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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter II — Rolleston Becomes A Sheep-Farmer

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Chapter II
Rolleston Becomes A Sheep-Farmer

"It is an interesting speculation whether the necessities of the pioneering age produced in individuals the qualities required to meet them, or whether in fact former generations ordered their lives with a resolution now less common"—Anonymous book review.


In view of the prospects that lay before Rolleston of a life of comfort and security in the English countryside among influential connections, the reader may be curious to know why he should have foregone these prospects for the hazards and hardships of New Zealand pioneering life. Fortunately, we have on record a clear statement of the motives that influenced him.

Shortly before leaving England in 1858, he wrote to an old College friend, Duncan Mathias, who was a master at Uppingham School, confiding to him his hopes and plans. Duncan Mathias had a number of relatives who had already settled in Canterbury. He must have made a sympathetic response to Rolleston's confidences, for there is in existence an undated reply written by Rolleston which is worth quoting:

Your letter pleases me more than I can tell you, both as regards yourself and myself. It is most gratifying to find a man like yourself, rich in saving common sense, of greater mental endowments than myself, and far greater appreciation of and capability of enjoying all that is comprehended in the conventional terms—"Society and Civilisation"—approving my plan. You have no notion of the cant and rant and nonsense with which I have been deluged by people who at least might have known me to be tenacem propositi virum, and save themselves the trouble…. I know directly and indirectly at least a dozen edu-page break
William Rolleston with his father outside Maltby Hall,1852

William Rolleston with his father outside Maltby Hall,1852

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men in the Colony. I shall meet better heads, and, what I value more, better hearts than are to be met with in any county district of the Mother Country. Home and the University are the only society I care for. In England I am precluded from both. That is, unless I choose to do nothing, which I don't.

He goes on to say that he has a justifiable longing to make a home for himself,

and, if hard work and steadiness will do it, I will be a married man before I am thirty-five.1 I am a great believer in the union of youth, marriage, and happiness. Mind you, this is written in cold blood. I am not in love, nor will I be till I see I can marry at once. What crimes society, respectability, position, and, not least of all, the intellectual mania of the present day have to answer for to him who looks on the heart.

But at a much later date Rolleston states in retrospect even more clearly the reasons that prompted him to come to New Zealand. In a letter dated 27 April 1898, written to a journalist who had criticised one of his speeches, he says:

I notice that the article falls in with Gisborne's conception of my early views.2 The truth is really somewhat different. I was brought up in the Old World among Conservatives and Ecclesiastics. I revolted from both at an early date, and was ill at ease among my surroundings. This had much to do with my desire for the freer life of a colony. Then, in the year 1873, I set myself as Superintendent of Canterbury to prevent aggregation of large properties by what I thought unfair wresting of the land regulations. (The records of this are Provincial, but there is a letter on the subject in the Journals of the Legislative Council, 1876.) In 1875-76, I was the first in a message to the Provincial Council to preach free, secular, and compulsory education. Where my conservatism comes in I have never made out. The Vogel era, with its worship of the Golden Calf, confused the issues of Conservatism and Liberalism. Since that, the socialistic phase has

1 As he was then twenty-seven, and married seven years later in 1865, he achieved marriage at thirty-four.

2 See Gisborne's New Zealand Rulers and Statesmen.

page 10again confused issues. A new era, in which I shall be a looker-on, is coming and with, I trust, a broader, brighter light of day.

For some reason this letter was never sent to his journalistic critic, but it shows very clearly what actuated Rolleston in emigrating.

This craving to escape from Old World conventions was not peculiar to Rolleston. It was demonstrated in an amusing way by the conduct of G. S. Sale and some other young Englishmen who arrived at Lyttelton some time before Rolleston:

They were all so delighted with the prospect of the untrammelled life before them that they felt it necessary to make some gesture of contempt for the conventions they had left behind, so the first evening ashore they built a huge bonfire, piled on it their top hats and tail coats, and danced in a ring round the blazing fire.1

1 Extract from a letter from Mrs M. E. Orr, now living at Beaconsfield, Bucks, to the author, dated 29 December 1937. Mrs Orr is a daughter of the late Professor Sale.


On 15 July 1858, Rolleston sailed for New Zealand, and reached Lyttelton on 15 November.2 The Canterbury settlement had then been in existence for eight years. It was the last of the settlements in New Zealand founded on the "Wakefield System".

