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In a Strange Garden: The Life and Times of Truby King

Chapter Five: Colonising the Catlins

Chapter Five: Colonising the Catlins

Of all Truby Kings strange exploits, the Catlins venture might well be the strangest.

In the early days of Seacliff the Kings took a holiday in the Catlins area of South Otago. Today, the Catlins remains one of the least-known treasures of New Zealand, a wilderness nature reserve of magnificent native bush, wild coastlines, abundant birdlife and some imaginative tourist tracks and facilities. Even in the twenty-first century, many of the roads remain unsealed. In its uninhabited state one hundred years ago it must have been very wild, inhospitable and extremely challenging.

In 1893, when the Kings visited, the Catlins were feeling the benefits of the new railway that was pushing south from Balclutha. New Zealand needed timber and the Catlins was a rich source of rimu and other native timber, ready for exploitation. The railway made page 68 it possible. The 295-metre rail tunnel at McDonalds had just been completed with the labour of gangs of unemployed from Dunedin, working in conditions that were little better than those of the goldrush. Despite the terrain, the Catlins were being tamed. The climate was described as 'winter for nine months, rain for the other three'.1 Sandflies and mosquitoes terrorised intruders in the summer months; clinging mud was the winter attraction.

Against this unlikely backdrop, Truby and Bella King apparently fell in love with the Catlins. In typical pioneering fashion, and despite their poor health, they ventured up the Catlins River for a three-day camping trip in a flat-bottomed boat. The area had only recently been settled, with pioneers still battling to clear bush to establish their farms. Notwithstanding the rain and some dismal camping experiences, Bella wrote, 'The Doctor is looking and feeling very well indeed, and says he has never enjoyed a holiday so much.'2

With native bush on the low hills and broad valleys, and more than occasional rain, the Catlins would have daunted all but the most
Travel in the Catlins wasn't easy, c. 1912.

Travel in the Catlins wasn't easy, c. 1912.

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Truby King's timber mill at Tahakopa.

Truby King's timber mill at Tahakopa.

optimistic. The railway had only just reached Owaka but in 1911 Truby King purchased the nine-hectare Lauriston farm at Tahakopa, thirty kilometres from anywhere, along barely formed rutted tracks that challenged horse-drawn transport. Rivers had to be forded and comfort would have been minimal. The logic of his purchase is hard to explain. King, at fifty-two, was enjoying the first success of Plunket, but he had a lot more to do. Before him was the task of touring the nation and selling the Plunket message, after which he would embark on substantial overseas travel. He already had the Seacliff farm to indulge his agricultural fantasies, together with a horde of 'volunteer' workers — why would he want a farm in such an inaccessible and inhospitable place? He could easily have bought land near Seacliff if he had wanted. The only explanation was that this land was cheap, but then Truby was hardly a cheapskate, certainly not a pragmatic investor. Was this a challenge that he really needed? The trip from the Catlins to Dunedin was daunting. Even when the railway reached Tahakopa, the trip from Seacliff was a considerable undertaking for a healthy man, let alone a hyperactive director of New Zealand's biggest asylum.

With his usual zeal, King undertook challenges that few would have considered. When the railway eventually reached Tahakopa in page 70 1915, he decided that he would extend it across the river to Lauriston. Not content with a makeshift bridge, he used imported Australian hardwood and constructed a magnificent edifice — a bridge that remains today, a curious anachronism now stripped of its railway line. Reputedly, the Lauriston extension was one of the few private railway lines in the country constructed to Railways' satisfaction and served to link King's Lauriston timber mill to the outside world. The mill was extensive and modern, the first to use steam-powered locomotives and an overhead [skyline], logging haulage system. Unusually, the railway lines were steel, not the wooden ones of less ambitious mills.

King's timber-milling venture had his older brother Newton and New Plymouth doctor Syd Allen as partners. Syd Allen had briefly worked for Truby King at Seacliff and would eventually marry King's niece. While Allen played a passive role, Newton took an active and practical interest, perhaps keeping brother Truby's excesses somewhat curbed. The mill failed to pay expected dividends. Nevertheless, it produced over a million super feet of timber each year, which made it one of the larger mills operating in the area. Less than competent management took its toll, competition from imported timber didn't help and the depression provided the final death knell. The mill ceased operation in 1929, two years after Newton King and Bella King had died.

Initially, milled timber was used to construct houses as King set about stamping his manic personality on Tahakopa. More land was acquired until King owned six farms: Lauriston, Valley Farm, Jersey Vale, Scotts, Homestead and Township farms, totalling over 600 hectares. This land is amongst the most fertile in the country and it is a sad commentary to see such prime farmland now used for exotic trees for chip-milling.

