Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



Rolleston stayed on Mr Ross's sheep station for about two years, gaming experience. Early in 1861 he acquired for himself a sheep station near Lake Coleridge, which lay between the forks of the Rakaia, Mathias and Wilberforce Rivers, and this run he called "Mount Algidus". Acland states that Mount Algidus consisted of runs 195 and 278, but, if an old diary of Rolleston's is correct, there were four runs included in the block, namely, 195, 278, 355, and 356.1

At the time when Rolleston acquired this station, the business of sheep-farming had been carried on in Canterbury for about fourteen years. During that period the number of sheep in the Province had expanded from less than

1 The diary records the fact that run 195 had first been taken up in 1858 by James Phillips, and was sold and transferred by him to G. A. E. Ross in trust for Rolleston in July 1859, for £300. Run 278 was bought from J. J. Oakden for £250 in February 1860. Run 355 was taken up by William Rolleston in the name of G. A. E. Ross, and run 356, which was originally taken up as 255, completed the block. Finally, all these four runs were transferred to Rolleston on 25 March 1861.

page 1410,000 to nearly 800,000, and all the Province east of the main snowy range had been explored and taken up. Sheep-farming was regarded as a highly profitable business, and the goodwill of licensees' interests were selling at from £50 to £100 per 1000 acres, irrespective of any values in buildings or improvements. In contemporary reports it is stated that sheep-farmers were generally making handsome profits.

Sir Frederick Weld in his book on sheep-farming in New Zealand said:

I believe the profits of most sheep and cattle farmers over the last ten years, calculated at the end of the period, have been more than nearly 20 % than 10 % on their original outlay.

Various expedients were adopted by those who had insufficient capital. Sometimes they would buy sheep and arrange for a runholder to take care of the flock and give him half the wool and a third of the increase of the flock in equal moieties of males and females. Later on, a more common practice was for the runholder to pay the owner of the flock 2s. or 2s. 6d. per head in respect of the wool, and to guarantee 40 or 45 per cent of the increase.

At first Rolleston had insufficient sheep to stock his run. He began with a flock of 1500, but, of these, 900 belonged to Mr Ross, and, by agreement, were to remain on the station for two years. There still exists an early station journal in which Rolleston recorded with methodical care the daily life and work of the station. His first entry reads:

February 12th, 1861:

Appleyard and I started with two pack-horses from the head of the lake, and pitched our tent in the bush.

Appleyard left (April 26th) having completed the house and yards.

March 18th:

F. Mathias brought 200 head of cattle on the upper run. He had hitherto been at Glen Thorne packing my things from thence to the head of the lake, where they had been left by Oakden's boat.

page 15

April 11th:

I took delivery of the sheep at the lake and drove them next day on the run with Shore, and camped down at the boat harbour. Balider and Slater helped us across the river. We left the boat-house at sun-rise, and the sheep were all across by 1.50 p.m.

During the first few months there was a monotonous succession of snowstorms which lay from 4 inches deep and upwards. But each year his flock and wool clip expanded. It is interesting to know that shearing cost 25s. per 100, with grog.

In letters to his family in England, Rolleston relates practical details of station life—how he has broken in a young colt to be tolerably quiet "without breaking any limbs or getting one fall". This colt he names Pendragon. He exchanges his mare, Rowena, for a horse and pack saddle, and he asks for advice as to "what in England would be a liberal allowance per head of sugar, tea, and flour".

Sometimes there are tragedies to record. In one letter he tells of a new chum from England who, on a lonely excursion, had fallen over a cliff, broken his leg, and lain unable to move till death ended his pains. "He had no food and only one blanket. He was far away from any track or station. He kept a diary. The accident happened on April 18th (1862), and the last entry was April 22nd. A more awful death it is hard to conceive. The fracture was a compound one of the thigh."

In another letter, Rolleston tells how he had employed a runaway sailor, who absconded after a week, but "got paid £1 for a week's work he had not done".

The most vivid sketch of Rolleston's life at Lake Coleridge station, and later at Mount Algidus, was written by his old friend, Professor G. S. Sale.1 Sale had been a contemporary of Rolleston's at Cambridge, though they had not actually met there. He was a distinguished scholar, and, in later years, became Professor of Classics at Otago University.

1 Press, 16 February 1903.

page 16But before that, in true colonial style, he had followed the most various callings, being at one time a station manager, at another a journalist, and at yet another Administrator of the West Coast goldfields for the Provincial Government. He had also spent some time on the Otago goldfields in 1860.

The house (wrote Sale) in which Rolleston lived (on Ross's Lake Coleridge station), and which has since completely disappeared, was on a peninsula, and distant about 20 yards from the edge of the lake, and it consisted of a single low slab hut lined with cob and thatched with raupo, and divided into one small living room and two tiny bedrooms.

The table, benches, stools, and bedsteads were roughly shaped out of the local black birch by means of axe, adze, and plane. Sawn timber was an unknown luxury. The fare corresponded with the dwelling. Baked mutton, potatoes boiled in a bucket, station-made bread with dripping instead of butter, tea without milk, all served on tin dishes and tin plates, with pannikins for water or tea. Such was the spartan fare, and such was the homely lodging to which Mr Rolleston came from the comfortable, if not luxurious life of a Cambridge student, and he thoroughly enjoyed it; nor did he seek to alter it when he became his own master on his own station, the only point on which he showed any fastidiousness being in the matter of cleanliness.

After Rolleston acquired his own station in 1861 he invited Sale to stay with him, and the latter records many details of their life together. It is of historical interest to learn that Rolleston gave classical place names to his surroundings, and these still persist. The streams of Lake Coleridge run were named by him Simois and Scamander, and the largest hill Mount Ida. At Sale's suggestion, he named Mount Gargarus from Tennyson's lines "Behind the valley topmost Gargarus Stands up and takes the morning". Similarly, on his own run he called the wooded hill at the foot of which his hut was built Mount Algidus, recalling Horace's line "Nigrae feraci frondis in Algido" [On Mount Algidus rich in dark foliage]. Finally, an page 17island in the river bed was named Hydra, and three streams which run into the Rakaia were called Gorgon, Titan, and Chimera.