbits, now diminishing thus affecting Council income.

The Council stressed; "that unless energetic means were immediately adopted towards exterminating the pest, large portions of Crown lands or public estate in the colony would be absolutely valueless before the expiry of the existing [land] leases, while the balance would be seriously deteriorated in value." Unoccupied Crown land, including reserves, bush and other unsold land had now become; "gigantic nurseries for the propagation of this scourge throughout the district."

Pet Ferrets kept by my Father for Rabbiting.
Taken early 1920's
[From my own collection]

Brothers Richard and David Spence, being the lessees from 1870 to 1880 of the large Heddon Bush Station, Run No 153 in Central Southland, encountered the full devastating effects of the rabbit plague which greatly reduced stock carrying capacity and thus their income. The "Old Man Flood" of 1878 coinciding with an economic slump led to them being forced to put the property up for auction in 1880. Having made their money as retail merchants they lost it all on the land. The new Station owner, Mr John Tennant, appears to have had slightly better success at rabbit control;  "The rabbits were very bad on the river flat but with trapping and poison they were got almost completely under control." Closer settlement of the newly surveyed and settled blocks on the "Hundreds" will also have aided control with small holding farmers naturally keen on minimizing damage to their precious holdings, their livelihood depending on it. But "control" would never equate to complete extermination.

By the 1880’s, the rabbit infestation was now endemic throughout Southland. “Te Ara”, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, states that the carrying capacity of one Southland station had fallen from 50,000 to 20,000 sheep. While rabbit numbers subsided through the 1890’s this respite would be short-lived. The serious matter of rabbit control again came to the fore at the Farmer’s Union Conference held at Invercargill on the 20th December 1901, being attended by my Gt. Gt. Uncle, a large landowner in Central Southland. A remit was passed calling on the Government to “... enact legislation for the systematic poisoning of rabbits as trapping had proved unsuccessful

Trapping did however prove lucrative. Two trappers working in the Drummond district during 1916 had been trapping and killing up to 200 rabbits per night, averaging an income of £7 per week for the sale of skins, rabbit furs being a sought after commodity. In January 1916 Otago and Southland exported a total of 659,155 skins with a commercial value of £9,092 [NZD$1, 273,379.00 in today's values]. 

Naturally more than a few rabbits that had been trapped or shot ended up in the stew pot. In 1981 the late George Catto of Heddon Bush in Central Southland (whom I well remember) reminisced of his schooldays prior to 1907 that after the departure of their long-serving Teacher Mr George Hassing and being succeeded by Miss Minnie Hanning, "a strong disciplinarian", that; "no longer were the big boys able to extend their lunch hour to two hours while they went rabbiting, knowing full well that the presentation of a rabbit to the teacher would serve to avert the wrath for which might have been called down on them for their misdemeanours."

As my two Uncles were then classmates of George they would also have been complicit in this activity. I am assuming that the boys, and being of primary school age, may have had unsupervised access to a rifle, something that would certainly not happen today, let alone having a two hour lunch break! George Catto also notes that, "In common with other farmers' sons, I got no wages for my work on the farm in those early days and any money which I earned came from catching rabbits for their skins, from a little shearing, and from working on the threshing mill."

"St. George" Brand "Rabbit in Jelly", Dunedin
[From my own collection]

Particularly heavily hit by the rabbit plague, Central Otago Councils had by 1921 resorted to forming “Rabbit Boards” to co-ordinate “the destruction of the rabbit pest”. The “Dunstan Times” emphasized the benefits of co-ordinated, systematic and scientific means of eradication and control. The cost of the Rabbit Board would be a levy on Council rates of up to 1d in the pound with the power to borrow money for the purchase of rabbit-proof netting, the employment of men to carry out the work, and the State would additionally pay a subsidy of £1 for £1.   

This concept appears to have been slow to come to fruition in the south. The Wallace County Council had by at least 1921 employed a “Rabbit Inspector” with the power to request landowners – and the Council itself - to undertake eradication work. But if extermination around the district was not consistent “the bunny” simply returned.

Rabbiting and the sale of fur skins continued to provide a good income. Common methods of extermination and eradication included spring-loaded rabbit traps, shooting, rabbit-proof netting, portable cynogas rabbit exterminator machines operated by means of fumigation, poison (phosphorized pollard, phosphorized oats, strychnine, and carbon bisulphide) and the use of dogs. Ferrets could also be employed to force the rabbits out of their burrows which were often particularly bad along the banks of streams and rivers, in gorse hedges, around trees, and on uncultivated land. 

