The Bielski Family of Rangiwahia

This is the story of Martin and Mary Bielski, why they fled from Prussia as a young married couple, their journey to New Zealand, and their pioneering life in the Manawatu. It is written by their great-granddaughter, Fay Bagnato, née Bielski.


by Fay Bagnato

Martin and Mary Bielski, who were Polish, migrated to New Zealand from Prussia in 1876.

Both were from extended, close-knit farming families who regularly moved around the countryside in the north of Poland, doing seasonal agricultural work on the large estates south of the port city of Danzig (now Gdansk) on the Baltic coast. Mary was born in 1849 to Laurenz and Barbara Brodkowski (nee Brzozka) and brought up in Subkou (now Subkowy). Officially Mary’s Christian name was Barbara, which was also her mother’s name. However, she wanted to be known as Maria, which in New Zealand became Mary. Martin was born, also in 1849, to Joseph and Anna Bielecki (nee Stenkiewicz) (pronounced Stenkie-vich), in Dietrichswalde (now Gietrzwald). He was brought up in the village of Rokittken (now Rokitki).

According to the Gdansk State Archives in Poland and early documentation, Martin’s surname in Polish was “Bielecki.” However English officials wrote and recorded the name as it sounded in English. Hence “Bielecki.” was recorded as “Bielski,” which became the family name thereafter. “Bielski,” is also a Polish name and both names have the same meaning. “Biel” means “white.” “Ski” and “cki” are suffixes that change a Polish word into a surname. Both names also were used occasionally as a nickname for a fair-haired person.

Martin and Mary departed from Hamburg, Germany, on 12 April 1876, on the sailing ship fritz reuter, which arrived in Wellington, on 4 August 1876. Of the 425 emigrants on board, 259 were Polish, by far the largest group of Poles to migrate to New Zealand up until that time. Most of them, including Martin and Mary Bielski, were Roman Catholic and were attracted to New Zealand by the promise of work and a new life. They wanted to flee a tyrannical Prussian government, which had made life difficult for Polish Roman Catholics.

Martin and Mary 

This photograph of Martin and Mary, taken late in their lives, is the only one the family has.

By 1864 northern Poland had been annexed by Prussia for almost 70 years. After a Prussian constitutional crisis, Otto von Bismarck, a wealthy landowner whose family was connected to the Royal Court of Prussia was asked to take over the running of the government. He agreed, provided that he could have a free hand. Bismarck wanted to make Prussia into a world power, the head of a new, unified Germany. In order to achieve this, he started and won three wars, against Denmark (where Bishop Monrad, who lost his job and subsequently emigrated to New Zealand, was Prime Minister) Austria and then France.

Ethnic Poles, almost all of whom were Slavic and Roman Catholic, were in the way of Bismarck’s plan, because a Polish Catholic Party had been formed in opposition to him. He labelled all Catholics as anti-national and dangerous, and enacted harsh and cruel laws against them. Schools were banned from teaching the Polish language, Polish village and town names were Germanised and many Polish surnames shortened, including Mary Bielski’s family name, “Brodkowski,” which was shortened to “Brodek.” Cheap loans were given to Germans to buy up the land and then employ the Poles, paying them a pittance. Consequently, the Poles could barely scratch out a living, and relations between Poles and Germans became embittered. Prussian military service was compulsory for Poles; Martin, it is believed, served in the medical corps of the army for a term.

These laws were enforced with a ruthless violence that frightened the Poles. Any form of resistance was a very serious matter and meant imprisonment or execution. To the Germans Bismarck was a hero, but to the Poles he was a tyrant. The unifying of Germany had become a war against them and their culture, causing thousands, including Martin and Mary, to flee, migrating to various countries including America, Canada, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.

Martin’s older brothers had come to New Zealand under the Vogel Scheme, and they were hoping to reunite with them. Valentine Bielski arrived in January 1876, with fifty-one Poles and Carl Bielski in March 1876, with 100 Poles. They were sent to settle in Jackson Bay, on the West Coast of the South Island.1

In 1871, Dr Isaac Featherston was appointed as the Agent-General for New Zealand in the United Kingdom. His duties included the management of emigration from the United Kingdom and Europe. By 1876 there were 250 sub-agents working in Europe to attract experienced, skilled, agricultural labourers used to working in forested areas.

