Waikato Land Companies
Land companies in the Waikato were closely bound up with the Auckland financier, Thomas Russell, whose name was also linked with the establishment of the Bank of New Zealand, the New Zealand Loan and Mercantile Agency Company, and the New Zealand Insurance Company. Others associated with the financing of land speculation and land development in the Waikato included James Williamson, Frederick Whitaker, Josiah Firth, and Every McLean. The principal companies were the Waikato Land Association, the Auckland Agricultural Company, and the Thames Valley Land Company. In 1890 a return prepared by the Commissioner of Taxes showed that these three companies held over 350,000 acres of freehold in the South Auckland area. Included in the Thames Valley Land Company's holdings was the controversial Patetere Block on the edge of the pumice country. The history of these companies followed a familiar pattern. Formed to develop the land for sale, most of it in scrub and swamp, they were caught by the general decline in prices, the unexpectedly high costs of development, and the inability of the Waikato soils to sustain permanent pastures or to grow satisfactory annual crops. By the early 1890s most of the estates had fallen back into the hands of the Bank of New Zealand, and the depreciation in the value of these assets and the inability to realise upon them was a major factor in bringing about the bank's difficulties in 1893 and 1894. Formed to dispose of them, the Assets Realisation Board's task in carrying out this function was of course assisted by the rise in prices from 1900 onwards and particularly by the expansion of the dairy industry.
In the Waikato successful closer settlement was very dependent upon raising the fertility of the soil by topdressing and this did not become common until the years immediately before 1914. Despite their shortcomings, however, the land companies made an important contribution to the development of the country, especially in areas where such a task was beyond the resources of the individual settler. This was especially significant in the Waikato where the cost of development was high. The improvement programme on the estates included clearing the scrub, ploughing up the land and, after a winter fallow, working it up in the spring. Any pastures so established were giving an indifferent return after three years and had to be broken up again. Dairy farming was impracticable in the 1880s and the return from sheep and beef cattle, especially the latter, was limited; all attempts to establish a system of mixed farming on the South Island model had little success. And yet without the development work carried out by the companies, the establishment of the dairy industry in the Waikato would have proceeded more slowly. Topdressing, the farm separator, and the milking machine made the one-man dairy farm an efficient unit; but the dairy industry in the Waikato was established after the initial development work had been done by the land companies.
Apart from its association with the pioneering of the frozen meat and dairy industries, the New Zealand and Australian Land Company, and those in the Waikato, did much to raise livestock quality. The Levels Corriedale stud dates from the 1870s and the company also imported the first Aberdeen-Angus cattle.
During the political controversy over closer settlement in the eighties and nineties, the land companies were the target for constant and often unfair criticism as they appeared to be the personification of the two evils of aggregation and absenteeism. Despite the pioneering work that they accomplished, it was evident by the 1890s that the New Zealand social and political climate was hostile to them. Within a decade or so they had ceased to be a conspicuous part of the rural scene.
by Patrick Russell Stephens, M.A., Economics Section, Department of Agriculture, Wellington.
- History of Northern Southland, Hamilton, G. A. (1953)
- New Zealand Banker's Hundred, Chappell, N. M. (1961)
- South Canterbury—A Record of Settlement, Gillespie, O. A. (1958)
- William Saltau Davidson, 1846–1924—A Sketch of his life …. in the Employment of the New Zealand and Australian Land Company Limited, Davidson, W. S. (1930)
- New Zealand Journal of Agriculture, Vol. 75, July 1947, “Farming in New Zealand—Topdressing”, Miller, J. M. (an account of the Waikato land companies).