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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman

Chapter VI — Provincial Days—Immigration and Land Settlement

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Chapter VI
Provincial Days—Immigration and Land Settlement

"Land settlement and the creation of home life is at the root of the future prosperity of this country"—



Everyone admits that New Zealand is still seriously under-populated. Moreover, in some parts of the country the rural population is actually diminishing, and there is a steady drift to the town. This may be partly explained by the fact that farm labour is being replaced by modern machinery; but there are other causes, and the trend towards urban life is world-wide. Hence the prospects of rapid expansion of rural population are negligible, even if such expansion took the form of peasant farmers who would accept a lower standard of living than at present obtains.

When we turn to the industrial population, the sources of supply of skilled labour are more restricted than is popularly supposed. And so long as there remains any substantial body of unemployed workers the problem of any large-scale importation of migrants remains politically thorny and difficult.

If, however, the time ever comes when New Zealand can resume a vigorous policy of immigration, her rulers might well pay regard to the principles and policy laid down by Rolleston.


Both in his Provincial days, and later as a Minister of the Crown, Rolleston constantly urged the importance of a vigorous and well-regulated system of immigration. Land. page 52settlement—education—immigration—these three items were for many years the cardinal principles of his policy. In some respects, his problem was simpler than that of the modern administrator. In his day there was more land awaiting settlement, and there were more people anxious to migrate. But, on the other hand, transport facilities were more primitive, our export trade in primary products was still in the struggling stage of development, and our manufactures were almost negligible.

Hence Rolleston realised the dangers of indiscriminate importation of large masses of people. He saw clearly that the migrants must be carefully selected, that constant vigilance must be exercised to see that the shipping accommodation was adequate, that on the long voyage the matrons, doctors and other officials must keep a watchful eye on the health and morals of young and old, and that, after their arrival, the immigrants must be housed and cared for until they were settled on the land or in other occupations.

"Colonisation", he said, "is not the importation of labour to make roads and bridges, but the creation of a united people bound together by personal ties and by the love of the same laws and institutions." Merely to pour immigrants into the towns in large numbers, with no provision for their welfare, would inevitably lead to evil consequences.

In spite of the utmost precautions, there were occasional lapses and failures. But that has been true at every period of large-scale migration. The letters of the English Agent of the Canterbury Provincial Government (and at a later stage the letters of the Agent-General) show with what ingenuity chronic invalids or bad characters sometimes managed to evade the regulations as to health and character.

Also on the long voyage to New Zealand scandals occurred in spite of the strictest regulations. "Please note", says Rolleston on one occasion, "that there were millions page 53of lice on the people who came by the ship S——. Some of the girls were not virgines sanctae, but on the whole they were a wonderfully good lot."

Rolleston took a deep personal interest in the welfare of the immigrants, visited their ships, minutely inspected their accommodation and their diet, and took vigorous action to remedy deficiencies.


He made so great a success of his Provincial immigration policy that he came to be regarded as an expert. Indeed, when at a later date the General Government took up the question, it adopted wholesale his regulations and methods. He told Dr Featherston he was somewhat mortified that the Government made no recognition or acknowledgment of the fact that they had copied Canterbury methods.

In 1868 Parliament had authorised the Provincial Councils to use part of their land revenue for immigration. Rolleston eagerly availed himself of this power. "The present and future prosperity of the Province", he said to his Council, "so largely depends on the introduction of population and a supply of labour suited to the requirements of existing industries that I have no hesitation in urging you to make liberal provision for this purpose."

Two years later he declared that nothing but stagnation could result from neglecting our duty to promote immigration. His next step was to urge the Government to allow free passages to immigrants nominated by their friends. There was no response by the General Government, so he initiated the plan himself.

The Immigration and Public Works Act 1870 largely relieved the Provinces of the duty of constructing railways and bringing in immigrants. Rolleston foresaw that, if this Act was wisely administered, it would have most beneficial effects in reviving commercial prosperity. In his view it was by this means, and this means alone, that the great and page 54growing burden of the public debt could be made tolerable. He was therefore well pleased when, for example, in 1874 no less than twenty-six immigrant ships came to Lyttelton, containing ten thousand and ninety immigrants to Canterbury. Owing to his fine organisation, these were all readily absorbed.

