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

Mesopotamia — (Runs 214, 242, 338, 348, 353, 367, 375, 376, 387, and 402)

(Runs 214, 242, 338, 348, 353, 367, 375, 376, 387, and 402)

Mesopotamia occupies the country between the Rangitata River and the top of the Two Thumb Range, from Forest Creek upwards, and for many years included the Cloudy Peak forks of the Rangitata, which is now part of Stronechrubie.

Nine people out of ten will tell you that it was first taken up by Samuel Butler, but as a matter of fact a great part of it had been allotted two or three years before Butler came to New Zealand. Run 214 (five thousand acres) in the angle of Forest Creek and the Rangitata was taken up by Henry Phillips, jun., in October, 1857, but it does not seem to have been stocked until 1860, when John Henry Caton bought or leased it from Phillips.

In March, 1858, Owen and Carter took up five thousand acres (Run 242) on the downs near Phillips, as did John James King and Stace (Run 387—some islands in the river), in 1859.

Runs further up the river were taken up during, and prior to, 1860 by J. H. Caton, and by Caton and C. Bulmer; while Tripp and Acland took up Run 375 in the Rangitata Forks in 1860, and above them on the page 144Havelock, Stace and Phillips took up a run shortly afterwards. (This last, however, did not become part of Mesopotamia until the 'seventies).

Samuel Butler, who was perhaps the most distinguished man that ever owned a station in New Zealand, arrived in Lyttelton in January, 1860, having left Cambridge about a year before. Almost at once, he set about making exploring expeditions into the back ranges in the hope of finding unoccupied country, but the whole of Canterbury, except a few odd corners, had been taken up by the end of 1858. However, after journeys up the Rakaia and Waimakariri, Butler tried the Rangitata, and discovered that some likely looking country was not included in any of the runs already allotted. He therefore applied for a run (No. 367), which was granted to him in February, 1860. The part of Mesopotamia actually taken up by Butler at this time seems to have been what is now known on the station as the Valley. Shortly afterwards he took up the country between Bush Creek and Black Birch Creek.

Butler of course had no experience of sheep farming whatever, but he had firmly resolved to double his capital (about £4000) as soon as possible; and he had a great deal of practical commonsense, which is shown in his books. Though they are often whimsically written, they are full of logical thought and their main object is to dissipate shams of all kinds.

He built a hut on his run, some miles up Forest Creek, and spent a winter there without stock, in order to see whether the country was safe for sheep. He came to the conclusion that it wasn't, so in September, 1860, he bought Run 242 from Owen and Carter, who had not yet started their station.

Then began Butler's well-known quarrel with Caton, whom he calls G— in his book, and I should have done the same, but that Caton's whole career has been published in Tales of Banks Peninsula. Caton had just taken over Phillips's run and sent sheep there, but made the mistake of building his hut on Butler's country. After some dispute—and Caton refusing to come page 145to any terms—Butler and Caton raced to Christchurch as hard as their horses could carry them, in order to buy the freehold of the section in dispute. The whole business is graphically described by Butler himself in his First Year, and by Festing Jones in his excellent memoir of Butler. Caton and Butler both arrived in Christchurch before the Land Office was supposed to be open, but Butler found that Caton had got at the application book, and put his name in above Butler's which had been entered the day before by his solicitor on a matter of some other business. The dispute was referred to the Land Board, who allowed Butler to buy the section; he afterwards made an allowance to Caton for his improvements, and bought his run and his sheep. Butler after his hundred mile ride, and a consultation with W. H. Wynn Williams, his solicitor, dashed into Wynn Williams's sitting-room behind the office, sat down at a piano which was there, and worked off his excitement by playing Bach's Fugues for the next two hours.

It would be tedious to give details of numbers, dates, and acreages, but, within the next few months Butler bought up the leases of all the other runs which made up the Mesopotamia Station. He also took up parts of Lake Heron and Stronechrubie, but never occupied any of these.

Butler then started his station, which he named Mesopotamia, and devoted himself to learning the details of his business; he occupied his leisure in writing articles for The Press, composing music, and playing a piano which took up half the room in his hut.

John Brabazon (after whom Mt. Brabazon is named) was Butler's cadet, and had a quarter share in the station. Their overseer was a man named Cook. It was while in New Zealand that Butler wrote the letters that were published as a First Year in the Canterbury Settlement— a book which Butler in later life professed to find ' so bad that he could never bring himself to open a second time.' It remains, however, about the best account we have of early pastoral life in Canter -page 146bury, and may be read here as history when his greater books are forgotten.

When I was at Mesopotamia in 1896, I tried to find any lingering traditions of him on the station. One seems worth preserving: When he was first thatching the cob house, which is still standing,* he put the top of each bundle of snow-grass outside the bottom of the one above so that all the rain ran inwards; this, as George McMillan said, seemed ' extraordinary for so clever a man.'

We get a glimpse of Butler at Mesopotamia in his Notebooks:

'In New Zealand for a long time I had to do the washing up after each meal. I used to do the knives first, for it might please God to take me before I came to the forks, and then what a sell it would have been, to have done the forks rather than the knives.'

