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Polish Settlers at Dunedin


Dunedin was first settled by Scottish settlers in 1848, and by the 1870’s was a compact city as a result of the 1860’s Gold Rush.   Most of its industry was situated on the original sliver of flat land and on the additional land reclaimed by dumping inconvenient hills and spurs onto the mudflats during the 1860’s.  The factories were fuelled by coal, mainly shipped from Australia until the 1880’s when the West Coast Coalfields began producing large quantities.

By 1874, the waterfront was a straight line along the eastern side of Crawford Street.  Water and Gas mains by this stage had been well established since the 1860’s.  Telegraph wires ran everywhere in and around Otago, and before long railways would be almost as common.

The residential areas clung to the short, steep hills in the dress circle above the centre of commerce and industry.  Larger, grander homes were further back their owners able to afford a short hansom cab ride up the hill in preference to a short hard walk.

Anthony Trollope, novelist, who visited Dunedin in 1873, wrote,

“Dunedin is a remarkably handsome town – and, when its age is considered, a town which may be said to be remarkable in everyway.  The main street has no look of newness about it. The houses are well built, and the public buildings, banks, and churches are large, commodious, and ornamental.  The schools, hospitals, reading rooms and university were all there, and all in useful operation.”

But there were other features which Trollope on his brief visit probably did not see, or, in his surprise that there was anything of distinction at all in a new community at the ends of the earth, passed over.  Ramshackle wooden relics of the gold days and earlier lingered on, shivering into decay.  In certain streets and down repulsive alleys were areas of wretched slums.  And above all there was the stink and filth of an undrained city.  There were stagnant pools, un-reclaimed swamps, and unmade footpaths, in populous neighbourhoods of Dunedin. At the end of 1874 in terms of the Public Health Act of 1872, a medical officer would report monthly of the sanitary conditions of the city.

And so the central city became renowned for filth, stench and epidemics.  Land prices soared.  People began moving into the cheap land around the marshes of The Flat (South Dunedin), and some began settling on the drier areas, such as Kensington.  Real estate agents described The Flats as ‘a salubrious meadow’ where health and vigour would be restored to those suffering from the fetid air of the city.  Ozone became a metaphor for health, and The Flat had plenty.

The early eighteen seventies were boom years for New Zealand as a whole with the stimulus of the Vogel Public Works and immigration policy.  Between 1872 and 1875 almost 18,000 people arrived in Otago, a larger number than was received by any other province.  The old immigration barracks situated in Princes Street (built since 1860) were constantly occupied until the new immigration barracks at Caversham were established in 1873.

The new two-storied wooden building was situated at the foot of Caversham Valley where the bowling green lies today.  The barracks housed single men and women, but the cottages for married couples had largely been sold or destroyed after assisted immigration ended in 1888.  For some years the barracks was used as a fever hospital and when demolished the timber was used for local housing in the South Dunedin area.

The Census of 1874 recorded a population of 18,499 in Dunedin an increase of 3,642 since 1871, not including outer Dunedin.  On this basis Dunedin retained its position as the largest city in New Zealand and the centre of the country’s manufacturing.

While the death rate had decreased since 1865, it was still far too high.  According to figures it stood at 22.7 per thousand for 11 months of 1874, representing 24.8 for the complete year, and this in a city where there as yet were very few old people.

The chief products of Otago were gold and wool, but agricultural pursuits were extending themselves in all parts of the province.  The farmers were in debt to the bank however, and their lands not infrequently sold under mortgage.  Prices for farm produce were poor, as in some cases not even meeting the cost of labour, which took to produce it.  But such complaints were general all over the world at that time.

The Otago Province in 1873 being only, twenty four years old, had 70,000 inhabitants, and above four million sheep.

When compared to Western Australia at the time, Otago had good climate, good soil, and mineral wealth.  They had little or no convicts, nor had the land been wasted by great grants as was the case in Australia.

In the last quarter of 1871, the Government entered into an agreement with Messrs John Brogden and Sons of England to build the remainder of the Dunedin – Clutha line, a portion of track across the Taieri, to be completed by the 1st of September 1875. They hoped to meet this demand by bringing immigrants from abroad under contract to work for them at wages not less than 5 shillings per day, the firm to retain one-fifth of the wages until the passages were paid. The official opening of the new works took place on Saturday the 18th of March 1871. The site chosen was a paddock belonging to Mr. E. B. Cargill, at Kensington, Dunedin, where shortly before 2 o’clock between 200 and 300 people gathered.

The railway line from Dunedin to Port Chalmers was opened on the last day of 1872, and the southern line, as far as Abbotsford on 1 July 1874. The first Dunedin Railway Station stood on the ground, which now bears the Queen Victoria Statue. The line was laid outside the edge of Crawford Street and the south line crossed what is now King Edward Street.
In December of 1872 saw the arrival of first Polish immigrants to the city, from the ship Palmerston. Here they spent their first Christmas Eve in the Immigration Barracks situated in Princes Street.