"St. George" Brand "Rabbit in Jelly", Dunedin
[From my own collection]

My Father's family in Central Southland, and owning 459 acres of flat arable land, employed various methods of rabbit extermination including phosphorised pollard (poisoned wheat bran), poisoned oats, shooting, trapping (I recall the fierce looking traps), smoking out [fumigating], and my Father also kept pet ferrets that would fearlessly go down rabbit holes. A bottle of strychnine was found after my Uncle's death and this method of poisoning was also made use of. Occasionally they also used a commercial rabbitter, mostly using poisoned oats. This is my Uncle's recipe for phosphorised pollard from 1926, noting in his diary, "Results good” :

4 cups pollard (fine bran and flour)
3 cups sugar
2 cups water
Boil then add –
4” phosphorus & 15 to 20 drops essence of aniseed

By the 1920's rabbit skins were also becoming an increasingly  valuable commodity. In 1926 the “Otautau Standard and Wallace County Chronicle" reported that “Bunny is getting it in the neck” with skins worth from £5 to £6 per hundred, and with not a few townsfolk earning a few extra pounds “by spending their half-holidays and every possible spare hour in pursuit of ‘Brer Rabbit’”.

By 1931, and in the depths of the depression, “The Unemployment Board” encouraged “…every unemployed man to make every endeavour to secure other work as days worked outside the scheme are all to the good. With the rise in the value of rabbit-skins there is every opportunity to make a living by catching Brer Rabbit…” It was no accident that rabbit skin furs were then a popular fashion accessory with a ready demand. Furs would be made into coats, stoles and hats.

Although not unemployed, my own Father resorted to earning 'pocket money' from the sale of rabbit skins for their fur as the family farm at Heddon Bush was not in a sufficiently financial position to be able to pay him an actual wage. My Great Uncle on another farm in the district made good use of a .22 calibre “Winchester Repeater” rifle with a mounted sight which was later in my possession. Rabbits were, over these years until the establishment of the Rabbit Boards, apparently "the bane of his life".

To put the problem into perspective, after laying poison in July 1932 my Uncle notes a kill of 306 rabbits from an area of 259 acres. But this would be ineffective if neighbours did not undertake similar extermination measures. During 1932 to 1933 a home built rabbit smoker also proved "highly successful" with a kill tally of 100 on the first day but on the second day the “smoker backfired & burst bellows”. But it would be repaired and be successfully used over a number of days. Incidentally, this smoker would also prove effective on rats, smoking out 161 rats from their warrens over a two day period.

Cargill Brand "Canned Rabbit Bone In",
Invercargill, circa 1940's
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

In 1932 the Secretary of the “Southland League” wrote to the Wallace County Council in regards to the scheme for “Rabbit Control” whereby the Council would contribute on a pro-rata basis with three representatives on the proposed Board. The “extermination of rabbits” would be organised under the No 11 Scheme for the Unemployed, single men being paid 30/- per week and married men £1 per week. But to succeed it would need to be a combined and co-ordinated effort with each Riding adopting the proposal. But Councils could later administer the scheme within their own Riding. While some in the Wallace Council were opposed to the cost as an additional burden on all farmers, some of whom did not require the service, the vote was carried 5 to 4 in favour of supporting the scheme.

Although apparently not as heavily hit as other provinces, the rabbit infestation reached another peak throughout Southland in the 1940’s, perhaps due to the lack of available manpower during the war.  In April 1941 my Uncle purchased strychnine from the Inspector of Stock at Otautau, assumedly for rabbit control, but in June 1941 would again bring in a commercial rabbitter who laid poisoned oats. The rabbits were then skinned as the furs still had a commercial value. While my Uncle purchased a quantity of "rabbit netting" at this time, this fine mesh fence netting ordinarily being placed along the bottom of fence lines and also dug into the ground to deter burrowing, it appears to have been used for other purposes. But such netting would be much used in the high country and in Central Otago.

My Uncle also notes that he voted at a "Rabbit Board Election" at South Hillend in October 1941. This would appear to be the forerunner of the later Rabbit Boards, of which there would be one hundred throughout New Zealand by 1946. South Hillend Rabbit Board Rates levied for the year 1944 to 1945 were £7.13.1 [NZD$606.00 in today's values] based on 459 acres while the Wallace County Council annual rates were £23.4.7 so the cost to farmers to eradicate the rabbit nuisance came at a heavy cost.

But this further 'infestation' would prompt new moves to permanently eradicate the problem. In 1947 the Government enacted “The Rabbit Nuisance Amendment Act 1947” which empowered the Rabbit Boards to kill all rabbits almost regardless of cost, to co-ordinate staff and resources as required, and to "de-commercialize the rabbit industry". Central Government would pay a subsidy on a pound for pound basis. Maximising post war food production both for New Zealand and Britain (which was still heavily reliant on food produced by its Dominions) was no doubt the driving force.

