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Beyond the Waimakariri

Adapted from “Beyond the Waimakariri - A regional Historyā€¯ by D. N. Hawkins.

Early Eyre District history

In the 1850, the Waimakariri district was largely undeveloped, with little but the natural vegitation between Kaiapoi Pah and Oxford.

Kaiapoi (“the native reserve”) was an island at the time, on the edge of a swamp that extended to Ohoka. The Waimakariri river originally forked at Clarkeville, with the North branch running around the back of the island joining the Cam river to the North. Further inland the area was dry grasslands with some scrub and Manuka stands. Closer to Oxford (originally called “Harewood Forest”) the land was wooded with useful timber trees.

Oxford was of course named after Oxford University in England, and there is still land designated the “University reserve” in the town. The following description of how to get from Riccarton to Oxford was published in the Lyttelton Times in 1851, according to Hawkins [p169]. It describes a full day’s travel on foot!

“There are two routes to Oxford, or Harewood Forest, as it is with more propriety named, the one by the pah of Kaiapoi, or the native reserve, the other, and the straighter one, being a direct line, by the passage of the uncertain and dangerous Waimakariri or river Courtenay: tourists would do well to go by one and return by the other - but unfortunately the route is at no man’s option, a flood rises, often and generally on the finest summer’s day, with the N.W. wind which melts the snow in the mountains, a flood which it is impossible to ford, and which may detain the traveller for days on the banks. The river should never be attempted without a Maori Guide, who will lead the way across the safest passage of the streams.

“From Riccarton to the right bank of the Courtenay is a distance of about ten miles of indifferent walking through tutu, flax and high fern for about five miles [Avonhead, Centennial Drive, Airport]; through good grass the remaining half [McLeans? Island and Orana Park]. There is no clearly defined path, but if the day is clear, the summit of Mt. Torlesse is a sufficient landmark. At the Courtenay, supposing the river to be low and fit for fording, there is a wide bed of shingle, through which flow thirteen streams that form the river. Of these thirteen, three only are difficult to cross. They lie near the left bank and are for a man 6 feet high about mid-thigh deep. Their danger is not in their depth, but in the uncertain footing that the loose round shingle in their bed affords.

“The river crossed, the traveller may follow the staked road-line [now Harewood Road] straight away for eighteen miles to Oxford. The number of miles from Christchurch is marked on posts and a passage, easily seen at four or five miles distance is cut by the surveyors through the manuka bush, which lies on the line of the road about midway [West Eyreton?]. This tract of country (the Eyre country} is barren looking and ungenial. The soil is for the most part covered with stones and vegitation is not vigorous. One who suffers from thirst on his walk would do well to take bottles of water from the Courtenay as there is no water along the march till he arrives at the Creek, a branch of the Eyre, three miles from Oxford.

“On a clear day, the wooded heights of Harewood become so distinct at about eight miles off, that the weary traveller is deluded into the belief that his journey is nearly over, three hours sooner than he will find it to be. No delusion is more deceptive than the appearance of a distant wood on the level of these plains. The appearance of Oxford, as we approach, is that of rich but simple beauty. Two white wooden houses, used by the surveyors, are set against the background of forest which clothes three high and gracefully shaped hills. The wood covers the spurs of the hills, and in the slopes between meets the green fern, which looks at a distance like the rich swards of grass that one is accustomed to see in the forest scenery in England.

“About three miles from the surveyor’s houses - about a mile to the inexperienced eye - lies the bed of the Eyre, dry in the summer months. There are here nearly two miles of difficult shingle walking, most tantalizing to the lips of him, who not having slacked his thirst since he crossed the Courtenay, is teased by the sight of a place where water ought to be. Three miles through some good grass will bring us to the surveyor’s wooden houses, which will supply lodging, firewood, and plenty of water from the wood behind the house. No one can be too weary to admire the view of the approaches before sunset. The beauty of the wooded hills is that of some noble dame, sumptuously but simply attired. The small white houses are scarcely sufficient to set it off, but the imagination cannot fail to revel in the glorious picture which another generation of Anglo-Saxons will surely, with God’s blessing, provide.

