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Davidson, William Soltau

by Mervyn Palmer


Although he was born in Montreal, Canada, on 15 June 1846, William Soltau Davidson had his roots in Scottish soil. He was the son of Frances Pillans and her husband, David Davidson of the Bank of British North America, who was later manager of the Edinburgh branch of the Bank of Scotland. William went to school at the Edinburgh Academy before entering a mercantile firm to be groomed for a commercial career. His lively mind, encased in a body which all his life demanded vigorous activity, was not satisfied in the environment of a mid-Victorian commercial office. There was talk of his going to Argentina to take up life on the land with a family friend who had a ranch there, but a chance meeting between David Davidson and the prominent Glasgow financier James Morton sealed William's destiny. Morton detailed the network of pastoral associations in New Zealand with which he was involved and sold the idea of William becoming a cadet on the estates of the Canterbury and Otago Association. For good measure he sold £10,000 worth of the association's shares to David Davidson and his brother, Henry.

William Davidson turned his attention from Argentina to finding out all he could about the South Island of New Zealand, and in September 1865 he left Gravesend aboard the sailing ship Celaeno. He arrived in Port Chalmers on 30 December. Early in the new year he sailed to Timaru and put himself in the hands of the manager at the Levels estate, recently purchased for the Canterbury and Otago Association from William, Robert and George Rhodes.

For two years Davidson worked as a shepherd on the huge estate of over 150,000 acres. He learned not only sheep work but also cultivation, building construction, accounting and all aspects of estate management. James Hassell, the manager, then sent him to the Cave outstation some 15 miles from the Levels homestead where, as overseer, he learned to control the daily round of hardy Scottish shepherds on about 60,000 acres of the higher country on the property.

The Canterbury and Otago Association, which held three big estates in Canterbury, absorbed another Scottish-based pastoral association in 1868, thereby adding to its books two more properties, of which the Hakataramea estate was the more notable. The company then controlled about half a million acres and management changes were made which promoted Davidson to the position of sub-inspector of all the estates, responsible to the able Donald McLean as inspector.

In the mid-sixties the genuine pastoralists on the big estates were beginning to prefer freehold to leasehold tenure. This made more justifiable the expense of converting uncertain native pastures to permanent English grasses. Leaseholders also faced other difficulties. Uncertain tenure posed serious problems as more and more prospective settlers sought farms. More seriously, speculators were buying large acreages; they made no real improvements, but sat on their purchases until demand forced prices up. This activity threatened the association's development plans, and the directors therefore allocated £150,000 to Davidson to convert land to freehold tenure. The worst challenges from speculators came on the Levels and Hakataramea estates and Davidson learned on the job to become a skilled surveyor and negotiator. The association's 28,683 freehold acres in 1866 had become 105,349 acres by 1877. He also won the respect and keen attention of the directors.

When McLean resigned his position as inspector in 1875, Davidson, with his blend of vigour and experience, was the logical successor. During the next three years James Morton brought about the amalgamation of the Canterbury and Otago Association with the New Zealand and Australian Land Company of 1866, another of his brain-children, created out of 15 pastoral associations of varying constitution and merit. Davidson remained superintendent for the amalgamated company, which held some three million acres in the South Island and in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Immediately following the amalgamation Morton resigned as general manager; his deep and unsavoury involvement with the City of Glasgow Bank was revealed when it failed in October 1878. The directors in the enlarged New Zealand and Australian Land Company had no hesitation in appointing Davidson in his place. Apart from a period of British leave in 1872–73 Davidson had lived in New Zealand for 12 years. He visited the estates in Australia before returning to Scotland to take up the reins of management. Davidson faced anxious and difficult times. The affairs of the company were in some aspects ensnared in the liquidation proceedings of the bank, and there were important decisions to be made about the suitability of many of the New Zealand properties for farming by a large pastoral company. Davidson realised that before many of the less suitable properties could be profitably farmed by small holders, outlets for their produce would need to be established. By 1880 he was exploring meat preserving, dairying and the potential of refrigerated transport. During his New Zealand years he had followed James Little's pioneering work in establishing the Corriedale sheep breed and had encouraged C. N. Orbell to develop a stud flock of Corriedales at the Levels. In pursuit of dairying he consulted experts in Denmark and Canada and ultimately imported Danish skills to Edendale estate in Southland to stimulate a cheese-making industry; he hoped this would boost land sales from the mighty and burdensome Edendale acreage.

In 1882 the sailing ship Dunedin left Port Chalmers for London with the first shipment of frozen meat. Thomas Brydone handled the experiment for the Land Company at the New Zealand end while Davidson organised the shipping, the insurance and the distribution details in London. He was in Port Chalmers with Brydone when the Dunedin sailed: by the time it docked in London Davidson was already there, waiting to lope aboard and examine the condition of the cargo for himself.

A single successful shipment did not confirm a positive future for the new industry. A whole marketing and insuring structure was needed in Britain, and in pursuit of that objective Davidson, already a founding board member of Nelson Brothers Limited, joined the directors in the Colonial Consignment and Distributing Company. In 1885 he became a director of the National Mortgage and Agency Company of New Zealand. He was also elected to the boards of both the Scottish Union and National Insurance Company, and the National Bank of Scotland.

Davidson's residence in Britain served the interests of both the New Zealand and Australian Land Company and New Zealand agriculture better than if he had continued to live in the colonies. Nevertheless, he made regular visits to Australia and New Zealand into the early twentieth century and wrote detailed, critical, private reports to the directors; these were highly valuable in the difficult decision-making that continued to face them.

Despite all that is known of Davidson the company man, there is little that illuminates his private life. He married Jane Emily Davidson, daughter of the sheriff of Midlothian, at Edinburgh, Scotland, on 1 October 1873. They had one daughter before Jane died at Edinburgh on 7 January 1884. On 21 August 1889, at Timaru, New Zealand, Davidson married Caroline Elizabeth Thierens; they were to have no children.

In 1918 the shareholders in the New Zealand and Australian Land Company presented Davidson with his portrait painted by Sir James Guthrie, president of the Royal Scottish Academy. He continued to be active in the service of the Land Company until just three months before his death on 17 July 1924 at Leuchie, his North Berwick estate. He died a man of considerable substance, leaving an estate valued at almost £254,000. His second wife survived him.

For 58 years William Davidson had dedicated all his energies to working for a massive pastoral concern with its assets committed to the changing fortunes of colonial property and produce. In solving company problems he had contributed significantly to the early consolidation of European markets for the output of Britain's most distant dominions at the turn of the century. Physically and mentally energetic, capable of arrogance which was balanced with a sense of humour bubbling just beneath the surface, Davidson was a Victorian gentleman with a forward-looking business mentality that justified the wide esteem in which he was held.

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How to cite this page:

Mervyn Palmer. 'Davidson, William Soltau', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)