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No 8 wire and all that

Where did our national character come from? In particular, what was the origin of our famed versatility, our Kiwi ingenuity? These questions are answered in a new book co-authored by historian Jock Phillips.

My quest began over 20 years ago when I was examining the mythology of the Kiwi bloke. Central to that mythology was his ability to adapt to new situations and fashion anything out of No 8 wire. At that stage it seemed self-evident this ability came from the circumstances of the new land. Refined British men, over-educated and over-specialised, came to the colonies and had to fend for themselves. They were itinerant people who moved across the land as navvies, miners or bushmen. They travelled light, with nothing but a blanket, a mug and a knife. These were the origins of Kiwi ingenuity.

The idea that our national character was born on the frontier flattered us Kiwi nationalists. It stressed that we owed little to old-world origins. We believed environment was more powerful than culture, heredity, race or even gender. Such a belief promised that if we could provide a better environment, we would produce better people.

I wondered whether the claim was merely a nationalist myth. My suspicion was confirmed when I found that other "new societies", such as those in Australia and the US Midwest, made similar claims about their "distinctive" character. Yet it was too easy to reject the evidence entirely. After I looked at New Zealanders' war experiences, there were indeed suggestions of versatility and ingenuity.

But did this character come from the frontier? Perhaps we had radically underestimated the power of culture. I discovered, for example, that the British institution of Boy Scouts had also stressed the ability to be adaptive and versatile. The movement had been unusually strong in early 20th-century New Zealand. Scouts, however, did not start here until 1908, and even in the South African War, five years before, New Zealanders were being praised for ingenuity.

I began to wonder if these values came with the British settlers. To answer this question, we needed to know who they were. Astonishingly, I found that historians had never fully explored that question. We knew we were from England, Scotland and to a less extent Ireland, but little more. So, Terry [Hearn] and I did a statistical sample of over 11,000 death certificates, supplemented with shipping records and published Census figures.

We discovered that far from being "more English than the English", New Zealand's Pakeha ancestors were almost a quarter Scots - for the UK the figure is 10%. And even within England there was a heavy representation from the Celtic area of Cornwall. After adding the Cornish to the Scots and Irish, we realised the Anglo-Saxon English were a minority. Despite this, the largest single area for migrants was southern England, especially London and the Home Counties.

At the same time, Elizabeth Gordon and a University of Canterbury team, who had been studying the origins of the New Zealand accent, decided it was most similar to that of the Home Counties. The two findings fitted nicely.

When we looked at who came to New Zealand, we discovered they were not city dwellers, but village people, sons and daughters of craftsmen such as wheelwrights, builders, coopers or cobblers. Many had survived by carrying out a range of activities. The villagers of southern England may have been labourers on a local estate, but they supplemented this with hunting or tending a small vegetable plots. Their wives and children may have sewn gloves. The unusually large numbers who came from the Shetland Islands would have tended a croft, fished, dug peat, perhaps gone to sea.

Those who came from Ulster in Northern Ireland had mixed their time weaving flax, labouring at harvest time on estates, and tending crops on small plots. In other words, the immigrants were not highly specialised people from Britain's cities; they were versatile people from rural areas of Great Britain and Ireland who came here with a range of skills and with a tradition of moving seasonally to find jobs. They were perfect settlers for a colonial frontier. Kiwi ingenuity may have been strengthened here, but arguably it was born in those diverse rural communities from where our Pakeha ancestors came.