Thereafter the local Rabbit Boards were funded either by direct County Council levies on rates or, as in the case of the Wallace County area, a separate Rabbit Board rate. This system continued successfully for many years thereafter. I can myself only recall isolated and occasional pockets of rabbits or evidence of rabbits on our own farm at Heddon Bush in the early to mid 1960’s, particularly tell-tale burrows along stream banks and under macrocarpa trees. Any evidence of recent activity or sight of "Brer Rabbit" would be promptly reported with the Rabbit Board man appearing within the next day or so to eradicate the new infestation.

The now very dead rabbits would usually then be handed over to us to skin and cook up for rabbit stew, something that would later be frowned upon due to the risk of them being diseased or having possibly ingested toxic poisons. This really is a shame as rabbit meat is very tender and quite delicious. Rabbit meat is however available from strictly controlled and licensed sources such as "Fare Game" in Invercargill, the product being sourced from the Central Otago district [Link HERE] where rabbits numbers are again out of control.

Of all the old family cookery books I hold only the tried and trusted New Zealand Women's Division of Federated Farmers (WDFF) Cookery Book for 1965 lists a number of recipes, one being shown below. There are however plenty of recipes for rabbit stew on Internet.

Recipe for Baked Rabbit taken from the
Women's Division of Federated Farmers of New Zealand
Cookery Book published 1965

While local Rabbit Boards have now disappeared into history, the furry menace now able to be be at least adequately controlled in Southland, the Southland Regional Council have strict regulations which places a personal responsibility on landowners to control rabbit numbers; 

"Land occupiers within Southland shall control rabbits on the land they occupy to reasonable levels at their own expense to reasonable levels. No person shall possess, sell, breed, transport or release live rabbits on or to Stewart Island/Rakiura, any offshore island, any island or area enclosed by a predator proof fence. No person shall release any rabbit into the wild within Southland."

Suggested methods of control and extermination today include shooting, poisoning, fumigants, commercial pest controllers, and any means of prevention  or exclusion. In areas of New Zealand the rabbit virus has been introduced as a means of control but as the Council themselves state, this is not the "silver bullet" to totally eradicate the problem.

It was only just over a week ago that national publicity was given to Jane Avery, a Dunedin Designer who is hiring a rabbiter to catch rabbits in the Central Otago area with the fur being made into luxury rabbit fur coats under the "Lapin" brand and the meat used as pet food. Avery calls rabbit fur an "eco-conscious and environmentally friendly" product which avoids the use of non-degradable synthetic faux fur while making productive use of what is otherwise considered a pest (and a now rapidly increasing one in this area). Each coat takes up to six weeks to manufacture and uses between sixteen and fifty-five rabbit skins.

Whatever your views on animal welfare and the various methods of rabbit control, we would not wish to go back to the earlier days of rabbit plagues virtually devouring all that the land produced and bringing despairing landowners to the brink of financial ruin. According to one contractor quoted in "The Otago Daily Times" this month, some large Central Otago landowners are already having to spend up to $100,000 annually on rabbit control including reverting to the highly contentious 1080 poison (sodium fluoroacetate).

That invasive and destructive species such as the rabbit, opossum or red deer could have been so innocently introduced into this country and to have caused such ongoing problems and expense reaffirms the unique but fragile environment that is New Zealand.

All Rights Reserved

Sources :

- Papers Past / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
- Te Ara Cyclopedia of New Zealand
- Personal family papers
- William Dykes Photographic Collection (held by the writer)
- “West to the Fiords”, By FWG Miller, 1954 (from my own collection)
- “Historical Southland” by FG Hall-Jones, 1945 (from my own collection)
- "Looking Back 100 Years - Heddon Bush School 1881-1981" (from my own collection)
- Southland District Council

Sunday 15 July 2018

The Story of the Homer Tunnel Project - and of a Bedford Truck

The Eastern Portal of the Homer Tunnel 1935
and showing what is most likely a Bedford Truck
[Source :  Invercargill Museum & Art Gallery, Ref 2004.936] 

While completing a large family history I discovered that my family had purchased a 1934 Bedford WLG 26HP truck used on the Homer Tunnel project during the late 1930's. The tunnel enabled a road to be pushed through the mountainous Darran Mountain Range in Fiordland and onwards down the Cleddau Valley to Milford Sound. But not only was there correspondence concerning the sale of the vehicle but also photographs taken of the truck after this date so I felt it would be worthwhile to tell something of this story.

