The Free Church Project
Organised settlement in Otago had its genesis in a proposal by the Scottish parliamentarian, George Rennie, for a Scottish settlement under the aegis of the New Zealand Company. In 1844 the Company's surveyor, Tuckett, after reporting unfavourably upon the potential of the Port Cooper (Canterbury) district and the Oreti Plains (Southland), selected the Otago Peninsula and the neighbouring Taieri and Tokomairiro Plains as best suited to the requirements of the new settlement. The Otago Block of 400,000 acres was purchased from its Maori owners, 150,000 acres being reserved for the settlement, and the remainder as temporary pasturage for the settlers' flocks. Meanwhile, in Scotland the Lay Association of the Free Church of Scotland, later known as the Otago Association, gradually assumed main responsibility for the scheme. Its chief promoters, Captain William Cargill and the Reverend Thomas Burns, planned for a purely Free Church colony, but denominational exclusiveness was never attained, only two-thirds of the first group of immigrants being professing Presbyterians.
In keeping with Wakefieldian ideas, the price of land was to be high at £2 per acre, but the 2,000 available properties were to be small. Each consisted of a quarter-acre town section, a 10-acre “suburban” lot, and a 50-acre “rural” lot. In 1846 and 1847 survey parties under Charles Kettle were at work adapting this plan to the varied terrain of coastal Otago. When the first 278 immigrants arrived in March and April 1848, a girdle of “suburban sections” had been marked out along the wooded shores of Otago Harbour. Here the new settlers set to work, cleared the bush by cutting and burning, hoed the ground, and planted potatoes, oats, wheat, and barley. At the head of the harbour the streets of Dunedin had been surveyed in a formal grid, attempting to reproduce something of the plan of Edinburgh, but with scant regard for drainage and the pattern of ridge and gully. Beyond the hills the 50-acre sections were marked out, in chessboard fashion, on the scrub, swamp, and tussock of the plains between the Taieri and Clutha River. This area, together with some fertile flats along the hilly coastlands north of Dunedin, was the nucleus of the Province of Otago. In 1853 it contained only 2,300 European inhabitants.