Joseph Leggett was from 1872 - 1874 the Oxford District Secretary of the National Agricultural Labourers' Union. The early 1870s were a lively and troubled period in which some Oxfordshire farmers, as did farmers in other parts of the country, locked out workers who joined unions or had the temerity to ask for more pay. Landlords such as the Duke of Marlborough (of the Blenheim estates) encouraged their tenant farmers to resist the union. Indeed, the Duke took a particularly unpleasant line by transferring the renting of many of his allotments and cottages to the farmers so that their employees could be threatened with eviction if they did not conform.
At Ascott-under-Wychwood an agricultural workers' strike became notorious when in 1873, 16 of their womenfolk were imprisoned for between 7 and 10 days of hard labour for picketing in support of their husbands. The two presiding magistrates, both clerics as well as wealthy landowners and farmers (one with 8 servants and a butler), showed no mercy. Mary Pratley, for example, was imprisoned with her 10 week old child. It is no wonder that she and her husband later joined the rush to emigrate to what promised to be a fairer society. The Duke of Marlborough in his role of Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire unreservedly supported the magistrates but the Lord Chancellor expressed his reservations.
The chairman of the branch of the NALU was Christopher Holloway, who had visited the home of the Pratleys and of another family from which a child had to accompany the mother to prison. Holloway wrote that many of the Ascott cottages were "simply horrible and a disgrace to a Christian country." The families' homes were in a block of three cottages:
Holloway had found that prior to the appearance of the union, agricultural wages in Ascott were 9 shillings a week in winter and 10 in summer, with no wages if work could not be done because of wet weather and bonuses of 2 shillings per week in busy seasons when the hours could be between 12 and 16 a day. The Ascott strike was for 14 shillings per week but the local farmers refused to pay and agreed with one another not to relent. In these circumstances, the news from New Zealand was very attractive.
George Smith from Burford who had emigrated on the Herald wrote in May 1873:
The Brogden company [not related to the Oxfordshire Brogdens; see articles in this website on John and Alexander Brogden and the "Brogden Navvies"] had been recruiting for emigrants in Oxfordshire and they too had sent enthusiastic letters to their families and friends. Rollo Arnold's book contains many examples and descriptions of the life in New Zealand.
The continued lock-out in some farms, the good reports from New Zealand and the introduction of free passages in October 1873 by the New Zealand government resulted in a growth of interest in emigration. Lectures were held on the benefits of life in New Zealand: about 600 people attended one in Milton-under-Wychwood on 14 November 1873. Advertisements were placed in the union's newsletters.
Christopher Holloway led a party of about 80 which sailed from London on the Invererne on 22 November 1873, including several families from Wychwood villages. He spent an exhausting time travelling in New Zealand to see for himself how well immigrants settled and how rapidly the country was developing. He also met Julius Vogel, the New Zealand premier who had promoted the policy of immigration. Holloway returned in March 1875 and continued his promotion of emigration to New Zealand, armed with local knowledge.
Joseph Leggett decided to lead a party and become an emigrant himself. He held a public meeting on 2 January 1874 at Benson (in south Oxfordshire) and another in Islip on 27 January and his personal reputation (also used in NALU advertising) prompted an even greater flood of volunteers. 41 sailed on the Atrato in February 1874, mostly from south and east Oxfordshire. He had intended to join this party but sailed on 4 March on the Ballochmyle with 111 emigrants and their families (502 in total), including 3 families from his old home village of Milton-under-Wychwood and one family of Brogdens from Cogges, near Witney.
Of 81 ships that sailed for New Zealand in 1874, 67 carried a total of 150 members of Oxfordshire families. In May 1874 New Zealand welcomed a total of 4720 immigrants. It was the peak year - and these figures for emigration do not include all those who went to Canada and Australia.
The Ballochmyle with "Leggett's Gang" aboard, reached Christchurch in New Zealand on 1 June 1874, to be welcomed by Christopher Holloway who took Leggett and his family to stay with him and found Leggett a job at his old trade of carpentry, building a school in the town. Leggett soon become a landowner in Ashburton, growing 30 sacks of potatoes and owning "a horse, three pigs, two sheep, two cats, a dog, seven children and some fine fowls" as his wife, Ann wrote home to her mother. Rollo Arnold traces similar successes for other passengers on the Ballochmyle, including the Brogdens (although he misspells their surname as Bragden).
William Brogden, his wife Elizabeth (Neville) and their six children came from Cogges, near Witney. William, born in South Leigh in 1835, had married Elizabeth in 1858. He was the fourth generation of Brogdens from South Leigh and Stanton Harcourt who can be traced back to George, the first recorded Brogden in the area. William was probably the first to take the adventurous step of emigrating.
William and Elizabeth had two children in New Zealand:
William and Elizabeth prospered. After a year or two of labouring at Temuka, William became a farmer in his own right, leasing a property of 400 acres in the area. This would have been an unattainable ambition back home with land ownership where the Brogdens were employed in Oxfordshire being almost entirely in the hands of the Duke of Marlborough, the Earls of Macclesfield and of Abingdon and Lord Harcourt and wages being too low for farm labourers like William to save enough to take on farm leases.
Rollo Arnold describes the arrangements in the Temuka area which supported small "cockatoo" farmers and which avoided some of the problems experienced in other provinces when harder economic times arrived because the settlers were not greatly in debt. Families such as the Brogdens were placed in village settlements in which the land was allocated in sections of between a half and 2 acres from which the family could subsist whilst the menfolk laboured elsewhere. First, whilst the women and children stayed in a depot on rations provided by the provincial government, the men (also on rations) built a sod hut for each family, guided by an experienced ganger. The turf walls were plastered with clay with a low pitched, thatched roof. These houses were very cheap to build and were rent free in the first year and 2 shillings per week after that. This scheme provided a good start for the immigrants who, because they were not faced with large repayments of loans, were able to save enough to set out on their own within a few years. Even a sod hut sounds a better proposition than the cottages where the Pratleys lived in Oxfordshire.
Frederick Pratley, whose wife Mary had been imprisoned in Oxford, emigrated later in 1874, went to Temuka and took labouring work for three years until he was able to lease his own farm and later another nearby. As Ann Leggett wrote to her mother about another family, "they should want five thousand a year for them to live upon if they came back (to Oxfordshire) again."
Back home, the effect of the drain of labour on the previously recalcitrant UK farmers was to force them to increase wages and conditions and this, coupled with the economic down-turn in New Zealand towards the end of the 1870s, resulted in a much reduced flow of emigrants.