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New Zealand's Burning — The Settlers' World in the Mid 1880s

Runholders and feldon yeomen

Runholders and feldon yeomen

The fires of the 1885–86 summer served to highlight the twofold nature of open country settlement as either runholders' country or yeomen's country. When fire got loose on the runholders' broad acres it had usually to be left to burn itself out, the available manpower being only sufficient to defend such key assets as homesteads and shearing sheds. The several fires which ‘swept off the grass' in the Wairarapa ‘in thorough Australian style’3 seem all to have burned until halted by natural obstacles or a change in the weather. Similarly there seems to have been no significant human intervention with the page 160 6,000-acre Dashwood fire in Marlborough, or with the two extensive fires in North Canterbury—the 5,000-acre one near Harwarden and the 50,000-acre one north of the Waipara River.4 In Hawke's Bay Alexander Grant would apparently have had little hope of containing the Burnside blaze but for the Rev Granger's inspired initiative in leading his congregation to the battle.5 But with the feldon yeomen it was different; any fire in their country seems to have met with a quick and sufficient response. We have seen how the yeoman country stretching from the western boundaries of Christchurch southwards to the mouth of the Rakaia came repeatedly under threat, mainly from fires originating in the runholders' country to their west. In each case the blaze was fought to a halt as it crossed the borders into yeoman country. Over these months many fires must have broken out in yeoman districts and been contained before reaching newsworthy proportions. For example, Nelson's Waimca Plains were severely affected by the drought and repeatedly blanketed by bush fire smoke. They must have had their own outbreaks, but none gained a sufficient hold to become newsworthy.

In fact none of the open country fires created dramas like those in the bush. Hence reports of feldon fires lack the detail and human interest of the bush fires. So to work out the main contrast between runholder and feldon yeoman country we will have to turn elsewhere than the fire reports. What can contemporary statistics tell us? Most of the relevant figures were collated only at provincial and county level, lumping stretches of runholder and feldon yeoman country in together, or including them with bush settlements. Fortunately, however, we have in Nelson's Waimea County a stretch of predominantly feldon yeoman country, deriving from the 50-acre suburban blocks of the Wakefield settlement scheme. And in Hawke's Bay County we have a stretch of predominantly runholder country, deriving from the squatter occupation of the 1850s. At the 1886 census their populations were similar in size, Hawke's Bay having 6,739, Waimea 8,404. The return of occupied holdings over one acre in extent shows Waimea with 1,291, Hawke's Bay with 573.

The sheepowner returns for 1885 show Hawke's Bay with 169 flocks to-
Table 12.1. Size of sheep flocks, 31 May 1885, Hawke's Bay and Waimea Counties
page 161 talling
1,221,406 sheep, giving an average flock of 7,227 sheep. Waimea had 403 flocks, totalling 101,106, giving an average of 251. Clearly sheep were widely dispersed across both counties, with the difference, as shown in Table 12.1, that Hawke's Bay's were in large flocks, Waimea's in small ones. Waimea's largest flock was 4,000; Hawke's Bay had 72 larger than this, the largest being Douglas McLean's 66,000. But even in Hawke's Bay one third of the flocks were under 1,000. What are we to make, then, of Eldred-Grigg's contention that ‘small farmers were unable to grow wool’ and that any comfort they enjoyed ‘was not usually based on participation in the export economy’? He places an economic flock in the 1860s at 3,000 sheep—‘anything less required too much capital outlay to be worthwhile’.6 On these terms half Hawke's Bay County's sheepowners of 1885, and the great majority of Waimea County's, were quite unaware of their own best interests. The truth of the matter is that the economic size for runholder flocks tells us nothing about the value and place of small flocks as an element in the economy of yeoman districts. And there can be no doubt that these yeomen were shearing their flocks and thereby contributing directly to the export economy.
Table 12.2. Aspects of 1885 farm production related to country population, Hawke's Bay and Waimea Counties
Per 100 of County Population
County Grain crops Acres Peas/Beans Acres Orchards Acres Pigs No. Turnips/Rape Acres
Hawke's Bay 33.9 0.22 2.37 46 49.55
Waimea 139.3 2.89 10.63 70 6.75

Table 12.2 further develops the strong contrast between the farming of these two counties. Clearly Waimea was heavily involved in grain, vegetable and fruit production. A comparison with national figures shows that much of Waimea's production must have been for markets outside the province. In contrast, the most extensive cropping in Hawke's Bay County was for winter stock feed. Hawke's Bay appears to have been meeting its own needs in fruit, but not in grain and vegetables. Hops provide an even more striking contrast. Waimea had 70 per cent of the colony's acreage, Hawke's Bay County had under 5 per cent, though this was enough to meet the provincial consumption. The figures for pigs are of interest principally in indicating the extent of dairying. Here again Hawke's Bay was barely meeting its own needs whereas Waimea was producing a surplus for outside markets.

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Table 12.3. Size of inhabited dwellings, 1886 census, Hawkes's Bay and Waimea Counties
County No. of dwellings 1£2 rooms% 3£4 rooms% 5£6 rooms%
Hawke's Bay 1,97 18.46 40.60 37.59*
Waimea 1,422 7.74 20.11 71.87*

Table 12.3 gives an indication of the kind of homes the two county economies were supporting. Again we have a striking contrast. In Waimea County over 70 per cent were of five or more rooms whereas in Hawke's Bay County nearly 60 per cent were of four rooms or less. It is difficult to reconcile these figures with Eldred-Grigg's assertion that ‘small farmers were caught in a poverty cycle’ and that they were ‘burdened with debt, tottering on the edge of the cash economy’.7 Rather, if Waimea County is at all typical, the feldon yeomen were running profitable mixed economies, contributing something to the overseas export market and much to the colonial food market, while feeding themselves well and housing themselves almost sumptuously. Eldred-Grigg comments that ‘nobody knows much about … the independent farmers—the cockatoos'.8 We contend that the yeomen are too significant in our colonial story to be left in the mists of ignorance, and that we can indeed find out a good deal about them.

We reject Eldred-Grigg's account of the general position of the cockatoos of the 1870os and 1880s:

Economics of scale worked against them. If a small farmer raised wool, he could not manage to shear and sell it efficiently. If he grew crops, he was forced to push the land to the point of exhaustion. He could seldom afford fertiliser and he was unable to rotate. The results were low yields, depletion, then lower yields.9

We next sketch our own picture of where the feldon yeomen had arrived by 1885–86, then show that Waimea County's yeomen were indeed typical by examining two other feldon yeoman districts, and finally get down to flesh and blood with a contemporary description of a feldon yeoman career.