As Martin and Mary, with their eighteen-month-old son also named Martin walked out of their home in Dirshau (now Tczew) for the last time, they were spotted easily by the sub-agents who were looking for anyone leaving. They were directed to Hamburg, Germany from where the fritz reuter was departing on what would be its last journey to New Zealand. However, the government of New Zealand had without notice ordered a halt to all immigration as it had underestimated the costs involved. Consequently the Agent-General could not give permission for ships to leave. Caught in the middle of this situation was the fritz reuter, ready to depart with more than 500 emigrants on board. This stalemate forced the emigrants to reconsider their circumstances, and as the ship waited at the wharf, more than fifty people decided to disembark and board the humboldt, bound for Brazil.

The matter was brought to the attention of the Prussian government which overruled the New Zealand government, ordering the ship to leave. Four months later on their arrival in Wellington the New Zealand government disclaimed all responsibility for the emigrants on board, and would not allow the ship to berth because it had left Europe without the sanction of its Agent-General. After four days the emigrants were in a desperate situation: they ran out of water and were fast running out of food. Meanwhile, intense and heated negotiations were taking place in Wellington between the German Consul, Frederick Krull, and the Immigration Department. Finally, the fritz reuter was allowed to berth on humanitarian grounds only and the emigrants were taken to the quarantine station on Somes Island, where they were interviewed by immigration officers. Eventually all were allowed to stay. Martin later told his family that they had ‘jumped ship.’

The 259 Poles were recorded as Germans, which they hated, but, unable to express themselves in English, there was not much they could do about it. Later they said that they had come to New Zealand to get away from the Germans, but here they were called Germans.

Martin and Mary arrived with an addition to their family, as ten days before, on 28 July 1876, their baby girl Frances (Fanny) was born at sea. During the long journey, they formed a strong friendship with the Palenski family, Henryk (Henry), thirty-two, Augusta, thirty-one and their two young children.

Most of the Poles were allocated settlement at Jackson Bay, Hokitika or Taranaki. However, waiting on the shore was Arthur Halcombe, Agent for the Emigrants’ and Colonists’ Aid Corporation. Some families were selected for Halcombe, including the Palenskis. Although the Bielskis were not on the list for Halcombe, they also went there, possibly because their friends the Palenskis had been allocated settlement there. Mr Halcombe took a total of eighty-three men, women and children.

A large crowd gathered on the wharf to witness the departure of the ss matau for Foxton with Martin and Mary and most of the other Halcombe immigrants on board. They then caught the new train to what was described as the small town of Palmerston. The corporation had a depot at Terrace End, where they rested for a day or so, before embarking on a trip by horse and wagon, “with much shaking and jolting,” to Halcombe. Ready and waiting for the settlers, were new, one-bedroom houses each built on one acre of land. Settlers were entitled to ownership of the property, provided that they met their rental payments for the first three years of occupancy.

Arthur Halcombe and his sub-agent Mr Macarthur were most concerned for the welfare and comfort of the settlers and the success of this settlement, was, in a large part due to their management and respect for the settlers. It was planned that the houses would be built further apart. However, Arthur Halcombe, thought they should be closer together, as the settlers might feel lonely.

It was a very different situation at Jackson Bay where under appalling management and after two years of floods which destroyed their crops, the settlement collapsed. The settlers were in dire poverty, with Martin’s brothers’ children forced to wear clothes made from flour bags. Some were relocated to Palmerston and a few to Kimbolton (then called Birmingham). Many, including Martin’s brothers, went to Taranaki.

Martin and Mary lived in Halcombe for 14 years. At first Martin worked as a labourer, building the railway and roads. He then moved on to clearing the land, tree felling, scrub cutting, draining swamps and cutting tracks. From this hard work they saved sufficient money to be able to purchase their own farm. They had six children in Halcombe, Agnes 1878, Anna (Annie) 1879, Frank 1881, Clara (Lily) 1882, John (Jack) 1884 and Thomas (Tom) 1887. They learnt English on the job, and Martin Bielski and his friend Henry Palenski were naturalised together on 24 October 1890.

