The strengths and pleasures of local history, Russell Stone

 A Pastoral Kingdom Divided: Cheviot 1889-94, 
W J Gardner,
Bridget Williams Books, $45

Without a doubt, the much-publicised success of the land policies of the great Liberal party of the 1890s, of which the very essence was the subdivision and settlement of the great Cheviot pastoral holding in north Canterbury, captured the hearts and minds of the New Zealand electorate in that decade. The Liberal version of the Cheviot episode also became part of New Zealand’s historical orthodoxy for a very long time. Simply stated, the agreed version ran thus: late in 1892, as an expression of his government’s determination to reverse the prevailing land aggregation, the astute Liberal Minister of Lands, John McKenzie, decided to call the bluff of the Cheviot trustees when they protested that their assessment for land tax was too high. McKenzie took up the challenge, compulsorily repurchased the estate at the owners’ own valuation, and subdivided it for the landless. The subdivision was an immediate success. The New Zealand Official Yearbook for 1895 recorded that where previously a handful of people had occupied a huge area to tend sheep for their woolclip, over 600 settlers now occupied small holdings to carry out gainfully a variety of rural activities.

It is this traditional account that Gardner re-examines in his important, detailed book, A Pastoral Kingdom Divided. He finds that that version, most persuasively presented by W P Reeves in his Long White Cloud, is mistaken in almost every significant particular.

Gardner re-opens the Cheviot case by returning to the death in 1889 of the original owner of the run, William Robinson. In his will Robinson provided for his estate to be equally divided among his five daughters, a hotchpotch clause ensuring that each gained her fair share. It had been his obvious hope that after his death the ‘Cheviot Hills’ run of 85,000 acres would remain substantially intact.

This was not to be. A long-standing bank overdraft and death duties meant that the executors of the will were confronted by a £69,000 debt. Moreover, the youngest sister, Emily, who was about to be married, wanted her full share in ready money, now, not at some time in the indefinite future when Cheviot Hills was a profitable concern once again, yielding substantial annuities. Her brother-in-law Harry Bell, the most influential of the trustees, but shot at (he lamented) from both sides, decided reluctantly that the run must be sold. And since a private buyer was not likely to turn up in the midst of a depression he concluded that the trustees must find the means of selling Cheviot to the State. This opportunity came when the estate’s valuation for tax purposes under an 1891 Act was assessed at £303,318. Bell thereupon invoked Section 31 of that Act and called on the commissioner of taxes either to lower his assessment to £260,220 (the owners’ own valuation) or buy the property at the lower figure. After some shilly-shallying the Government decided to buy.

Gardner’s version turns the old interpretation on its head. It was not the government, but the trustees who did the bluff-calling; this in their anxiety to solve the financial problems of the five Robinson daughters. Although in later years Liberal Ministers were to look on the Cheviot purchase as their master-stroke in bursting up estates, the reality was that the door to Cheviot was (in Gardner’s metaphor) unlocked from within.

However, rather undeservedly, and somewhat to its surprise, the Liberal government found, it was acclaimed on all sides for its Cheviot initiative. The ministers, and McKenzie more than any other though he was much later in becoming a decisive figure than he subsequently maintained, extracted great propaganda mileage from the episode, spoke of the taking of Cheviot, in Gardner’s words, as a bold, courageous initiative to defeat the strategies of the estate’s trustees.

Before long, the grand scheme for bursting up estates by compulsory purchase died a natural death. Buying up large South Island stations and subdividing them, as Cheviot demonstrated, could be costly and difficult. There were few Cheviots to come. And as J S Duncan showed thirty years ago, Liberal administrations in the period before 1914 preferred to satisfy small-settler land hunger by buying Maori lands in the North Island; much cheaper and much easier.

The final section of Gardner’s book concerns itself with the survey, cutting up, roading and balloting of Cheviot. All had to be done, mainly for political reasons, under great pressures of time with a sometimes inadequate labour force. Gardner rightly praises middle and senior level civil servants for ensuring that things were done as efficiently as they were.

The settlement, carried out under some varieties of tenure, was an undoubted success. But few of the ideologically inspired expectations of urban radicals were realised in this show-case subdivision. The future did not lie with village-settlements. Aggregation went on from the outset. Human nature and acquisitiveness took over so that State leasehold, so close to Liberal hearts, quickly lost its appeal to small settlers who wanted the freehold, and access to the unearned increment.

The author claims somewhat more for this book than the important historical reinterpretation I have here outlined. He speaks of the Cheviot episode as not only a turning point in New Zealand’s land settlement history, but also a major episode in the development of cabinet supremacy in government and in the increasing role of the civil service. Whether he is drawing rather a long bow here, readers should themselves decide by reading the case developed in the book.

This I would say. This interesting book embodies all the strengths and pleasures of local history. The book is well-written. Jim Gardner is incapable of writing other than lucid prose.


Russell Stone is Professor of History at the University of Auckland.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category