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

Feldon yeoman districts

page 163

Feldon yeoman districts

Our contention is that every New Zealand urban centre of the 1880s was closely associated with a thriving yeoman district, which supplied it with fresh food—such as milk and butter, vegetables and fruit, eggs and poultry. This district also contributed to the urban horse transport needs, breeding at least some of the town's horses, and supplying much of the required hay and chaff. In addition these yeomen kept sheep, for both their wool and their mutton, and raised grain crops, as part of a well diversified farming economy. These farmers had achieved a highly successful adaptation to New Zealand conditions of the English tradition of high farming, in which improved pasture plants and new, more flexible, crop rotations enabled heavier stocking of the land, producing more manure to enrich the soil so that it could maintain new high levels of crop yields. Figure 12.1 gives some indication of the success the Waimea County yeomen were having in raising their output by these means.

The inclusion of pasture in the Waimea County rotations is reflected in the statistics—in some years large areas of land previously ploughed and sown down in pasture were reploughed to be put back into crops. Thus in 1883 the county had 19,197 acres ‘in sown grasses after having been ploughed’,

Suburban feldon yeoman country, Toitoi Valley, Nelson. ‘In this secluded and picturesque spot the inhabitants realise to some extent the poet's dream of arcadia.’ —Illustrated Australian News

page 164 in 1884 it had only 16,801 acres. The figure for 1887 was 23,694, but that for 1888 was only 15,410. Like their English mentors, these feldon yeomen may also have begun buying in manures to lift their production to even higher levels.10 Over these decades few communities in the world were as well fed, housed and horsed as New Zealand. The feldon yeomen prospered as a result of their major contribution to this achievement. While they did not emulate the ostentatious mansions of the runholders, their communities were on average far better housed than those of the squatter districts. Because their communities were closely associated with urban districts these yeomen were well in touch with the world and enjoyed a good range of social and cultural amenities. They were also in close touch with neighbouring runholder districts where both their produce and their skills were much in demand.

To complement our Waimea County example we will look at the feldon yeoman districts associated with Christchurch and Napier. Christchurch's district consisted of the eastern fringe of the plains, stretching north from the city to Rangiora, and south, first against the western edge of the Port Hills and then bordering Lake Ellesmere. This area does not appear as a unit in the official statistics. However, when a sample of the landholders with page 165 addresses in this area are abstracted from The Return of Freeholders 1882, they show a pattern strikingly similar to the Waimea one. There is a similar scatter of size of holding. In each case about half are listed simply as ‘farmer’ and about a fifth are designated as following another trade or calling, such as wheelwright, cattle-dealer, butcher, storekeeper, miller. When the sheep flocks of the sample are added in, the similarity continues. In each case about one third are running sheep, and the sizes of the flocks indicate that in most cases they must have been only one element of the farm's economy. The Canterbury volume of the Cyclopedia of New Zealand further confirms the similarity between this district and Waimea County.11 While the information was collected some 17 years later than our 1885 Waimea date, its biographies indicate that the rural economies and lifestyles of the two districts were very similar in the mid 1880s. A growing body of local and family history provides further confirmation of the similarities.12

Napier's feldon yeoman district consisted of the coastal strip stretching south from Petane/Bay View to Clive and then inland between the Ngaruroro and Tukituki Ravers to Pakapaki, just south of Hastings. Unlike the Waimea County and Christchurch yeoman districts, Napier's owed nothing to Wakefield settlement theories and the consequent 50-acre suburban block surveys, but had developed in direct response to local needs. The smallholdings surrounding Napier were liberally interspersed with large sheep runs, which is not surprising as the Napier urban market was only a small one. However, of Hawke's Bay County's 90 small sheep flocks of 1885 (those of under 3,000) 68 were in this small district. As with the Christchurch feldon yeomen, many of these flocks were clearly only a subsidiary aspect of the farming of the holding. The Return of Freeholders, sheepowners' statistics, and local and family histories, again support each other to indicate a rural community on the Waimea County plan. Had it been possible to subtract this district from the Hawke's Bay County for Figure 12.2, the contrast with Waimea County would have been striking indeed.

We now turn to our flesh and blood example. About 1877 Samuel Clayden, an ironmonger in the small Berkshire rural town of Faringdon, emigrated to Nelson with his wife and family of seven sons and three daughters. Doubtless concern for the futures of his large family was a major element in his decision. Samuel's brother Arthur Clayden, journalist and emigration agent, gives us two good descriptions of Samuel's progress as a yeoman farmer in the Eighty-eight Valley, near Wakefield, Nelson. Arthur first saw the farm in 1879, and revisited it in 1890, so his accounts neatly straddle our 1885 centre of interest. Writing for an English audience in his England of the Pacific, Arthur did not indicate that the subject was his own brother.

page 166

About two years ago a Berkshire tradesman of my acquaintance, feeling himself somewhat overborne with business and domestic cares, determined to dispose of his concern and go with his large family to New Zealand…. I found him just entered upon a thousand acre farm in the Nelson district, some twenty miles beyond the city, bushwards. The farm consisted of two-thirds of fern-clothed hill land, and one third of valley, thickly studded over with wild vegetation—manuka, flax, sweet-briar, &c. About a hundred acres only were in actual cultivation. Some two hundred and fifty sheep were feeding on the hills, and a score of young cattle grazed in the plains. The greater part of my friend's family remained at Nelson. One youth had found work in an engineering establishment…. Another was in a house of business at a good salary…. A third had developed an old love of carpentering….

Seated at my friend's hospitable table, I asked him how the change had on the whole turned out, was he satisfied with the general outlook? His answer was prompt, explicit, and decisively affirmative. He was supremely happy in his lot….

And as I accompanied him into his orchard and joined him in partaking of nature's bounteous feast in the shape of cherries, gooseberries, &c., and then mounting one of his horses, accompanied him over his extensive domain—now riding over a high hill, then passing through a kind of gorge where ferns of every kind flung their graceful leaves all around us … I began to understand his enthusiastic delight. Verily he had indeed made a good exchange!13

Arthur's second description of Samuel's farm was in a lecture given in London in August 1891.

A dozen years ago I traversed a wild region some five-and-twenty miles south of the city of Nelson, New Zealand. The wild gorse, the sweet briar, the dog bush, and the manuka scrub, had entire possession of the hills and vales. Never was more God-forsaken-looking district. A year ago I visited that spot again, and what a transformation scene appeared! It was as if the magic wand of a Drury Lane pantomime goddess had been waved over it. Splendid crops of wheat, barley and oats covered the flat land, and over the hills hundreds of sheep were disporting themselves. Instead of a wilderness I beheld a veritable garden of the Lord. A charming homestead occupied the central spot of a four or five hundred acre farm; and what was the secret of this strange metamorphosis? Yonder it stood before me in the shape of a sturdy settler and his half-dozen stalwart sons gathered under the broad verandah of the dwelling-house. On the central arch of the verandah was a Latin inscriprion, which being interpreted read thus:—‘BY MY OWN STRONG ARM, AND THE BLESSING OF PROVIDENCE.’14