In 1885 a party was sent from Feilding to investigate the then unknown district of Rangiwahia, situated in the centre of a fertile valley near the Ruahine ranges 58 kilometres north-east of Feilding. These men rode along tracks that deteriorated as they advanced through virgin bush and beautiful scenery. Emerging from the tall trees, they came upon a natural clearing where eventually the town of Rangiwahia was established. On returning they gave such a glowing report that the Feilding Small Farm Association was formed to take up the land, encouraged by a slogan of the period, “put the small man on the land.” Only a member of an association to which land had been assigned could be allocated land by ballot.

Also interested in this area was a group from Wanganui which included a number of brothers named Pemberton. After consultation, the Wanganui group and the Feilding Small Farm Association merged to become the Pemberton Small Farm Association. The first area to be developed was situated several kilometres south-west of Rangiwahia near the Ohingaiti turnoff, and was named Pemberton. The two Polish families from Halcombe purchased land here. Usually the purchase was secured with a deposit and the balance paid through the deferred payment scheme. However, the members of the Pemberton Small Farm Association were required to pay the full price of the land, up front, in one payment.

The Pemberton Small Farm Association appointed as their secretary and treasurer Dudley Eyre, a land agent from Wanganui. He collected the money which was to be forwarded to the government Lands Department. It was a huge shock for the settlers to learn that Dudley Eyre had absconded with their money, fleeing to San Francisco where he built, or acquired, either a palatial hotel or a restaurant. Then, pouring salt on their open wound, he reputedly named it pemberton palace.

The settlers were told bluntly to “forfeit your land or pay again.” Martin Bielski paid again, but Henry Palenski, like many others, was not in a position to do so, which forced him to remain behind in Halcombe. No safeguards had been put in place to prevent this from happening and no one took responsibility. The friendship between Martin and Henry was strained and the loss impacted heavily on both families. The Bielskis were left without money to buy seed or stock, and Henry Palenski, full of despair, turned to alcohol. The settlers petitioned the Minister of Lands to be allowed to make their second purchase on the deferred payment scheme, but they were refused. However, J G Wilson MP visited the settlement, reporting back that some of them lacked even the basic necessities of life, and successfully intervened on their behalf.

After first living in tents pitched on the bush track, the men built very basic houses. The houses had huge fireplaces because Rangiwahia, which is 570 metres above sea level, was bitterly cold in the winter with much driving rain, wind and snow, especially when thick bush blocked any warm breezes. The women and families followed the men. It is a toss-up as to who was the first woman into Pemberton, as Mrs Chas Pemberton and Mary Bielski arrived within hours of each other. Father Patterson, a Roman Catholic Priest, rode from Palmerston North to give the first church service, a Mass held in John McClenaghan’s house. Martin’s and Mary’s last child, Frederick (Fred), was born in Pemberton on 3 May 1891. Martin junior, now 16, was helping his father and they were joined by Samuel McSweeney, an experienced bushman, who lived with the Bielskis. He had a crush on Fanny Bielski, now almost 15, but she was not so keen on him.

As the forfeited farms went back on the market the land adjoining the Bielskis was purchased by Daniel Ritzman, a Swiss settler who lived almost a kilometre away. After a few months Martin Bielski asked Daniel Ritzman for work on his land, clearing the scrub and undergrowth. They agreed to a price for the twenty-five acres of £11 5s. Henry Palenski came up from Halcombe to help measure and peg out the area, but it was around this time that the Bielski-Palenski friendship ended.

Ritzman kept a constant eye on the work as he regularly rode past. On completion of the job he would not pay Martin, but refused to say why. Letters were exchanged and a meeting arranged on the land, where Martin said that Ritzman had threatened him with a whip and had told him not to bother him anymore.

