Capitalists or cavaliers, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

No Idle Rich; The Wealthy in Canterbury & Otago 1840-1918
Jim McAloon
University of Otago Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276235

Rich and poor have always fought a war of words – turning at times to fists, batons and cavalry charges – throughout the history of the state called “New Zealand” by the rich and “Pig Island” by the poor. A war by far the most divisive in our history. Blows swapped between Maori and Pakeha were sometimes more overt and briefly bloodier, yet anyone with a calculator and access to colonial newspaper columns and hospital records can quickly tot up a few sums showing that over the long haul the casualty lists of women, men and kids wounded or killed by money have far outnumbered those wounded or killed by racial battles.

A few key dates when the rich gave the poor a hammering are well known: 1890, 1912, 1932. The really grim tally comes not from stoushes that could one day be turned into good telly but from the ordinary humdrum days when poor people were crushed on mill wheels, chopped up inside factories, poisoned at chemical works, suffocated by mines. Colonial writers saw it clearly. For every pamphlet or poem, essay or novel dedicated to the question of race, several were devoted to poverty on the one hand or on the other to the “sickening superfluity” of rich lifestyles.

“All the laws,” announced a reformist premier surveying the history of the first 50 years of the colony, “have been made in the interests of capitalists.” King Dick roared on the hustings that politics had become a fight to the death between “the middle classes and the labouring classes” and their foes “the wealthy and the landowners”. Sir William Russell, like many of the gentry, reeled at what he called the “intensely bitter feeling against the landowner”.

Not a lot of us know it, now. We’ve been told by most of our best historians that the lead story is race, not class. Maori and Pakeha, not rich and poor. The last half-century has seen lots of history books written about race but scarcely any about the rich. Auckland, a city we commonly associate with filthy lucre, has had its colonial capitalists inspected skilfully by R C J Stone. The problem is that the rich of colonial Auckland were not all that rich, really. The seriously loaded were almost always landowners in the southern provinces, including Otago but above all Canterbury.

Which is where I come into the story, and why I’m writing this review.


A Southern Gentry, published by me in 1980, was the first book to offer readers a wide overview of the wealthy landowners of the colonial South Island. My claim was that a small circle of rich landowners more or less monopolised wealth, power, and status. They came mostly from the upper class or upper-middle class of England and Scotland. They brought more money with them than working people could hope to save in a lifetime of hard labour. They turned their initial investment into enormous fortunes and great tracts of landed estate. Yet, while thriving capitalists, they were also deeply wedded to a way of life that was pre-capitalist or even anti-capitalist, based on an ideal of the gentleman or lady. A group of moneyed men and women seeking to live not like a modern plutocracy but a traditional aristocracy. They spent lavishly on investments that made no business sense – liveried servants, cavernous houses, sprawling private parks – but which bought them what they thought was honour, rank, dignity. Not just capitalists, in other words, but cavaliers.

My book caused a lot of controversy. One scion of an old family observed humorously that half the descendants of the wool kings in our province were angry because their surnames had been sullied by inclusion in A Southern Gentry – and that the other half were angry because their surnames had not. Certainly my book got people talking about rich and poor, and about history.

A sustained academic discussion of issues raised by my book took place at the University of Otago. A series of honours students wrote theses looking at rich colonial landowners and arguing that they were not squires but shopkeepers. The most serious and sustained work on the topic was done by a ginger-headed, gimlet-eyed young man called Jim McAloon. I took his findings into account when I wrote about the colonial wealthy in my most recent history book, The Rich.

McAloon has now taken the story one step further by writing No Idle Rich. The thesis is straightforward: the rich came from the broad middle class, not the upper class and upper-middle class. Their way of life, their acts, their beliefs, once they had amassed riches in the new land, remained those of a commercial or financial or industrial middle class, rather than those of a landed gentry. They were canny cost-cutters, not languid layabouts: “The wealthy … were part of the vigorous and dynamic British middle classes …”

The biggest problem with this thesis is that the rich are defined very broadly. Anyone who died worth £10,000 or more gets scooped up by the study, though, as McAloon points out, this is a fortune equivalent only to about a $1,000,000 at the end of the 20th century. Fortunes on this scale represent the patrimony of the solid middle class rather than the upper class. McAloon spells it out himself when he observes that in colonial Canterbury no fewer than 6.3 per cent of people crossed his threshold of wealth. We need to remember that colonial society was a world where two out of every three people were manual workers, which in turn means that many of the people in this book come from deep down in the middle class. Not surprisingly, the author then comes to the conclusion that this group of people, who predominantly belonged to the middle class, displayed the characteristics of – a middle class!