Twenty-four houses were built to provide rent-free accommodation for the mill workers, to a considerably higher standard than elsewhere. For married workers they comprised four or five rooms, with ranges and baths; single workers had huts.

Oblivious to the expense, King drained the river flat land and page 71 brought it into cultivation. Farming was initially cropping, then changed to mixed farming and finally dairy farming for the butter and cheese factory. The most technically advanced dairy farm was constructed, with the first herring-bone milking shed, electric lighting, hot water, machine-milking, concrete underfoot and innovative animal handling.

Power was required for the dairy venture, so King constructed a water-wheel using an adjacent stream as prime motive power for the electric generator. Then he built a steam auxiliary generator, just in case the hydro power failed. It is perhaps fortunate that nuclear power had not yet been invented.

The milking herd exceeded 100 cows. In best King tradition, they were the finest milking stock: Jersey and Friesian. In accordance with the best hygiene, cows walked through a disinfecting water-bath before entering the milking shed. Never were there such coddled cows.

Over 1.5 tons of milk went daily to the cheese factory, of which King was the largest shareholder. From the cheese factory came whey as a by-product, so he built a piggery. Whey was piped to the piggery, which produced over thirty pigs a month that fetched top prices at market.

Even the swedes lined up for Truby King.

Even the swedes lined up for Truby King.

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King is remembered at Tahakopa for 'the best of the best'. He reputedly had the ability to get the best out of his employees and his 'people problems' were minimised. They must have been a compliant lot, for he saw no problem in invading their houses to ensure that his high standards were not being breached, just as he did at Seacliff. Were they unconsciously being socially uplifted by King? Competitions were organised for 'the best-kept house and garden'.3 Points were awarded by the triumvirate (King, farm manager Murphy and another employee, O'Byrne) who would randomly visit, scoring such attributes as cleanliness, housekeeping, hygiene, home improvements and garden. Prizes (typically ten pounds) were awarded, with larger families being awarded bigger prizes.

On his regular trips to Tahakopa, Truby King visited everyone from farm workers to mill workers to bushmen, dispensing advice, medical treatment and undoubtedly a heavy dose of patronage. As the community grew, the schoolhouse became too small. He immediately donated land and supervised the design and construction of the new school himself, donating timber from the Lauriston mill. He rejected the Education Board's plans, on the grounds of not enough fresh air and light. He undoubtedly knew best.

King would stay overnight at the mill manager's house. An outside door allowed access to the porch, where he would hatch more plans for a better world. Locals remember the 'thump, thump, thump' of King pacing at night as he grappled with another scheme.4

Not even King's Seacliff patients were free from servitude at the Catlins. How he managed to construe this as occupational therapy we'll never know, but locals remember with amusement the stories of mental patients shovelling lime onto his paddocks. The unofficial record was 100 tons of lime spread fifteen centimetres deep on a small paddock.5

At its peak Tahakopa thrived as a mill town at the end of the Catlins railway line. Population peaked at over 400 people but the end was not far away. King realised that his extravagant investments were not going to pay off and saw the timber running out. The depression was not far off, and he was moving to Wellington. He page 73 sold his farms in 1921. For the grand sale, a special train was commissioned to bring buyers from Dunedin to Tahakopa, with over 600 people attending. The stock sold well above expectation: 124 head of cattle averaged 21 pounds 18 shillings, high prices for the time; 500 lambs averaged 23 shillings, fat sheep 34 shillings. The farms were sold, but collection of the money proved less simple. King's terms of payment were kind, if unwise. Interest payments fell into arrears and yet another King venture failed to deliver financially. By 1929 five of his farms had come back into his ownership with the default of the tenants. King wrote to Andrew Sutherland, his trusted farm manager, 'There is with me something more than the mere matter of money. I want to be able to feel for the rest of my life (which may not be a very long time) that I have left my old property in a creditable state . . .'6

Mary King records, 'Perhaps the man who made the most out of the farm venture was a patient from the Mental Hospital at Seacliff who was paid 14 shillings a day as a farm labourer, and had £1,400 in the bank when the farm was sold.'7

Today, Truby King's ghost has all but departed the Catlins. The mill closed in 1929 and the mill houses were moved to other places. The mill manager's house remains as a comfortable farmhouse on Lauriston farm, which like most Catlins farms struggles to make sense of the 'new' realities of farming in the twenty-first century. Many Catlins farms are now foreign-owned, growing exotic gums. Only the railway bridge stands proud but bemused, bereft of railway line and shrouded by willows. A solitary rhododendron struggles valiantly in the overgrown front garden of a deserted worker's cottage while the Tahakopa school faces dwindling rolls and threats of closure.

The company was incorporated in September 1911 and dissolved in 1925.