The Location of the Homer Tunnel on the Road
from Te Anau  through to Milford Sound
[Source Google Maps] 

According to IPENZ, which commemorates engineering heritage in New Zealand, the Homer Tunnel project  itself  commenced in 1935 with men using pick, shovel and wheelbarrows to bore a 1,240 metre long tunnel through solid granite type rock. The route through to Milford Sound had been promoted "because of the route’s potential tourism value." with the work to be undertaken by the New Zealand Government Ministry of Works. This would additionally provide useful unemployment relief work for men during the depression years. Work was apparently paid "on the basis of progress" with wages being extremely low.

Tunnel Construction by Pick and Shovel
[Source : Alexander Turnbull Library]

But following an avalanche in 1937 which killed the Engineer-in-Charge, Mr D.F. Hulse, and the Tunnel Works Overseer, Mr T.W. Smith, the approximately 40 workers employed on the site were withdrawn for safety reasons. From 1938 the tunnel contract would then be let to Downer and Company Limited. But even then weather conditions and the ever present risk of winter avalanches would bring work to a halt with the men being withdrawn. Rocks falling from above the tunnel portals also presented an ever present danger. The tunneling work itself would not be without some risk although the only recorded deaths and major injuries were through avalanches. The work was also hampered at times by water within the tunnel, entering through fractures in the rock.

"Homer Camp"
[Source : University of Otago Hocken Collections] 

The conditions the men had to endure in this isolated alpine environment were, to say the least, severe. Accommodation was provided at the Ministry of Works "Homer Camp", a small settlement first of canvas tents then promitive wooden huts fitted up with fireplaces but no insulation and with no amenities within easy reach. The cold was all pervasive and made worse by alpine winds blowing through the valley. Weather conditions can be changeable at any time. Driving through the Gertrude Valley leading up to the eastern tunnel portal on my way to Milford in late November 2017 (ie, late Spring) we encountered a layer of cold, damp fog hanging over the entire valley. On the return journey, and again at the eastern tunnel portal, we were able to get out and inspect the icy deposits of snow that had not yet melted while a brisk wind whipped through the area. For public safety this is still a "no stopping zone" during the 'avalanche season'.

Vehicles waiting to enter the Homer Tunnel.
Taken on a cold, foggy morning, 24 Nov 2017
[From my own collection]

This area, which sees no direct sun for six months of the year, receives an annual rainfall of around 6,000 mm and frequent heavy snowfalls, is now constantly monitored during the colder months. Even in winter this is a prime tourist route but in summer becomes manic, the trip to Milford Sound being the highlight for most overseas visitors. The men who lived and worked in these inhospitable conditions probably had no realization of the impact this tunnel would have on the tourist industry in the decades to come or the pleasure this very isolated but stunningly beautiful (albeit still rather challenging) 144 mile Highway through to Milford Sound would give millions of visitors and tourists.

The Homer Tunnel Carpark which emphasizes
the extreme alpine nature of the area.
[From my own collection]

While communication was provided from the Camp via a phone line down to Te Anau I would suspect that it was probably no more effective than the telephone line to Milford Sound that existed through to the 1980's and which I had to use on a number of occasions in the course of my Post Office work. One could often hardly hear the Postmistress on the other end and wet conditions would mean that there was not enough power getting through the line to even make it ring at the other end so a radio telephone was used in Te Anau to alert Milford to pick up the phone. Often I would simply resort to sending a service telegram.

These twisted metal reinforcing rods are all
that remain of the "shelter" destroyed by
an avalanche in 1945.
[From my own collection]

The start of the Second World War led to a winding down of work on the tunnel although the initial 'hole through' was at least achieved in February 1940 prior to widening to the required dimensions of 5.5m by 7m. This work would be resumed in the early 1950's, there having been a shortage of labour in the years immediately after the war ended in 1945. The 1.2 kilometer tunnel rises from the western portal at a relatively steep gradient of 1 in 10 and remains partially unlined although it has been further widened in the years since full completion in 1953.

For safety reasons traffic lights restrict the traffic to one way although two passenger vehicles could now - and for awhile did - pass within the tunnel.  At the eastern portal can be seen the remains of a solid reinforced long concrete shelter, having been built to reduce the risk from avalanches. But this extended portal entrance would itself be destroyed by an avalanche in 1945, only the reinforced and twisted mountings being visible today. A very solid looking steel truss avalanche and rock shelter has now been constructed at the western portal to reduce the obvious risk from the sheer cliff face above.

The Challenging and Steep Hairpin Bend Road Leading
up the Cleddau Valley to the Western Tunnel Portal
under the Sheer Face of the Homer Saddle
[Source : Google Maps]

If you would like to experience the steep drive up the Cleddau Valley hairpin bends and then up the 1 in 10 gradient through the tunnel here is a great 4 minute 52 second video of the journey (best to watch full screen to gain a proper perspective of the climb up the valley) :

But returning to our Bedford WLG truck, my Uncle sent a telegram to a Mr A.L. Knipe at Homer Tunnel in July 1941 inquiring about the availability of the truck. It appears that the truck and other plant had been advertised for sale as the work had wound down due to war conditions.

