Pious historians, pioneer ancestors, Rose Lovell-Smith

Nothing but Grass and Wind: The Rutherfords of North Canterbury
Janet Holm,
Hazard Press, $59.95

The Voyage of the ‘May Queen’
Margaret Drake Brockman,
Merlin Books, price not given


In 1859 George Rutherford bought the lease of a largish piece of Amuri, the future Leslie Hills estate. By 1864 he had freeholded 29,405 acres. Like his more famous neighbour in Cheviot, William (or ‘Ready Money’) Robinson, George was a shrewd and energetic man of modest origins ‑ on his marriage certificate he is described as ‘ploughman’ ‑ who made his original fortune grazing and trading stock in South Australia. But unlike William Robinson, whose only son died as an infant, George Rutherford fathered seven sons ‑ Andrew, Willie, John, Robert, George, Duncan, and Edmund. So it was that Robinson’s Cheviot Hills estate was cut up by the Liberal Government into small farms in 1893 while the Rutherfords, by a combination of resourcefulness, industry and plentiful capital, succeeded in hanging on to what they owned and extending it. George settled all seven sons on substantial runs in various parts of Canterbury.

Yet the Rutherfords avoided being stigmatised as over-rich and over-mighty land monopolists by the Liberals and their supporters in the 1890s and 1900s. In part this must have been due to the attractive qualities of the Rutherford sons themselves ‑ they were all big men, and, judging by their Victorian photo-portraits, impressively handsome. They were also gifted sportsmen, severally or collectively enthusiastic about horse-racing, point-to-pointing and hunting, cricket, football, and shooting, and very willing to sprint a hundred yards or put the stone at a local sports day. They served on Provincial Councils, County Councils, Roads Boards, Rabbit Boards, in the Presbyterian Church, and in sports dubs. They showed stock from their famous merino studs and competed in and judged dog shows. They seem to have been fairly enlightened, if demanding, employers, and they also seem to have had the gift of relating easily to people: Andrew, who became a Liberal MP for Hurunui in 1902, by these qualities managed to bridge what might seem an impossible gap between personal status and political loyalties. The Cheviot News commented:

Mr Rutherford is a squatter ‑ one of the great land kings of the colony ‑ and to some people it is strange that he should pose as a Liberal. But strange as it may appear, he is nevertheless a Liberal. There is none of the stiff and starch Conservative about him: his heart and soul is bound up in the advancement of the country and the welfare of his fellow men.

The procreative powers of the Rutherfords also came to Andrew’s aid, for in his election speeches he pointed out that he intended to settle his family of nine upon the land he already had. Andrew was very much the local MP, a roads, railways, and bridges man. He also took up with brother Duncan of Leslie Hills the development of Hanmer Springs, which he intended to rival Rotorua for tourism: in a typical act of generosity Duncan built a centre with billiard room, library, smoking room, tea room, barber’s shop and store in Hanmer, at a cost to himself of four thousand pounds.]

With small regard for future historians, the original family founders offered a thousand pounds to any grandchild christened with their names, George or Isabella. Perhaps fortunately Janet Holm, herself Duncan’s granddaughter, does not pursue the family into the confusion of Georges, Isabellas, Isabels, and Isbels that resulted in the next generation. The Rutherfords seem not to have been letter or diary writers, and at times, Holm’s history, no doubt reflecting her sources, is something of a list of ewes sold, horses raced, houses built, acres leased. It is unfair to expect novelistic detail, but I did wish for more moments in the book when a personal voice ‑ like that of the author’s mother, Mary Morse ‑ is heard in letter or reminiscence. Nothing but Grass and Wind is handsomely produced and plentifully illustrated. Such is the ingratitude of history, however, that the story of a family which did less, but which wrote, or kept, more personal documents, would now give more pleasure to the general reader.

The Voyage of the May Queen is also produced by a family historian. It is the shipboard diary, edited by their great-great-niece, of Bertha and Mary Dobie’s voyage to Auckland with their mother, October 1877 to January 1878. Fortunately the Dobie family included someone who enjoyed writing. The diary is a lively production, intended to be a joint effort, but soon taken over by Bertha. Mary, however, although lazy about writing, was a hardworking artist. Her animated sketches of fellow passengers and shipboard occasions, and her more finished watercolours (some magnificent storms at sea, but otherwise rather a lot of icebergs) are one of the chief delights of this book. A distracting layout, where pictures occasionally veer off the top or bottom of the page, hardly spoils their charm.

The May Queen was a fast ship, but life even for her privileged thirteen saloon passengers was evidently cramped and tedious. It is difficult not to admire the resilience and gusto of Mary and Bertha who very rarely voice apprehension, regret, boredom, or bad temper, and instead get on with a variety of useful and useless Victorian time-filling occupations: reading out loud, making soup and tea for the sick ‑ Mary and Bertha are never ill, ‑ giving tea-parties, playing chess, whist, bezique, quoits, beanbags (very energetic) as well as sewing new beanbags to replace the ones gone overboard, and dancing on the poop by moonlight. Bertha walks ‘a mile or two’ every morning on the deck and both sisters play the piano ‑ for concerts, for church services, for hymn practices on Saturday afternoons, and for evening singsongs. Bertha also records that she is getting better and better at knitting in the dark and has also progressed well on her point lace: ‘I am always at one or the other’.

In fact it is regrettable but true that Bertha and Mary face their two and a half month ordeal with considerably more grace and resourcefulness than the author of this review manages to muster for a three and a half hour trip on the ferry. To Bertha the whole voyage is something of a game:

I made him some soup and Mrs Somervell some tea under great difficulties. From the washing stand to my bunk is a splendid slide as we generally slip back at least three times before completing the washing of our hands …. Have not been able to have the bath these two rough mornings. We get quite weak with laughing….


In Auckland the Dobies threw themselves equally lightheartedly into the privations and slog of pioneer housekeeping. They would no doubt have made excellent marriage partners for the Rutherfords, but in fact their future in New Zealand was not to be a happy one. Bertha married Colonel F Y Goring in 1880, and Mary, staying with them in Taranaki, was murdered while out sketching by a young Maori called Tuhi or Te Karea.


Rose Lovell-Smith is a tutor in the English Department of Victoria University of Wellington.



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