Page 1: Biography
Farm manager, farmer, land valuer
This biography, written by Joan C. Stanley, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 3, 1996.
John McCaw was born on 4 October 1849 at Morriston, Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of Alexander McCaw, a farmer, and his wife, Hughina McLachlan. McCaw was educated at the Kirkoswald parish school and at the Ayr Academy. He attended the Andersonian Institution in Glasgow in 1866 then assisted his father on a farm at Greysouthen, Cumberland, for eight years.
In 1874 John McCaw emigrated to New Zealand on the Oamaru, arriving at Port Chalmers in February 1875. He obtained work at Clydevale station in South Otago and, after gaining experience of New Zealand farming, was made overseer of ploughmen. From 1877 to 1880 he was farm manager of Cannington station near Timaru, and over the following six years managed Three Springs estate near Fairlie. At Oamaru on 20 April 1881 he married Cecilia Jane Todd. The couple were to have four children, two of whom died in infancy.
In 1886 McCaw became assistant superintendent for the New Zealand and Australian Land Company and was stationed at the Totara estate near Oamaru. Thomas Brydone, the New Zealand superintendent of the company and a pioneer of scientific farming methods, had a strong influence on McCaw, who afterwards said that Brydone 'always acted as a father to me'. In 1889 McCaw took charge of those North Island properties that the Bank of New Zealand had acquired through foreclosures. The family moved to Auckland; Cecilia McCaw died the following year on 29 April.
In his new position McCaw visited and reported on the rural properties that had reverted to the BNZ in the North Island and in Marlborough. In 1892 he shifted to Fencourt, Cambridge, to supervise the bank's extensive estates in the area, totalling approximately 152,000 acres. On 2 August 1893 he married Frances Wallen Buckland at Auckland. They were to have five children.
When the Assets Realisation Board was formed in 1895 to manage the BNZ's estates, together with the Matamata estate taken over from J. C. Firth, McCaw moved his headquarters to Matamata. Using the efficient methods of farming he had learnt in the South Island, he improved the soil, production and carrying capacity of these properties. His use of artificial fertiliser in the Thames (Waihou) valley, for instance, was an important contribution to effective farming in the region. Much of the clearing and draining of the estate was done by contractors while permanent staff sowed thousands of acres in grass and crops. Many Maori workers were employed, mostly on contract, for ploughing, harvesting and shearing. McCaw stocked the properties with English Leicester sheep, pure-bred Hereford and shorthorn cattle, and Clydesdale horses.
In 1904 the Matamata estate was subdivided into 117 farms and McCaw went farming on his own account, taking over the homestead farm of 984 acres. As well as managing his own farm he was employed by the government as a land valuer, and did extensive valuations on properties such as Flaxbourne station in Marlborough and Te Arai estate south-west of Gisborne.
McCaw was a member of many farming and agricultural associations. He was chairman of the Matamata Road Board (1895–1905) and served on the Piako County Council (1895–1909) and the Matamata County Council (1909–17). He played a leading part in establishing and running a creamery at Matamata and chaired meetings on the location of the first saleyards in the district. McCaw was chairman of the St Andrew's Presbyterian Church management committee and chairman of the Matamata Domain Board. During the First World War he helped recruit men from the area and served on the Auckland Military Service Board.
In 1917 McCaw was invited to plant a Camden woolly butt ( Eucalyptus macarthurii ) in the Matamata Domain as a living memorial to his services to the district. He retired to Hamilton in the same year but continued to make valuations. In 1923 he became chairman of the committee which revalued the properties of returned soldiers in the Waikato district. Over a period of two years the committee visited, reported on and valued about 900 farms. For the remainder of his life McCaw enjoyed bowls and gardening. He died at Hamilton on 10 April 1930. His wife, Frances, died in 1947.
John McCaw had written a brief autobiography for the benefit of his children in 1929. In it he recorded his satisfaction at knowing that he was the means of preparing a very large area of the Waikato for closer settlement. He was also pleased that many of his old contractors and workmen had eventually acquired farms of their own. The tree McCaw planted in 1917 was regarded in 1984 as one of the 100 great trees of New Zealand, but it had to be felled in 1993 because it was unsafe. He is commemorated by the John McCaw woolshed in the grounds of the Firth Tower Museum, Matamata.