Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Blue Books - truth - fiction - political weapon - social data

David Low :Published:Evening Standard, 10 Jun 1930
cartoon source - plus bigger size

Blue Books
The news that the NZ Archives have digitized and made available 24 of the New Zealand Blue Books from 1840 - 1855, is welcome. Not only do they provide a useful addition to the back story of early New Zealand colonial life and the politics that attended it, they also bring back into focus how these reports often served as prime ammunition for both sides of the 19th century British and colonial political divide.

Blue Books - The Victorian Context
The term Blue Books [the covers were blue] describe a variety of parliamentary and government print sources, primarily from the 19th century, consisting of reports on Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry, and other interrogatory state run sessions and activities.

They were a peculiar and very effective piece of the apparatus of social, political and economic hegemonic change. Enquires into the conditions of the poor under the Poor Laws, children working in factories and the mines, sanitation, health, housing and employment conditions - all were grist to the mill of the parliamentary blue book process, and the subsequent mountain of paper. And all, in turn, played some part in the development of the new social and political fabric of the UK and its then colonies.

Raining Blue Books
That said, for some they were very much a mixed blessing. Politicians were known to complain that 'it was raining blue books" Authors like Dickens and Harriet Martineau used them as background to their fiction, while condemning the apparatus of humbug and circumlocution [Dickens] that created and sustained them.

Benjamin Disraeli. the UK Prime Minister and author had them appear inside his novels. [Sibil]. Elsewhere they were used as political fodder by heavyweights in the likes of Engels - Conditions of the English Working Class, [See here]

Others, like the Victorian reformer, EdwinChadwick insisted on giving evidence to the appropriate enquiry, and then used the subsequent printed blue book as evidence of the extent of the problem and the reliability of his efforts. See, Oz Frankel, Blue Books and the Victorian Reader Victorian Studies 46.2 (2004) 308-318 , here

The NZ Archive 1840 TO 1855
Like other colonial territories New Zealand had their own series, and their own way of using the blue book as a administrative and political instrument. Hitherto they have been hard to find and often harder to use.

Courtesy of a digisation programme spearheaded by Archives NZ , all 24 of the New Zealand series from 1840 to 1855, are now available, including one in the series made available by Auckland City Libraries.

NZ Archives
Dianne Macaskill , head of NZ Archives says "All 24 books are a wonderful source of information about the workings of the early New Zealand government. The Blue Books were produced in all colonies of the British Empire in order to provide Imperial officials with the necessary knowledge for good government"

"Early public records are always fascinating - these statistics about population, revenue, trade, shipping, public works, legislation, land transactions, churches, schools and prisons are a useful insight into times past and our collective history - they have a real story to tell."

On the NZ detail, she says, "Historians and genealogists will be able to find out more about the individuals who worked for government, their date of appointment and salary".

"Other statistical returns provide information about fees that needed to be paid for various services along with the wages of the day for domestic employment and labourers, the cost of various products like butter and flour and how these varied from region to region, and many more categories that give life to the environment in which the ancestors lived"

New Zealand texts
I'm keen to learn more about the New Zealand version of the blue book? In particular, I'd be fascinated to learn of any novels, tracts, or political texts which used their contents?

Blue Books at www.archives.govt.nz

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