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Big player...Noel Crawford's book tells the story of a company which was the second biggest land owner behind the Crown.PHOTO: CHRIS TOBIN

by Chris Tobin

Delving through thousands of pages of documents seem daunting to most but Timaru’s Noel Crawford was happy to do so in his quest to write a book.

That book – Antipodean Empire – the New Zealand and Australian Land Company – has just been published, and will be launched at the Timaru Library on Sunday, August 26.

Mr Crawford – a retired third-generation farmer at Cannington, near Cave, whose grandfather bought a farm there in 1916, had previously written a local history of the area called The Station Years

This land had formed part of the large Levels estate which had been started by the Rhodes brothers and was then owned and operated by the NZ and Australian Land Company.

Mr Crawford was intrigued by the company and wanted to learn more.

Realising little had been written about the company, he embarked on a bigger project of writing a book on the subject.

” I found the land company kept tremendously good records from the 1860s to the 1900s and right through to the 1960s. All were kept in the Scottish Records Office and 10 years ago the National Library and Hocken Library sent people there to copy therecords on microfilm.

“So I had access to those 100,000 pages of records which included minutes from the board and correspondence. It was a real goldmine of material to be sifted through.”

The company had its origins in the 1860s, when Glasgow merchant James Morton set about amalgamating unincorporated societies in Scotland that held land in Otago and Southland and buying up vast tracts of land.

“James Morton had a brilliant mind: he determined there were opportunities in New Zealand, which was just being settled.”

The company set about buying land with capital raised through borrowings by Mr Morton, estimated at $1.6billion in modern money.

“His weakness was that all borrowings were very short term. It worked through the 1860s, ’70s, but a financial crisis hit in 1878.”

Mr Morton had borrowed so much from the City of Glasgow Bank, the bank went broke.

But the company survived and prospered. It developed an empire stretching from Canterbury to Southland and into Central Otago, making it the second largest landowner in New Zealand behind the Crown.

Stations included Acton near Rakaia, the Levels, Pareora, Hakataramea near Kurow, Totara near Oamaru, Moeraki near Hampden, Clydevale near Clinton and Edendale in Southland.

Mr Crawford said the Levels was considered “the jewel” in the company’s crown.

The company instigated frozen meat exports from Totara Estate and built the country’s first dairy factory at Edendale.

“The company had to pull back in the 1880s’ depression but once into the 1890s it became profitable and they made a lot of money into the early 1900s.

“By then they had sold Levels.”

In the late 1890s the government had instigated a policy of breaking up big estates to allow working men on to the land.

It ended the company’s role as a major player in New Zealand.

“The company sold out and focused more on Australia.”

Mr Crawford believed the company had a positive impact on New Zealand.

“It was foreign capital to develop the land, and overseas ownership of the land, but when they came here much of the land was tussock. They bought it from the government and developed it. A lot of money was needed to do that.”