The Telegram from Homer Tunnell to Heddon Bush
[From my own Collection]

The extant reply, being a telegram from "Homer Tunnel" to "Heddon Bush", would without doubt be pretty unique today. It would appear that Knipe was the Officer in Charge and was selling the truck on behalf of Downers, his employer. I have endeavoured to find out more about Mr A.L. Knipe but so far without luck. His name is only listed in the Homer Tunnel history as he was a Downer's man rather than an M.O.W. employee. Possibly a brother, "C. Knipe" is also noted. The truck had previously been fitted with a "cutter" and an "engine" which would have been used on the tunnel widening, both being sold separately with the truck "chassis" which cost my Uncle £40.0.0  Knipe refers at one point to an item having been sold at "the sale" and as the truck was then located in Tuatapere in Western Southland the sale may have occurred here, perhaps in the form of a works equipment 'clearing sale'.

In correspondence dated the 10th July 1941 Knipe provides an interesting insight into the isolated work conditions at Homer Tunnel; “I am considering chucking this job as it is so difficult to get anything done but I am also hanging on because there is a probability of me being transferred and I might get quite a good job out of it. It is all in the lap of chance for a few days.”

Knipe writes again in August that; “Things are not going well here or at any rate they don’t suit me because they are tying most of us down to 40 hrs a week and it not worth staying out here for.”   

The "Homer Tunnel" Bedford WLG on the
family farm at Heddon Bush, circa late 1940's
[From my own collection]

After some difficulties encountered in moving the truck from Tuatapere a Motor Engineer then gave it a thorough overhaul costing £115.16.10 The itemized list would indicate that the truck had had a fairly hard life at Homer. But no sooner had my Uncle refurbished the truck when the NZ Army issued a "Warrant of Impressment" then a "Notice to Repossess", in other words that it be handed over to the New Zealand Army for the duration of the war. Duly scrubbed up and looking spic and span (as it was photographed on the day) it was then taken down to the Invercargill A&P Showgrounds for inspection on the 2nd March 1942. But it was, for whatever reason and no doubt to my Uncle's great relief, rejected. I can only assume that wear and tear had taken a toll on the vehicle.

While fuel restrictions would initially limit its use there was still a considerable saving in having to pay for commercial transport and I know my family made good use of it. Thus the trusty 'Homer Tunnel' Bedford would continue to faithfully provide farm transport until March 1956 when it was sold to local Engineer and Farmer, Mr Alfred (Alf) George Heenan of Heddon Bush for £80.0.0 I have been unable to ascertain what became of it in later years but I suspect that Alf would have sold it around early 1968 when he gave up his lease on our farm on the Hundred Line due to ill health and moved to Winton. A 1934 Bedford WLG truck would be quite collectible now so if a 2 ton WLG Bedford with the Engine No 435079 and Chassis No 0126090 should ever turn up I would naturally be rather interested!

Finally, if you love old trucks and automotive history check out the Bill Richardson Transport World in Invercargill [Link Here], it is simply the largest private automotive museum of its type in the world, is full of surprises, and has plenty to appeal to a wide range of people even if you thought you were not a fan of automotive history!  

All Rights Reserved.

Sources :

- Personal Family Papers and Photographs
- Te Ara, The Encyclopedia of New Zealand
- University of Otago Hocken Collections 
- IPENZ Engineers New Zealand
- NZ History 

Sunday 8 July 2018

The Tedium of The Long Sermon (and other amusing observations)

"John Knox Preaching in St Giles, Edinburgh 1570"
Detail From a Victorian Stained Glass Window
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

In this Blog I will be primarily relating some often rather humorous period remarks on the length of sermons and other amusing observations relating to the delivery of sermons which I am sure you will enjoy as much as I have.

For those of us who have or do attend Church the length of a sermon today is not something that we would or should find fault with. But spare a thought for our pious forebears up to at least the late Victorian era who regularly sat for long periods of time on hard wooden Church pews attempting to follow the peripatetic [i.e. rambling] thoughts of their venerable Parson or Minister. Little wonder that one of my Scottish forebears owned their own "pew cushion", being noted as sold at a roup [clearing sale] in 1910.

The first recorded instances of actual preaching  appear in the Book of Nehemiah viii, 1-8 where we read that Ezra, and on a high wooden platform, preached from the Book of the Law of Moses "from daybreak till noon for seven days". In Acts xx, 7-9 we read of Paul preaching at length at Troas continuing with "many lamps" until midnight. 