Most of these Poles were transported south to the township of Greytown to set up camp before being allocated to work on the railways while some remained in the city looking for general work or farm labouring. One such Pole was Julius Byszewski who found employment as a cooper at Speights Brewery. During the night of the 22nd of February 1882 there was a tragic fire in their two-storey home in Smith St. The fire claimed the lives of the three eldest and also that of their twelve-year-old nephew who had stayed overnight because of bad weather. Albert Joseph was the only child to survive although injured when his mother fell on top of him from the upstairs window. His father tried to catch her as she could stand the heat of the flames no longer. She sustained very bad injuries and was admitted to hospital with Albert.


A terrible fire broke out in a small wooden house in Smith-street, near the corner of Dowling-street, shortly after four o’clock yesterday morning, by which four children were burnt to death. The house was occupied by Julius Bischefski, his wife, and four children, who all slept upstairs.
The fire appears to have broken out on the ground floor of the building, and the family were not aroused till it broke through the upper floor. Bischefski and his wife got through a window, leaving the children in bed, but it was not known for some time that there was anyone in the house, as little attention was paid to the maddening screams of Mrs. Bischefski. When the Brigade arrived, however, the house was entirely enveloped in flames, and it would have been too late to have rendered any assistance. The names of the four children who were burnt were-
Francis Bischefski, aged 8 years,
Minnie Bischefski, aged 6 years,
Martha Bischefski, aged 4 years, and
Thomas Croft, aged 13 years.
The fire spread to the next house on either side, both of which were destroyed.” Otago Daily Times

Some Poles who remained in the city worked as contracted farm labourers or purchased small holdings for themselves. Others went into farm labouring after the railway was completed. Some of these Poles found a haven in the Pine Hill area, overlooking the city.


Pine Hill was not officially named as such but a descriptive name that gradually came into official use in Harnett’s Directory of 1866. Just as the forest had become grazing land, houses gradually intruded on the pastures. Residential Pine Hill was established around 1870 and had become well established by the turn of the century. But it was not officially recognised as part of Dunedin until 1910.

The heaviest settled area was from the foot of Cowan, then called District and later Waterloo Road, upwards to the summit of Mt. Cargill, where homes and farms were carved out of heavily forested, ten-, twenty- and fifty-acre-blocks. Pine Hill road was steep and rough, winding narrow and sinuously up from Great King Street bridge, requiring careful negotiation of cattle ruts. Given the “torturous” incline up to the Pine Hill district, the community in the 1870’s was probably quite isolated from the Dunedin Township.

Most of the original settlers in the district supported themselves by dairy farming, growing small fruits or timber milling. The saw milling industry, with many people of continental origin, provided much of the timber for building early Dunedin.

The Pine Hill School was of paramount importance in the whole life of the closely-knit community. Dances, concerts, church services and polling were all held in its’ buildings. Even the mail was delivered to the school. A start on the original school building was made after the Otago Education Board bought a large tract of land (Section 16, Block X, North Harbour and Blueskin District) from the Otago Hospital Board. The intention was to build a hospital at Pine Hill but it was later decided that Wakari was more suitable. The Hospital Board would not sell in portions so the Education Board then subdivided the land and sold sections to those wishing to settle in the district. The first room of the school building and teachers’ residence was constructed using materials obtained from the Pine Hill bush. The logs were cut and taken to town and back by Messrs George and Alec Ford’s bullock carts. Local carpenters William Winton and John McMann erected the schoolroom of 567 sq feet, costing £160, and the residence, which along with the glebes (the portion of land attached), was valued at £40. It took seven to eight months to build, opening in the spring of 1876 with Mr. William Waddell as first master.

A 3-acre playground formed part of the school area, and an additional recreation ground, which is now under the Parks and Reserves department was created adjacent to the school. At the nor’west end of the schoolroom the ground dipped away, sweeping down to where Pine Hill creek roared its way Leithwards depending upon the rainfall, a happy hunting ground for “Lobbying” during the lunch break. The sou’west wall of the schoolroom contained no windows so the school sat to the sun with the prevailing weather at its back. Although the four many-paned windows in the north and large one in the west wall were set high in the manner of the day, the schoolroom was reasonably well lit and the rise of Pine Hill road enabled pupils seated at the back or near the south wall to see out and keep a check on who was passing as iron clad wheels clattered upon hand sprawled stone of the now metalled road. A large fireplace capable of containing several logs of wood at a time and the doorway were set into the fourth wall. A circular ventilator set in the centre of the wooden ceiling became a natural target for all manner of missiles from ink-soaked wads of blotting paper to pen-speared hair ribbons successfully sent ceiling wards behind the teachers back. In the classroom, pupils sat on backless forms at long desks accommodating five or six pupils as required. These desks were placed on tiered platforms with the primer classes in front at floor level.

