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Feeding family not easy 150 years ago

Contributor:
Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Getting food from the land on to the family table was a major preoccupation 150 years ago - so vastly different from today’s trip to the supermarket.

In the 1800s nearly 30 years of diaries were kept by Hawke’s Bay farmer David Paton Balfour, until his death by drowning on July 13, 1894, the day after his 53rd birthday.

Balfour and wife Elizabeth Roberts raised three children and tracking down food for the family was top of mind. A typical month could include hunting wild pig and pigeon, slaying a bullock, riding long distances to buy flour and tea and, depending on the time of year, shearing or killing sheep, including "wild" ones.

The 150-page diaries are being scanned and transcribed in a collaboration between the region’s museum MTG Hawke’s Bay, and Hawke’s Bay Knowledge Bank (HBKB), which specialises in digitising the region’s oral and written histories, including historic diaries. The work is expected to be completed by late 2019, after which it will be available to the public online.

Balfour’s records make fascinating reading. ""There is such a wealth of information in diaries such as Balfour’s. These documents of daily life give us a valuable and detailed insight into the experiences of early immigrants to New Zealand," said MTG collections assistant Cathy Dunn.

"If we think about the generations to come and how far removed they will be from those times; if we don’t preserve these records they will have very little idea of how their great, great, great grandparents lived."

HBKB Trust chairman Peter Dunkerley said the combined project made very good use of the assets of both organisations - with the prime aim of making the historic information easily available to the public. It was also the first of what could be more collaborations that would result in written records being not only preserved but accessible.

"Our whole reason for being is to ensure information such as this is not only saved for future generations, but is easily available to them. Our volunteers digitise and transcribe material but we do not store it; MTG has these diaries but not the resources to put into transcribing

them at this time, and so it is the perfect project for both to work on," he said.

MTG director Laura Vodanovich said transcribing the diaries required a particular skill-set, not least the ability to be able to read the writing of the time and decipher the spellings used. "That really is not easy; the style of writing is so different from that used today.

"We also share the vision of being able to make material like this widely available. This collaboration also helps us build relationships across the region, including with stakeholders such as Knowledge Bank,"she said.

A biography of Balfour, held by Te Ara - Encyclopedia of New Zealand, notes that Balfour was born in Scotland and was not keen on school. He found himself work as a cowman at age 11, before his father moved the family out to Australia after the death of his wife.

In his 20s Balfour moved to New Zealand, unsuccessfully joining the Otago gold rush, before going back to farming and landing a job as a station overseer in Hawke’s Bay in 1866. By then he had decided there was value in education, and had attended night school to become literate, enabling him to write the diaries that are now being recorded for posterity.

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