Myself, I reckon we need to draw the net a lot tighter. Margaret Galt, an economic historian, has shown that the richest one per cent in one year owned 65 per cent of all personal wealth in the colony. Also, it seems crucial to me to differentiate between various groups of the rich. Landowners behaved and believed differently from merchants, financiers and industrialists. Often they were in open enmity. Landowners were the cavaliers – while the others were much more likely to look and work like Shylocks. McAloon fudges the distinction by including far too many well-to-do farmers in the category of landowner.

The two of us are in complete agreement, however, on the origins of the city capitalists. “The largest number of city capitalists came … from the British middle class,” I wrote in The Rich. Yet even then, many tried to ape the landed gentry. Alexander Turnbull, son of a big merchant, jeered at the rest of the mercantile plutocracy of the city for affecting an “aristocratic mien”. The shy, sad, snooty and alcoholic Lady Logan Campbell suffered agonies of shame at the way the rich of Auckland were a “nest of ill-breeding & of low people playing at being fine ladies”. Dunedin was similarly prone to snobbery. A newly rich woman was portrayed in the colonial novel Making His Pile talking fondly about “old blood” inside her salon. “I am a great student of Burke,” she confesses, “both The Peerage and The Landed Gentry – many an hour have I spent over both.”


McAloon makes great play with statistics and strives to seem cool and analytical, yet his central assertions about the cultural values of the rich really amount to little more than a claim, a hunch, which he asserts rather than proves. “Sentimentality and the desire to be thought a gentleman … was entirely secondary to the accumulation of capital,” he pronounces in his conclusion about rich landowners. He may be right. He’s probably wrong. He certainly hasn’t offered anywhere near enough evidence for any conclusion about the wishes and hopes and emotions of any group of the colonial wealthy.

Sadly, this book won’t be a bestseller. Worthy, yes – but also wordy. Not only does it lack subtlety, it lacks style. People don’t come to life. Women get a cursory glance – mostly as wives. The cover of the book tells the story: a grumpy paterfamilias glowers at us together with three suet-faced grumpy sons. We turn the cover and start reading prosy pages. We trail dispiritedly through a matagouri scrub of stats. We lose our way in analyses of boardroom manoeuvres. No wit, no comedy. Seldom do we snatch a glimpse of a woman or man or child who dresses up, plays games, sneers, laughs, shows off, blushes, loves a poem, disdains “trade”, has an orgasm.

No hint of the intensity of snobbery, for example. Yet evidence abounds for the hunger with which the rich hunted tufts and craved gongs. Here is Helen Mary Ostler, writing about her youth in late colonial Canterbury:

Social climbing was a game played feverishly and in deadly earnest … Those who held positions held them by divine right … Sometimes les autres were invited to sing or perform at a charity concert and were received most affably, even made much of, but the acquaintance so made seldom ripened.


Or Sir James Elliott, writing about late colonial Wellington:

Society with a capital S! There is a clique here far more vice-regal than the Governor and his lady. They take upon themselves to say who is, or who is not, in High Society, that is, their society. They keep it pure by intermarriage and the money remains among the select.


New Zealand Books is not the place to attempt a methodical critique of all the arguments advanced by the book. Right now it’s important simply to point out that McAloon has put in place a milestone which will help mark the way towards better understanding the lives of the women and men who gripped the weightiest bags of sovereigns among colonial Kiwis. A blunt milestone, admittedly. Yet now with this work we have two sides of the track marked clearly. Aristocrats, according to Eldred-Grigg. Scrooges, says McAloon. On the one side, A Southern Gentry. On the other, No Idle Rich. Take your pick! Of course the truth may well turn out to lie somewhere between, or somewhere else entirely.

One point needs to be repeated: before this book was published, there was really no sustained historical debate about the rich in colonial New Zealand. Now we have a debate. Jim McAloon can be thanked for taking a clear stance, for making a clear case, about the hoarders and spenders of pelf in those two most golden provinces of the colony, Otago and Canterbury.


Stevan Eldred-Grigg is a novelist and writer living in Wellington.


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