But he warned the Government that a large influx of immigrants might lead to a reduction of wages. Therefore the utmost caution should be exercised in selecting immigrants and looking after their welfare after arrival. He complained that Vogel's policy ignored these precautions. Hordes of unskilled labourers were imported without any plan for their permanent absorption.

We have a lot of unemployed (he wrote), the result of Vogel's order to Featherston to send ten thousand immigrants at once. The difficulty is increased by the selfish, niggardly determination of the large landholders to have no married people and no cottages, and by their refusing accommodation to swaggers.

However, another halfpenny on the property tax will liven them up, though this of course works another way in deterring capital. Go to! ye rich men, and howl, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. What shall it profit?

Both in Provincial days and when he was a Minister in the 'eighties, he was pestered by people who wanted a free trip to England on the plea that they would secure many immigrants by lecturing and canvassing. It usually ended by their expenses far exceeding the allocation. This led to criticism in Parliament, and Rolleston found it wise to leave the selection to the Agent-General. The latter complained of one self-appointed agent's mischievous interference, and Rolleston, with biting sarcasm, replied: "He is a tortuous, scheming little creature, but, since he affects the society of dukes, earls, and princes, it is blasphemy to speak ill of him."

Again, on 18 April 1882, he wrote to his brother, the Reverend Robert Rolleston:

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There is a fossicking, ferreting kind of fellow here Called P—come from your part of the world. I have supplied him with no end of information, but I don't intend to entrust him with the task of speaking for the government. These lecturing people sacrifice truth to effect, unintentionally but none the less mischievously. Real agricultural labourers are the only people who must get on. I mean men who can plough, use ordinary agricultural implements and be generally handy. Families with girls in them who are certain of high wages need have no fear, but any of your neer-do-wells are sure to do worse here. I should be glad to see any Church movement which brought out people with a common bond maintaining the reverence which is much destroyed by the freedom and licence of a new country.


After the collapse of the Vogel boom, immigration was in abeyance for some years. But it was renewed in a modified degree in 1882, while Rolleston was Minister of Immigration. He aimed to bring in about five thousand nominated immigrants a year. The modern housewife, in constant despair over her inability to get domestic help, will be tantalised to learn that each year one thousand girls selected for this purpose were included in the list of assisted immigrants. But the picture is not so rosy as might be supposed. These girls were not the highly trained and qualified servants that the housewife dreams of, but they were the best New Zealand could hope to get in competition with nearer countries, like Canada and America. They were drawn from the very poorest homes. Sir Dillon Bell, the Agent-General, was filled with pity and dismay at their condition:

I don't suppose (he wrote to Rolleston privately) you ever saw an arrival day of a cargo of men, women, and children assembled for a ship. Some of them swarm with vermin, and have never known what it is to be without lice in their life. Others come with itch from head to foot. Others smelling of every conceivable ordure. Don't imagine for a moment that these things page 56are contracted in the depot. They are brought there. It is at times horrible beyond words. On the whole the wonder is that there is not much more serious trouble in the shape of large numbers of girls who are anything but sanctae virgines, poor things.

Sir Dillon Bell fought hard to improve the system. He made a deep study of the problem, and, although he was overwhelmed with office duties, he frequently visited the embarkation depots, wrangled with ships' captains, doctors and matrons, and promoted many reforms. But even so, the whole thing was a nightmare to his kindly soul. After one visit to a depot where the ship had been delayed, he says:

The people are there without guide—strangers, ignorant and voiceless. The "use and wont" of the depot and the shipping work and worry make even good officers rough with them. A kind word, on the contrary, goes far; they are so unused to it! They swarm round you if you will only let them think you have the least human regard for them. Their lives in their own hovels are so dreadful and so hard. Then all the sympathy of women's societies etc. seems always to be for the fallen. No one seems to care for the girls who are good and want to keep so. Modesty, of course, in the sense you and I use the word, you can hardly look for; but decent regard for themselves is plain, only it is so hard for them to realise that any sympathy can be felt for them by the classes that are above them in the world.

