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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


DAVIDSON, William Saltau


Superintendent for Canterbury and Otago Land Association in New Zealand, general manager, New Zealand and Australia Land Company, pioneer of the frozen meat industry in New Zealand.

A new biography of Davidson, William Soltau appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

Davidson was born in Edinburgh in 1846, the son of David Davidson, one of the chief officers of the National Bank of Scotland, and a cousin of Randall Davidson, D.D. (1848–1930), Archbishop of Canterbury. He was educated at Edinburgh Academy, and was learning bookkeeping in an Edinburgh merchant's office at 19. As Davidson wanted an outdoor life, arrangements were made for him to go to a family friend's estancia in Argentina. His father, however, was persuaded by James Morton, a City financier, that New Zealand offered greater opportunities for a young man. Morton had recently started a land company, the Canterbury and Otago Association, and Davidson joined this as a cadet, arriving at Port Chalmers in the Celoeno on 30 December 1865. He went to Levels Station at Timaru, which the association had recently purchased from George Rhodes. It then comprised 153,000 acres, with no roads, practically no trees, and only 26 miles of fencing. The flock consisted of 85,352 Merino sheep grazing native grass which, while not fattening, produced splendid wool clips. Davidson commenced as a shepherd (1866–67), but was promoted overseer on the Cave outstation (1868), where he did hard and constant sheep work. In 1869 he became assistant to Donald McLean, the company's superintendent at Levels, whom he later succeeded (1875).

Davidson realised that it would be uneconomic to run Merino sheep on land valued at £2 per acre. Consequently small farmers were brought in to share crop successive portions of Levels, and these areas were afterwards planted in imported English grasses. Recognising the limitations of the Merino breed, Davidson, with company approval, determined to establish a new pure half-breed sheep which he believed would be most suited to the new pastures. He therefore established, in 1874, the strain which became No. 1 in the Corriedale flock-book. He crossed some highly bred Merino ewes with two specially imported Lincoln stud rams. The first lambing yielded about 450 females. These were heavily culled, only about 150, carefully selected to fulfil required characteristics, being retained. In due course the young ewes were mated with rams from their own lot; heavy culling was maintained, the entire flock continuing to be entirely inbred.

Davidson remained at Levels as superintendent until the amalgamation of the association with the New Zealand and Australia Land Company, when he became New Zealand superintendent for the joint companies. He left New Zealand in 1878, returning via Australia to Scotland, where he succeeded Morton as general manager. His post at Levels was taken by Charles Orbell, and the superintendency by Thomas Brydone.

Davidson was not happy about the company's Southland holdings where large capital outlay entailed insignificant profit. He was convinced that Australia contained greater possibilities for a large company, and recommended transferring the company's major interest there. A large company, with strategically placed estates, could profitably beat the Australian drought by unloading stock between its estates. This transfer took 35 years, but in the end it vindicated Davidson's opinion.

In 1880, following successful voyages by S.S. Strathleven and S.S. Protos from Australia to England (80 days) with cargoes of frozen meat, Davidson saw similar possibilities for New Zealand. With his directors' approval, he approached James Galbraith of the Albion Company, and Messrs Bell of Coleman and Co., and arranged for, and during succeeding months supervised, the fitting out of the Dunedin. On 20 April 1881 he instructed Brydone to arrange for the killing and preparing of sheep for shipment. Davidson himself sailed out on the Dunedin and, on 7 December 1881, personally stowed the first frozen carcass ever loaded in New Zealand. A breakdown in the refrigeration on 11 December necessitated unloading and selling the cargo, but by 11 February 1882 loading was again completed. Dunedin, with Davidson aboard, sailed on 15 February 1882, arriving at London Docks on 14 May (98 days). The experiment had proved a success.

Brydone (1881) suggested that the company's Southland estates, which were proving hard to sell, might be utilised for dairying. Davidson, then on the eve of one of his periodical inspection tours, came out via Canada, where he studied the dairy factory system. At Ingersoll he was given full plans of a dairy factory. These he sent to Brydone who (1882) built New Zealand's first dairy factory at Edendale, on the company's estate, the company purchasing 300 cows to start the project. The factory cost £1,200, but the company recouped £500 when they won the Government bonus offered for the first export of New Zealand cheese. Edendale at first produced only Cheddar cheese, but Davidson decided later that butter was feasible also. With this in mind he visited Denmark (1890), where he inspected numerous butter factories, interviewed experts, and secured the services of a first-rate butter maker, whom he sent out to the Edendale factory.

With so much of the company's interest transferred to Australia, Davidson devoted more attention to its estates there. His Corriedale stud in New Zealand was used to establish studs in Australia, and his Western Australia draughthorse stud was similarly founded, by bringing in a shipload of mares from New Zealand.

Davidson retired as general manager in 1916, but remained a director until his death. He was also director of the National Bank of Scotland, of the National Mortgage Agency Co. of New Zealand Ltd., and of the Scottish Union and National Insurance Co. He died at his estate at Leuchie, North Berwick, on 17 July 1924.

Davidson's great contribution to New Zealand's economy has often been credited to Brydone, his superintendent on the spot. From cadet shepherd to general manager of a vast organisation he worked his way up, gathering experience with every step. He planned all his operations on a grand scale devoting painstaking attention to every detail. As general manager, his boundaries were almost limitless, his vision immense, and his management ability of the rank of genius. It was largely due to his efforts that New Zealand's dependence on gold mining was superseded by agricultural and pastoral enterprises, with their related industries.

by Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.

  • South Canterbury, Gillespie, O. A. (1958)
  • Davidson and Brydone, Founders of the New Zealand Meat Export Industry, Hewland, P. D. (1958)
  • William Saltau Davidson, 1846–1924, A Sketch of his Life Covering a Period of Fifty-two Years, 1864–1916, in the Employment of the New Zealand and Australia Land Co. Ltd., Davidson, W. S. (1930).


Bernard John Foster, M.A., Research Officer, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.