Also in Alps and Sanctuaries:

' Many years ago, in New Zealand, I used sometimes to accompany a dray and team of bullocks who would have to be turned loose at night that they might feed. There were no hedges or fences then, so sometimes I could not find my team in the morning, and had no clue to the direction in which they had gone. At first I used to try and throw my soul into the bullocks' souls, so as to divine if possible what they would be likely to have done, and would then ride off ten miles in the wrong direction. People used in those days to lose their bullocks sometimes for a week or fortnight— when they perhaps were all the time hiding in a gully hard by the place where they were turned out. After some time I changed my tactics. On losing my bullocks I would go to the nearest accommodation house and stand occasional drinks to travellers. Someone would ere long, as a general rule, turn up who had seen the bullocks.'

Now for John Henry Caton, whom Butler in his book calls G—. Sir Joshua Williams described him in a letter quoted in Festing Jones's Memoir of Butler.

page 147

' He was by trade a cattle dealer and drover. I knew him well enough. In fact he did me the honour to consult me on one or two occasions when I was in practice. He was a well-built, fairly powerful man and a rough customer. It was towards the end of 1875, or in 1876 after I had ceased to live in Christchurch, that he was engaged by a well-known Christchurch man [William Wilson] to drive cattle from Canterbury to Otago and sell them there. G— drove them there and sold them. The Waitaki, a broad and dangerous unbridged river, separated Otago and Canterbury; crossing this, coming back, the notes, the proceeds of the sale, G— said, were washed out of his pocket. They were discovered in his boots. He was tried and convicted, and got, I think, five years.' According to Tales of Banks Peninsula, he went to New South Wales after his release and was drowned in the McLachlan river.

If I had space and authority, I should like to quote several pages of Festing Jones's interesting chapters on Butler's life in New Zealand. Caton, by the way, kept the Canterbury Hotel in Lyttelton in 1859.

About the end of 1863 Butler sold Mesopotamia to William Parkerson. He had turned his capital of £4400 into £8000 and he went Home. The leases, for financial reasons, however, remained in his name for some years.

Brabazon, of course, had done equally well with a thousand which he had put into the station, and he and his brother bought Tresillian Station near Ayles-bury.

Parkerson paid £10,000 for Mesopotamia, and after keeping it only a year or two sold it for £13,500. He afterwards had a run at Lake Sumner. The purchasers were William Cator and Michael Scott Campbell, the whole freehold of Campbell's previous run, Longbeach, having lately been bought up by John Grigg. Cator was a splendid looking man and a great athlete. He came from Northbastwick Hall, in Norfolk, and I believe had played cricket for Cambridge University. In 1868 he sold his share of the run to his partner's brothers, General Campbell and J. R. Campbell and page 148returned to England, shortly afterwards entering Holy Orders. About the same time J. R. Campbell took over the management of the station from his brother Michael, whose head shepherd had been George Mcrae, afterwards well known as the owner of Stronechrubie, Barford, and other properties in Canterbury.

While Michael Campbell lived at Mesopotamia Mrs Campbell, who had come there from Australia as a bride, and Cecil FitzRoy, who was a cadet or permanent visitor on the station, had an adventure which I give in Mrs Campbell's own words. In those days (and I believe to this day) the mails for Mesopotamia came by Hakatere across the Rangitata:

'One morning Mr FitzRoy and I rode across the Rangitata to try to collect our mail from Mr Potts's station on the other side. We got across all safely with the good luck that attends ignorance, for we did not know the river had been in flood not long before, and all the fords were changed. On our way back Mr FitzRoy was leading, crossing a most innocent-looking little stream, when his horse suddenly went down in a quicksand. He lost his seat, struggled out to one side, and his horse on the other. I rode on, choosing, as I thought, a safer route, when the same thing happened to me, and I found myself on a dry spit of sand separated from my companion and my horse. The two animals we could see making, tearing wildly, up the river-flat to the homestead, reins and stirrups flying. We could only wait on our shingle banks, too far from each other to exchange condolences, but I had the English mail safe. My companion in misfortune had not even his pipe. It seemed a long time before we saw the rescue party flying to our succour, my husband leading the van, all thinking, naturally, that some terrible accident must have occurred, and their relief when they saw us sitting quietly on our sunny shingle banks, very wet, but very cheerful, instead of having to fish our dead bodies out of the treacherous little streams, can hardly be realised. Of course we ought never to have tried to ford the river at all, but it looked so harmless, and we were both new chums.'

page 149

Dugald Macfarlane managed Mesopotamia for a few months when he was succeeded by his brother, Norman Macfarlane, who managed for the Campbells from 1879 until the sale of the station in 1885.

Sometime in the 'eighties Michael Campbell sold out altogether to his brothers, who sold the station to George Allan McMillan in 1885. McMillan was a past master in the art of back country management, and in his time Mesopotamia carried 20,000 as good merino sheep as you could find in the province. I gave a description of him when I was writing of Cracroft. He bought Stronechrubie about 1898, and until his death in 1903 the two stations were worked together. His managers, or rather head shepherds, were Robert Campbell, always known as ' Billy ' because he never went on the hill without one, John Mackenzie, who afterwards had Castle Hill, and John Morgan, now manager of Mt. Somers.

In 1896 the Government handed over forty thousand acres of the best of the run to the Canterbury Agricultural College as an endowment, so that now the rent goes to Lincoln College.

On McMillan's death, Mesopotamia and Stronechrubie were bought by George Gerard, who sold the place to the Hon. William Nosworthy, the present owner, in 1917.

* It was standing in 1925, but when I was last at Mesopotamia in 1927, it had just fallen down.