He advocated that all the Colonies should unite to form a depot of their own, under proper management, with reading rooms and proper arrangements for the care and comfort of the women, girls, and children, Rolleston agreed with him that the state of things was horrible, and between them they did much to improve it.

The extracts quoted above show how fallacious it is to suppose that, in the 'eighties, there were thousands of healthy, rosy-faced, highly trained immigrants eagerly waiting to embark for New Zealand. On the contrary, many of them were half-starved, poor, and miserable. But on the voyage, as Bell says, "they waxed fat and lusty", page 57and in the healthy environment of New Zealand life they rapidly gained their self-respect and independence. In short, they became admirable citizens, and their descendants were among those who helped to save the Empire in its hour of trial.

It is not necessary to give a detailed history of immigration. Enough has been said to show how much New Zealand owes to Rolleston for his wise administration of a vigorous flow of immigrants. Perhaps if his policy were revived to-day with the same precautions as he observed, New Zealand might make progress in solving one of her most urgent problems.


The foregoing has dealt with Rolleston's general views on immigration. I will conclude it by inserting an interesting letter with regard to immigrants from Alfred Domett, who was Prime Minister in 1863. He was the original of Browning's "Waring", and his poem "Ranolf and Amohia" was described by Browning as "a great and astonishing performance of very varied beauty and power. I rank it", he said, "under nothing that has appeared in my day and generation for subtle yet clear writing about subjects of all others the most urgent for expression and the least easy in treatment." Tennyson gave it similar praise. The letter is interesting for its reference to Browning and his wife, and the early association of Domett and Rolleston in Native affairs.

25 Upper Phillimore Place, Kensington, London, W. 26th June, 1873.

My dear Rolleston,

I have been requested by Robert Browning (the poet) to give a letter or two that might possibly be useful to a married couple about to migrate to New Zealand (Canterbury), in whom he is much interested.

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The husband, Henry James Chapman, is "a smith—a fitter—whatever that may be" (I quote Browning), who wants to get work on the railways. Browning says he "has the highest character for sobriety and industry".

The wife, Helen Chapman, was a servant of "Arabel Barrett", sister of Mrs E. Barrett Browning (the poetess), who wishes to get employment "as cook, housekeeper, or what not"—(Browning again). He says he knows her to be "of absolute honesty, conscientiousness, with every talent requisite for ordinary employment—and really superior education".

I am convinced you may rely on Browning's sincerity in his recommendation of these good people, and therefore I do not hesitate to ask you as a favour to me to do what you can to put them in a way of getting their livelihood in Canterbury, or elsewhere in New Zealand should they not stay in your province. I have not seen Canterbury papers lately to be certain whether or not you are still Superintendent—but whether or not, I am sure your good work and position would be amply sufficient in influence to secure the accomplishment of their reasonable wishes for employment….

I always have a pleasant reminiscence of the days when we two used to do public business together, or concurrently at all events, in connection with the "Hairybogines" (aborigines)—and, I think, found ourselves almost always coinciding in opinion, both theoretically and practically.

With all kinds of good wishes—

Believe me,

Yours ever sincerely,

Alfred Domett.

Hon. W. Rolleston, Esqr.

Land Settlement

It was not until Rolleston became Minister of Lands in 1879 that he began to concern himself with forms of land tenure, and thereby raised a storm of controversy which did not die down for nearly a quarter of a century. But page 59during his Provincial days he was chiefly engaged in seeking to prevent land aggregation and land monopoly. Two different problems arose, one relating to the land within the Canterbury block originally granted to the Canterbury Association (the Canterbury block ran from the Waipara to the Ashburton—the Province of Canterbury from the Hurunui to the Waitaki), and the other regarding the pastoral lands within the Province but outside this block. Within the Canterbury block the price of land had been fixed under the Wakefield Scheme at £3 an acre, but after the Provincial Council was constituted, it reduced this "sufficient" price to £2, an acre. At a later date, suggestions were made for still further reducing this price, but this proposal did not meet with favour. Rolleston was always opposed to any reduction because of his view that such a course would play into the hands of large capitalists. He pleaded that the land was "a. sacred heritage", and that the large landowners should be kept out "as the glory of Canterbury is its working population". The lands of the Canterbury block were therefore disposed of on this basis.