“The soil is not, in my opinion, sufficiently good to invite the tiller of the ground - the distance from the capital too great, indeed, too uncertain, to tempt the peaceful lover of the picturesque alone. We may expect to see it, for many years to come, the abode of shepherd and the herdsman. The sooner these apt pioneers of civilization arrive to disturb the ancient and solitary reign of the wild pig and the koko, the sooner will this fine district be ready for whole villages of Englishmen.

“In returning from Harewood by the Courtenay, the peak of Mt. Pascal, on Banks Peninsula, is an excellent guide, or if the day be onscure, a course of E.S.E. by compass, will lead straight into the surveyor’s road line.


According to Hawkins, p291, in October 1851, “three Australians, driven over by drought and attracted by Joseph Hawdon’s description of the colony, took up runs for their Australian employers, and Godley also welcomed their experience and capital. These were Joseph Pearson of Burnt Hill, Robert Higgins of Cust, and Robert Chapman of Springbank” [witness “Chapman’s Boundary Rd” running SSW from Cust].

He continues, “Six runs were taken up between the Waimakariri and the Waipara in 1852. Douglas occupied Broomfield; Ellis, Ashley Gorge; Cookson and Bowler, Carleton and The Warren; Aitken, View Hill; C. J. W. Cookson, Dagnum; and Row, Wai-iti [South of the Eyre river in Swannanoa district]. The rush to occupy pastoral runs after the issuing of the regulations was continued in 1853, Dixon taking up Eyrewell; Kesteven Worlingham; J. T. Brown Birch Hill; Matson part of Woodstock; and Hunter Brown the country that became Mount Brown. Knowles took up Glentui and Day occupied Kaiapoi Island in 1854, and the flats between the rivers were completely occupied by 1856, Raven, Shrimpton, Rhodes and Wilkin having claimed the bulk of the Mandeville district. This area had hitherto been overlooked by run holders for fear that whoever took it up would quickly lose it to freeholders.


Hawkins also provides the following detailed history of the “Eyre Country” (Pages 124 - 129):

The country away to the west of Kaiapoi was scarcely glanced at by Torlesse and Boys during their survey of the northern agricultural districts in 1849-50, for, on their earlier preliminary traverse, they had found it poor and inhospitable and they were more concerned with land which would support small farm settlements. This country could be divided roughly into three differing areas - Kaiapoi Island, the heavy swamp land of the lower Eyre, and the barren plain of the upper Eyre - of which only the first and a small portion of the second were presumed to be fit for settlement. These were included in the Mandeville Agricultural District.

The lower reaches of the Waimakariri have changed radically since 1850, for at one time the river divided into two equally large branches about seven miles from the coast. The North Branch took a northerly course, changed direction sharply, and rejoined the South Branch again to form an island of about seven thousand acres. This island was covered with swamps but draining it was considered an easy matter, and as it contained some of the most fertile soil in North Canterbury it attracted some of the earliest land purchasers. The township of Kaiapoi grew up at its northern tip, and because it was so accessible to new settlers it was by-passed by prospecting sheep men until 1854. In February of that year a pastoral licence for five thousand acres (#133) was issued to William Smith, a Gladstone settler, but Smith disposed of it almost immediately to George Day, captain of the Flirt and Sidey’s tenant in the Kaiapoi Hotel. Day probably allowed part of the run to be used by William Smart, a partner who had a run on the south bank of the South Branch.

Beyond the island the country degenerated rapidly from deep swamp to a parched infertile plain, boulder-strewn and bare. Only lonely cabbage trees pointed to the presence of occasional fertile hollows or the dried-up remains of old watercourses. The surveyors practically ignored the Eyre country, and in addition to the swamps they recorded only two noteworthy features on their maps, one being a long 10,000 to 20,000-acre block of high impenetrable manuka which sprawled along the north bank of the Waimakariri [now the Eyrewell pine forest] and the other the dry mouthless scar of the Eyre; [before the deviation towards the Waimakariri was constructed, it used to drain into the Clarville area swamp], the river which gave this country its name. It first appears on early Canterbury Association maps as the Wilberforce Plain but this name was never used locally. Yet in spite of its deficiencies the Eyre country was soon completely occupied by pastoralists and it became one of the most stable and best-run counties in the province.

