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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.



William Barnard Rhodes (1807–78), Robert Heaton Rhodes (1815–84), George Rhodes (1816–64), and Joseph Rhodes (1826–1905).

Pioneer settlers.

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

A new biography of Rhodes, George appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.

The Rhodes brothers were four of the 14 children of William Rhodes (1781–1869), a tenant farmer of Epworth, Lincoln; Plains House, the Levels, Yorkshire; and of Balby, near Doncaster, who came to New Zealand in the days before organised settlement and played an active part in the early political, business, and pastoral life of this country. They were men of shrewd judgment, bustling energy, and Yorkshire determination, and all of them amassed considerable wealth. Their descendants are numerous and concerned today principally with the land and the professions.

William Barnard, oldest of the family, led the way to New Zealand and encouraged his brothers to follow. To one brother he wrote this advice, and it seems to have been adopted as a pattern of behaviour by the others, judging by their success: “You must be enterprising, obliging, and not afraid of hard work, nor show any improper pride. Above all things avoid Public Houses and whores.” Before coming to New Zealand, William traded to various parts of the world in the brig Harriet, of which he was captain and part owner. In July 1836, on his first visit to New Zealand, he sailed into Port Cooper, now Lyttelton Harbour, in the barque Australian, a whaler belonging to a Sydney firm in which he became partner. During that visit he climbed the Port Hills and wrote the first recorded description of the Canterbury Plains. Rhodes returned to New Zealand in the barque Eleanor in November 1839, bringing 40 Durham cattle with which to establish the first cattle station in the South Island. The animals were swum ashore near Akaroa. Two early settlers, William Green and his wife, were brought from Sydney and left to tend the stock. Rhodes then sailed up the east coast of the North Island and established trading posts in Hawke's Bay and Poverty Bay, claiming the land in the trading posts in the name of his firm, Cooper, Holt, and Rhodes. Late in 1840 Rhodes established himself on the foreshore opposite what is now Courtenay Place, Wellington, and built the first wharf there, trading as W. B. Rhodes and Co., but he also continued to take up land in the North Island and, in partnership with two brothers, shared the South Island properties. His Wellington land included a sheep run on the hills of the present Wadestown and Highland Park, extending to Kaiwharawhara; another of 30,000 acres, Heaton Park, was near Bulls. Rhodes, whose interests were wide and diverse, built a large house known as “The Grange” at Wadestown and lived there until he died on 11 February 1878. W. B. Rhodes was twice married, but his only family was a daughter, Mary Ann, by a Maori woman. She contested her father's will, took it to the Privy Council, and was awarded “upwards of three-quarters of a million pounds”. This daughter married William Moorhouse in England, and their eldest son, William Barnard Rhodes Moorhouse, who legally adopted the name Rhodes Moorhouse, was the first airman to gain the Victoria Cross, which he won during the 1914–18 War. W. B. Rhodes was not distinguished as a public benefactor, despite his wealth, and was much criticised on that score. He was a member of the House of Representatives from 1853 to 1866, member of the Wellington Provincial Council, 1861–69, and of the Legislative Council, 1871–78. He was founder of the New Zealand Shipping Co., the New Zealand Insurance Co., and the Bank of New Zealand. He claimed for his firm an area of land estimated at 1,000,000 acres in Hawke's Bay, but these claims were disallowed.

George Rhodes, second of the brothers to reach New Zealand, arrived in December 1843 and became manager of William's South Island property, and then partner. In 1847 they purchased Purau from the Greenwood Brothers (the earliest settlers there) in the first recorded sale of station property in New Zealand. Robert Heaton Rhodes reached Canterbury in 1850 and the three brothers then became partners in the Banks Peninsula properties, which had been extended. William directed policy from Wellington with some vigour. When the first four ships of the Canterbury Association reached Lyttelton in December 1850, they supplied the pioneers with fresh (but often tough) meat, milk, and vegetables from Purau. Possibly on the advice of a former whaler, Sam Williams, the brothers extended their pastoral activities to South Canterbury and, after an exploring trip to this virgin country in 1849, applied to the Governor, Sir George Grey, for a pasturage licence for an immense block between the Opihi and Pareora Rivers. The Levels County of today indicates part of this area, which was later reduced to three 25,000-acre blocks, each in the name of a brother. Robert and George drove sheep across the plains, and the station, known as the Levels, was established by 1851, with George as manager. Today the business centre of Timaru stands on the first 126 acres of land freeholded by the brothers, who had the foresight and sagacity to realise that any future town lay opposite the best landing places on the beach. No doubt generous gifts of sites for schools, churches, and other institutions helped to popularise this area, but time has proved the wisdom of these men. One of George's sons, A. E. G. Rhodes (1859-1922), was a member of the House of Representatives, and Mayor of Christchurch in 1901.

Robert Heaton had worked in Australia before joining his brothers in 1850. He lived at Purau and managed the peninsula properties, but later moved to Christchurch and built a large house known as Elmwood, where he died on 1 June 1884. He represented various districts in the Canterbury Provincial Council from 1853 to 1874; was a member of the Executive Council from 1869 to 1870; and represented Akaroa in the House of Representatives from 1871 to 1874. He was a founder of the New Zealand Shipping Co., the Kaiapoi Woollen Co., and other early business enterprises, and judged the cattle at the first Canterbury Agricultural and Pastoral Show in 1853. His eldest son, Robert Heaton (1861–1956), afterwards Sir Heaton Rhodes, K.B.E., K.C.V.O., began a long parliamentary career in 1899 and held ministerial rank from 1912 to 1925. He was a Legislative Councillor from 1925 to 1932 and again in 1934. Sir Heaton bred pedigree stock at Otahuna, Taitapu, which was also famous for its fields of daffodils, grown for him by A. E. Lowe, an expert gardener. Sir Heaton owned one of the finest known collections of New Zealand postage stamps.

Joseph Rhodes, who ran away to sea as a youth, joined his brother William in 1843, and then established himself in business as butcher and merchant in Wellington. He afterwards spent some years in Australia, but returned to New Zealand and became a man of property in Hawke's Bay, first acquiring the Clive Grange and then the Milton Grange estates. He played his part in Provincial Government in Hawke's Bay from 1859 to 1876. Joseph Rhodes was never a partner in the South Island land, but he bought and farmed some of the original areas claimed by his brother in Hawke's Bay. He died during a trip to Australia in 1905.

The Rhodes brothers were inseparable from the early development, both pastoral and commercial, of New Zealand, and were men of such enterprise that two of them at least, William Barnard and Robert Heaton, have been accused of a too highly developed self-interest. Political associations enabled them to keep their enterprising fingers on any major developments, and their property, most of it close to expanding cities, gave them immense advantages as land values increased. George, who died on 18 June 1864, at the age of 47, seems to have been the most gentle and reticent of this band of brothers, who lived and worked through hard, uncertain years into an age which can be regarded, in retrospect, as one of grasping opportunism for those who amassed property and retained it through the difficult years. These men made the most of advantages which came to them through their own industry, for they were not afraid to remove their coats to engage in physical labour when the necessity arose.

by Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895–1960), Author.

  • Old Land Claims Files (MSS), National Archives
  • George Rhodes of the Levels and His Brothers, Woodhouse, A. E. (1937)
  • Jubilee History of South Canterbury, Andersen, J. C. (1916)
  • South Canterbury, Gillespie, O. A. (1958).


Oliver Arthur Gillespie, M.B.E., M.M. (1895–1960), Author.