Mr W. P. Reeves has claimed that this price was not sufficiently high when land values soared through railway construction and the influx of population. In his view these changes completely negatived the original policy. The people, he says, very foolishly neither raised this price nor imposed settlement conditions on purchasers, and hence the land fever destroyed the completest trial of settling land at a high price without settlement conditions.1 But it is difficult to see how any mere fixation of land prices could prevent speculation or give priority to the small settler, for whether the price be low or high the advantage still lay with the large capitalist, and the higher it is the more likely is he to be the only buyer. Moreover, if the price of farm products determines land values, any fixed price may be too high or too low. In short, market values of land cannot

1 State Experiments, vol. 1, p. 214.

page 60be made to coincide with prices as fixed by law. Our land laws are studded with many wearisome efforts to regulate land settlement, to impose conditions requiring personal residence, and to restrict aggregation. But it is probable that economic changes, such as the rise of the dairy industry, have been more powerful factors in promoting closer settlement than all the well-meant efforts of Parliament.

In the pastoral lands outside the Canterbury block still more interesting and difficult questions arose. Here the Pastoral Leases were controlled by the general land regulations issued in 1853 by Sir George Grey. These regulations reduced the price of rural lands to 10s. an acre, or, when certified by the Commissioner of Crown Lands, to 5s. an acre. Grey's motives have been defended by his biographer, but the merits and demerits of his plan have always aroused fierce conflict of opinion.1 In Rolleston's opinion, these regulations opened the door to all the evils of land aggregation, and he always strongly denounced them.

The many ingenious devices invented by the squatters for keeping out the small settlers have often been described. They were dealt with in detail by Rolleston in a Memorandum to the Land Board in 1873. Briefly, these schemes were all directed to pre-empting key positions, so as to render access of settlement by the small settlers impossible. For example, the gorge of each river where it came out upon the plains was the only means of access to large tracts of back country. "Take the gorge of the Rakaia," said Rolleston, "which is the key to a large amount of back country containing coal and other minerals, and up which will ultimately lie means of communication with the West Coast." Anyone who bought the mouth of a gorge could remain master of the back country without the expense of purchasing it. This evil had already arisen in the gorge of the Waimakariri. Rolleston urged that main lines of roads should be laid down in every direction over the plains,

1 See Condliffe, New Zealand in the Making, p. 101.

page 61communication should be kept open with the passes and gorges of the rivers, and in all hill country the approaches through the valleys should be maintained open as well as such other lines of road as are suggested by the nature of the country. "Take the Peninsula," he said. "A rider once on top of the ridge should be able to keep there so as to come into any of the bays, or to pass any of them without being obliged to go down." In short, he urged that a system of free selection before survey is utterly obstructive of settlement.

Other forms of spotting consisted of pre-empting the only land with a supply of water so as to render adjacent land of no value to anyone but the owner of the water. Squatters were also entitled to certain areas of land for every chain of fencing erected or shepherds' huts, and, by an ingenious distribution of these, they obtained the first right to buy all the most desirable sites.

"Gridironing" consisted in buying a series of twenty-acre sections along a road frontage in such a way as to leave eighteen acres between each twenty-acre section. Under the Land Regulations these eighteen-acre blocks could only be bought at auction, and they were therefore almost certain to fall into the hands of the capitalists.

But there was another side to the story. The squatters contended that they had to adopt all these expedients of spotting and gridironing in self-protection. They complained that otherwise small men or speculators would come in and buy key positions controlling a whole area, and then blackmail the squatter by demanding large sums before they would grant access or egress for his stock.