There’s a case to be made for celebrating a rather different sort of birthday today, 19 April : that of the family farm. It’s an idiosyncratic element in our nation’s growth and development; one that boxed well above its weight and, in the face of some fairly hostile odds such as distance from export markets, effectively demonstrated to the ‘developed’ world what efficiency could really deliver. Or so it once was – things a have changed a bit in recent decades.
Be that as it may, recent history cannot detract from one of the most significant political events in New Zealand’s rural history – the Liberal government’s Lands for Settlement Act , 6 October 1892 – by which the vast tracts of land under the control of wealthy, and thereby powerful, individuals could be ‘burst up’ into smaller economic units. Those who would otherwise have been denied the ability to farm in their own right found more equable access to land.
The first of the great estates to be subdivided in this way was the late William (‘Ready Money’) Robinson’s 84,755 acre “Cheviot Hills” estate, in North Canterbury. Negotiations with the Robinson family began almost immediately the act became law; by January 1893 they were unofficially complete; on 19 April, 1893, negotiations were deemed officially complete. In exchange for £304,826 (currently equal to an inflation adjusted $52,926,897.22) Richard John Seddon’s Liberal government enabled the settlement of 178 families, amounting to some 900 people, on land which had formerly sustained the employment of fewer than 100 single men.
Although the formal agreement is dated 19 April 1893, the disposal and occupation of “Cheviot Hills” land extended throughout the remainder of the year and into 1894. By far the greatest proportion of the former estate was initially either leased in perpetuity or leased for grazing; relatively little was freeholded at this point. Subsequent Liberal land legislation modified and amended the terms and conditions by which land was acquired and farmed.
For those of us who are the inheritors of a now diminishing experience, ‘raised on the family farm’, we have the Liberal leader and Premier, Richard John Seddon and his (Scots Highland) Minister of Lands, John McKenzie to thank. I have a lurking suspicion that my late grandfather, Harry Coleman, understood the politics in a particularly appreciative manner, for he inculcated my childhood with the importance of ‘King Dick’, by which the imposing figure of the Rt Hon R J Seddon was affectionately known and by which title his biography by R M Burdon was published in 1955.
In her biography ‘Ready Money’ (2006), great-granddaughter Margaret Wigley expresses William Robinson’s legacy, thus: “The sale of Cheviot Hills … set New Zealand firmly in the direction of the small independent family farm, rather than large estates paying income to absentee owners and heirs as has happened in other parts of the world.”
This fourth generation daughter of a small independent family farm remains grateful for the bursting up of the big estates, ‘King Dick’ and an instructive grandfather.
By Dr Jennie Coleman