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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



In concluding this chapter it will be of interest to the reader if I insert some extracts from Rolleston's letters dealing with his views on land tenure. These throw an interesting light on the origin of his ideas. They were written to the Agent-General in London, Sir Dillon Bell. From their tenor it is clear that Bell was not in sympathy with Rolleston's views.

December 1st, 1882.

If you have read Hansard I will not trouble you with my Land Bill—my mind has undergone a complete change in respect of Canterbury Land Laws in particular and as to the duty of the State in respect of the distribution of land generally. This change has not come by inspiration or by reading modern theorists, but by practical experience.

I rode a week ago from Albury through the Mackenzie Country, through the valley of the Hakataramea and then back over the range to the back of Rutherford's country, and then through Wigley's and Studholme's country, and as far as human eye could see, I saw the country in the hands of about a dozen people exclusive of two companies, and I prayed "Lord, lay not this sin to my charge". I have a weak consolation in thinking that circumstances were too much for me when in 1873 I protested against the greedy iniquity which was going on in Canterbury—however you need not think that I shall do anything vindictive or strive to build myself up on the ruins of the past. page 149The fact that I fought against Stout and his party when they endeavoured to postpone the operation of the Land Act 1877 last year notwithstanding strong pressure is, I think, sufficient evidence of this. I don't know what you meant by a sentence in a letter to McKerrow that I have given up the issue, or some such phrase, and though it grieved me I don't care to enquire.

July 13th, 1883.

I commend the new Land Bill to your merciful consideration. It is only a step or two further in the direction of preventing the accumulation of large landed estates or rather of so disposing of the natural estate that accumulation is not fostered in the first disposal of it by the State. The New South Wales report is very strong on the point of the impossibility of preventing the shutting up of the country if you alienate the public estate in absolute freehold. However, I don't suppose I shall convert you.

September 8th, 1883.

I send you the dead body of the new Land Bill over which you will drop a silent tear. It died on going into Committee in the Lords. Its loss will be much felt, but it rests in hope of a glorious resurrection to life.

To Wynne Williams (Christchurch):

September 27th, 1883.

I wish you would study my land proposals critically and not only cynically and give a hand in staving off the evils which are holding the old country on the brink of revolution. You are altogether wrong about Whitaker. I have only to say "If you don't help me, don't help the bear". I am not going to be bullied entirely by Montgomery, Reeves and co.

Again and again in various letters he points out that his sympathies are not with the land monopolist and speculators. Writing to a correspondent on 12 March 1884, he says:

If in immigration matters the opinion of today is changed by changing circumstances tomorrow, why not in land matters? What is strangest to me is that which Fawcett and all your best page 150men who are opposed to Henry George's theories of confiscation admit, that in new countries the State (the great borrowing body) should retain its joint interest in the land it has not parted with, while every review teems with admissions from the leaders of public thought at home of the necessity for change in the land laws if we are to avoid class conflict.

With the Irish Land Law and the Agricultural Holdings Act before your eyes, measures which would have been deemed confiscation a few years ago, you sit still and think that "as it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be". You eat and drink as in the days of Noah. My desire is to see a firmer basis for property in land on a fair apportionment of the threefold interest of the State, the so-called proprietor, and the tenant. The conflict may be avoided in these new countries at any rate to a great extent by the proper treatment of the lands still unalienated.

How strongly Sir Dillon Bell dissented from Rolleston's views can be seen from the following extract. No doubt this outburst would have met with support from many large landowners.

Dillon Bell to Rolleston, 3 January 1884:

You said in your November letter how selfish the large landholders were about not having married people and so forth. What you forget is that you are the chief crusader against the large holders and are doing your very best to drive them and their capital out of the country. That you will succeed to your heart's content isn't likely; but that you will succeed to a very great extent is certain.

I do not include myself in the class. Nevertheless I hold a good many sheep. Now I don't hesitate to tell you that I am only waiting for an opportunity to clear out and pending that happy event I am ordering the rigidest economies. Is that my own wish? No. At a meeting in my own valley before I left for England it was shown that I had spent £100,000 in wages. That in your view is a big crime. Let me ask you this. What harm have I done the country I helped to found that you should take the squatting property I got together for my children and confiscate it? I am not speaking of land you may take for agricultural or for pastoral settlement or for any of your experiments in the art of page 151make believe over your friend "the poor man". I speak of an iniquity such as the Mackenzie Clause, which tells me that because I happened to have established myself with 20,000 sheep in Ida Valley when it was a howling wilderness I am to be ruined by being precluded from reacquiring it now or any other country wherewith to "feed my flocks upon my Grampian hills, a frugal swain". Yes, a frugal swain you have made the likes of me who was for years and years a generous employer (the adjective is really right) of labour and who has learnt by bitter lessons that to be so in your eyes is a crime.