Story: Guthrie-Smith, William Herbert

Page 1: Biography

Guthrie-Smith, William Herbert

1862–1940

Farmer, naturalist, writer, bird-watcher

This biography, written by Ronda Cooper, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

William Herbert Guthrie-Smith was born William Herbert Smith in Scotland, at Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, on 13 March 1862. He was the eldest child of John Guthrie Smith, a wealthy insurance broker, and his wife, Anne Penelope Campbell Dennistoun. After private tutoring and an English preparatory school, he attended Rugby School. Strong early directions were a love of gardening and the natural world, encouraged by his father, and a love of literature, especially poetry.

In 1880 Herbert (as he was always known) and his relative and schoolmate Arthur Cuningham sailed together for New Zealand. They began in South Canterbury, learning the basics of sheepfarming from their uncle, George Dennistoun, at Peel Forest station. In September 1882, for £9,750, they took over the lease of Tutira, a run-down bracken-covered sheep station of 20,000 acres in central Hawke's Bay, and Guthrie-Smith began a lifelong passionate identification with this place. He later wrote: 'some spots on earth…inspire in their owners a very special affection,…an occult sympathy betwixt the elementals of the soil and those who touch its surface with their feet'.

The station was only marginally viable at first, and there were many desperate years. Cuningham soon quit, and Guthrie-Smith later took on Thomas Stuart as his partner. With back-breaking work they slowly improved Tutira's pastures and flocks, and were able to acquire the leases of two neighbouring properties in the late 1890s, increasing the size of the station to about 60,000 acres.

Courteous and charming, Herbert Guthrie-Smith was tall and spare, with slightly sloping shoulders, sandy hair and a moustache. For entertainment he would ride to Napier to play rugby, or to go dancing in the evening. He was a member of the Wairoa County Council from 1893 to 1896, but generally eschewed public life.

In 1901 Guthrie-Smith made a trip back to Scotland, and married a distant cousin, Georgina Meta Dennistoun Brown, at Jamestown on 1 October. Their only child, Barbara, was born in 1903. That same year Guthrie-Smith took sole control of Tutira, now a profitable enterprise running 32,000 sheep. His brother Harry joined the station, taking over the daily management, and increasingly Herbert was able to turn his energies to natural history.

He concentrated on Tutira and its abundant bird life, but he also made extended ornithological expeditions each year, through the South Island, to Stewart Island and the southern offshore islands, studying and photographing a wide range of native species and their wild habitats. He became an accomplished outdoor photographer. Whole mornings would be spent under a 'wigwam' of branches and flax beside a nest, carefully noting every detail of feeding, calls and behaviour. Many chicks were taken to be hand-reared – such interventions were accepted practice at that time – allowing closer observation of different species' development and characteristics.

Guthrie-Smith had published Crispus, a verse drama, in 1891, and had written a number of short stories with rural New Zealand settings. Dissatisfied with these, and always critical of his own writing, he now turned his hand to articles on natural history. His first account of Tutira's wildlife was 'Bird-life on a run', published in the Transactions of the New Zealand Institute in 1895; short articles on wild birds and various hand-reared specimens appeared in the provincial journal The Forerunner between 1909 and 1914. His photographs feature in his first book on Tutira, Birds of the water, wood & waste, in 1910, and an account of the southern islands, Mutton birds and other birds in 1914.

Guthrie-Smith was in Britain through the First World War, managing the gardens of a London hospital. After the war he subdivided 13,000 acres of Tutira into smaller farms for returning soldiers. He had already relinquished the leases taken up in the 1890s, and the station was now reduced to about 7,000 acres. He concentrated now on his magnum opus, a massively comprehensive book that would integrate 40 years' collected records and observations, notes and anecdotes to give a complete account of Tutira station. The book's governing principle was an 'insistence on the cumulative effects of trivialities,' an attempt 'to impress upon the reader's mind details, each one of them insignificant in itself, but far from futile when in totality conjoined and harmonised'.

Tutira: the story of a New Zealand sheep station was published in 1921 (it was reprinted with a new preface, map and index in 1926). All aspects of the natural history of Tutira are covered: geology and soils; erosion, subsidence and catchment flows; rainfall statistics and seasonal weather patterns; the formation and siltation of lakes and wetlands. Guthrie-Smith's revised edition (1953) included new chapters on the 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake and its effects on the station.

Native birds and plants are constant priorities. Guthrie-Smith lists every species found before the clearances of European settlement. He traces the evidence of primeval forest cover, outlining the shapes of ancient tree-trunks preserved in bogs. Two chapters follow the slow sequential processes of regeneration.

Guthrie-Smith gives a detailed and respectful account of the Maori history of the area, and discusses Ngai Tatara's relationships with the land and natural resources such as the eel fisheries at Lake Tutira. The history of European occupation is given equally thorough attention. Guthrie-Smith includes excerpts from his predecessors' journals; he provides exhaustive practical analysis of different pasture grasses and breeds of sheep, the intricacies of shepherding and droving, foot-rot and stock trails, mortgages and fluctuating wool prices.

The impacts of exotic plants and animal pests are given close attention. The insidious spread of hundreds of alien plants is recorded, both deliberate imports such as the potato, peach and mint planted early on at Maori dwelling-sites; and the undesirables: the blackberry, thistles and rapidly multiplying weeds. He details the encroachments of animal pests (rats and mice, deer, rabbits and hares, weasels), insects, and numerous European birds including the ubiquitous sparrow.

Tutira was acclaimed within New Zealand and internationally, winning recognition as a provocative and unique work. Guthrie-Smith's style is fluent, accessible, even chatty, a relaxed mix of science, anecdote, lyricism, humour and adventure; authority builds through the sheer weight of empirical observation.

Tutira's story is presented as typical of the changes wrought by European settlement throughout New Zealand, and Guthrie-Smith's subsequent writings also consider the wider national picture. Bird life on island and shore (1925) begins with an impassioned plea for the official protection of native birds and their forest habitats, and Sorrows and joys of a New Zealand naturalist (1936) offers a scathing assessment of environmental devastation: 'the ruin of a Fauna and Flora unique in the world – a sad, bad, mad, incomprehensible business'. A sense of doubt now appears about his own impact as a farmer, with rueful acknowledgements of earlier follies and naïveties. A strong conservation ethic evolved from direct experience; Guthrie-Smith was a life member of the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand, and a fellow of the New Zealand Institute (later the Royal Society of New Zealand). In later life he devoted much time to his garden.

During his life Guthrie-Smith and his family made several journeys to Britain and Europe, visiting family and the major botanical collections. Voyaging back to New Zealand in 1927 Georgina Guthrie-Smith died in a shipboard epidemic and was buried at sea. Herbert Guthrie-Smith died on 4 July 1940 at Tutira, after completing revisions and additions for a new edition of Tutira. He was buried at Tutira. The 2,000 acres that remained of the station were left in trust to the New Zealand public as an educational and recreation reserve.

How to cite this page:

Ronda Cooper. 'Guthrie-Smith, William Herbert', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3g27/guthrie-smith-william-herbert (accessed 18 January 2018)