My First Eighty Years
Chapter 6 — Land in the North
Land in the North
When we went to Waitohi in 1887 my sister was sent to school in Melbourne where my mother's relations lived. She was one of those happy-natured people who can give a humorous turn to everyday things and the Flat seemed flatter than ever without her. Though we had bought ourselves a horse and trap it was a dull enough existence until my mother developed an acute attack of land-hunger. This was soon to grow endemic in New Zealand, but, as hers was an early case, her friends looked upon it as an absurd eccentricity; for land as an investment had been anathema in Canterbury ever since the crash of the landed interests in the early 'eighties. All round us land that was said to have no value was grazed by big owners and by mortgage companies. At each small piece of workable land, suitably fenced, or bounded by a winding creek, my mother would plan what we would do with it if it were ours — there the house would stand, there the orchard and a fowl-yard, there a duck-yard bounded by the water, there the bees and over there the vegetables. We made several attempts to buy our fancied plots but were always told that, even if the owners could be induced to sell, the survey and title of a small portion would cost more than they were worth. Still, land, land, land occupied my mother's thoughts — land as the sole source of life, the source of wealth, of plenty, of beauty, and of the only security life could offer. Under vases and pincushions about the house you might find small slips of paper with lists written in her inimitable handwriting. ‘Things needed for the first year on farm’, or ‘Things to produce for sale on a small farm’ — all in neat little lines with prices affixed.page 98
A copy of the Christchurch Press fell into our hands and we saw that the Manawatu Company was cutting up its grants of land in sections, from five acres to two thousand, and selling them monthly by public auctions. That was obviously the thing to do — go to the North Island where land in buyable quantities was available. My mother's friends did their best to dissuade her.
‘You have worked and saved, you have astonished us all, and now you are going to throw it all away.’
It happened that our land agent, Mr Clulee, had recently lost a few hundreds of this hard-earned money by lending it on house property which, as the depression deepened, proved not worth the value of the mortgage.
‘Why,’ said one friend, ‘the whole of that coast is an impenetrable forest. Huge trees and no clear land. They say eight Austrians were a week chopping at one tree.’
‘That is obviously a joke against the Austrians,’ countered my mother. ‘We shall employ Englishmen.’
‘How do you know it isn't swarming with rabbits?’
‘Because rabbits don't live in the bush.’ She refused to be laughed out of the venture.
When my mother said sadly, ‘They all say I shall lose every penny,’ I answered, ‘Well, I suppose you have as much right to lose it as Mr Clulee has.’
She always said that that remark decided her. I was earning a salary that in those penurious days seemed reasonably good; but I caught the virus too, and was as eager as she for the land venture. Finally, in 1888, I resigned my post. We packed and took berths — for our sins — in a little coastal vessel, sailing from Timaru wharf, which called at Akaroa and Kaikoura before waddling into Wellington Harbour. We were both bad sailors, more dead than alive when we stood on firm earth once more. Oh yes! The ferry-boats ran from Lyttellon much as they do to-day. Why then did we endure that horrid penance? I suppose the page 99 chief reason was economy, and because our household goods could travel with us, which we felt would simplify things.
Anticipating merely passing through Wellington, we had not troubled to ask for introductions to people there. But as soon as we could stagger to our feet and begin business, chance arranged that one of the surveyors in the Manawatu Company's office had been on a Mackenzie Country survey party and had stayed with us at Ben Ohau. He spoke about us to others and soon we had a small circle of acquaintances, mostly from Canterbury. One of them was Mr McKerrow who also had visited us in the Mackenzie Country and was now Under-Secretary of Lands under the Atkinson Ministry. He took us under his wing, assuring us that if we really wanted to buy land — which he obviously considered incredible — he could show us a much better proposition than the Company's auctions.
‘Even the cleverest and most experienced men are taken down at those monthly auctions,’ he said.
