Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Early Canterbury Runs: Containing the First, Second and Third (new) Series

Chapter 1 — Introductory

page 11

Chapter 1

When the Canterbury Pilgrims arrived, in December 1850, they were bound by Land Regulations which were contained in the charter of the Canterbury Association, granted to it by the Crown in 1849.

The Canterbury Association's plan depended on the sale of land in the Canterbury Block—the Block being Banks Peninsula and the Plains between the Waipara and Ashburton rivers—over which the Association had an option at 10/- an acre from the New Zealand Company. The members of the Association hoped to create a new and better England. Men of capital were to buy large estates and form an aristocracy, and working men were to save money, buy small parcels of land and become yeomen or peasants. The whole spirit of the Association was against cheap land and the squatting system—squatting means renting large areas cheaply and running stock on the native pasture.

Later Waste Lands Regulations did provide that the Waste Lands (unsold land) might be leased with a preemptive right at the rate of 16/8 a hundred acres, but only to persons who had bought land., These could rent five acres for every acre of freehold they had bought, but the privilege was confined to immigrants arriving in the first batch.

A third part of the comparatively high price (£3 an acre) which the Association charged for the land went to education and the endowment of the Church; a third was spent on immigration; a sixth provided for administration and public works, and the remaining sixth went to pay the New Zealand Company for the land.

All this was very well in theory but did not work in practice. At the end of the first year only some fifty thousand pounds' worth of land had been sold, instead of the half million pounds' worth which the page 12Association had counted on having sold by the time the First Four Ships arrived in New Zealand.

The Association's Resident Agent, John Robert Godley, 'The Founder of Canterbury 'as he is rightly called, met the settlers when they arrived at Lyttelton. He had had practically autocratic powers delegated to him, but did not like to alter the land policy on which the Association set such store, though he seems to have seen that it would have been wise to do so. (A colony depending on agriculture, which requires expensive public and private improvements and preparations, must be slower to produce revenue than one which depends on cattle and sheep.) He was short of money to carry on the most necessary public works. In the first six months of the Settlement I suppose less than twenty thousand acres of land were either sold or leased, so that there was an ocean of waste lands surrounding a little island of settled land round Christchurch and Lyttelton.

There had been a very bad drought in Australia in 1850 which disgusted many of the squatters there with the country. Some of them sold or abandoned their runs and came to New Zealand early in 1851 to try their luck again with what money and stock they had left. They not only brought money and stock, but experience, which was most valuable to the young colony. They had unlimited faith in the squatting system, and a great contempt for the Canterbury Pilgrims' desire for freehold agricultural farms. The Australians were nicknamed 'Prophets' or 'Shagroons' and it was they who nicknamed the Association's settlers the 'Canterbury Pilgrims.'

The Prophets had not been here long before Godley, who was afraid of driving their capital to neighbouring provinces, took the plunge and issued new regulations allowing the waste lands to be taken up in runs of from five, to fifty thousand acres, according to locality. These runs were called Class III runs. Class I runs were the old pre-emptive right sections belonging to the freeholders. Class II runs were runs of under five page 13thousand acres which were held at a somewhat higher rent and under different conditions; most of them were either close to Christchurch or attached to Class III runs.

A few runs had already been occupied even before the Settlement, by the old 'Pre-Adamites' who were settlers who had arrived before the First Four Ships. These runs were all either in North Canterbury or on Banks Peninsula. Some were held on pasturage license from the New Zealand Government, and some rented from the Maoris.

The result of the new regulations was that by the end of 1855 all the plains and low hills were taken up, and during the next ten years every acre worth stocking (and a good deal of country that wasn't), right back to the main range, had been taken as part of some run. In the end there were over six hundred Class III runs altogether, but many men held more than one, so that finally they were grouped into about two hundred and fifty stations. I am writing this book to record these stations and to try to give some account of their early owners.

