Page 1: Biography
Pastoralist, community leader, businessman
This biography, written by Ian McGibbon, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 1, 1990, and updated in May, 2015.
According to family information John Chambers was born at Heanor, Derbyshire, England, on 20 January 1819, the son of John Chambers, framework knitter, and his wife, Hannah Borebank.
Raised in a Quaker household, John Chambers attended the Society of Friends' school at Ackworth, Yorkshire, from 1831 to 1833, before serving an apprenticeship as a blacksmith and possibly gaining some experience in farming. Emigrating to Australia, he resided initially in South Australia. He married Margaret Wills Knox on 16 August 1848 at Drumminer, Dry Creek, near Adelaide; they had five sons and three daughters between 1849 and 1862. They later moved to Victoria, where Chambers's skills as a blacksmith were in demand in servicing goldminers' tools. He may also have been involved in pastoral activities.
Whether by means of his trade, by sheepfarming or perhaps by family assistance (Margaret Chambers's father was a merchant), John Chambers had by 1853 accumulated sufficient capital to embark on a more extensive pastoralist career. An unfortunate farming experience in South Australia, caused by a drought, or possibly expectations of greater opportunity, led him to look to New Zealand. With his usual care he made a preliminary visit in 1853, apparently inspecting the West Coast of the South Island and Nelson, before opting for Hawke's Bay, then just opening to European settlement.
Chambers arrived at Wellington with his family on 10 March 1854 on the Christina and proceeded to Hawke's Bay in early June. He quickly set about buying land in several localities, focusing initially on an area on the north bank of the Tutaekuri River, near Taradale. His purchase of 600 acres at Tarawera bush in July 1854 later caused controversy; he was willing to exchange it for land at Te Mata, but no such action took place. Chambers was issued with a Crown grant for this land in February 1861 and was still in possession of it in 1886.
In July 1854 Chambers applied for 640 acres of rural land in the Ahuriri block, in the vicinity of the Puketapu swamp. In late November 1854 he sought to transfer this application to similar land at Papoutake, on the Tukituki River, since the land originally applied for had not yet been surveyed. After his application was finally rejected, he was refunded his £16 deposit in 1860. The good grazing land further south on the Tukituki River, near Havelock (Havelock North), attracted his attention, and in December 1854 he took up the Mokopeka run of some 6,400 acres on the east bank of the Tukituki River.
Chambers had also been squatting on the west bank of the Tukituki River, on the Te Mata block, an area still in Maori hands; the authorities acquiesced in this illegal occupation for fear of losing a valuable settler. When the block was opened for selection in June 1857, Chambers purchased 1,900 acres and obtained a pastoral licence over a further 5,000 acres adjacent to Mokopeka, all of which he later bought. Many other purchases followed, financed by profits from sheepfarming, so that Chambers eventually built up a freehold of nearly 18,000 acres, generally paying only the minimum price. With a 'rage for agricultural machinery' and a strongly practical turn of mind, Chambers developed at Te Mata one of the province's best-appointed sheep runs, which by 1885 was carrying 35,000 sheep.
Although a retiring disposition left him uninterested in seeking public office, Chambers made a constructive contribution to the local community, especially in Havelock. He was involved in the management of Napier school in 1858 and Clive school in 1859. Later he served on Havelock's road board and school committee, and helped establish regular church services there. He was a trustee of the Havelock Mechanics' Institute, of the Havelock Presbyterian Church, and the cemetery. He served briefly on the Waste Lands Board in 1861 and was a member of the first Napier Harbour Board from 1875 to 1879, when he became involved in an abortive attempt to establish an alternative port to Napier, at Cape Kidnappers.
By this time his chief interest lay in the processing of meat for export. His earlier experiments in meat preserving had proved technically successful but financially unrewarding. In the late 1870s he turned his attention to the more promising meat-freezing process, inventing a method of freezing by the circulation of frozen air, and seeking to organise export arrangements. However, during a four year stay in the United Kingdom from 1881, his efforts to patent his invention and float a company to exploit it came to nothing; his work was overtaken by the initiatives of others, notably William Nelson. Chambers, however, deserves some of the credit for the establishment of the Hawke's Bay frozen meat trade.
Returning to Hawke's Bay in 1885 Chambers, with typical foresight and perhaps with death duties in mind, set about distributing his property among his children. His arrangements included the generous division in January 1886 of his main asset, the land and stock at Te Mata, among three of his sons; this was later deemed a gift by the Court of Appeal. Chambers retained a mere 450 acres, on which he resided until his death at Havelock on 11 July 1893. Margaret Chambers died on 23 February 1904.