And if it wasn't enough to be a doctor, farmer and timber miller, Truby King wanted to be a goldminer. Mary King wrote of 'an unsuccessful gold-dredging venture, beginning in 1903 and ending with the burning of the dredge about 1908 (thought to be the revengeful act of a dismissed employee), the Argyle Gold Dredging page 74
Memorandum of Association Railhead Dairy Factory Company8
name occupation shares
Frederic Truby King* physician, Seacliff 175
Charles Crowe cheesemaker, Tahakopa 25
William Wilson* farmer, Papatowai 40
Herbert Philp farm hand, Tahakopa 20
Hugh Galbreath farmer, Tahakopa 20
David Brown Fea* farmer, Tahakopa 25
Arthur Stoddart* farmer, Tahakopa 25
David Neill* farmer, Tahakopa 25
Colin Martin* farmer, Papatowai 25
Archibald Skey* farmer, Wharuarimu 10
John Dunlop farmer, Wharuarimu 20
Archibald Galbreath farmer, Tahakopa 25
John Harris farmer, Tahakopa 25
David Bond farmer, Tahakopa 25
* director
Company, operating near the head of the Waikaka Valley was wound up'.9 Her disapproval of the venture is palpable, probably in proportion to Truby's gung-ho enthusiasm.

Why did he do it? We'll never know, although there is a handwritten reference in Mary's files to 'mad gold speculators Sir L and Lady B, who took dad and mum for a fortnight's tour of the goldfields in a wagonette'.10 Maybe Truby just couldn't avoid the lure of a venture stimulated by a titled acquaintance? He wouldn't have been the first to be seduced by a speculative gold proposition, especially if suggested by 'someone smart'. He was involved in at least three gold-dredging ventures on or near the Waikaka River, not far from the Catlins. These were: Sheddon's Freehold 1901-1904, on the Sheddon property, in partnership with the landowners (King commissioned the dredge and largely financed the venture); Rex 1901, again in partnership with the Sheddon family (this venture ended acrimoniously, in the courts); and Argyle 1902-1907. The Argyle Gold Dredging Company was incorporated in December 1902, page 75 with nominal capital of £6000. Partners were Truby and Bella King, Dr Alexander and Miss Beswick (matron of Seacliff Mental Hospital). Monthly meetings took place at Seacliff, with Truby in the chair.

The Argyle dredge was purchased by Truby for £3900 and relocated from near Beaumont on the Clutha River. In cavalier King fashion, no expense was spared. He set up the headquarters office on site, with electric light and floor coverings to counter the winter cold. The dredge was regarded as one of the best constructed and equipped in the district. In the seven years of its existence, the Argyle dredge paid dividends of over £7000, which makes it one of the more successful ventures of the era; of the twenty-seven companies registered in 1902, fewer than half paid any form of dividend. Allister Evans quotes from the Chairman's August 1906 monthly report: 'In consideration of the large returns for the past few weeks, the dredge master [Caithness] and secretary [Mutch] receive a bonus of £1. The 10 dredge hands each receive a bonus of 10/-.'11 The Argyle dredge by then had recovered 3385 oz of gold, for a return of £13,517. The weekly cost of running the dredge was £50. The dredge eventually met an untimely end in flames.

Truby carried on a most amiable correspondence with his dredge master David Caithness, giving him a glowing reference at the end of the dredging project. Caithness may also have been involved with Truby on the Maori Gully dredge, which is mentioned in the archives, along with some evidence of sluicing, yet another money-consuming and potentially gold-recovering method. Despite the fiery demise of the Argyle dredge, King and Caithness parted on good terms.

Truby the environmentalist was, however, sensitive to the destruction of farmland by dredging. Dredges were grotesque machines that munched their way through farmland, spewing the sorted 'tailings' (gravel and soil) out the back. Little attempt was made to restore the dredging scars, and much of Central Otago still bears the lumpy, undulating waves of infertile and desolate, stony, dredge tailings adjacent to good, undredged farmland. King instigated a planting project to establish larch trees in the tailings, in a move that was well before its time.

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1 A. R. Tyrrell, Catlins Pioneering (Dunedin: Otago Heritage Books, 1989).

2 King, Truby King - The Man, p. 227.

3 Ibid., p. 229.

4  Mrs Stott, Lauriston farm resident, personal communication, 2000.

5 Ibid.

6 Letter to Andrew Sutherland, Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

7 King, Truh King — The Man, p, 231.

8 Memorandum of Association, Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

9 King, Truby King - The Man, p. 225.

10 The Argyle Gold Dredging Company, Plunket archives, Hocken Library.

11 Allister Evans, 'Waikaka Saga', Waikaka Historical Committee, Dunedin, 1962.