That system has so often been described that it will suffice here to say that its main features were, first, that Crown Lands should be sold at a price sufficiently high to prevent speculation and to provide a fund out of which further immigrants could be brought to the Colony; secondly, that self-government, both Colonial and Muni-

2 His ship called en route at Otago Harbour, and, speaking at the Otago Jubilee in 1898, Rolleston said: "Forty years ago, I landed in Otago from the Old Country, and slept—or rather did not sleep—my first night in New Zealand on the then unformed track between Dunedin and Port Chalmers." He did not explain why he slept out on the track—perhaps he had got "bushed", which would easily happen in those days.

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, should be part of the system; and thirdly, that, where possible, the Church should form an integral part of the scheme, because of the value of its spiritual influence and authority.

The Canterbury settlement was Anglican, and obtained Provincial status in 1853. It did not, however, exclude non-Anglicans. It was more successful than any other province in drawing to its settlement a large number of young men of the Rolleston type. A writer in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1867 said:

The effort to transplant to Canterbury everything that was English led to its attracting a great number of young men of excellent family and education and of some means; and this, combined with the pastoral nature of the country, has brought about the strongly marked social distinctions more observable in Canterbury than anywhere else in New Zealand. Up to the present, there have been two widely distinguished classes—the gentry and the peasant—the sheep farmers and the labourers. It will require all the influence of the gold-fields to introduce that gentle graduation of ranks which render anything like an aristocracy unattainable.1

When he landed at Lyttelton, Rolleston was met and welcomed at the foot of the bridle track that led over the hills by C. C. Bowen, who had been Private Secretary to J. R. Godley. Bowen and Rolleston became fast friends, and worked together for forty years in Parliament, and on many public bodies. They both had a great love of the Classics, and in Rolleston's papers are many letters from Bowen, in Greek or Latin, discussing problems of philology or interpretation.

Rolleston stayed a short time in Christchurch, presenting his letters of introduction and getting advice from various people. He was fortunate enough to make friends with Mr George Arthur Emilius Ross, a well-known runholder in Canterbury, whose name frequently appears in

1 Quoted in the Illustrated New Zealander, 19 July 1867.

page 12Mr Acland's valuable history of the early Canterbury runs.1 He proved a staunch friend and adviser, and his name often crops up in Rolleston's letters and business dealings. It was while he owned the Lake Coleridge station that Rollestori became one of his shepherds.

Certainly Rolleston lost no time in getting to work, for, soon after his arrival, he wrote to his family in England:

I saw Mr Ross on Thursday last. He has very kindly kept a place for me at his station, and accordingly I am going up with him this week. I do not yet know exactly the terms of our arrangements, but he will let me have sheep on his run, and I shall be able to turn shepherd at once. I have thus fallen in with exactly what I wished, and indeed more than I had any right to expect. Ross thought at first that it might be well for me to think of Government employment, and, with that in view, we went to Lyttelton to make enquiries. We have decided against it. The office was one in the Customs. The work was pen work. Lyttelton a horrid place for a man to live in, as there is a range 1200 feet high between that and any society. Moreover, £200 in town does not go as far as the £50 I shall get up country. Still more, I will not give up my shepherding notions for a life of uncongenial drudgery. I took Mr Cookson's advice on the subject, and he said I should be utterly wretched, and most probably lose my health. Everybody says that sheep farming is the thing, and that I am safe to succeed. I have been staying two or three nights with Mr Ross at Mr Wilson's, one of whose daughters he is going to marry. They are a very nice family, most kind and hospitable. Indeed, I have found everybody so that I have met. I am here under very good auspices, otherwise I fancy a man may be here a long time without knowing anybody

1 Ross had been a cadet on Henry Tancred's run, Malvern Hills, when that station was first started in 1852. In 1854, he bought Waireka station, and took into partnership Charles Harper, a son of the Bishop. In 1860, these partners bought Lake Coleridge station, and later took a lease of Four Peaks. They were ruined in the snowstorm of 1867. Ross was also the first clerk of the Canterbury Provincial Council, and later a member. He died in Christchurch in 1876 at the age of forty-seven. See Acland, The Early Canterbury Runs.

page 13that is worth knowing. The Bishop has been very civil. I am going to a large party there tomorrow. A man may do what he likes up country, but, in town, etiquette is very strong. Hence, I look upon parties when in town as a necessary evil by way of making myself known. Mr Cookson insists on my coming down to the Anniversary Ball next month, in the necessity of which Mr Ross concurs, so I shall do as I am told. I have not yet got my things round from Lyttelton. The hill is a great barrier, impassible by carts, so everything has to come a long way round by water. Land is selling at an extravagant rate anywhere near town or the main roads. Unskilled labour 8s. a day. Beef 6d. a pound. Flour £18 the ton. House rents enormous. I am entirely satisfied that I have done the right thing in taking the step I have; but, of course, cannot yet speak as to the prospect of emigrants generally (except working men), especially as I have so soon fallen on my legs myself and have not had to make many general enquiries….


