Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mistaking Remuera's market gardeners

Detail from DP 292, LINZ records, Crown Copyright (copy of October 1884 plan)

This is a bit of a rant, sorry.  Every so often, under-researched history turns up, and makes me sigh.  Actually more than sigh.

A Fine Prospect, a history of Remuera, is now out on sale. I haven't bought a copy yet. After reading the other day what three pages out of the book had to say about the story of Chinese market gardeners there, I might hold off purchasing, I think, until the price softens.

Pages 311-313 have information authors Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow included on the "Chinamen's Gardens" off Scherff and Portland Roads, and printed part of an 1885 sale map which shows the location of the gardens. "These gardens were in all likelihood run by Chan Ah Chee, a prominent and highly successful businessman who lived in Auckland from the late 1860s to 1918, when he returned to China,"  the authors declared. Their apparent reasoning for connecting Ah Chee with the Remuera gardens? Ah Chee leased the Mechanic's Bay market garden area now called Carlaw Park. That's over on the other side of Parnell from the Remuera site.

I found at least three main problems with Carlyon and Morrow's research regarding this.

First problem: Ah Chee wasn't involved with that land at all.

A look into the historic land titles for that nearly 6 acre block, Lots 13 and 17 (see above) shows that it was purchased in June 1884 by Yan Kew (James Ah Kew) and Ah Bing from the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency (NA 22/25, LINZ records). [Update 10 August 2011: they paid £1000, roughly $172,000 for the land, according to the transfer documents.] Ah Kew and Ah Bing (as tenants in common) took out a mortgage with the City of Auckland Tramways and Suburban Company in 1884, which in turn transferred the mortgage to the New Zealand Land Mortgage Company Limited later in November 1884. This company sold the land due to default to land agent William Aitken in 1901 (NA 36/257 & 36/258, LINZ records). Later owners in 1912 leased the land to a Chinese market gardener, Low Ten or Tan, for period of four years. Eventually, from 1924, it was surveyed and subdivided for sale (NA 102/95 and DP 18532, LINZ records).

A George Cutler whose memories were published in the Remuera Round in the 1940s, quoted by Carlyon and Morrow, did offer them a clue as to the true situation there by Portland Road. He recalled and apparently named James Ah Kew sending silk hawkers around the suburb. This would have been in the late c19th century, the same time as the Remuera gardens was in operation. The produce from the Portland-Scherff gardens was also hawked around Auckland, he said. He just didn't say who ran the hawking enterprise. But the authors didn't tie in Ah Kew with market gardening.

Which is unfortunate, because if they checked Cutler's memory of the Remuera Chinese-run garden as "the first Chinese vegetable gardens in Auckland" (second problem), they would have found that the first such garden wasn't in Remuera, but was operated by none other than -- James Ah Kew, on Khyber Pass Road, Newmarket, from around 1875, nine years or more earlier. I've had that info here on Timespanner since 2009, with source.

Third problem: the date of Ah Chee's first garden at Mechanic's Bay. Carlyon and Morrow wrote "In the early 1870s, he leased land at the bottom of Parnell Rise, and established successful market gardens on what is now Carlaw Park to supply fresh fruit and vegetables to his greengrocers shops." Well, I don't think Ah Chee did much fruit growing in Auckland, more veges, but the main thing is -- his lease, in partnership with Ah See (a partner not mentioned by the authors at all) started in October 1881, not the late 1870s. Actually, the early 1880s seems to be around when Ah Chee first appeared in Auckland. I put that online, with info on what I called Tanyard Gully, here, back in 2009.

Yes, I do realise that stuff read on the internet is prone to the whims of those writing the words for the screen and the big wide world. We're wary of Wikipedia, and wise folk use it simply as a place to start, but not to use as sole citation in place of actual research footwork and checking. We are almost always lulled into a sense of confidence when it comes to the printed word. But -- it pays to check anything you read, including my stuff here on the blog (my policy here is -- if I muck things up, I fix 'em). But where there was info on Auckland Chinese market gardens on the internet, in the form of Timespanner and even my sources from both Land Information New Zealand and Papers Past, surely Carlyon and Morrow could have checked what they had in the form of secondary and tertiary sources before publishing?

