Page 1: Biography
Brett, De Renzie James
Soldier, farmer, politician
This biography, written by P. J. Perry, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.
De Renzie James Brett was born at Wexford, County Wexford, Ireland, probably on 11 April 1809, the second of 24 children of James Brett, a barrister, and his wife, Barbara de Renzie. He may have been educated at the royal school at Portora, near Enniskillen, County Fermanagh.
Brett became an ensign in the 31st Madras Light Infantry in 1825 and was on active service in India almost continuously until 1853, when he commanded the 35th Madras Native Infantry in the second Anglo-Burmese war. On the outbreak of the Crimean war Brett was seconded by the War Office to the service of the sultan of Turkey, for whom he raised troops from Albanian soldiers in Syria. After the war he was created leva pasha (with the rank of major general) and a knight of the Order of Medjidjie. After a brief period in England Brett returned to India during the Indian war of 1857–58, and was present at the relief of Delhi and Lucknow. For his services he was awarded a medal and clasp, and prize money of £5,000. He retired on full pay, with the rank of colonel, in 1863.
Brett had married Harriet Baker Harris at Limerick, County Limerick, on 3 July 1845; with two sons and two daughters (a third son remained in England) they emigrated to New Zealand, arriving at Lyttelton on the Greyhound on 9 May 1865. Brett purchased a 1,000-acre property south of Courtenay. His background and resources may have been akin to those of a typical runholder, but Brett was a supporter of the small farmer interest and an advocate of closer settlement, if not of cheap land. His property, Kirwee, took its name from a fort he had captured during the Indian war; he planted trees on the property to represent the disposition of his troops in that conflict. The site where the township of Kirwee developed was long known as Brett's Corner.
Kirwee was in a dry area of permeable soil and needed water to prosper: Brett was to become most noted for his role in bringing irrigation to this area. He had, it seems, seen irrigation schemes in India, and determined for himself that the waters of the Waimakariri River could be used for this purpose. Elected to the Canterbury Provincial Council for Selwyn in 1870 and appointed to the Legislative Council in 1871, he was active in both bodies in advocating water races and mobilising farmer opinion; he had to withstand the opposition of self-interested and influential runholders. The provincial council carried out feasibility studies, and in 1874 Parliament passed the Canterbury Water Supply Act authorising the expenditure of £22,000. Work commenced in August 1876, and the dam on the Kowai River, north-west of Springfield, was commissioned on 27 December 1877. The water race eventually reached Kirwee in 1881; in the meantime Brett and his friends had dug their own (probably illegal) connecting irrigation ditches.
Brett was a successful and influential farmer and active in his community. He was a founder of the Courtenay Agricultural and Pastoral Association and a member of the Courtenay School committee. He was less of a success in Christchurch social circles: he seems never to have been quite accepted in the Christchurch Club, perhaps because he was at odds with pastoral interests. Possibly this led him to become a founder of the Canterbury Club. 'Jovial at banquets and irresistible in the ballrooms', Brett was generally well liked, although it was said that his 'peppery' disposition was 'all the better for a little stimulant.' A supporter of the volunteer movement, he fitted the popular image of the retired Irish army officer: quick-tempered, good-humoured, loquacious and pugnacious. Yet there was also a puritan, or possibly parsimonious, streak in Brett; he objected to committee dinners at the Christchurch Club and to the mixed entertainments given by school committees. He also had his failures: he was behind suggestions that a corn exchange should be established in Christchurch; it failed because farmers preferred to sell to an agent they knew.
Brett is a significant if subsidiary figure in Canterbury history as a pioneer of stock water races. As the owner of a middle-sized property who possessed capital, energy and skill, he was able to contribute both to the intensification of farming and to the development of the rural community in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He died at Christchurch on 16 June 1889; Harriet Brett died on 11 September 1901. A monument to Brett, in a distinctly oriental design, stands beside the West Coast road at Kirwee.