In Prussia, the Poles had little choice but to accept this type of exploitation, but not here in this new country. Martin took the matter to the Feilding court. Martin’s solicitor called as witnesses Samuel McSweeney, Martin Junior and George Davis, a labourer. They said that the work was done very well. Ritzman said otherwise. He used all of the usual arguments or excuses, and added, “Two young Bielski girls, aged twelve (Annie) and nine (Lily) were seen working on the land using slashers.” Martin Junior testified that he had worked on three acres but at other times he had been working under contract to Mr Pemberton. When asked about his young sisters, Annie and Lily, working as slashers, he said, “Those two girls can do as much as one man. I myself have been a bushwhacker since a small boy of six.” Then he was asked if the girls had a contract with anyone. He said, “They had not yet joined in a contract, but they might do so at a pinch.”

Daniel Ritzman knew about the split between Martin Bielski and Henry Palenski and, exploiting a vulnerable man, called Palenski as a witness against Martin. Henry Palenski said that the work was not done well. To see his old friend standing with Daniel Ritzman must have been a bitter pill for Martin to swallow. Finally, Ritzman was ordered to pay Martin Bielski £5 12s 6d, with each paying his own costs. Effectively, Martin had done the work for less than half the agreed price.

Shortly after the Court case, when Martin was away working on contract at the Pemberton’s property, Ritzman came by sooling cattle and encouraged his dogs to attack the Bielski's lambs. On hearing the commotion Mary came out of the house and words were exchanged, which sent Ritzman into a rage. Jumping off his horse, he picked up a stick and violently hit her across the head, causing her to fall to the ground unconscious. The children stood over her, with Lily traumatised while Frank ran to get Martin.

On seeing what had happened to his wife Martin was livid. He arranged for a doctor to come from Kimbolton at a cost of five guineas. Martin stayed at home with Mary for almost a week. Then he sued Daniel Ritzman for £100. Fanny told the court that Ritzman had threatened “to shoot them all.” Mary said that her hearing had been badly affected and “still was, to this day.” They were awarded £8 plus costs, the Judge saying the matter should have gone to the Criminal Court.

After the assault on Mary, Daniel Ritzman sold his farm and moved to Halcombe. If the Bielskis thought they now were going to get some peace, they were mistaken. They had been growing and selling potatoes successfully for a while. Ritzman also planted a potato crop in conjunction with the new owner of the farm, but it was a disaster, as the quality was as poor as the price that he got for them. In yet another affront to Martin, Ritzman claimed that the Bielskis’ pigs had broken down the gate and had eaten his potatoes. So it was back to Court again, with Ritzman suing Martin for £15. Martin called in James Stent and Gregory Martin, two very credible settlers, to inspect the gate for damage with him. They both testified in court that there was no damage. Martin asked, “Why my pigs, there are plenty of pigs in the area? How are you so sure they were mine?” The Court agreed that there was no evidence that the tops of the potatoes had been eaten or that the ground was disturbed in any way. Martin then was ordered, inexplicably, to pay Daniel Ritzman £8 plus all costs.

A big effort had been made to make Pemberton the centre of the district of Rangiwahia, but it did not work out. So the centre moved to the natural clearing at Rangiwahia. Taking Ritzman’s threat of shooting them very seriously, Martin was now concerned for the safety of his family, so he decided to move where the family could have some protection. He drew up plans for an accommodation house to be built in the centre of the town of Rangiwahia, where there was a need to accommodate workers coming into the area. The feilding star, 16 August 1893, reported under a heading pemberton notes:

Mr Martin Bielski’s large substantial boarding house is fast approaching completion. The building when finished will be a decided acquisition in every way. I hope to see Mr Bielski’s enterprise amply rewarded in the near future.

accommodation house

The figures in the centre of the photograph above are Mary with one of her sons, probably Frank, outside the Bielski accommodation house, Rangiwahia.

The Bielski Accommodation House was situated on the main road, opposite the school. It was a great success and within two years they needed to add more rooms, to a total of 16. There was also a sitting room for ladies and one for the gentlemen. They offered meals (at all hours) for 1s, and a bed, also for 1s per night. Martin and Mary bought additional land in the town of Rangiwahia where they grew most of the food. There is an old Polish saying: “If a guest is in the house, God is in the house,” so it is likely that everyone was well treated.