The more agreeable land adjoining Kaiapoi Island was taken up in two runs in 1852, one (31) by H. C. Young, and the other (32) by Captain James Row, who also acquired Young’s run towards the end of that year and combined the two into one 12,000-acre station which he named Wai-iti. Row, a genial old Cornishman, had been master of the barque Tory, which had made several voyages to Canterbury with sheep and cattle from Australia. Row kept Wai-iti until 1860 when he sold it to Charles Hillyard, but apart from the fact that he raised a family of very attractive daughters there is little else one can say about him. After 1860 he continued to live at his original homestead on the Eyre, but it was destroyed by a great grass fire which swept through the Eyre country in 1872. Hillyard built a new homestead further up the Eyre.

The early Waimakariri-Waipara sheep stations

old farm.jpg

This map follows L. G. D. Acland’s definition of boundaries but contains corrections and additions. The figures shown here are not official run numbers: they serve merely to identify runs omitted by Acland. 1, 2, 3 and 4 became part of Snowdale, 5 and 6 were unstocked, and 7, 8 and 9 were purchased by freeholders at an early date. The map is generalised and does not show the exact boundaries of any one particular year.

Wai-iti contained both good and poor land, but even the worst, which lay to the west, was taken up in the rush for pastoral land prior to 1855. An adjacent 5000-acre block (84) was taken up by Robert Chapman and became part of Springbank in May 1853 [west of Swannanoa, south of Cust], and in the same month a 6000-acre block (83) was taken up by Marmaduke Dixon. Dixon’s block contained much manuka, and in July he acquired another run (93) further up the Eyre. In August 1853, Thomas Kesteven took up 14,500 acres (119) above Dixon, the whole of the poorer Eyre country then being occupied. Chapman sold his block to Hillyard but Dixon and Kesteven persevered and established the Eyrewell and Worlingham stations.

Kesteven, who had owned a cloth warehouse in London with his brothers, named Worlingham after a village near Beccles where his mother was born. He built the first homestead on the banks of the Waimakariri, but in 1867 he sold the station to Thomas Curtis and retired to Fendalton. Curtis, an American from Massachusetts, was superintendent of the Lyttelton Fire Brigade. He bought the country on the Eyre between Worlingham and Cust (78) from J. T. Murphy, and sold the station to Joseph Pearson of Burnt Hill in 1873. Pearson passed it over to his son William Fisher Pearson and Harry Brettagh, and it was these two who shifted the homestead from the Waimakariri to its present site. In 1890 they disposed of the run to the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Company. About 6,500 sheep were shorn annually on Worlingham.

Marmaduke Dixon was born in Caistor, Lincolnshire, in 1828, the third son of James Dixon and grandson of Thomas Dixon, a noted breeder of sheep. Holton Park, the family seat for four hundred years, was situated in the heart of the fen country and the Dixon family had done much towards its drainage and reclamation. Marmaduke was a delicate boy, and as the fens were considered unhealthy for him he was apprenticed to a shipping firm as soon as he had finished at the Caistor Grammar School. His life at sea during the eighteen-forties was as full of adventure as one might expect of those times. On one occasion he was wrecked on the coast of Brazil and had to wait six weeks before being rescued by a clipper ship. During the journey home, and at the risk of a flogging, he intervened on behalf of a boy who was being mercilessly whipped, an act which earned him a commendation from the shipowners at the expense of an outraged skipper.

Dixon then joined the ship Senator which took him on several voyages to Australia, and on one of these, about 1845, he paid his first visit to New Zealand. The captain nearly persuaded him to buy land at Wellington but he decided against this and rose to the position of first mate on another of his employer’s ships. This position was a difficult one on ships on the Australian run, for in 1851 the rushes to the goldfields were keeping ships in Australian ports without crews to man them. Thanks to Dixon his ship was able to discharge its cargo and sail again with little desertion, a service which his employers repaid with a master’s ticket.

Bishop Selwyn offered Dixon the command of his mission yacht, but he had met an Australian squatter named John Murphy who had taken up a run on the Cust. Murphy described the plains to him, and so sharpened his interest in New Zealand that Dixon took a passage on the Samarang, which arrived in Lyttelton early in 1853. There was still plenty of open pasture left in Canterbury at that time so that the only reason for Dixon’s choice on the Eyre may have been the influence of Murphy, whose run lay on the opposite bank.