A great scramble for runs began when Godley issued the new regulations. The Pre-Adamites got new licenses for their Maori leases and the Prophets hurried to take up the most accessible country. The Pilgrims held off for a time but soon caught the fever and were as keen as anyone. The new squatters came from every walk of life—baronets, younger sons of good families, soldiers, sailors, parsons, lawyers, tradesmen, shepherds, farmers, and there were several foreigners.

A man applied at the Land Office for a likely piece of country which he had seen on his travels, usually in such terms as 'Ten thousand acres more or less, bounded by the river such and such on the north and the river so and so on the south and extending from the western boundary of Mr Blank's run to the required distance towards the Snowy Hills.' If no one else established a prior claim the Waste Lands Board gave him the run. Within six months he had to stock page 14it with one sheep to every twenty acres, or one head of cattle to every hundred and twenty acres. He had to pay a farthing an acre rent for the first two years, a halfpenny an acre for the next two, and three farthings for the fifth and all subsequent years. If he did not fulfil these conditions he forfeited the run. No term was stated to his license, but he or anyone else could buy the freehold of all or any part of the run at any time, except that if he built a hut or made a fence, or put any other improvement on the run, the improvement gave him a pre-emptive right over so many acres adjoining it. Anyone could challenge his pre-emptive rights at any time, and if the owner didn't buy the land challenged within a month the other man could, and then the runholder got nothing for his improvement.

Before I describe early station practice I must try to give readers an idea of what the country looked like to the early runholders. Most of us think of the plains as we used to see parts of them from the train even at the beginning of this century, as a boundless sea of dry tussock. But the heavy land along the sea coast and round Lake Ellesmere was originally deep swamp or in places heavy fern, or what was called 'dry swamp'— that is, rather wet with fern, flax, toe toe, rushes and cutty grass growing on it, and with boggy creeks running through it—just sound enough to ride over if you were careful. On parts of the dry plains there were large tracts of high manuka over which a man on a horse could not see. The largest belts of scrub were on the north banks of the Waimakariri, Rakaia and Rangitata.

Even what in our time looked like pure tussock had Irishman scrub growing through most of it in the old days, and where it had not been burnt by Maoris or early explorers there was a tangled mass of dead tussock between the live ones—their waste from time immemorial. In many places cabbage trees were dotted about—old hands used to say they were always a sign of good land.

page 15

Nearer the hills, where the land is generally better again, Spaniards grew thick and were large, and they and the snow grass added to the overgrowth. By the way, the tussock form which all these plants in Canterbury take, from toe toe and flax down to the little blue tussock, was said to be nature's way of protecting them, and the delicate plants which grew between them, from the nor'-westers. There were some very valuable plants growing between the tussocks, such as wild parsnip, wild carrot and aniseed. They have bceome scarce now even in the high basins in the back country, but before the country was eaten out they grew all over the plains. Blue grass, also, which, now only seems to grow in the middle of yellow tussocks in the hills, grew everywhere. Old hands used to say that horses living in it could work as hard and keep in as good condition as horses fed on oats. All these plants are so palatable that stock will not touch anything else while they get them, and eat them right out.

All this overgrowth, especially on hill country, made it impossible to get sheep on to unburnt country, or to find grazing for them when they got there, so the first thing the aspirant squatter did when he found his run was to burn it. People knew that burning and grazing injured the native grasses but supposed that as they disappeared hardy English grasses and clover would take their place. It is worth noticing that our native pastures are the only ones in the world that were evolved without competition from grazing animals.

The squatter then brought his sheep to the run— usually 1000 to 1500 ewes. He also brought a horse or two and a bullock dray loaded with stores and tools; he brought what men he could afford—perhaps a shepherd, a bullock driver and a couple of extra hands for bush work and fencing. As a special luxury he sometimes brought a cook who was called a hut-keeper and had to join in the general work, as of course did the squatter himself. The squatter chose a place for his homestead, pitched a tent, built a temporary scrub yard to hold the sheep at night until they were used to their page 16new ground, left the shepherd to look after them by day, and started off with his other men and the dray to the nearest bush for timber for a hut and fencing. If there was no bush handy he cut sods and built with them. The fencing at first only meant a very simple sheep yard and a paddock to hold the horses and bullocks.

