Penguin Books NZ, 2019
Most people who know Wellington will have come across the Plimmer name. It’s immortalised in locations such as Plimmer Steps, Plimmer House and the seaside village of Plimmerton, north of Wellington city. Many residents and visitors will have paused to look at the statue of the ‘energetic and entrepreneurial’ top-hatted John Plimmer and his ever-leaping little dog Fritz. The pair are found at the base of the steps between Boulcott St and Lambton Quay, a route that Plimmer often took. Bee Dawson’s book recounts the story of the Shropshire-born Plimmer and many of his descendants from the 1800s through to the present day.
Dawson is a social historian who has carried out extensive research not only on the Plimmer family but also on the growth of early Wellington. Her book also provides a comprehensive record of farming history in the Rangitikei area, where many of Plimmer’s descendants established farms.
The Plimmer family and other settlers faced many challenges. Earthquakes, infant deaths, rheumatic fever and other illnesses took their toll. Fires were common, sometimes destroying entire streets, and there were constant threats of work-related injuries and deaths. However, life was not all doom and gloom. The Plimmer family was fortunate to experience first-class trans-Tasman steamer trips, enjoying the plush couches, tempting menus, and solid marble baths on offer during the journey. Their social life included balls, fancy dinners and moonlight river excursions.
Dawson has drawn on accounts in newspapers, letters, journals and other records. Where there are gaps in these accounts, she suggests what was likely to have happened. Photos and maps supplement the text. There are plenty of diverse topics covered, some in more detail than others. They include Māori history and lore, transportation (with a hair-raising tale of brake failure), duck-shooting traditions, pest control, mourning rituals, and corporate ‘wheeling and dealing’. Dawson even offers a couple of the Plimmer family’s favourite recipes.
Dawson grew up on a Canterbury farm and her love of farming and knowledge of farming practices is evident throughout the book. As a townie I knew nothing about the complexity of land exchanges or the farm ballot systems that Dawson describes. I was intrigued to learn about the old Rabbit Board houses, and how farming families cope in remote areas during floods and electricity outages.
The tight-knit nature of rural communities is well-depicted, and Dawson also emphasises the strong family ties and business nous that have kept Plimmer’s legacy alive.
Succession planning has been critical to the Plimmer family’s ongoing success. Generations of Plimmer descendants have continued to work the farms, often during university holidays. This work often involved what they call the ‘d’ jobs: ‘drafting, dagging, docking, drenching and dipping’. Such hands-on jobs provided a solid introduction to farming life, although some descendants later pursued careers in the corporate world.
I suspect that this is the only book I’ll ever read where the appendix includes a list of paddock names. Some are named after family members, others after farm workers including shepherds, fencers and tractor drivers – there’s even one named after an accountant. Several names reflect the territory, purpose, or characteristics of the area, such as Flax Gully, Airstrip and Dam Flat. Dawson provides a thorough index and a short bibliography for readers keen to learn more, drawing primarily on New Zealand material. The family tree at the front of the book helped me to keep track of the main characters.
The closing notes include a descendant’s observation that the Plimmer family has now come full circle – from Wellington city to the Rangitikei district and back to the city again. The area where John Plimmer first established his business ventures is now ‘just a stone’s throw away’ from the family’s current office on Queen’s Wharf. That office is also not far from the statue of Plimmer and Fritz. If the statue could talk, Dawson’s book hints at the fascinating stories those two could tell.
Anne Kerslake Hendricks in The Reader – Booksellers New Zealand’s blog, 8 July 2019.