BIDWILL, Charles Robert
Charles Robert Bidwill, the third son of J. G. Bidwill, was born at Exeter on 25 April 1820. At the age of 20 he was studying medicine, but, on the advice of his brother J. C. Bidwill, then in Australia, he left for Sydney, arriving early in 1841. He spent the next two years learning sheep farming and in March 1843 sailed for New Zealand in the schooner Posthumous. With him he brought 1600 sheep and some horses. A number of sheep died on the voyage and there were further losses at Nelson, the first landfall. The flock was put ashore on Fifeshire Island where, owing to a shortage of fresh water, many sheep drank salt water. Some of the survivors were sold disadvantageously, but the balance, probably under 400, landed at Wellington and were depastured on A. Ludlam's farm in the Hutt Valley.
Bidwill reached Wellington at a time when the shortage of suitable farm land was directing attention to the Wairarapa. Several parties visited the district, including Charles Clifford, Henry Petre, and William Vavasour, who had been active in these expeditions. Bidwill later joined them in a journey for the express purpose of leasing runs from the Maori owners of the district during the brief interval when this practice was officially condoned. The chief Manihera, whose influence at the time dominated the lower valley, led them across the Wharekaka Plains south of Waihenga to the Dry River and through the bush to Kopungarara. Clifford and Vavasour, who presumably had first choice, selected the Wharekaka proper, and Bidwill the country to the north. A satisfactory lease for an annual rental of £12 was arranged in both cases.
The prospective runholders then returned again by the coastal route to Wellington for their stock and such belongings as could be carried. Petre and Vavasour with Frederick Weld, who had joined the group as a partner, were in charge of the Wharekaka flock on the outward journey. Bidwill was assisted by William Swainson. Negotiations with the Maoris for canoes to ferry the animals over the lake were protracted and both parties camped for some time on the western lake approach. As Bidwill decided to return to Wellington for cattle, the Wharekaka sheep were first over and on to the run, which was a fitting tribute to the efforts of their owners. Bidwill, however, arrived at Dry River only a week later than the other party in mid May 1844.
Bidwill and Swainson stayed at Wharekaka for a short time while Maoris were cutting a track through the river fringe of bush to the Ruamahanga opposite the new station Pihautea. Two whares were erected close to the river and the laborious and exacting tasks were begun of shepherding unfenced flocks, living off the country, and erecting more permanent buildings on higher ground as time and weather permitted.
Bidwill appears to have taken some 350 sheep to the station which lay between the Ruamahanga and Lake Wairarapa and extending from north of Waihenga to Kahutara in the south. Progress was slow, for the 1847 stock return shows that after three years' occupation there were only 420 sheep, but 195 cattle and 46 horses. It was in fact horse breeding, upon which Bidwill early embarked, that led to his ultimate success. Maori rentals climbed steadily as the open lands in the lower Wairarapa and on the East Coast were taken up, and competition for the illegal and uncertain Maori leasehold became more keen. Following Crown purchase of the area in 1853, runholders were given pasturing licences over the runs they occupied and they set out to acquire the freehold as quickly as was necessary and possible. In 1855 Bidwill held 10,000 acres, an approximate estimate only, of which 1,970 acres were freehold. The total number of sheep was only 500. In 1857 and again in 1860, with the assistance of his father, he imported merino rams, but the breed was unsuited to the low-lying flood plains. Bidwill soon after changed to Romneys and was quickly able to demonstrate their superior advantages for the district.
On 13 September 1851, at St. James Church, Hutt, Bidwill married Catherine Orbell, by whom he had three sons and six daughters. Some three years after Weld's move to Flaxbourne Wharekaka was abandoned and Bidwill had the satisfaction of seeing his family growing up around him on one of the earliest New Zealand sheep stations. In 1879 his sons J. O. and W. E. Bidwill leased the run. Bidwill senior died at Pihautea on 21 April 1884, and in 1896 the run was divided into three blocks, Pihautea, Rototowai, and Tawaha. 2,200 acres of the latter block in 1906 were taken for dairy farms under the Land for Settlement Act, and there has been further inevitable subdivision of the other sections in more recent years.
In its cycle of initiative, uncertainty, and belated success with dynastic succession and subdivision, the Bidwill story may be taken as typical of many families in the pastoral provinces.
by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington.
- Wairarapa Standard, 24 Apr 1884 (Obit)
- Bidwill of Pihautea, Bidwill, W. E. (1927).