Our forebears would also be subjected to lengthy sermons but, it would appear, not always willingly. That Ministers would later take well over an hour to expound the Scriptures from the pulpit challenged many hearers who suffered or at least tolerated long drawn out effusive, rambling, and often fiery utterings. And not a few, as we shall read, would also take exception to the content which could descend into a "superfluity" [excess] of words, be of a scholarly nature with "big words" above their hearer's comprehension, or even, as we shall also read, descend into a highly personal attack on one's professional and personal credibility.

There having been no actual sermon given during worship prior to the Protestant Reformation perhaps preachers were now just making up for over a millennium of lost time! Margo Todd in her book "The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland" writes that sessions and presbyteries eventually began to impose monetary fines upon their Ministers for exceeding a determined or appropriate time limit for preaching. In 1587 the Edinburgh Presbytery of the Church of Scotland even ruled; "that preachers exceeding an hour in their sermons be fined 18 pence". Elgin's Kirk Session; "went even further by threatening long-winded preachers with a fine of six shillings and eight pence".

But it would appear that by the 17th century, in Scotland at least, that such regulations had been overtaken by an increasing zealous spiritual fervour to both hear and deliver the Word of God. One must remember that even up to the earlier years of the twentieth century parishioners would worry that they were spiritually fit or worthy to even receive Communion let alone enter the Kingdom of God. Nothing less than saving their souls from perdition [eternal punishment and damnation] was at stake.

An Elizabethan Hour Glass from St. Mary the Virgin
Anglican Church, Pilton in Devon
[Source : The Pilton Story]

Timekeeping, in these earlier years and with a dearth of clocks or watches due to cost, would often, especially in the English Church, be regulated by means of hour-glasses filled with sand placed on or by the pulpit and being turned as required. But it would appear that over these early years sermons of over an hour were still actually the rule rather than the exception.

During the Seventeenth Century the Scottish Presbyterians now engaged in what were termed "Religious exercises". The services were long and frequent and once a Preacher was in the pulpit the only limit to his "luoqacity" [talkativeness] would be his strength. If he spoke for two hours he would be considered "zealous pastor who had the good of his flock at heart". He was also expected; "to display great vehemence [forcefulness], and to evince his earnestness by toiling and sweating abundantly". Being of this period in time, we read of Dr John Menzies, Professor of Divinity at Marischal College, Aberdeen (1624-1684), that; "Such was his uncommon fervour in the pulpit, that we are informed, he used to change his shirt always after preaching, and to wet two or three napkins with tears every sermon."

The First Church of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand
showing the unusually wide and centrally positioned
Pulpit in the raised Sanctuary area
[From my own collection]

This reminds me of the unusually wide pulpit in the First Church of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, having been, of necessity, doubled in width for the Scottish born and Edinburgh trained Rev. Thomas Nisbet sometime after 1904 due to his decidedly "peripatetic" [i.e. physically active and spirited] manner of preaching.

In 1653, John Lamont of Newton Parish in Fife, Scotland wrote in his journal of great occasions where several clergymen would be present at one service so that when one was fatigued another would take his place; "the patience of the hearers being apparently inexhaustible" and "to hear a favoured preacher, they would incur any fatigue, and would undertake long journeys without sleep or food. Their power of attention was marvellous. The same congregation would sometimes remain together for ten hours, listening to sermons and prayers, interspersed with singings and readings."

But Lamont is also widely credited with this perceptive comment;

"Nothing can justify a long sermon, 
If it be a good one it need not be long;
And if it be a bad one it ought not to be long."  

"The Convenanters' Preaching"
By George Harvey
[Source : Google Public Commons]

Prior to "The Glorious Revolution" of 1688 (when the Catholic Stuart rulers were replaced by the Protestant Hanoverians) and the abandonment of forced episcopacy ["English" style Church Governance such as appointed Bishops and Curates], the Scottish Presbyterian Covenanters, who figure largely in my own family history, would gather in the hilly moors for secret and highly illegal outdoor 'conventicles' [gatherings] to hear preaching and sing metrical psalms which would often last the whole day. If caught attending such conventicles hearers risked imprisonment and confiscation of property (one of my Covenanting forebears was shot and is thus commemorated as a martyr) while preachers faced certain public death by hanging but all relished the opportunity to gather together for extended worship and fellowship and to hear the Word of God.