If a man were too late to find unoccupied country he could of course buy it. Samuel Butler says in his First Year that the market price of unimproved runs in 1859 or 1860 was about a hundred pounds for every thousand acres, without the sheep, of course. Sheep were then worth about a pound to thirty shillings a head according to their age and sex. In the end, as I have said, there were about 250 stations in Canterbury; perhaps twenty of them, mostly along the coast, carried cattle. The rest carried merino sheep. When the runs were fully stocked the flocks varied from 1500 to 2000 on small poor runs where there was a lot of scrub, up to near 100,000 on Glenmark and the Levels, two of the largest and best. When the Association's settlers arrived in 1850 there were perhaps 12,000 or 15,000 sheep and 1000 head of cattle already in the Province, belonging to the Pre-Adamite settlers. In the early fifties thousands of sheep were imported from Australia and Tasmania, and when the overland route was discovered, from Nelson. Of course by the time the hill runs were fully stocked, all or part of some of the plains runs on good land had been bought freehold, partly by the runholders themselves and partly by settlers, and had been turned into farms or estates of various sizes. Settlement has been eating into the runs all the time.

In 1876 the provinces were abolished and the New Zealand Government took over the administration of the Canterbury runs. The Government allowed the squatters to hold their runs under the old conditions until May 1st, 1880. Under the Land Act of 1877, however, the runs were revalued according to their carrying capacity and situation. The new rents varied from 9d to 2/-a sheep and from 4/-to 10/-a page 17head of cattle. The tenants could take their runs for ten years at the new rents, but their pre-emptive rights were abolished. They could, however, remove their improvements within three months from land bought by outsiders.

Before the leases ran out again in 1890, the runs were let by auction for terms of seven, fourteen or twenty-one years, according to when, if ever, they were likely to be wanted for settlement. At this time a good deal of land was cut off the runs for immediate settlement and whole runs were given to the Midland Railway Company in payment for their work, but most of the old tenants got their runs again.

Runs have not as a rule been let by auction since 1914. The Land Act of 1908 gives tenant a right to such part of his run as is not wanted for settlement, at a rent which is assessed by the Government, but subject to arbitration.

The runholder's practice was simple at first. He put his sheep on the run and tried to keep them there. He marked the lambs when necessary and shore the sheep once a year. Until scab broke out there was no dipping, and few people had the facilities for washing sheep before shearing. Everyone tried to breed up his flock as fast as he could. Until about 1868 when all the runs were fully stocked there was always a good market for store sheep.

The sheep were kept on their ground by a shepherd who went round the boundary, and saw them camp for the night. When there was danger of fire he worked them on to a river bed or some other bare place to camp. The sheep got so used to their country that a whistle would send them to camp even if given between them and home. If a few were left, they would follow bleating after the others. When the flock increased and it became necessary to run it in two, the runholder built a hut and yard on another part of the run and put another shepherd in charge of a mob there. Conveniences such as woolsheds, drafting yards and so on came gradually. On some of the plains stations 'crow's nests' were built—platforms on poles or page 18up cabbage trees from which the shepherd could watch the sheep without disturbing them.

About 1854 sheep from Nelson brought scab into Canterbury and whether a flock were clean or scabby, it was most important to keep it from any contact with other sheep, so for some years on the plains many sheep were yarded at night and tailed by a shepherd by day. Wire fences were introduced soon after 1860 and the runs which had not natural boundaries were fenced in, and boundary keeping became unnecessary. As wire became more plentiful the runholders divided their runs into blocks. At first a block each for ewes, wethers and hoggets was as much as the runholder cared to pay for. The ewes and hoggets had to have blocks with water in them, but on many of the plains stations no water was available for the wether flock and the wethers never saw water from year's end to year's end unless it rained, except when they came in to the home paddocks for shearing. Merino wethers do quite well without it so long as they are undisturbed.