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.

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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.


When Samuel Butler (the author of Erewhon) was looking for a sheep run in Canterbury, he put up for the night with Rolleston. He gives an amusing description of his host as an exceedingly humane and judicious bullock driver. Every now and then (he says) he leaves his up-country avocation, and becomes a great gun at the College at Christchurch, examining the boys; he then returns to his shepherding, cooking, bullock-driving, as the case may be…. Under his bed I found Tennyson's "Idylls of the King". So you will see that even in these out-of-the-world places people do care a little for something besides sheep.

When Butler asked in the morning where he was to wash, Rolleston "with a shrug of the shoulders, and pointing outside, said: 'There is the lake'".1

There is a well-known and almost threadbare story to the effect that Rolleston swore at his bullocks in Greek. Whether the story is true or not, it is clear that his love of the Classics held to him throughout his life. I have heard it related that, long after his political career had passed its zenith, he could be met jolting along the country roads in an old spring-cart, reading his Horace as he went.

In later letters he tells of all the ordinary work of the station—breaking-in young colts, building a wool-shed, driving his bullock team, buying and selling cattle, mustering, and shearing sheep, and apparently all the time becoming increasingly prosperous. In the same year, 1862, the Government appointed him Inspector of the College in Christchurch. "So I get paid for examining, which is a good thing."

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Rolleston sold his run in 1865 to Mr Neave at a good profit. During the last two or three years he had become absorbed in public affairs, and, as will be seen in the next chapter, he became in 1863 a member of the Provincial Council. Hence, during this period, his visits to Mount Algidus became intermittent. But his practical and successful experience on the land was to serve him in good stead in his long public career as an administrator and legislator.

1 Samuel Butler (1835-1902)—A memoir by Henry Festing Jones, vol. i, pp. 78-9; vol. ii, pp. 334-5.


It is also noteworthy that, in all Rolleston's letters and journals, we find no complaint of the hardships and difficulties of pioneering life. Probably the explanation lies in the fact that the life of a sheep-farmer in those years was one of well-grounded hope and financial progress. The same story repeats itself in the experience of Samuel Butler, who, after a few years as a sheep-farmer in Canterbury, was able to sell out and return to England with a substantial accumulation of capital. In this respect, both Rolleston and Butler were fortunate, for a few years later the value of breeding sheep had fallen from 25s. to 2s. 6d., and many runholders were ruined.

But it was not merely the prospects of material success that shed a rosy hue over the world, and filled those early days with the joy of living. Perhaps, as life has grown more complex and sophisticated, we have lost the secret of their happiness. Professor Sale, who has already been quoted, is emphatic that the explanation does not lie in the fact that the pioneers were young men intoxicated by youthful hopes and dreams.

There was a simplicity (he says), a freshness and a raciness about those early times, notwithstanding some discomfort, that made life far more enjoyable then than it is now, or ever will be again.

Of course it is easy to say that we were all forty years younger then, and that those who at the present time are forty years page 19younger than ourselves also find the same delight in their life that we experienced when we were young. But we were not all young in New Zealand forty years ago, and those who were old or middle-aged seemed at any rate to enjoy, and probably did enjoy life far more than any of us old or young enjoy it now.

The difference is mainly this, that in those days our life was simple and unpretentious. Now it is for the most part absurdly pretentious. In those days we were away in a remote and beautiful country unknown to, and unnoticed by the great world…. Our Arcadian simplicity has vanished, and along with it all the poetry is gone out of our lives. Nothing but prose remains, and for good downright dull flat prose New Zealand town life is probably not to be surpassed in the world.1

No doubt the worthy Professor exaggerates to some extent; but no student of early pioneering life can remain unconscious of the contrast between the buoyant optimism of those early days and the air of disillusionment that is now so widespread even among the younger set.

However, enough has been said to show that Rolleston succeeded in his ambition of establishing himself in life in the new young country, and did it by "the hard work and steadiness" which he had imposed upon himself before he left England.

1 Press, 8 March 1897.