Rev Charles Spurgeon in his Library
[Source :]

The still well known and popular English Baptist Pastor Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), and when giving an address to workmen in January 1872, offered his own succinct opinion on not just the ideal length of a sermon but also the use of "big words";

"Long sermons... were a great evil. If a parson preached a long sermon, it was because he had 'nothing to say. It might appear odd, but it was nevertheless a fact, that, when people had nothing to say, they took a long time about it; but when they had got something worth telling, they out with it at once. Therefore, he repeated, when a man makes a long sermon, he sets out with a very little, and begins to spin, spin, spin.

...Some persons, said Mr Spurgeon, complain that they cannot understand the sermons they hear. The reason was, that ministers would use big words. He (Mr Spurgeon) always endeavoured to get rid of all the big words out of his sermons, and was as particular as their wives were to get the stones out of the plum-pudding. They would get in somehow, but the main thing was to preach as simply as possible."

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers.
From a calotype taken circa 1843
[Source : University of Edinburgh]

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Chalmers F.R.S.E. (1780 - 1847), the great Scottish Presbyterian Theologian, Lecturer, and Leader of the Scottish Free Church after the "Disruption" of 1843, also offered his own personal opinion on this issue, clearly emphasizing that the quality of a sermon is preferable over quantity;

"...once asked how long it took to make a sermon. " That," he replied, "depended Upon how long you wanted it. If your sermon is to be half an hour long, it will take you three days. If it is to be three-quarters of an hour, it may take you two days, or perhaps only one; but if you are going to preach for an hour, why there is not much occasion to think a great deal about it. It may be done in an hour."

Again, Spurgeon, and clearly emphasizing Chalmer's pointed opinion, writes;

"If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say, study them better. Spend more time in the study that you may need less in the pulpit. We are generally longest when we have least to say. A man with a great deal of well-prepared matter will probably not exceed forty minutes; when he has less to say he will go on for fifty minutes, and when he has absolutely nothing he will need an hour to say it in. Attend to these minor things and they will help to retain attention." 

A method by which worshippers attempted to keep awake is related by a family relative. On a sentimental journey back to revisit the place of his birth in and around Roslin in 1881 he recalled of his youth and when attending worship in the United Presbyterian Church at Brigend;

"When the sermon was rather long and the folks got sleepy there was always somebody with a snuff box to hand round so that the senses of the hearers should be sharpened up, and we youngsters always got hold of a peppermint drop from somebody’s pocket, towards the end of the sermon there was such a smell of peppermint that you might have scented out the Kirk from Auchendenny."

My Gt.Gt. Grandmother's Collection
of "Spurgeon's Sermons"
[From my own collection]

But again, our friend Charles Spurgeon can be quoted on this subject, recounting the rebuke received by, I dare say, a somewhat astonished Minister. Enough said!

"The minister who recommended the old lady to take snuff in order to keep from dozing was very properly rebuked by her reply,--that if he would put more snuff into the sermon she would be awake enough. We must plentifully cast snuff into the sermon, or something yet more awakening."

The Parish History of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Geraldine, New Zealand relates the subtle but apparently ineffectual means by which the Session sought to encourage their apparently blind Minister to spend rather less time in the pulpit;

"The Rev George Barclay of Geraldine suffered to such an extent from failing eyesight that he was forced to travel to England for eye surgery in 1882. Although returning with his eyesight somewhat restored, he is reported to have suffered 'recurrences' of blindness when he could not see the large clock which an Elder had placed in the Church to gently remind him that his sermons might be a little shorter....."

A correspondent replying to an Editorial relating to long sermons in the Nelson Evening Mail of June 1877 writes;

"It is rather owing to my observation of the effect of long sermons, the result of which after a regular attendance at church for many years is the conviction that they produce restlessness, inattention, and a disposition to levity in the congregations to which they are preached. On the other hand I have noticed that where the sermon is brief, and well considered, and thoroughly digested by the preacher before delivery, the effect produced is manifest in the church, and is perceptible outside it. In the one case the congregation leaves with a sensation of relief that the end has been reached, and frequently with an unmistakeable expression of weariness; in the other with an equally strongly expressed feeling of interest in the subject they have heard discussed, and of satisfaction with the preacher who without tiring them has given them something to think over on their return to their homes." 

Not mincing their words, another correspondent also replied;

"Do clergymen often or ever think of the positive harm as well as the possible good their Sermons may do? If they did, I venture to think they would always have in mind two things, not to weary their listeners with a superfluity [excess] of words, and not to shock them with illustrations and language that would not be tolerated elsewhere. If we go back to, apostolic times, the only evidence we have proves that the discourses of the Apostles were short, stirring, and practical. And our Lord's sermon on the Mount is the best of all models as to what a sermon should be."

"The Colonist" newspaper of January 1880 relates the story of the Minister who 'dupes' his hearers with the expectation that his lengthy sermon is coming to a close; 

"It's bad enough for a minister to preach a long sermon, but when he fools the congregation about every ten minutes by remarking that he has only a word more to say, and does not desire to try the patience of his hearers, it becomes almost time for somebody to rise to a point of order or for the sexton to turn off the gas [lamps]."