Dixon’s first home, a small whare which he built in the manuka near the Waimakariri, was called “The Hermitage”, the name by which his station was first known. He stocked his two blocks with three thousand sheep obtained on terms from sir John Hall, a fellow-passenger on the Samarang, but he was immediately faced with the problem of watering them. As surface water and springs were non-existent he dug a well single-handed nearly eighty feet down into the shingle, a task which involved a long climb to the top to empty every bucket. As the well became deeper, and the danger of the sides falling in on him greater, he rigged up an apparatus of his own invention which allowed him without leaving the bottom to haul the bucket up and empty it. However, after all his work he found that he had missed the water-beds. He reluct- antly abandoned the well and continued to sledge his water three miles from the Waimakariri.

The old whare, which contained all his books and diaries, was burnt, but after returning from a trip to England which he made in 1859 to marry a Miss Wood, daughter of the Rev. Dr Wood, Woodhall Park, Wensleydale, Yorkshire [Great liniage, but what was her first name?], he took up residence in a new homestead which he built nearer the Eyre. Here he tapped a reliable water-bearing stratum and the homestead became a regular watering place for the bullock teams and wagons of the Oxford settlers. Mrs Dixon named the new homestead Eyrewell.

After his return to Canterbury in 1860 Dixon’s energy and ability made his name a respected one in two important spheres, namely, farming and politics. Because of its soil deficiencies land purchasers made few inroads on Eyrewell, but Dixon had great faith in his manuka and tussock land and while other runholders were merely concerned with their sheep he devoted his life to the improvement of his land to increase its somewhat meagre carrying capacity. The manuka was crushed with rollers and burnt off and the clearings were then sown down in tussock which in turn provided shelter for finer grasses. With the exception of Glenmark, Eyrewell was the only station in Canterbury to experiment with native tussock. This took many years of hard work, and the manuka was never entirely eradicated, but the run was improved during the ‘nineties by the construction of Dixon’s own irrigation system which used the waters of the Waimakariri.

Among the other progressive steps which he took were the introduction to Canterbury of the three-furrow plough (of which he imported a dozen in 1866), the straw elevator, and the slip-gate for drafting sheep, which he used before most settlers were aware of its existence. It is believed that it was Dixon who first exported Canterbury wheat to England by the bag, and, when the Canterbury Frozen Meat Company was formed, he sent to England its first twenty-five carcasses of Canterbury lamb, five of these going to the Duke of Edinburgh and the remainder to the editors of London newspapers. Personally Dixon was a stern but unselfish man, and the early fears for his health proved unfounded. He was a great believer in education, and his large library, which contained an astonishing variety of books, overflowed a complete room of his homestead. This library perhaps epitomizes the man, for he had a penchant for a knowledge of all things. It follows that he was far-sighted and he certainly was not a conservative. Perhaps it was the difficulties that he encountered while bringing Eyrewell into production that aligned his sympathy with that of the small freeholder in the chambers of the Provincial Council. Although a squatter, Dixon has been described as the first Canterbury ‘liberal’ and his record stamps him as being more of a democrat than a conservative.

Dixon entered politics through the Rangiora and Mandeville Road Board, being among the first members of that body elected in 1864. He later served on the Eyre district boards and was elected a representative of the Provincial Council for Mandeville in 1865, serving on that body until the abolition of the Provincial Government in 1876. Here he led the North Canterbury members in their fight for a northern Railway, for drainage, for irrigation, and for improved roading. Yet because he was to the fore in assisting the small farmers against the strong squatter interest, Dixon was spared the attacks and abuse that were often the lot of his colleagues, such was his reputation for fairness and vision. Here is another picture of the man. Always an advocate of the use of machinery, he suggested that the Government should import some Australian road scoops. This was at a time when roading in Canterbury was in a very poor state, yet the authorities would not agree. He then offered to import them himself and stand any loss. They proved a failure and were left on his hands. Yet this kind of thing often happened and his services to the provence left him very much the poorer.