In the summer months the settlers burnt off old logs and scrub and on several occasions the burn-off got out of control, burning down the hotel in 1896. In the summer of 1897 an uncontrollable blaze destroyed everything, including homes, fences and stock. It was a terrible experience for the district. One week before Christmas, on 18 December 1901, at 2 am, the Bielski Accommodation House caught fire and burned down. No one was hurt, but they lost everything. Although they were fully insured, they did not rebuild.

The Bielskis remained in the Rangiwahia area, farming successfully for 11 more years. During this time they purchased land at Karewarera, a beautiful spot several kilometres closer to the Ruahine Ranges and eventually they moved there. One day, probably around 1905, Tom ran to tell his father that his brother had arrived to see him. Initially Martin did not trust the news, thinking it was some sort of trick being played on him, as he had not forgotten Daniel Ritzman’s threat to shoot them, and still feared that one day that they would be hunted down and shot. It was not a trick: it was his brother Carl from Taranaki. Carl told him that his son, Julius, had visited relatived at Marshlands, and returned with the news that their other brother, Valentine, had died of heart problems.

On retiring to Feilding in early 1913 Martin and Mary purchased a property in Kimbolton Road. Fred, their youngest son, moved with them and purchased a motor cab (taxi) to earn his living. Mary was unwell and they had not been there long when, on 10 April 1913, she died of cancer and heart problems at the age of 64. Three years later, Fred’s cab spun off the road into a ditch, killing him at the age of 25.

Martin had developed diabetes and his health was declining. Tom and Jack Bielski were the executors of their father’s will. After locating his will, they discovered that it was written in Polish. They said, “This is no good to us, we can’t understand a word of it!” and threw it into the fire. Although his body was weak, Martin’s mind was alert, enabling another will to be drawn up at his bedside. He instructed his solicitor that he wanted all his children to receive equal shares. Martin Junior, Jack and Tom were required by the will to square up the money advanced to them for the purchase of their farms against their share of his estate. Martin died three days later, on 3 August 1917, at the age of 68. Carl, his brother, rushed down from Taranaki to see him, arriving only to read his death notice in the newspaper.

Martin, Barbara-Mary and Fred Bielski are buried in the Feilding cemetery. Like so many of our early pioneers, Martin and Mary had to be strong, flexible and resilient, and suffered hardship. However, they paved the way for those who followed.

The promise of work and a new life in New Zealand was fulfilled.

© Fay Bagnato, 2006
Updated July 2016

There was a Brzozka family (Jacub, Maria and their children Kararzyna, Franciszek and Leonard) aboard the fritz reuter, which suggests a connection between Mary Bielski and Jacob Brzozka through Mary's mother.



  • Books:
  • Buick, T L. Old Manawatu. Palmerston North, Buick & Young, 1903.
  • Grover, K & L. Rangiwahia and District. Rangiwahia Centennial Committee, 1985.
  • Kisch, Richard. Bismarck. East Sussex, Wayland, 1976.
  • Pobog-Jaworowski, J W. History of the Polish Settlers in New Zealand. CHZ Ars Polona, Warsaw, 1990.
  • Rangiwahia Jubilee Committee. Rangiwahia’s First 75 Years, 1886–1961. Rangiwahia Jubilee Committee, 1961.

  • Newspapers:
  • Evening Post, 1876.
  • Feilding Star, 1890–1901.
  • Wanganui Chronicle, 1902.
  • Wanganui Herald, 1901–1902.

  • Primary sources:
  • Archives New Zealand.
  • Gdansk State Archives, Poland.
  • Bielski family records and photos.
  • National Library of New Zealand.
  • New Zealand Electoral Rolls, 1879–1917.
  • Wises Directories, 1913–1917.

This story is published with permission of the writer and copyright-holder, Fay Bagnato, née Bielski. It first appeared in the manawatu journal of history, 2006, issue no. 2. The journal is published annually, an initiative of the Palmerston North Heritage Trust in conjunction with the Manawatu branch of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. For more details contact the editor, Cushla Scrivens, at