Monday, November 24, 2008

Ready Money Robinson & The Cheviot Estate

William "Ready Money" Robinson, circa 1865,
with his hand on a roll of 5 pounds notes in his pocket?
Source: Alexander Turnbull Library

William Robinson (1814-1889) - runholder, pastoralist, racehorse owner, and politician - is best known in New Zealand history as "Ready Money" Robinson, a land speculator and pastoral farmer who owned the Cheviot Hills run in North Canterbury from the mid 1850s to the time of his death in 1889.

Born in Lancashire, England, Robinson emigrated to South Australia in 1839 where he rapidly accumulated capital as a livestock dealer. Rapid financial success permitted him to purchase the Hill River run of more than 100 square miles by 1844.

In 1856 Robinson sold up his property and emigrated to New Zealand looking for new opportunities. He and his family landed in Nelson and within days made a deposit of 10,000 pounds with the Nelson commissioner of Crown lands that gave Robinson right of choice over 40,000 acres of 5 shilling land. It was an illegal transaction but gained "validity" because the commissioner accepted it.

Robinson then proceeded to purchase the Cheviot Hills run, some 84,000 acres of freehold, between the Hurunui and Waiau rivers in North Canterbury. This landholding increased to 92,928 acres valued at 279,392 pounds by 1882.

The Cheviot Estate, 1893.
Source: Alexander Turnbull Library

The Amuri and Hurunui districts were attractive to land speculators where "free land" could be obtained and the speculators were followed in turn by squatter pastoralists like Robinson who might have tenuous legal status on the land but were prepared to undertake the task of breaking in large areas of low quality, unimproved land for pastoral farming.

Of course, the land was not "free". The tangata whenua, Kaikoura Ngai Tahu, occupied the land and were paid only 300 pounds for the entire million hectare Kaikoura Purchase of 1859 that covered lands stretching north from the Hurunui river, west to Lake Sumner and up the Main Divide to White Bluffs on the Marlborough coast. It was not until the Waitangi Tribunal's Ngai Tahu Report (1991) recommendations were incorporated into the Ngai Tahu Settlement Act of 1998 that reparation for the loss of land and the associated monetary loss was made.

After a period as absentee owner between 1857-66, Robinson spent more time at Cheviot Hills undertaking pastoral improvement of the run. The operation included stocking the property with sheep, fencing, milling timber, constructing a bridge over the Hurunui, and building a slipway at Robinson's Bay for wool lighters to be launched to ferry wool bales out to coastal steamers waiting offshore. It was tough, dangerous work in an isolated environment on one of the frontiers of the British Empire.

Robinson's Bay Slipway, lighters return from steamer for next load of wool bales. circa 1893.
Source: Alexander Turnbull Library

Robinson's lavish spending habits on his farm, on his race horses, and on the mansion he built at Cheviot Hills earned him the Ready Money moniker. As land become less readily available on the market at affordable prices for the growing number of settlers arriving in New Zealand, public attention increasingly focused on the runholders of large properties who were seen by many as a landed gentry locking others out of the dream of family farming.

The Cheviot Hills Mansion, circa 1893.
The mansion is long gone. The Cheviot Hills Domain is located where the homestead once stood. The steps of the original mansion house form the steps of the cricket pavilion.
Source: Alexander Turnbull Library.

The long depression of the 1880s contributed to the ebbing fortunes of the pastoralists, many of whom faced financial hardship. Robinson, although he never mortgaged Cheviot Hills, did have a large overdraft with the Union Bank of Australia that only got larger as the wool price slumped in the 1880s.

After his death in 1889, his estate was valued at 324,729 pounds but was burdened by the huge debt to the Union Bank. Subsequently, his daughters - there were no sons - sold the estate in 1893 to the Liberal government elected in 1891 on a ticket of land reform which would break up the large estates through a graduated land tax and compulsory purchase if necessary in order to subdivide the large runs into smaller holdings for family farms.

This was a pivotal event in securing the institution of family farm land settlement that has formed the backbone of New Zealand agriculture down to the present day.

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