By about 1868 all the runs were fully stocked and store sheep became unsaleable. On one station the unwanted culls are said to have been driven over a cliff into the sea. Soon afterwards boiling down sheep for tallow came into practice and that relieved the position. From 1872 on, water races were made on the plains. This made more subdivision possible and the carrying of halfbred sheep. Freezing sheep for the Home market came in just after 1880 and that was the end of the native pastures on any but the worst land, and of merino sheep on the plains. Settlement, cultivation, and tree planting went on steadily and most of the old plains stations are now either moderate-sized freehold estates or altogether broken up into farms. The hill stations have altered less, though most of them are smaller than they were, and Corriedales and halfbreds have displaced the merinos except on the lightest and highest country.

The word 'Station' has changed its meaning in the last forty years. Originally it meant a place at which a page 19squatter stationed himself to work his run, and this sense of the word is still preserved up-country, where shepherds when in camp mustering say 'We shall get to the Station to-morrow'; also in the word 'Out-station.'

The word gradually came to include the whole run, buildings, freehold, and stock, and this is the sense in which it is generally used to-day, by station people themselves and by everyone else. But even this meaning of it has changed. I suppose no two people would give exactly the same definition of a station, but now-a-days most people seem to call any property a station, if it carries more than 2000 or 3000 sheep. Formerly a station meant a place which had included Government or Maori leasehold land, though it was still applied to the place if it became freehold. The word 'Station' is being driven out of use in its original sense of 'a place from which to work a run' by 'homestead.' When the Government began buying land for settlement in the 'nineties, they and their surveyors adopted the word 'homestead' and the settlers have followed them, but when an old-fashioned squatter or station hand used the word 'homestead' he generally used it to signify the owner's residence, as opposed to the men's quarters and other station buildings, and then only when the residence was at some distance from the working buildings, otherwise he called it the 'Big House.' However, as it is a writer's first business to make his meaning plain to all his readers, I shall use 'Homestead' in its new sense instead of 'Station' in this book.

On the whole, runholding has not been much of a business in Canterbury. Some runholders have done well, but I think more have lost money. Scab ruined a lot of them in the 'fifties. Before the scab was cleaned up speculators and settlers began buying the best parts of the runs. Bad times in the 'eighties ruined more runholders than scab had done, and rabbits became a pest before the bad times had begun to page 20get better; and the severe snowstorms of 1862, 1867, 1878, 1887, 1888, 1895 (the worst of all), 1903, 1908, 1918, 1923 and 1939 each used up several years' profits of high country runholders. Besides, hardly one of the early squatters (except the 'Shagroons') had any sheep-farming experience whatever. A few were natural sheep men who soon learnt their business, but the only thing that saved any of the others was that competent Scotch managers and shepherds were more plentiful in the old days than they have ever been since.

There was one other branch of the early pastoral industry which I must explain before going on to the particular stations.

In the 'fifties and 'sixties putting sheep out 'on terms' was a favourite investment for men who had not runs of their own. Sheep were dear, ewes from 25/-to 30/-a head as a rule, and most of the stations were only half stocked.

A man bought a mob of ewes and handed them over to a runholder who was under-stocked and had not money to buy more sheep. The runholder allowed the owner of the ewes 2/6 a head a year for their wool, and marked 40 per cent of the lambs for him as well; or they shared the increase equally. When the ewe lambs became old enough they were bred from as well, so that by the end of the time arranged (anything from three to seven years), the owner had a much larger mob to sell than he had started with. The last sheep on terms that I have heard of were at Horsley Down in 1870.

This practice was so much in vogue that in 1863 Claude Morton Ollivier, the accountant, published a pamphlet computing the increase and profit of sheep 'on terms' at the various lengths of time.