He told us that Mr Rolleston, Minister of Lands, had developed an entirely new scheme for land settlement, intending to assist people of very limited capital. To that end the Department had secured a large block and had cut it up in what they had called village settlements. Round and near the railway there were quarter-acre sections to anticipate the township that always grew up round farm lands. There were reserves for post office, school and all public utilities. Residential sections ran from half an acre to five acres. Then farmlets from ten to twenty; then farms from a hundred to some two thousand in the hilly country. Only ten per cent. and, in some cases, five per cent. of the purchase money was asked during the first year, but residential clauses and improvement clauses were to be strictly adhered to, so that there could be no speculating and profit-making.
Mr McKerrow showed us the plans, purring over them and pointing out their advantages and the special advantage page 100 of certain clauses and regulations with as much pride as if this Levin Block had been his own property. Indeed, every man in the Lands Department seemed to take a proprietary interest, especially in the local knowledge that was displayed in the prospectus showing on which sections the different varieties of birds, ferns and trees flourished and what their presence indicated about the nature of the soil. Each man in the office spoke as if he had personally discovered it all. Everyone was truly anxious that the scheme should be a success and quite sure that, as prospective buyers, we should be headed off the rival sellers of land, the Manawatu Company. I have dwelt on this because a notion is abroad that the Seddon Government invented and initiated the village settlement scheme.
There was only one fault about the scheme as introduced by Mr Rolleston — it was too timorous. The land-hunger of the Colony could have done with twenty such settlements as events proved. There were far more applications than there were sections and those for the choicest spots ran into hundreds. The land had to be balloted for. My mother wisely refused to apply for any land that had no permanent water. There were only three sections with water. We both applied, which meant six chances. I drew one lucky number, a twenty-acre section said to contain a small clearing as well as water.
After the ballot was drawn we were taken by the Public Works train to Levin, as the township had been named, and met by a young surveyor detailed to show settlers their sections. The whole place appeared to be a sea of standing bush on both sides of the railway-line. We walked down the line, stepping from sleeper to sleeper, then through some rough bush until we reached a tram-line built by the sawmill which was already operating. We were surprised by the beauty and smooth finish of the track. The rails were sawn timber, nailed to rough bush sleepers, but the whole was heavily ballasted with sawdust — red rimu sawdust, the page 101 perfect colour to complement the gigantic fernery through which the tram-line cut a symmetrical tunnel. The damage done in the cutting had long been healed, and the new growth, a soft ferny perfection, filled every cranny. The tall trees, though serving to produce the green mellow half-light, were hidden by a ceiling of undergrowth, principally tree-ferns. There were groves where silver ferns predominated, their fronds, white-backed, intertwined high overhead, making a fretted ceiling. Later we used to call those groves our cathedrals and strike matches under them at night. That day we forgot such sordid things as farming in our delight over this luxuriant causeway, with its smooth, soft sawdust underfoot and the choir of birds overhead. What an approach to our new home! We came to a sunlit break in the tunnel. The surveyor said, with a certain suppressed pride, ‘Here is your section.’
We saw what looked like extensive park lands, the turf, short and well-kept, like a bowling-green, was studded with trees — tall, stately, wide-spreading trees and shrubs. Each tree was trimmed at exactly the same height from the ground, with the utmost precision — as level as a ceiling. The whole looked like a well-kept plantation or park. Our ecstatic cries provoked a loud, startled snort, and a sudden stamp of hooves and, before we could speak, a splendid black stallion galloped past, followed, in single file, by about twenty wild horses of various sizes and colours, their picturesque manes and long tails streaming behind.
‘These are your lawn mowers,’ remarked the surveyor. ‘They keep your trees well clipped, too.’
I do not remember what either of us said, probably nothing coherent. We asked, of course, whether the horses went with the land, and were told, with a smile, that they were certainly ours if we could catch them. I had, at that time, infinite faith in myself as a tamer of animals and privately determined that I would soon have the whole mob eating out of my hand. How little I understood of the long, page 102 relentless war between man and the wild things! So, with rapture, we entered upon our inheritance. We paid, if I remember aright, a £4 deposit and the same sum each year with the added provision that we must occupy it and must effect each year certain improvements. This was surely land settlement on easy terms.