Teaching 64 pupils ranging from Primer 1 to Standard 6 in one room must have been pushing on the ability and resources of the teachers and so it became obvious that another room was required. In 1881 a second classroom was added to the existing building at the cost of £61 5s 5d.  Mr. Robert Sinclair Gardener was Head Master of the school (1881 – 1888) when the Polish families first came to the district. Mr. Gardener had been teaching in Otago pioneer schools for twenty-three years since his arrival from Edinburgh in 1858. He settled into the School Masters house with his two sisters Miss Catherine and Miss Barbara. Miss Barbara mothered pupils who arrived at school soaked to the skin, comforting them with a hot drink and dried their clothes while Mr. Gardner’s second-best suit made an unscheduled and somewhat unorthodox appearance in school draping the diminutive form of its occupant. The hospital kitchen of the school residence received many visitors as folk stopped to collect mail, rest the horse and exchange news over a cup of tea.

During 1888 when Mr. Gardner took ill, Mr. John Kelly became the teacher remaining to the end of the following year followed by Mr. John Harper Moir in 1890. To end the decade Mr. James Smith with his wife and family moved into the Schoolmasters house coming from Glenisla, Scotland and had the distinction of being the first teacher to have children of his own as pupils of Pine Hill School. James Smith continued as sole teacher to an average attendance of 37 until 1893 when Mr. Cornelius Mahoney took over continuing until the middle of 1896 when Mr. Robert Ladreth was appointed in his place, succeeded by Mr. Mangus Thomson in 1899. Then in 1900 came Mr. George William Carrington to the first settled appointment for some years.

As home life was pretty demanding, the children were usually required at home from time to time. The older boys were often required at home, to help trim the tangle of felled forest, gather together the exposed boulders to build into stone walls, clear roots and stumps from paddocks in readiness to receive the plough for the first time, to comb the bush for straying cattle, and look after the increasing dairy herds. Girls needed to cook and care for the smaller children if Mother was sick or abed with the birth of the latest baby, to carry water in from the spring or creek for the day’s cooking and washing, gather wood for the camp oven, trim and clean the kerosene or oil lamps, set the bread to rise and perform the many tasks attending the settler’s household. The Pioneers perforce were practical people, the family working as a unit with a ready hand for any who required help, their requirements for happiness, a home and hard work, a School, and a church.

A public library was built, as part of the school, during the 1880’s, where Robert Sinclair Gardner, was the first librarian. He was also responsible for introducing Sunday School.

As the Victorian era was drawing to a close, the roughest of the pioneering days were past although some farms were still being developed high on the hill and the deep gullies.

“ORDINARY MEETING. Petitions. J. Konkel and four other ratepayers in the Pine Hill district petitioned the council to have about 11 chains of road at Wahles Hill (Pine Hill district) metalled.— Referred to the inspector for a report as to what the settlers would do themselves towards effecting the work asked for.” Otago Witness, 3 December 1891, p 20

“Waikouaiti County Council. Contracts. Reporting on the petition of Mr J. Konkel and others, asking for a piece of road formation between sections 47 and 53, North Harbour and Blueskin district, the inspector stated that the petitioners had done some formation which it would be necessary to go over again before metal is put on. This was the only outlet these people had, and until a month or so ago they had to sledge everything to and from their properties tot he road. The petitioners were willing to supply the stone if the council broke and spread It.  The Inspector was instructed to call for tenders for the formation of the road, and breaking and spreading of metal thereon as soon as the settlers interested supplied the necessary spalled stone in such places along the road as the inspector may direct.” Otago Witness, 22 December 1891, p 29

In 1908 saw the introduction of the three-term break rather than the two term year with Summer and Winter holiday breaks only, which had been standard practice since the school began.

Until 1913, most finance raising functions for the school were the several-a-year Concert with Dance to follow held in the big class room attended by folk from afar riding or driving up the hill for an evening’s entertainment, in spring-buggy; dogcart; dray or horseback. The horses had the comfort of a nosebag of chaff whilst awaiting the journey back home, tethered around the playground, where Mr. Robb boiled the copper to make the supper tea supplemented by water from the black iron kettles balanced between logs boiling merrily away in the small classroom fireplace. Supper served, the concert seats set back in the bottom wall-cupboard beneath the library, horses checked and the copper-fire doused, then the fiddle and accordion of August and Frank Konkol would strike up calling partners for the “first set” and the sound of music and merriment issued from the little school. These dances were justifiably popular and were attended by members of the whole family, baby comfortably cradled upon a pillow in an upturned form.

Children and young adults partnered parents, relatives and neighbours as they showed progress made at Mr. Robb’s Saturday dancing classes held in that same room while he took turn on the accordion.

Many picnics were held in the top flat paddock in Campbells Road by favour of various owners until mechanised forms of transport increased the picnics range to further a field.

And so was the life of the small tightly knitted community until the advent of the First World War.

Polish names associated with early Pine Hill are:- Gdaniec (Danitz), Kąnkel (Konckel), Kreft, Piernicki (Perniskie)  and Plew.


Compiled by Paul Klemick (2022)