Was there any sort of peer review at all with this book? I can't really tell, but it does look like yet another flawed reference book on our local suburbs has gone out, to put generations of school students doing projects utterly crook. Because they, likely as not, won't go checking what someone said in print in a pretty book which folk praising it say is "comprehensively researched", either.

And thus, the cycle of bad history and misinformation is perpetuated.

How does the rest of the book fare? Don't know. I'm waiting for a chance to borrow a copy through the library. Or until the book is reduced in price ...


  1. It may have been wise to run it past a local historian, such as your good self, before the book went to print. I have been reading a bit lately about the dangers of using the net for research. I know I have made mistakes when writing about historical matters, but then I am writing because I am interested and think others may be too, not particularly to give an accurate history. I try to be correct, but within the restrictions of time. But what happens when a schoolchild googles something I have written about and comes across a 'fact'? While it improves all the time, the net certainly is not yet up to providing a sole and accurate method of research.

  2. Totally agree with you, Andrew. If someone, for instance, based an essay solely on one or a set of my posts, and checked nowhere else (or didn't contact me to see if I had access still to primary documents etc), they'd be barmy and/or foolish. But unfortunately, internet-only academic research happens. In the Carlyon/Morrow case, though, it's a matter where they used only a secondary/tertiary source, and went no further.

    I came upon an instance where a recent book, on Western Springs stadium and the speedway there, stated that Low & Motion started their 19th century flour mill there in 1866. My teeth gnashed -- Low & Motion moved there in the late 1840s. Papers Past confirms this. But the author may have consulted sources such as an odd history for the Waipapa Stream currently online. The author of which, despite advice years ago from me that such wasn't the case, still apparently maintains that incorrect date.

    I know this is small stuff in the context of much greater heritage concerns -- but it is so irritating. Which is why I say to folk, hey -- if I do stuff up, tell me. When I get over kicking myself, I'll fix it.

  3. Yes, no one enjoys someone pointing out an error, but it is important. For good or bad, you are about to get a gig on my blog. At least I correct when an error is pointed out.

  4. Hi Lisa - my children enjoy a British TV series 'Horrible Histories' - one episode they watch often on the net details many common fallacies about British history. It states that most of the beliefs about King Arthur, Merlin, Robin Hood, Richard the Third etc etc are just plain wrong.

    Shakespeare and other writers made stuff up for dramatic effect, punters assumed the stories were based in fact and traditions built up that had no basis in reality. In one sketch a policeman arrests a teacher for spreading misinformation.

    The programme is worth a look, very funny with lots of singing and dancing.

    My own writing is riddled with errors usually as a result of sloppy research or laziness.

  5. Hi Andrew -- I've commented over on your blog. Cheers!

    Hi Fresh Local -- I think my mum was the one, her being born near London, who brought me up to try to be a critical thinker, and especially to question the stuff like the examples you mentioned. Mum and I were a couple of the "Richard III was framed!" crew from way back.

    We all make mistakes, misinterpretations, and sheer utter brain farts. Some time soon, I'll be updating a book I did in 2003 -- which showed up both errors right from the get-go, and since then, with more information, I can see necessary changes to facts presented anyway. But I'll enjoy doing the work, getting back under the hood, and putting things as right as they can be seen to be as at today, from what is known. What I've been doing, though, since 2003, is writing, updating information, correcting my errors as I go, and publishing those. But -- I am not a PhD, and I'm not paid to put books together as are authors connected with Random House.

    As I said, I haven't seen the rest of the book, but I do hope there aren't as many botch-ups as I saw in the three pages which are the subject of the post above. I hope the Remuera book was peer reviewed, at least, by someone who would have turned around and said: "You just left the research for a professional histrory book at the point of looking at an unsourced family history or some chap's recollections 60 years after he saw an event? Really? Please tell me you didn't ..."