Before we move onto some amusing general observations on Ministers and Sermons I will again leave the last word to Charles Spurgeon, quoting from his classic, "Lecture to my Students";

"Over the head of military announcements our English officers always place the word "ATTENTION!" in large capitals, and we need some such word over all our sermons. We need the earnest, candid, wakeful, continued attention of all those who are in the congregation. If men's minds are wandering far away they cannot receive the truth, and it is much the same if they are inactive. Sin cannot be taken out of men, as Eve was taken out of the side of Adam, while they are fast asleep. They must be awake, understanding what we are saying, and feeling its force, or else we may as well go to sleep too. There are preachers who care very little whether they are attended to or not; so long as they can hold on through the allotted time it is of very small importance to them whether their people hear for eternity, or hear in vain: the sooner such ministers sleep in the churchyard and preach by the verse on their gravestones the better."

Now what of the content and delivery of sermons? Spare a passing thought for those in Falmouth England who will have literally squirmed in their pews with literally no where to hide as they found themselves personally and roundly denounced from the pulpit during a sermon in 1876. This was taking the line "We are all Sinners" rather too far;

"The M. P.'s for Falmouth, who, with Mayor, Magistrates, and . Councillors, attended service at the Parish Church on Sunday morning, were quite unprepared for the reception with which they met. The junior curate delivered a long sermon, filled with unsparing denunciation of every class conspicuously represented in the congregation. Members of Parliament were declared to be time-servers; magistrates to be prejudiced, lawyers to be venial, journalists to be blind, policeman to be bribed, tradesmen to be fraudulent, and society in general utterly, rotten. The distinguished visitors present were both enraged and amused."

Cardinal Manning
[Source : Wikipedia Commons]

And then we have an aged Henry Edward Manning, the 80 year old Catholic Cardinal and Bishop of Westminster (also a widower and convert from Anglicanism) who must take the supreme award for sheer performance and delivery;

"Cardinal Manning on Sunday, March 25 [1888], at the Pro-Cathedral, Kensington, performed another of those astonishing tours de force which render it difficult for his flock to believe that he is really an older man than Mr Gladstone. The Cardinal, attired in full pontificals - cope of cloth of gold, and jewelled mitre, held in his left hand his gold crozier or episcopal staff during his long sermon, which lasted exactly fifty -five minutes. He held his congregation also, which was even more remarkable than the holding of his crozier."

But we should not omit the description of the "Awfully Profound Minister" as given to Brooklyn Lay College Students during an address on "Good and Bad Ministers" by the American Preacher, Dr T. De Witt Talmage (1832 - 1902), so "that our young men may be induced to avoid the undesirable and emulate that which is holy and right";

"He deals in metaphysics - talks about the laws of perception, the system of consequences, hypothosis, peripatetic doctrines, and apologetics until the audience can hardly see their hand before their face. He has a learned way of pushing back his spectacles, a learned way of employing his pocket-handkerchief. I have heard him cough until I could hear the echo of the ages. The audience does not know what he is talking about, and he does not know either. The only cheerful part of his sermon is when he gets through."

Rev Daniel Dutton of Caversham Presbyterian Church
Dunedin Worshipping the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness.
Taken during Harvest Thanksgiving, circa 1911-1915
[Source PCANZ Archives] 

And finally, the Scottish born and trained Rev W. Gray Dixon of St David's Presbyterian Church in Auckland, New Zealand would certainly fit into the intellectual category, having formerly been an English Professor prior to training for the ministry. While the published history of a later parish confirms that his sermons were indeed of a very scholarly nature, and I dare say with more than a few "big words", who would not want to have worshiped in the 'Beauty of Holiness' (Psalm 96:9) and to have been carried on an "intoxicating" journey through the Scriptures by this learned and much loved Minister?  

" ex-professor of 'belles lettres' [beautiful writing]; a widely-read student of Church history; a truly erudite [learned & scholarly] theologian; a preacher who loved to wander through sunlit meadows; pelt his people with violets and primroses, and intoxicate them with perfumes : withal a man whose courtly, gracious manner, and utter affability, disarmed prejudice, and, coupled with his other gifts, secured for him the status of a leader".
[From "The Story of St David's, Auckland", 1921]

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- Papers Past
- Reformation 21 Blog (Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)
- History of Civilization in England" Vol 3, 1894
- "The Diary of Mr John Lamont of Newton, 1649-1671"
- "The Reformed Reader"
- Various Internet sources
- Personal Family Papers and Photographs

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